In his new book, The Gift of Anger, Arun Gandhi recounts 11 vital, extraordinary life lessons taught to him by his beloved grandfather, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A moving, often irreverent story of his years being raised at the iconic Sevagram ashram, Arun's charming memories of his grandfather — known to others as Mahatma Gandhi — make for engaging reading. The founder of the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, Arun Gandhi spoke with Firstpost about his book, his grandfather, his own battles with anger — and how to handle it in the age of social media.
Is there more than one interpretation of Gandhi and his values today? We keep trying to decode him 70 years on... how he may apply to today's times. Are we enhancing his value(s) or is it all getting lost in a muddle? What might be a good way of knowing the man better?
Any philosophy will remain vibrant and relevant only if it is kept alive through constant search for a meaning. If we accept what was written a hundred or a thousand years ago literally then it becomes a dogma and ceases to be relevant. It is the same with Gandhi's philosophy which he described as the "search for Truth". Since Truth is ever changing, the search for meaning also has to change.
If we are still seeking and analysing Gandhi's philosophy of life 70 years after his death, it shows Truth is immortal.
What is certain to me at least is that nonviolence is not a weapon of choice. We cannot accept it one moment and discard it the next. This is the point I have tried to make in the book.
You lived with him at a very young age. We start to see the same things differently as we grow. What in particular changed in your view of him, or about some of the things he said, as you grew up?
With maturity of age comes the maturity of thought. The many lessons he taught me were little things with profound meaning. Certainly, I was not a genius at the age of 12 to understand everything that today forms the basis of my book. It is only while growing up, watching my parents demonstrate daily, the life of a satyagrahi, that I began to understand the relevance of the small lessons with big meanings. The conclusions are, therefore, mine.
For instance when he talked of simplicity and the importance of simple living I, as an adult, concluded that he was against the selfish and greedy lifestyle that modern society has accepted. Materialism has taken deep roots and that has spawned the need for a culture of violence. Over the years the combination of materialism and this culture of violence has brought civilisation to the brink of disaster. We spend more money on weapons of mass destruction than on improving the quality of life. It is always might over right!
So, my conclusion of what Gandhi was trying to teach us is to dismantle the culture of violence and replace it with a culture of nonviolence. This means purging our hearts of all the negativity like hate, greed, prejudice, selfishness etc and replacing it with love, respect, compassion, understanding and acceptance.
Gandhi's name was synonymous with peace, yet you mention how he battled his own demons, that were even violent at times. Is it perhaps problematic that we look at him as a clean slate and not human? Is that something you attempt to do through your writings?
In his writings, Gandhi was at pains to demonstrate to the people that he was an ordinary person with the same common failings. As a young boy he lied, he stole money to buy cigarettes and eat meat, and lately, some scholars have also painted him as a racist, by taking words like "kafir", describing the original Africans in South Africa. He had all the demons that each of us is susceptible to. The difference between him and us is that he decided to fight the demons and become a better person whilst most of us accept the demons as inevitable and learn to live with them.
Gandhi was not born a Mahatma, he became one over the years.
We made him a Mahatma because we do not want to change. "The people will follow me in life, worship me in death but not make my cause their cause" — these are words that can be expressed by all the people we worship today.
Is there a difference in the way Gandhi is read and studied within India and abroad? The nature of our conflict is largely based on religion. In the US it might be race. How is he interpreted in both contexts?
I am not a scholar and I must confess I have not made a deep study of how scholars in both countries approach the philosophy of nonviolence. My understanding is superficial and from what I see there is not much difference in approach. In both countries the approach is limited to a means to resolve conflicts. There is no attention paid to the aspect of avoiding conflicts. The two approaches differ radically. Resolving conflicts implies conflicts are going to happen and we must find a civilised way of resolving them. Yes, some conflicts are a part of life and we cannot avoid them. But conflicts like race, religion, economic disparities and many others won’t be recurrent if we learn to eliminate them forever.
Let's take the race question in the US and the caste problem in India. In both cases, after much agitation we granted them civil and equal rights by law and thought the matter was resolved. But we still hate each other and still want nothing to do with "them". So the problem festers and erupts every now and then. Not all problems can be resolved by law. There are many problems — like race and religion — that are based in ignorance, engulfed in generations of hate and misunderstandings. The law has enabled the oppressed to enjoy rights but no law can force an individual to understand or respect someone they don't want to. The long term solution is to break down prejudices and hate through education and understanding. No one is paying any attention to that aspect of the solution. We are learning to tolerate diversity and differences but not to love and respect fellow human beings.
There is a never-ending debate on the peace vs violence approach to getting justice. Your grandfather is often criticised for staying loyal to the former. Is it possible for everyone to embody his calm and patience? How does anger help?
The world has fought violent wars for generations and none of them really solved the problem. Sometimes we have succeeded in "solving" the problem only by exhausting the enemy. Let's take the case of World War II. We sacrificed more than 60 million human lives and spent trillions of dollars in recovery and reconstruction. All that we succeeded in doing is killing Hitler and defeating his Nazi army but the philosophy of hate and prejudice that he spouted still survives — not only in Germany but all over the world. So one may ask what did the sacrifice of 60 million human lives really achieve? India has been fighting a war with Pakistan for over 70 years and there is still no sign of a settlement. The same with Israel and Palestine and many other places in the world. Violence seeks to control people through fear so we continue to build frightening weapons of mass destruction. Violence focuses on the human enemy and not the basic problem. Look at Syria today.
Nonviolence, on the other hand, helps us respect each other as human beings and focuses our attention to the problem and encourages us to talk it over and find an acceptable solution. If we stop dehumanising people and branding them as our enemies we can approach any problem we may have with mutual respect and understanding.
Extending the previous question a little further, we live in a world where spewing hate and anger has become easier through social media. It is more convenient, more immediate and perhaps even more vile and dangerous. How do we deal with times like these? Withdrawal is certainly not an option especially for people who have to remain out there. Do we lack role models or is it largely down to introspection?
We have had role models whom we either turn into saints and worship them or turn them into cranks and revile them. This is done because we don't want to change. We don't want to give up hate and prejudice. We remain complacent until the problem affects us. Then we want a quick solution, so we fight. Social media has made dissemination of messages — positive and negative — faster and reduced our attention span to sound bytes. Before we can even think about or digest one bit of news we have half a dozen other things coming at us through social media. Hate is easy to spread because it is already within us. It is quick and requires no effort. Love and respect on the other hand, requires understanding and a commitment and we don't have time for that. We have made material progress at the cost of moral degeneration. And we seem to be happy with that state of affairs.
Updated Date: Jun 11, 2017 10:23 AM