Gandhi's grandson offers lessons on life, nonviolence in talk at TTU

In the world of Indian spiritual leader and nonviolent activist Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi, even a discarded three-inch pencil had the power to convey important lessons on life, on how we treat the environment and each other.

Gandhi's grandson, Arun, found that out as a 12-year-old living in his grandfather's home in 1946, on the eve of India's independence. On Friday he shared the message with close to 300 students, faculty and community members Friday during a visit to Tennessee Technological University to commemorate India's 50th year of independent rule.

Arun Gandhi, who with his wife, Sunanda, founded the Memphis-based M. K. Gandhi Center for Nonviolence, told of the lessons his grandfather taught him and of experiences with his parents, his grandmother ones on his own as he's worked to carry Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence to individuals and groups around the globe.

Once in an evening talk with his grandfather, Arun asked for a new pencil to use for his studies. Instead of receiving one, he found himself questioned about how his old pencil became worn out and what became of it. Despite it being dark, Arun Gandhi was instructed to go out and retrieve the pencil from the bush where he had thrown it on his walk home from school. After several hours of searching by flashlight, he returned to give the pencil to his grandfather, who then explained that in an interconnected world, even an object as simple as a pencil consumes precious environmental resources. Discarding it while it could still be used was an act of violence against the environment. And in a world of finite resources, it was also an act of violence against humanity since discarding it further denied resources to the poor.

In teaching his grandson about violence, Mahatma Gandhi told him to draw a family tree. "Use violence as the grandfather with two offspring, physical violence and passive violence," Gandhi told him. "And under each one of them, put under their offspring."

Only by diagramming the violence we encounter each day and the acts we perpetrate against others can we fully understand violence, how widespread it is and, in turn, how widespread nonviolence can be, Arun Gandhi said. And only through understanding can we begin to change our behavior. Diagramming violence, in fact, is an approach he recommends today. "Do it on your own. Do it as a class project. Just do it," he urged the audience.

"If we want to create a world of peace and harmony ... we have to cut off the fuel supply that is passive violence that ignites the fire of physical violence." And the change, he said, has to begin with us, not somebody else. "If we all wait for somebody else to change, nobody is going to change. We have to be the change we wish to see."

As a teacher of nonviolence, Gandhi has acted to be the change he wishes to see.

Years ago in a visit to his homeland of South Africa, Gandhi said he was invited to give a three-hour lecture at a township whose very name was synonymous with violence and where just days before seven people had been massacred. Despite his misgivings, he went to the township and met with 71 of the tribesmen, all of whom arrived laden with Uzis and other armament. Through a process of discussion and questioning, he led them to analyze the goals they were trying to accomplish through violence. They wanted jobs, they told him, and financial security. By analyzing the factors that would create those opportunities, "they came to realize they were their own worst enemies," Gandhi said. He left them with the understanding that violence was not the path to the future they wanted. The next day, he heard on the radio that the 71 tribesmen had gone to local police station and turned in their weapons, saying they would be nonviolent activists from then on.

Because of its prominent role in the political protests by Gandhi against English rule in India and by Martin Luther King in support of civil rights in the U.S., we tend to think of nonviolence as a political strategy, Gandhi said. "But it's not that at all. It's something that each of us can use."

Gandhi's talk at Tennessee Tech was sponsored by the Indian Association of Cookeville and the university's chapter of the social fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi.