Building a culture of non-violence

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Gandhiji’s granddaughter offers relevant insights into his teachings from a current day perspective. HASNAIN ZAHEER reports

Photo: Michael Anderson

As societies the world over grapple with the challenge of a growing culture of violence, Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy reminds us that the values of non-violence, tolerance and peaceful co-existence continue to be pertinent decades after the Indian leader propounded them as a philosophy of life.

This message was brought home to us by none other than the Mahatma’s own grand-daughter Ela Gandhi, who visited Sydney late last month.

“We need to promote pro-active programs on non-violence from the very basic levels of the educational process,” Ms Gandhi said, speaking as a guest of the University of New South Wales.

She was delivering a talk entitled ‘Building a culture of non-violence’ as part of the ‘So, What?’ lecture series organised by UNSW’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

In her thought-provoking lecture to a diverse audience in a packed hall at the university’s John Niland Scientia Building, Ms Gandhi made several powerful points.

“There is a growing culture of violence – structural, domestic, ethnic, religious, racial and many other types of violence arising out of our variety of differences,” she noted. “There are many reasons for its proliferation – inequality, poverty, inadequate justice system, unemployment, access to legal and illegal weapons, conflicts, and breakdown of social and family structures among others”.

To counter this, the most important tool in building a culture of non-violence, Ms Gandhi underlined, is imparting good basic human values and learning to be non-violent, right from early childhood education through to tertiary education. She emphasised the early learning phase, “a time of remarkable physical, cognitive, physical, social and emotional development”, during which these values can be instilled particularly successfully.

“Teaching the art of non-violent communication is a very important cog in this wheel,” claimed Ms Gandhi. “Good and intensive education in the early childhood phase has lifelong benefits. But it must have good content and should use effective methods. And, the quality of the educator is the key determinant”.

Referring to Mahatma Gandhi’s education that took place in South Africa, she quoted from Nelson Mandela, who noted famously that India gave South Africa a Mohandas, but received a Mahatma in return. She spoke in detail about the 21 years her grandfather spent in South Africa which had an indelible effect on his personality and his life.

He had 6 major influences in the 1890s, she indicated: learning about the four major religions (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism – Mahatma Gandhi read the Quran, Bible and Bhagvad Gita, and respected all religions); colonialism; racism; unjust and unequal social divide; working out the psychology of the oppressed, and exploitation of the environment by human beings

The Mahatma’s sources of learning were via first-hand experience of discrimination and humiliation, reading literature, and interaction with intellectuals.

In the face of oppression, he realised that he had three choices: meek subjection to oppression; returning home to India; and staying and responding with strong objection.

Gandhiji, of course, stayed and opposed. He wrote extensively. In 1906, he published Satyagrah; in 1909, he wrote his seminal book In Swaraj; and then started The Indian Opinion newspaper in four languages. He moved to the Phoenix settlement where he started his experiments with truth. He learned, Ms Gandhi listed, punctuality and time management, to develop his body, mind and soul; to control his self; grow his own food; live with people of all races; critical thinking based on knowledge; meaning of liberation and swaraj; equality of women, and importance indigenous knowledge systems.

Mahatma Gandhi developed thinking about new economic models. He analysed prevailing social views and came with the concept of sarvodaya – good for everyone.

Gandhiji was transformed during this time. This was a journey of learning and self-transformation that led to his lifelong quest for the discovery of truth.

Noting that life is about learning and re-learning, Ela Gandhi was saddened to observe that in the present educational systems, there is more emphasis on skills, and not enough on values. The result is selfishness, impatience, greed, exploitation and other undesirable tendencies. To bring about change, Ms Gandhi recommended that a learning process through which good values can be communicated, should be implemented from early childhood.

In the Q&A session that followed, Ms Gandhi communicated her highly sophisticated Gandhian-inspired views on a range of topics from global terrorism, violence in TV, movies and games  to communication via
social media.

A renowned Gandhian, Ela Gandhi is Chair of the Gandhi Development Trust, and a Padma Bhushan awardee (2007). She manages the Phoenix Farms in South Africa where Mahatma Gandhi spent several years, and which is now a heritage site. She has participated in the anti-apartheid movement, was jailed in 1983 and has been a member of the South African parliament representing Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC).

My own introduction to the Gandhian thought came not via the Mahatma’s books but through Pandit Nehru’s The Discovery of India. India’s first prime minister was a close friend and disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and in his books and writing, he presents a great insight to his transformation from Mohandas to Mahatma. This is an excellent medium for getting a thorough introduction to India and its Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

Ms Gandhi also inaugurated the International Centre of Nonviolence in Sydney as part of her visit and agrreed to be its patron.Gambhir Watts, President of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Australia, announced its opening as a partnership of Gandhi Development Trust and BVB Australia.

Thanks to William Balfour of UNSW in helping with the access to material for this article

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