Today marks the 140th birthday of Mohandas Gandhi. I wrote the following for a booklet to be distributed at a birthday celebration in Cleveland where I will speak. The event is sponsored by the India Cultural Gardens, The Federation of Indian Community Associations (Fica-Cleveland.org), The National Association of Asian American Professionals (naaap.org), and The University of Akron Friends Circle.
As a person dedicated in creed and deed to justice, nonviolence, environmental protection, and self-governance, Mohandas Gandhi is as relevant today as he was when he lived. His response “I think it would be a good idea” to the question “What do you think about western civilization?” captures both his prophetic views and challenges we currently face in a world where too many of its inhabitants are divorced from their own inner voice, each other and the earth we all depend on for survival.
The essence of Gandhi’s message was not simply to be more compassionate, loving or truthful. He called for not simply equality, liberty and justice. He addressed not simply how men and women, employers and employees, voters and representatives, teachers and pupils and castes and religions related to each other. His focus to bring change both personally and to society was not simply directed at educational, economic, spiritual, political, social or cultural structures. He worked to expand not simply moral, economic or political power. The essence of Gandhi was to profess and strive on behalf of all of these: values, attitudes, relationships, structures and powers.
It’s the totality of his awareness and energies, the interconnections between life’s many spheres, and how it all needed to fit together like a web that was so impressive about his life – and is a timeless message in a world that today celebrates intense compartmentalization, specialization, and dedication to a single cause in our respective silos of thinking and doing. Seeing the whole, understanding systems, and realizing how energy directed in one arena ripples into other arenas are critically important perspectives to thrive and survive.
I find several of Gandhi’s areas of life work to be particularly appealing – and speak to me about today’s conditions.
- He understood that war and violence was counterproductive – that satyagraha (the force of truth) was the only way.
- He realized that constructive programs, those focusing on helping meet immediate needs in communities, was crucial to both improving the conditions of other human beings but also as a second track to working for structural change.
- His commitment to hind swaraj, or home rule, was vital to maintain sovereignty and true independence
- His work to build a movement for swadeshi, the revival of local economic production.
More than anything, I have found inspiration in Gandhi’s belief that the progress toward any goal, personal or professional, is in exact proportion to the purity of its means. In other words, the ends are the means in the making.
After having spent seven weeks in India a number of years ago visiting ashrams, former co-workers, and Gandhi-inspired organizations working on a range of glocal (global to local) projects for social change, I feel it is imperative to understand and convey how contemporary many of his words and works are in the 21st century.
He had flaws and blind spots – as we all do. He had insecurities and doubts – as we all do. He was only able to achieve many of his accomplishments through organizing others to join projects, campaigns and movements – as we all must.
“My life is my message,” he said. What we say is less important than what we do.
I find all this to be both inspiring and challenging – but essential stepping-stones toward addressing the opportunities and challenges we face today.