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Guest Author – Sulekh Jain, Ph.D. on Mahatma Gandhi 150th Birthday Anniversary

On October 2nd2018, a yearlong celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150thbirthday anniversary began and so did the celebration of his message of Ahimsa (non-violence) to the world.

The word Ahimsa and Gandhi are synonymous and are known world over. 

Gandhiji touched and changed the lives of so many people all over the world by advocating the peaceful pursuit of change. His nonviolent protest and constructive programs resonate today even after 70 years of his death.

Does Gandhiji still fascinate the world? Historians. philosophers, politicians, economists and many others have researched Gandhiji and poured out books in many languages exploring his life and personality and yet Gandhiji still remains for many a mystery and an enigma.

There are many aspects of Gandhiji’s philosophy and lifestyle which have widespread appeal to particular groups of people. His wish to be frugal in his demands on the natural ecosystem, in his food and clothing and other aspects of daily life has attracted much admiration. He has become a hero for the Green Movement. There are those who are persuaded by his vegetarianism either for reasons of avoiding harm to animals or just for health reasons. Gandhiji’s lifestyle is a statement for many. A man born in the middle of the 19th century, at the height of the Victorian era, still has relevance a century-and-a-half later.

Gandhiji was not elected or appointed to any position. He was not a Congressman, a Senator, or a Governor of a State. He was not a Prime Minister, a President or a King or an Emperor of any country. He was not a General of any army. He was not a Clergy, a Pope or head of any religion.  He did not build any temple, church or mosque and did not start any religion. He was not a scientist, did not invent anything and did not win any Nobel Prize either. He was not strong or handsome. He had no bank balance and had no wealth and possessions.

Yet, this poor and frail looking man freed a nation from the mightiest empire and gave the entire world a new vision and tool that significantly changed the course of World history! In an age of Empire and Military Might, he proved that by using and practicing non-violence/ahimsa, the powerless had power and that force of arms would not forever prevail against force of Spirit.

Gandhiji gave to the world a new kind of philosophy, that of the dignity of man, of every man, whether ruled or ruling, free or enslaved, whether white, black, brown or yellow.

He called it truth and non-violence. He called it patriotism. He called it religion.

Gandhiji a Multi-dimensional Thinker and a Social Reformer 

Dr. George Pattery in his essay “Ahimsa: Spirituality for an evolving Human Consciousness” states that “Gandhian perspective is centered entirely on ahimsa. Rather than limiting to the spiritual realm, Gandhi attempted to redefine economics, politics and religion from the point of ahimsa. This is unique in the history of the world. Ahimsa is the future of humanity” 

Professor Predrag Cicovacki; another thinker on Gandhiji writes:

“Besides being a political activist, Gandhi was a social reformer too. He wrote extensively and devoted lots of his energies to reform the inferior position of women and some social castes, the lack of literacy and hygiene, the widespread use of alcohol and opium and the corrupt ruling elite. Gandhi’s social reformism was directed against poverty and ignorance as well as what we call today structural violence. Gandhi’s contribution to raising awareness of the plague of the underprivileged and the need for deep social reforms has been no less important than his insistence on the possibility of nonviolent resolution of political conflicts. Gandhi opposed and worked to eliminate animal sacrifices for religious rituals, untouchability, and slavery and near sub-human treatment of poor and women.”

To the untouchables he gave them a new and very respectable name: “Harijan” – children of GOD. 

Gandhiji was a moral and spiritual leader. He realized that violence dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrator, and there is no genuine peace unless there is peace in the human heart. Peaceful and happy people do not oppress and victimize others”.

The life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi as an apostle of peace and nonviolence is a beacon of hope and inspiration to millions of people around the world. Gandhiji and his message belong to the entire world.

Jainism and Gandhiji

No one grows and develops in vacuum. Practically every person in the world is shaped by environment, circumstances, parents, customs, tradition, religions, schools and company of friends and associates and so was Gandhiji. not He came in close contacts with a large number of Jains and Jain Sadhus in his childhood, studies, youth, professional practice, freedom struggles and Satyagraha. 

One of the most influential persons in Gandhiji’s life was Shrimad Rajchandraji – the great Indian saint, poet, philosopher and a spiritual luminary. He was a spiritual guide of Gandhiji. During a speech at Ahmedabad in November 1921, Gandhiji said “I have often declared that I have learnt, and learnt much, from the lives of many persons. But it is from Kavishri’s (Shrimadji’s) life that I have learnt the most. It was from his life that I understood the way of compassion.” 

Gandhiji first met Shrimadji in Mumbai when he returned from England in 1891. Shrimadji’s spiritual state, wisdom, knowledge and moral earnestness left a deep impression on Gandhiji. After moving to South Africa, Gandhiji kept in contact with Shrimadji via letters; discussing religion and spirituality. Shrimadji’s adherence to following the principles of truth, non-violence, simplicity crystallized the fundamental tenets of Gandhism. These principles made Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into Mahatma Gandhi. Thus the 20thcentury messiah of nonviolence was made and shaped by Jain teachings 

Throughout his life Gandhiji befriended many Jains and interacted with several Jain monks and scholars. Many Jains, prominent and ordinary, men and women, heard his call of freedom to India, joined his campaigns, went to jails and openly supported him with generous donations. Also, many Jain sadhus through their regular sermons and speeches, during Gandhiji’s long freedom struggles, inspired and urged Jain men and women to offer their full participation and support to his causes.

Gandhiji not only adopted the Jain’s most important principles of unconditional ahimsa and anekantavaad (multiplicity of views) but also 11 vows of conduct, pure vegetarian food habits and even his daily attire which resembled the attire of a sthanakvasi Jain monk (2-3 pieces of white unstitched cloth) later in his life. His daily prayers included “Apurva Avasar”; a composition by Shrimad Rajchandra.

During his entire life, Gandhiji hardly ever deviated, walked away or compromised with ahimsa; even during some of the most trying times. If he ever did or thought of doing so, he openly admitted and let the rest of the world know about it. His life was an open book so much so that he said “my life is my message”.

Since Bhagwan Mahavir’s ahimsa toward all living beings 2500 years ago and of Jesus Christ’s adherence to ahimsa 2000 years ago, there has been many prominent personalities that have practiced ahimsa. However, it was Gandhiji who made ahimsa a universal household word and concept.

So strong was his conviction to ahimsa that he said “Thereare many causes I am willing to die for but not a single cause I am willing to kill for”.

About Jainism and Ahimsa, Gandhiji said “No religion of the world has explained the principle of non-violence so deeply and systematically, with its applicability in life as in Jainism…….Bhagwan Mahavir is sure to be respected as the greatest authority on non-violence”. 

Gandhiji Ji exhibited extreme humility, simplicity, service to humanity and hard work in his conduct and life style. He said “be the change that you wish to see around”. He was so much without ego that he did not even like people calling him Mahatma and touching his feet. 

Gandhiji in the West 

I have found a lot of awareness and respect for Gandhiji in the West. His name is well known among educated people. Many schools, universities and churches offer courses, classes and workshops on Gandhiji and his message. There are several Ahimsa Centers, Mahatma Gandhiji Libraries, Museums, Peace and Conflict Resolution Centers on many campuses.  

There are Gandhiji statues in many large and small cities and movies and videos on Gandhiji are shown frequently on national TV Channels. I know of many scholars who are constantly filming and producing videos on Gandhiji in England, South Africa and India. Every year his birthday is celebrated with lots of practical community wide programs. Gandhiji did and continuously inspires lots of people including many Nobel Laureates, Peace Leaders and Human and Civil Rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others.

In his many prominent speeches, former US President Barak Obama used to quote Gandhiji frequently. Once Obama said “But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhiji and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey”.

Late Senator John McCain said that “Mahatma Gandhiji is the person he admires most because Gandhiji Ji could not harm a soul, but his heart would not yield to power, and would triumph over the Empire that opposed him”.

A young man residing in America happened to read Narayan Desai’s Gujarati volumes on Gandhiji’s life titled ‘Maaru Jeevan ej Maari Vaani’. (My Life is My Message). After reading this book he wept all night. Gandhiji’s mantra “You are not the owner of your wealth but just a trustee of that wealth and what is for the good of the whole society is good for me” touched his heart in such a way that it changed his whole life. He realized that you experience far greater and lasting pleasure in spending money for the needy compared to the momentary pleasure and happiness you feel after spending more than required for your needs.

Prof Allen Douglas of University of Maine in USA recently wrote “Gandhiji carried on his mission and projects with great motivation, perseverance, incredible energy, remarkable fearlessness and courage, and nonviolent transforming, practical effectiveness. Gandhiji’s essential teachings and practices of ahimsa are not only relevant and significant today, but they are more urgently needed than during his lifetime”. 

From the central hall of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi to a statue at Union Square Park in New York, and across far flung corners of the world, M. K. Gandhiji is loved and celebrated as an apostle of non-violence. Yet it is Gandhiji’s little-known work on what it means to be truly civilized that might be far more crucial to the future of our species. Gandhiji has 21stcentury appeal and relevance.  

For more than twenty years I lived in Houston, Texas where there is a statue of Gandhiji in a prominent park, and the community celebrates Gandhiji birthday every year with several dozen city wide activities. Inspired by Gandhiji and his teachings, several years ago, the students of the Arts Department of Houston Community College designed and painted a very impressive Mural on Gandhiji and converted the whole dilapidated and abandoned park into a place of attraction and fun for the nearby community 

Caution 

In 1950s Sir Richard Attenborough of U.K (who made an Oscar winning famous movie “Gandhiji”) came to Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru the then Prime Minister of India and told Nehru that he wants to produce a feature film on Gandhiji. Nehru said to him “Make it very quickly before people start worshipping him”. Nehru knew that once people start worshiping anyone, the message is lost and only the glory, statues and miracles remain. Therefore, it is important that we do not deify or worship Gandhiji as the superhuman Mahatma who provides us with the exclusive, absolute, nonviolent truth. Gandhiji was an extraordinary human being, but he was a human. 

It is important that we approach Gandhiji in ways that contextualize his ahimsa message, values and practices so that they are integrally related to the crises and realities of contemporary world. Gandhiji offers us an insightful ahimsa view of ethical, spiritual, and cosmic evolution and ways of tapping into our higher nonviolent human nature. 

In today’s’ world the need and cry for Peace is even more than ever.  The life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhiji as an apostle of Peace and nonviolence is a beacon of hope and inspiration to millions of people around the world. 

(References: “Nonviolence As a Way of Life, History, Theory and Practice”. Edited by Predrag Cicovacki and Kendy Hess)

Dr. Sulekh C. Jainis the Past Secretary and President of the Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA). Dr. Jain also authored a book An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide, which can be accessed as an eBook free of chargeat www.isjs.in  
Email: scjain@earthlink.net





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