E S Reddy
I have lived in the United States for over sixty years as a student, a United Nations official and, after retirement, a writer.
When I arrived here, there were very few people who had studied Gandhi and very few books on Gandhi though the life and thought of Gandhi had a significant impact on the United States since 1921 when the Reverend Dr. John Haynes Holmes preached a sermon that Gandhi was “the greatest man alive in the world today”.
Pacifists like him were greatly encouraged by the success of Gandhi in rallying millions of people in the nonviolent non-co-operation movement and later the civil disobedience movement in India. Though few in number they were pioneers in movements for civil liberties, racial equality and other causes. African-Americans felt proud that a “Coloured man” challenged the mighty British empire and wished for the emergence of their own Gandhi to lead them in a struggle for freedom and equality. Nonviolent direct action against racial segregation was attempted by a few brave activists, white and black. Paul Keene, a former missionary in India inspired by Gandhi, began organic farming and helped develop it into a major industry. Richard B. Gregg, an associate of Gandhi who sought to interpret Gandhi to the West, published Power of Nonviolence and The Value of Voluntary Simplicity which became textbooks for civil rights and simple living movements. Several Americans who were acquainted with Gandhi – including prominent churchmen like John Haynes Holmes, E. Stanley Jones, Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays, as well as Louis Fischer, Vincent Sheean and Edgar Snow - wrote and spoke about his life and philosophy.
The civil rights movement led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1950s, as well as much of the resistance to the Vietnam war, were inspired by Gandhi. Many hundreds of volunteers went through training in nonviolence. The success of these movements demonstrated that active nonviolence was not for Indians alone but can be practised by people of all religions and racial origins in America. There was an explosion of interest in Gandhi among activists, academics and other scholars. Numerous books and articles are being published here since then, and they include some of the best studies on Gandhi. They have dealt not merely with the philosophy of satyagraha or the methods of nonviolence resistance but with the wide range of experiments of Gandhi. More and more people began to study Gandhi, visit his ashrams in India and practise aspects of his teachings.
It would be wrong, however, to exaggerate the influence of Gandhi in America. If we look for “Gandhians”, there are but a few. But hundreds of thousands of Americans have derived inspiration from the life and thought of Gandhi while attached to their own faiths and traditions. That is as it should be.
For Gandhi was opposed to any cult about him and disliked the term “Gandhism”. He was inspired by Jesus Christ, Count Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, but did not become a Christian or a Tolstoyan or a Ruskinite. He absorbed their philosophies into his own Hindu and Jain religious background and evolved, through strenuous experiments in personal and public life, the path to a new civilization based on love and cooperation rather than hatred and greed.
The message of Gandhi encompasses not only ethical principles like truth and nonviolence but also guidance on practical aspects of life such as dignity of labour, simple living and thrift, healthy diet, trusteeship of wealth, cooperative communities, and protection of the environment. These are all in the American tradition but have been overwhelmed by the legacy of slavery, the urge to conquer the land, the greed for wealth and arrogance of power. The result has been social ills like the drug abuse, violent crime, an epidemic of obesity and corruption in business and public affairs. There has been an undue reliance on force in foreign policy. Encouragement and support of terrorists abroad, as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, have come back to haunt the country. The excesses of the so-called “war on terror” have led to a dead end, and in fact increased the threat of terrorism in the world. The economy became dependent on excessive consumer spending and growing indebtedness. Globalisation has caused growing disparities not only globally but within America. Unbridled capitalism and unlimited greed of a few have now led to an economic crisis in which millions of people have lost their life’s savings, homes and jobs. The country has lost much of the enormous goodwill it enjoyed in the world. A search for new directions has become imperative.
More and more people have begun to press the authorities to control the trade in guns, provide healthy food in schools, and help the dispossessed. They are demanding morality in public life. There is an urge to look ahead and consider the kind of world that is being left from this generation to the next. Means to curb the emissions that cause global warming and develop sustainable sources of energy have gained greater support.
I believe that the thought of Gandhi was a significant influence in the formulation of many of the ideas articulated during the presidential campaign of Barrack Obama. Some of his actions since the assumption of Presidency must cheer followers of Gandhian ideology. He has projected the vision of a nuclear free world, departing from the doctrines of his predecessors. He has taken steps to end military intervention in Iraq. He has reached out to governments which had been denounced as “evil” and proposed talks to try to solve differences. He is promoting alternative sources of energy and has greatly expanded programmes of voluntary service. He has shown sensitivity to the plight of the jobless as individuals, not mere statistics.
But the special interests which profit from guns and military contracts, exorbitant medical costs, unhealthy food etc., have powerful lobbies and the public has been so widely indoctrinated by them that the task of overcoming the multiple crises in society is daunting. Weaning America from “worship of mammon”, as Gandhi wished, is no easy task. There is instead the danger that the country will drift into old ways when the present economic crisis is overcome.
The message of Gandhi can be of help to the American people in charting a way out, but only if there is a creative application to the present-day conditions in America and the emergence of a leadership which assimilates Gandhi within the traditions of the country. The role of the youth which is pressing for change is important in this respect. If India is able to recapture the spirit of Gandhi, that will have great influence on American opinion.
Published in Prabhath, S.V. Gandhi Today. New Delhi: Serials Publications, 2010