Gandhi, Nonviolence and the United States, 1998 | Mahatma Gandhi | Nonviolence


Speech at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, New York, on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, January 30, 1948 E. S. Reddy

Dr. Jayaraman Ladies and Gentlemen, I was very happy to hear that Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan - and its Centres all over India and abroad will observe the year from today as the "Year of Non-violence". The Bhavan was founded with the blessings of Gandhiji - incidentally it is the 60th anniversary of the Bhavan this year, and this New York Centre was opened on the birthday of Gandhiji - and it has done much to make the writings and teachings of Gandhiji known as widely as possible. It is amazing how widely he is remembered, studied, and admired fifty years after his death, and how many people and movements around the world continue to be inspired by him. There is no parallel except with Prophets like Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed. That is in part because he is so relevant today. Gandhiji now belongs not merely to India, nor to South Africa which also lays claim, but to the United States and the world. I can do no better than quote Nelson Mandela who said: "The Gandhian philosophy of peace, tolerance and non-violence began in South Africa as a powerful instrument for social change... This weapon was effectively used in India to liberate her people. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., used it to combat racism in the United States of America..." And he continued: "We must never lose sight of the fact that the Gandhian philosophy may be a key to human survival in the twenty-first century." This fiftieth anniversary is being observed in many countries. An international seminar is now being held in Delhi and Wardha. A multi-faith service was held in London today; it was organised by Richard Attenborough and the Gandhi Foundation, in cooperation with the High Commissioners of India and South Africa and the Commonwealth Secretary-General.

A number of groups have joined Arun Gandhi in organising the observance of the period from the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi - that is today - and the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4th, as a "Season of Non-violence". A Conference is being held at the Florida International University on the thought of Gandhiji, Dr. King and Jose Marti of Cuba. I have also heard of observances at the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa and in Malaysia. Here at the Bhavan in New York, today's event is only a modest inaugural event in the spirit of Gandhiji - to be followed by a year of dedication, appropriately called the "Year of Non-violence". *** Non-violence encompasses many things and is almost as broad as the thought of Mahatma Gandhi. We, in India, have a fondness for naming the most positive concepts in negative terms - like nonalignment, non-cooperation, and non-violence. Non-violence in terms of ending violence among human beings is peace between and among nations. Non-violence in thought is the abandonment of hatred and the living together of people of all religions and nations in harmony and mutual respect. Non-violence in relation to nature is the protection of environment. And non-violence is, of course, satyagraha - the courageous defiance of unjust laws. It is the ending of exploitation, and of abuse of the weaker members of society. I hope and trust that the observance of the Year of Non-violence will not be confined to the Indian community but will involve the American people as widely as possible. For, both India and America not only have long traditions of non-violence (although it was never the dominant tradition in America and only rarely in India, as perhaps in the time of Emperor Asoka); they are today very much in need of the message of non-violence. They have both been greatly influenced by Gandhiji. Gandhiji could not visit the United States but had many friends and admirers here. Americans were perhaps the largest national group, apart from Indians, who visited Gandhiji at his Ashrams.

In June 1893, after Gandhiji was thrown off the train in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, then assaulted in a coach, and refused a hotel room in Johannesburg - that was perhaps the beginning of his enlightenment - he reached Pretoria, his destination, at night - without a place to stay. It was an African-American who understood his plight and took him to an inn which was run by an American, Mr. Johnston. The satyagraha led by Gandhiji in South Africa, was little known in America. Myron H. Phelps, a New York attorney and friend of Indian nationalists, met Gandhiji in London and wrote about the struggle in 1909. We know that Mahatma Gandhi inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he launched the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Sudarshan Kapur has shown in his excellent study that African-American leaders had been inspired by Gandhiji and had considered the relevance of his thought to the racial problem in the United States for a long time before, especially since the 1920s. It was not only the African-Americans who were inspired by Gandhiji. Gandhiji was admired by many leaders of the churches espousing the "social gospel" - I suppose they would be called the exponents of "liberation theology" today - and leaders of various social movements. They were greatly encouraged when they saw that Gandhiji was able to secure a mass following while they had been part of small isolated groups in America. The best interviews with Gandhiji were with Americans - Dr. John R. Mott, the head of the World YMCA and later President of the International House in New York; Margaret Sanger, the leader of the movement for birth control; the African-American delegation led by Dr. Howard Thurman; Louis Fischer; and Vincent Sheean. His closest friend in America was perhaps Dr. John Haynes Holmes, founder of the Community Church and its pastor for over 40 years. As early as 1921, Reverend Holmes delivered a sermon that Gandhi was "the Great Man in the World Today" - and was instrumental in spreading the message of Gandhi in the United States. Reverend Holmes was one of the founders and leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. Holmes was also one of the founders of the War Resisters League which - along with Fellowship of Reconciliation - was the main American group propagating and practising non-violent action. [A. J. Muste, its leader for many years, was a follower of the Mahatma.] The League is observing its 75th anniversary this year. Other friends of Gandhi include: Sherwood Eddy and E.C. Carter, leaders of the YMCA;

J.T. Sunderland, a great friend of Indian independence who worked with Lala Lajpat Rai during his stay in the United States; Kirby Page, a prominent pacifist and editor; Bishop Frederick Fisher; Upton Sinclair, the writer; Charles Frederick Weller, organiser of the Second Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1933-34. Reverend Ely Stanley Jones, member of the Fellowship for Reconciliation; Harry Ward, a leader of the peace movement and one of the founders of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Samuel Stokes, a Christian missionary from Pennsylvania, joined the Indian national movement and went to prison in 1921. He later married an Indian, became a Hindu and changed his name to Satyanand - and devoted himself to the uplift of hill tribes near Simla. He developed apple cultivation in Himachal Pradesh. [His daughter became a State Minister after independence.] Richard Gregg, an American lawyer, read about Gandhiji in the 1920s and decided to go to India. He stayed in the Sabarmati Ashram for a year and then taught for a year in the school of Samuel Stokes. He wrote several books on the philosophy of Gandhiji. His book, "Power of Non-violence", became a sort of textbook for the Civil Rights Movement and other nonviolent movements. I recently read about Paul Keene, who met Gandhiji in 1939 while teaching at a missionary school in India. That changed his life. After returning to the United States, he began organic farming in central Pennsylvania. That farm - the Walnut Acres - has now expanded to more than 500 acres and is one of the biggest in organic food industry. Paul Keene has retired and still lives in Pennsylvania. I mentioned all these names - and there are many more who deserve mention - to emphasise that the observance of the Year of Non-violence in the United States is a great responsibility. It must bring together many strands in American life - and it must extend all over the country. In the process, it must not only publicise the thought of Mahatma Gandhi, but help us learn about the great influence of Gandhian thought on the United States. The Bhavan requires the active help of its members and friends - as well as other organisations - in meeting this challenge.

I hope it will receive all the cooperation it needs.

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