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.