An initiative of the Menil Collection with cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in the Greater Houston area.
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Living Gandhi in Houston in the 2010s

Sep 28
2014
5:25 pm
By Menil

I was born in the Democratic Republic of India soon after the country’s independence. I grew up in Mumbai, in a family whose members had contributed in some small ways to India’s freedom movement.

My maternal grandfather admired Mahatma Gandhi and adhered to many of his spiritual, personal, and economic perspectives, including food habits, clothing, and other personal behavior. My grandfather’s protests were silent but potent.

My mother grew up in the turmoil of India’s freedom movement. She was influenced by the Mahatma and other Founding Fathers of Independent India. Their ideals lit a flame in her that never diminished throughout her life. As a teenager, she participated in peaceful protests and marches, and was arrested once.

For me, growing up in freshly-minted democratic India was a euphoric experience in itself. As a child, I was always in awe listening to my elders’ first-hand experiences, stories, and anecdotes about India’s freedom struggle. These witnesses to history added personalities and perspectives that textbooks glossed over. The result was that, in my tender mind, the heroes and heroines of the Indian Freedom Movement were mythical, yet human.

Mahatma Gandhi was an exception. He was idolized.

 

India’s nonviolent freedom movement took place during the most violent times in human history, when more than 50 million people died in conflict. Mahatma Gandhi’s method of bringing about social change without violence was in stark contrast to prevailing violent confrontational principles. It was contrarian and its success turned on an intense spotlight as an alternative to armed opposition.

Mahatma Gandhi was deified in India and today he is celebrated all over the world for the successful nonviolent resistance movement that he led.

In recent decades, the world has experienced dramatic political and social transformations brought about by nonviolent resistance. These include the Civil Rights Movement (USA), Defiance Campaign (South Africa), Solidarnosc Walczaca (Poland), Arab Spring Uprising, Occupy Wall Street (USA), Taksim Square (Turkey), Otpor! Otpor! (Serbia), Montagsdemonstrationen (East Germany), Velvet Revolution (Czechoslovakia), Singing Revolution (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), People Power Revolution (Philippines), and Draft Resistance (USA).

The successes of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, and other leaders who sought social and political change, reinforced the principles of nonviolent resistance.

These and many other movements derived some inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.

 

Mahatma Gandhi’s ability to coalesce hundreds of millions of people of India—of different religions, languages, and social strata—could not have been possible without some vital personal assets that allowed him to overcome these divisive elements, to bring unity and harmony in diversity.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.  Love, for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.

“The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi.  I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

 

Like King, what the world sees and saw were the actions of the man. But to see Gandhian values in Houston and Houstonians, we have to peek below the layer of his actions and discover beliefs that powered them.

I moved to Houston, Texas, in 1978 and I have stayed here since then. I have experienced this city’s growth into a dynamic and diverse global economy. Today’s Houston is often advertised and displayed as the precursor to the diversity in tomorrow’s America. According to 2010 US Census, Houston’s population consists of: African Americans—23.7%, Asian—6%, Hispanic or Latino—43.8%, Two or More Races—3.3%, White—25.6%.

The diversity of the city brings to the forefront some of Mahatma Gandhi’s core principles that are necessary (but not sufficient) to create unity and harmony in diversity. Some of these are love, nonviolence, duty, democracy, and secularism.

 

Mahatma Gandhi was a spiritual man, who lived a spiritual life based on principles that were derived from Satya or truth.

The Mahatma wrote, “The word Satya (Truth) is derived from Sat which means ‘Being.’ Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why Sat or Truth is perhaps the most important name of God…the word Chit or Knowledge is associated with the name of God. And where there is true knowledge, there is always Bliss (Ananda). And even as Truth is eternal, so is the bliss derived from it. Hence we know God as Sat-Chit-Ananda, one who combines in Himself Truth, Knowledge and Bliss.”

Mahatma Gandhi was a seeker of Satchitananda, which guided his gentle life.

 

He also wrote, “I believe in Advaita, I believe in the essential unity of man and for that matter of all that lives.”

Advaita means non-dual. In a spiritual sense, it is “that which permeates all, which nothing transcends and which, like the universal space around us, fills everything completely from within and without, that Supreme non-dual Brahman.”
This universal perspective of being the essence that permeates all beings and matter, in turn, was the root of Ahimsa or nonviolence. Ahimsa includes not putting others into distress.

The Mahatma wrote, “A true votary of Ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith, if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it…. He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion.”

Nowhere was this more visible, in recent times, than when Houstonians opened their hearts and homes to hundreds of thousands of people of New Orleans who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. An estimated 250,000 evacuees came to the city; a year later, as many as 150,000 had stayed. Today’s post-Katrina Houston is a city where thousands of these evacuees found a home in a diverse metropolis.

 

The Mahatma was an intense believer in democracy. He said, “Democracy, disciplined and enlightened, is the finest thing in the world…. The true democrat is he who with purely nonviolent means defends his liberty and, therefore, his country’s and ultimately that of the whole of mankind.”

Houston and Texas are strong bastions of democracy. We take our rights as citizens seriously. This is balanced by our duties to our neighbors, our country and mankind.

In Houston, love and duty are often indistinguishable.

 

Additionally, Mahatma Gandhi was secular in his outlook. He described his secular religious beliefs as being rooted in Hinduism, especially the Bhagavad Gita, which addresses secularism with these words: “In any way that men may love me, in that same way they find my love; for many are the paths of men, but they all in the end come to me.”

He wrote, “When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita…just as men are all human in spite of their different names and forms, just as leaves of a tree though different as leaves are the same as the leaves of the same tree, all religions though different are the same. We must treat all religions as equals.”

Houston with its rich religious diversity is a testament to Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals. Nothing surprises visitors to Houston than the varied number of places of worship that dot the city. Here all religions are not only equal but are celebrated equally.

 

Diversity and secularism also attract cultural breezes. The Mahatma said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.”

And so it does, in Houston too. The winds of global cultures blow through this city, constantly, at work and at play. Houston has a large global workforce, and its arts and cultural scenes are speckled with events and performances from more than ninety countries.

Another proof of the cultural pudding is the multiplicity of the city’s food industry. The city has hundreds of restaurants specializing in global cuisines, with new ones popping up to satisfy the population’s palate for exotic, global flavors and cultures.

 

Today, Mahatma Gandhi’s message of nonviolence, like messages of all apostles of peace, is distributed and appreciated worldwide, by individuals, in the tiniest of outposts of society. His beliefs and attitudes about love and duty are practiced everywhere but are indiscernible because they are interwoven in our society’s fabric.

We live, perhaps, in the most peaceful decades in human history by most standards of well-being. However, we are not yet at the Gandhian state where we are “friends with the world and…regard the whole human family like the members of one family.”

The world still has a long way to go, but Houston can be a guiding light on that journey.

 

Pradeep Anand resides in the Houston area; he is the author of An Indian in Cowboy Country: Stories from an Immigrant’s Life.