Have you ever played that game where you draw up a guest list for your dream dinner party, including only famous people, whether or not they're still living? I love that game. Some favourite answers I've often heard are John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Nelson Mandela, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. (Personally, I would invite all of those people, and also add Steve Jobs, Ann Richards, Barack Obama, Aretha Franklin, Bill Bryson, the Dalai Lama, Harper Lee, Maya Rudolph and Lady Gaga. That, my friends, would be a dinner party.)
Another person who has always been near the top of my invitation list, however (and also one of the most common answers I hear, of course) is Mahatma Gandhi. His philosophy on nonviolence, specifically to effect change, continues to be so revolutionary, especially in this time of continued war. I've been intrigued by his teachings since I was quite young, and the thought of ever sitting down with him one-on-one and asking him questions about his life and times is a fantasy I've harboured for many years.
Obviously, this is never going to happen. But this weekend, I experienced the next best thing.
On Saturday, Stephen F. Austin State University held their annual Leadership Conference, and the theme was "Be the Change," based on the quote from Mahatma Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Needless to say, it was an honour to be asked to be the closing keynote for this event, and an invitation that I gratefully accepted. But I became even more excited when I subsequently learned that the lunchtime keynote was Mr. Arun Gandhi, the venerable Mahatma Gandhi's grandson. Mr. Gandhi was born in apartheid-era South Africa, and after facing discrimination and bigotry (manifesting in a few serious beat-downs by both blacks and whites), his family sent him to India to live with his grandfather, during the time when the Mahatma's influence was at its height. Over the weekend, Mr. Gandhi spoke several times -- at a private dinner on Friday, and a private breakfast on Saturday morning before his lunchtime keynote -- and I took 5 pages of notes (the highlights of which I'll share with you below). But for me, the most amazing moments came Saturday morning, before breakfast.
I'd woken up early to check out of the hotel and have a cup of tea before our host met us to take us to the university, and found Mr. Gandhi already sitting in the lobby reading the newspaper, having a cup of coffee. "You are welcome to join me," he said with a smile, and so, after I made my cup of tea, I did.
We sat and talked for about 45 minutes -- I asked him about his travels, his family, his thoughts on the state of the world today, all of which he answered fully and with astonishing patience, considering I was probably asking him questions he'd heard a million times before. The word that immediately comes to mind to describe him is "gentle" -- he is a quiet man who speaks slowly and deliberately, and everything about him is circumspect. I couldn't help but feel that I was in the presence of a truly extraordinary spirit, one full of incredible wisdom, and it made me feel very small and childlike, like I have so much more to learn and grow in my lifetime. He is extremely committed to spreading the message of pacifism and nonviolence espoused by his grandfather as much as possible, clearly considering it his life mission to carry on the torch. To say I am filled with admiration for the man would be the understatement of the century.
While I watched him address the students of SFASU (some extraordinary spirits in their own right, I have to say), I couldn't help but wonder if they really grasped what an incredible life experience they were having, just sitting in that room, listening to his words. I wish I could recite everything he said here to share with you, but since I can't, here are some of my favourites:
Peace is the most misunderstood word in the dictionary. Mr. Gandhi noted that most people believe that "peace" means "the absence of war," when in fact, it means "living in harmony with each other." He believes that peace will never be achieved until we all -- each of us -- undergo a personal transformation. He emphasized that nonviolence as a form of conflict resolution is only part of the philosophy -- it is primarily about personal transformation.
He drew the distinction between "physical" and "passive" violence. While he was living with his grandfather, the Mahatma once made him draw a "genealogical tree of violence" -- sort of like a family tree, where "violence" was the patriarch, and "physical violence" and "passive violence" were the children:
Every evening, before going to bed, Mr. Gandhi would be required to evaluate his day, and categorize things that occurred or that he witnessed under either "physical violence" or "passive violence." Soon, he said, the chart covered an entire wall -- and not surprisingly, the occurrences of "passive violence" far outnumbered the events of "physical violence." Once the wall was covered, his grandfather explained that there is a link between passive and physical violence: when a person is subjected to enough passive violence, he may eventually resort to physical violence. This is why it is so important to constantly be vigilant in preventing acts of passive violence, both intentional and unintentional.
He emphasized that anger is an important part of the pacifist philosophy. He said that contrary to what one might believe, anger is like electricity: it is just as useful and powerful, but it is important to use it intelligently and for the good of humanity; otherwise, of course, it can be deadly. Like electricity, we have to learn how to be able to channel that energy into positive action. He suggested writing an anger journal -- chronicling the things that make us angry, but -- and this is important -- with an eye to finding a solution to the problem. He says that simply ranting in a journal isn't enough, it's important to always write with the goal of coming to peaceful resolution. He believes that ultimately, anger is good, since it is a powerful emotion that can fuel positive change.
He believes that mental exercise is as important as physical exercise. He mentioned that we do lots of physical exercise to make our bodies beautiful, but we rarely do any mental exercises to make our minds beautiful. He shared another exercise that his grandfather had him do: he was tasked with going to a quiet corner, taking with him something he believed to be beautiful, like a flower or a photograph, for example. His grandfather had him sit quietly and stare at the beautiful object for a minute, memorizing every aspect of it. Then, he had to close his eyes, and keep the image of the beautiful object in his mind's eye for as long as he could, without letting other thoughts or images intrude. He said at first, as soon as he closed his eyes, he would begin thinking of something else; however, with practice, he was able to hold the image in his mind for longer and longer periods, and he was able to control his mind.
He believes we're not here by accident -- we are here to fulfill a purpose. He talked about "trusteeship," as espoused by his grandfather: we all have talents -- each and every one of us -- but we feel like we own the talent or gift. The Mahatma believed that we don't own them, but rather we are trustees of the talent, and we are called upon to use these talents for the benefit of others.
Finally, he shared a parable that his grandfather once told him:
There was once a king who wanted a definition of the word "peace." So he invited all the scholars in his kingdom to give him a definition, but he found each of their definitions unsuitable. Then one day, an Intellectual was visiting his kingdom from another land. The king summoned him to his palace, and asked him for the meaning of "peace."
"I can't tell you," said the Intellectual. "But there is someone who can."
"Who?" asked the king.
"There is a Sage," responded the Intellectual, "who lives in the mountains outside of your kingdom. He is too old to travel, but if you go visit him, he will give you an audience, and the answer you desire."
The next day, the king set out on his journey to go visit the Sage. Once he arrived at the home of the Sage, he asked him, "Please, old man, what is the definition of peace?"
The Sage left and went to a back room, and soon returned. He asked the king to hold out his hand. "Here is your answer," he said, and placed a single grain of wheat in the king's hand.
The king did not want to appear ignorant, so he nodded solemnly and thanked the Sage. Clutching the grain of wheat, he returned to his palace, and placed the grain of wheat in a small gold box. Every day, the king would open the box and stare at the wheat, but try as he might, he couldn't possibly divine the meaning of "peace" from the single grain of wheat.
Months later, the Intellectual returned to the kingdom, and the king again summoned him to his palace. "I visited the Sage," said the king, "and he gave me this." He opened the gold box, and showed the Intellectual the single grain of wheat. "I've been staring at it every day, trying to understand what it means, but I can't. How can this possibly hold the meaning of 'peace'?"
"Ah," said the Intellectual, understanding immediately. "The answer is right there. You see, by putting the grain of wheat in a box and keeping it safe, you have deprived it of interaction with the elements -- sun, wind, rain -- and so the grain remains a simple grain of wheat. Had you however, planted the grain, and allowed it to interact with all of the elements, you might now have a plant, and eventually, an entire field of wheat.
"It is the same with peace. Just because you have peace inside of you doesn't mean that anything good will come of it. Peace is not simply something you hold, it is something that you are required to spread -- allow it to interact with other people, and become a part of them. This is the meaning of peace."
Needless to say, Mr. Arun Gandhi has a standing invitation to my dream dinner party. And at the very least, I fervently hope our paths cross again in the future.
Image: Photographed with my Olympus PEN E-PM1