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How Would Gandhi See Our World?

How Would Gandhi See Our World?
One of the world's leading authorities on the 20th-century moral icon reflects on the relevance of the revolutionary's philosophy

About the Photo: "Gandhi likely would say that two of the most dangerous forces in the world today, as in his own time, are religious fanaticism and extreme nationalism." — Doug Allen

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What has become of Gandhi?

The non-violent revolutionary, draped in a peasant's shawl and loincloth, is one of history's most recognizable figures, and few have been more influential or admired. He led India to independence from Britain and, in doing so, showed the world the amazing power of peaceful resistance.

During his lifetime and for years following his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi was regarded as a man of oracular wisdom and saintly goodness. His name was spoken with reverence. But today, it is rarely spoken at all.

Certainly, there are people around the world who still espouse Gandhi's philosophy of peace, tolerance and understanding. But his teachings are no longer as widely studied, either in India or in the West. And it is likely that few world leaders, in weighing their options for dealing with today's most difficult problems, ever stop to ask what Gandhi might do.

That's too bad, says Doug Allen, professor and chair of philosophy at UMaine and one of the world's leading Gandhi scholars. From the stare-down between India and Pakistan to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the global war on terrorism, Allen believes that what the world needs right now is a good, strong dose of Gandhi-ism.

"Gandhi would absolutely oppose al Qaeda and other terrorists, but he would also oppose some of the ways we are approaching the war on terrorism," Allen says. "For Gandhi, your means have to be as noble as your ends. You can't use just any means to stamp out terrorism, because you will find that you are mimicking those you oppose."

For example, Allen says, in enlisting the support of countries around the world to help fight terrorism, the United States is cozying up to repressive regimes.

"President Mushareff in Pakistan is a military dictator who is guilty of all sorts of human rights violations and was funding terrorists," Allen says. "Now, all of a sudden, he is a trusted ally in the war on terrorism. And the oppressive dictatorship in Saudi Arabia: Sure, they provide oil and military bases, but they also helped fund those fanatical schools where the terrorists were being trained."

While the U.S. turns a blind eye to violence and repression in the name of fighting terrorism, Allen says, "the rhetoric coming out of Washington" is giving other countries an excuse to vilify and wage war on their enemies and opponents, at home and abroad.

Doug Allen
"Gandhi likely would say that two of the most dangerous forces in the world today, as in his own time, are religious fanaticism and extreme nationalism."
- Doug Allen

"Russian President Putin says the Chechen rebels are terrorists, so we no longer raise questions about human rights violations there. In India, Prime Minister Vajpayee calls the Pakistanis terrorists. Sharon and Arafat call the other terrorist. There seem to be no limits now on the war on terrorism. You can crack down on dissent and deny civil liberties. Just label someone a terrorist, and anything goes."

Gandhi, too, would define terrorism in very broad terms, according to Allen, and in doing so, he would outrage many Americans.

"Gandhi would have no problem talking about U.S. terrorism. He would say that if we have a permanent war economy and we're selling weapons to governments that use them against their neighbors and their own people, then we're supporting terrorism. And if we're spending billions of dollars on weapons instead of feeding people and providing healthcare, then we're not fulfilling our moral obligations."

Allen says that, in Gandhi's view, "If my neighbor is in need and I keep accumulating wealth and do nothing to help him, then I am complicit in the violence of the status quo."

For Gandhi, violence was not just physical aggression — throwing punches or dropping bombs. The nature of violence also could be economic, social, religious and environmental. In fact, any type of suffering that humans cause or humans could prevent was, to Gandhi, a form of violence. And the victims of this violence — the exploited and oppressed — sometimes see no alternative than to lash out.

Eliminating the root causes of suffering, poverty, injustice, anger and resentment is, in Allen's interpretation of Gandhi's teachings, the most effective way to prevent the terrorism of guns and bombs. It is naοve, he says, for governments to think they can wipe out terrorism "while maintaining the unjust and oppressive status quo in every other way, without making any real shift in their values or policies."

Gandhi inspired much of Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Both believed strongly in resisting oppression and struggling against conditions they considered unjust, but they preached against demonizing those who were committing the injustice.

"Gandhi opposed evil, but he didn't personalize the evil-doer," Allen says. "That meant he left open the possibility for reconciliation. He said the goal is not to defeat your enemy, but to establish a relationship" in which grievances on both sides can be addressed nonviolently.

Gandhi knew from experience that war and conquest, even in a just cause, often lead to greater resentment and escalate the cycle of violence. Yet he also recognized that force is sometimes necessary. If terrorist acts are being committed, "it is better to intervene violently to prevent them than to stand aside and let the terrorists do what they want," Allen says. "Gandhi believed you do have to stop fanatical people who are committing acts of terror."

Gandhi likely would say that two of the most dangerous forces in the world today, as in his own time, are religious fanaticism and extreme nationalism.

"People who believe that their religion has an exclusive higher truth are very dangerous because so many atrocities have been committed throughout history by people who claim to have a pipeline to God," Allen says. "Gandhi believed that all true religion is grounded in morality, and the more moral you are in terms of your relations in this world, the more spiritual you become."

Gandhi saw all religions as imperfect, with none having a lock on truth. He was a practicing Hindu, but he recognized many "truths" in Christianity, Islam and other religions. He taught respect for the beliefs of others, and he opposed religious fanaticism which, he knew, bred intolerance and repression. Ironically, he was killed by a Hindu fanatic.

The father of Indian independence, Gandhi believed that people have a right to their own nation. But he opposed national chauvinism, the notion that one's own country is better than others. He valued national unity, but with tolerance and respect for diverse races, cultures, religions and opinions.

"Gandhi would look at the arrogant unilateralism and triumphalism of the United States and say that we should be more humble because no nation has all the answers," Allen says. "He believed that nations have much to learn from each other."

However, Gandhi might be appalled at how eagerly — and how selectively — his fellow Indians have embraced the culture and values of others. India today is quite Westernized.

"The Indian elite — talented scientists, people in technology and corporate leaders — were educated at the Harvard Business School and MIT. The U.S. is their model of success," Allen says. "There is little interest in Gandhi because he has no value in terms of profit maximization and control of the global market.

"Much of what we call success is completely anti-Gandhian. He would look at our culture, where the priorities are on having the biggest house and the newest car, and see it as a sign of undeveloped human beings. He would say we are morally, socially and spiritually bankrupt."

One of Gandhi's most famous sayings is, "Live simply that others may simply live."
Doug Allen has been immersed in the teachings of Gandhi for more than 40 years. His first of many teaching and research trips to India was in 1963 on a Fulbright grant. Since joining the UMaine faculty in 1974, he has taught courses on a number of philosophies, religions and social movements. He has authored or edited 10 books on philosophy. He has received two of the University's highest honors: the Presidential Research and Creative Achievement Award in 1998 and the 2000 Distinguished Maine Professor award.

A social and political activist, Allen is passionate about issues of peace, justice and human rights. He frequently speaks to school, community and church groups on topics as diverse as modern feminist theory, the ethics of affluence, world hunger, racism and anti-Semitism, nonviolent civil disobedience and, of course, the philosophy of Gandhi. Since 1974, he has served as faculty advisor to the student Maine Peace Action Committee, and chaired the education committee of the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine since 1988.

Allen currently is president of the international Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy. For next year's World Congress of Philosophy in Istanbul, Turkey, he has lined up seven of the world's leading Gandhi scholars to present two sessions on the relevance of Gandhi's philosophy to 21st-century issues.

Allen doesn't consider himself a "pure Gandhian." His beliefs have been shaped by a number of philosophies, but Gandhi has been one of the most important influences in his life. He acknowledges that it can be discouraging to live in a world that so often fails to live up to Gandhi's vision of justice and peace.

"We are not in a particularly good period for Gandhian values, so if you focus too much on the big picture, you can become overwhelmed and cynical," he says. "Sometimes you have to focus on smaller changes, where you can make a difference and have some success.

"We affirm our humanity through the struggle to achieve, to create better relations and to leave the world better than we found it. Even if we don't always succeed, that struggle is what gives us dignity."

by Dick Broom
November-December, 2002

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