Gandhi in today’s world

The United Nations taps Douglas Allen’s internationally recognized scholarship
Professor of philosophy Douglas Allen has written and edited 15 books, including "The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi for the Twenty-First Century"; and "Comparative Philosophy and Religion in Times of Terror." Photo by Holland Haverkamp

Gandhi in today’s world

The United Nations taps Douglas Allen’s internationally recognized scholarship

The United Nations’ International Day of Non-Violence was celebrated Oct. 2, the birth date of Mahatma Gandhi, who was one of the most admired and influential proponents of nonviolence in the modern world.

As part of the observance, University of Maine professor of philosophy Douglas Allen was invited to address the United Nations on “Mahatma Gandhi on Violence and Nonviolence: Common Misconceptions and Gandhi’s Significance Today.”

The UN observance occurred a day after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured after a gunman opened fire in Las Vegas.

Allen is one of the world’s leading scholars of Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of nonviolence. Throughout his career, he has conducted research and lectured extensively in India.

In 2015–16, for five months of his sabbatical he was based at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and began work on his next Gandhi-inspired book. And for a month, Allen was the first Visiting Chair Professor in Gandhian Philosophy at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai.

At UMaine, Allen teaches courses in Marxism, Hinduism and Buddhism. He received UMaine’s 1998 Presidential Research and Creative Achievement Award, and is the 2000 Distinguished Maine Professor. Allen has been a member of the UMaine community since 1974.

Flags outside the United Nations in New York City.

At the UN event, Allen spoke after brief presentations by Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, the permanent representative of India; Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations; and Miroslav Lajčák, the president of the UN General Assembly.

Following his remarks, Allen was asked how he thought Gandhi would have viewed terrorism in the world today.

“Gandhi says there are extreme rare cases where intervening physically and even maybe having to use violence is the most nonviolent thing we can do,” Allen said. “But never glorify the violence. What we do is tragic. It’s a sign of human failure. And we have to do everything in our power then to change the conditions — economic, social, political — that gave rise to that violence.

“I think almost all of us can usually agree about the violence of a certain extreme terrorism,” Allen said. “But I think we should also think about the kind of structural terrorism — corporate terrorism, state terrorism, environmental terrorism — that’s part of our systemic, structural approaches that we often don’t even recognize as violent, and in which not hundreds or thousands, but tens of millions of human beings suffer and die unnecessarily and live under terror every day.

“There is so much we can do to overcome that terrorism if we are determined and dedicated enough to change those conditions.”

“Mahatma Gandhi on Violence and Nonviolence: Common Misconceptions and Gandhi’s Significance Today”

Remarks by University of Maine professor of philosophy Douglas Allen to the United Nations, Oct. 2, 2017, as part of the International Day of Non-Violence

With so much political violence, economic violence, violent language, hate and psychological violence, war and violent conflicts, terrorism, cultural and religious violence, and environmental violence, it is of the greatest urgency and with great hope that the United Nations celebrates the UN International Day of Non-Violence today. What makes this International Day of Non-Violence especially meaningful is that Oct. 2 marks the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi.

Although Mahatma Gandhi is usually considered the most admired and most influential proponent of nonviolence of the modern world, there are many misconceptions about his approach to violence and nonviolence. Admirers usually invoke simple inspirational Gandhi slogans, the kinds that appear frequently on posters or greeting cards, such as, “Be the change you want to see in the world”; “There is enough in the world to meet everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s or everyone’s greed”; “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; and “In the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.” On many holidays and on occasions such as Oct. 2, we often rather ritualistically repeat such inspirational slogans and sayings, wish everyone a good day, and then return to our violent world with little or no difference. That is not Gandhi.

“As Gandhi would have emphasized today, what is most significantly and urgently needed is for us now to change priorities, renew our dedication and work cooperatively to bring about a world of much greater nonviolence.” Douglas Allen

Many Gandhi admirers present an oversimplified and misinterpreted Mahatma as having the nonviolent blueprint and all of the answers for dealing with violence. They often sadly conclude that the idealized Mahatma Gandhi may be too good for our violent world. That is not Gandhi. Critics invoke the same kind of simple stereotypical Gandhi, but they then dismiss him as naïve and irrelevant for dealing with our complex world of so much violence. That is not Gandhi.

Gandhi certainly upholds his absolute ideals and truths of nonviolence rather than violence, peace rather than war, love and kindness rather than hatred and cruelty, compassion rather than selfishness, and morality rather than immorality. But the real Gandhi maintains that we are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world, and we must struggle to figure out ways to apply our nonviolent ideals to difficult, complex, local, national and international contexts of violence. Even when he was 77 and 78 years old, engaged in heroic nonviolent struggles in India and what is now Bangladesh, Gandhi recognizes that he has not been successful in overcoming problems of Hindu-Muslim and other communal violence, gender violence, untouchability and caste violence, exploitation, poverty, and economic violence.

As a practical idealist, upholding values of nonviolence and preventative practices resisting and transforming relations of violence, Gandhi leaves us with a practical and hopeful message. According to Gandhi, perhaps 99 percent of our economic, political, religious and other violence is humanly caused and conditioned. Therefore, if we are sufficiently concerned, truthful, and dedicated, we can engage in changing those humanly caused violent conditions and causes to nonviolent ones. We can find nonviolent solutions to violent personal, national and international crises. Sometimes we cannot at present prevent or nonviolently remove some violence, such as the shooter killing innocent civilians in Las Vegas last night, rapists raping victims, or millions of innocent victims of brutal violence every day that are never covered by the mass media. In responding, we must never glorify our violence, instead viewing it as a tragic human failure, and doing everything we can to transform violent causes and conditions into nonviolent human relations.

Gandhi leaves us with a legacy of hope for transforming ourselves and our world toward greater nonviolence. The Sanskrit term “ahimsa” literally means not harming, not injuring, including not being violent, and most have interpreted this as a rather passive attempt at refraining from doing harm. That is not Gandhi. He correctly tells us that nonviolence is more than a passive attempt at refraining from being violent. Nonviolence, loving kindness, and justice are the most active powerful moral, political, cultural, and spiritual forces.

In the most action-oriented and practical terms, Gandhi focuses our attention to the multidimensionality of violence: physical, psychological, political, military, cultural, religious, and other dimensions of violence. And Gandhi focuses our attention to the structural violence of the status quo, business as usual, our economic, political, environmental, and other dominant models and approaches that are structurally violent. Gandhi tells us that in our violent lives and violent world, we are driven by ego-attachments to maximizing material consumption, dominating and exploiting others and nature, constructing ego defense mechanisms that fuel fear, insecurity, hatred and violence, and block our human potential.

Nonviolence, loving kindness and justice are powerful moral, spiritual, social and political forces that give meaning and purpose to our projects and actions, develop our human potential by serving the needs of others, provide us with untapped human energy, and give us hope for a world of nonviolence that is possible and urgently needed for human and global survival and flourishing. Such active nonviolence provides us with desperately needed approaches to the threat of nuclear holocaust, growing economic inequality and widespread poverty, genocide, health care, and environmental crises, and other issues that must define the UN’s major priorities. Such active nonviolence is what brings us all together in meaningful interconnected relations and what expresses human development at its highest.

The United Nations is to be congratulated for recognizing this International Day of Non-Violence. As Gandhi would have emphasized today, what is most significantly and urgently needed is for us now to change priorities, renew our dedication, and work cooperatively to bring about a world of much greater nonviolence.

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