In the tradition of A.J. Jacobs’ 2007-8 bestseller “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible,” Perry Garfinkel plans to spend the next year living quite literally by the principles Gandhi laid down, all the while reporting from around the world on pivotal places where the seeds of the Gandhi movement were planted. He will interview fascinating and sometimes offbeat and colorful people and assess how the Gandhi influence has grown or withered.
“This idea took root in me during the Obama Administration, when the then campaigning Senator confided that the Mahatma – not, as one would suspect, Martin Luther King Jr. – was his inspiration. Obama even had a portrait of Gandhi in his office and, not surprisingly, his Presidential campaign slogan was “Be the change,” taken directly from Gandhi’s most famous quote. I wondered then how many African Americans knew Gandhi from a hole in the wall. I also foresaw a vast new market, a new generation primed for a book about Gandhi if they did know more.”
BEING GANDHI will be cast against a canvas writ large. It will be highly relevant to today’s times and touch readers personally, politically, socially and spiritually – whether they’ve read several Gandhi biographies or know nothing about him except that he was the diminutive man with the wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses, who somehow spearheaded the Indian independence movement. Despite the fact that Gandhi is on every Indian currency, despite that his image and statues dot the Indian landscapes, despite the countless businesses that appropriate his name, how many people can recite Gandhi’s six principles?
This will not be a biography as much as a psychological and social experiment in assuming the character of the man, living the way he did.
In terms of the reach of the Gandhi movement, his ideas had and have much greater reach than one imagines at first. He was the precursor and spearhead of a number of intersecting social and cultural trends: of living lightly on the Earth, of minimalism, of anti-materialism or voluntary simplicity, of self reliance, of conservation, civil rights and diversity, of vegetarianism and animal rights, of natural ingredients and fabrics, of home-grown and homemade – The retailer Cotton Basics and the whole artisanal movement (from home-made cheese to hand-made crafts) owe him a debt. His strategies are now applied in a wide variety of contexts, from the Gandhi Animal Shelter in New Delhi to the Women’s Earth Alliance, a feminist environmental group in Berkeley, California. His legacy is housed in educational teaching centres and monuments to his memory around the world: from the Gandhi Memorial Centre in Washington, D.C.; to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Cultural Cooperation in Port of Spain, Trinidad. At the Gandhi monument on Indira Gandhi Square in Moscow, members of the Tibet Culture & Information Centre and the Transnational Radical Party (an NGO whose emblem bears the face of Mahatma Gandhi) meet annually to celebrate his birthday.
In June 2007 the United Nations General Assembly declared Gandhi’s birthday (Oct. 2) as International Day of NonViolence. The period from Jan. 30th (Gandhi’s assassination) to April 4 (Martin Luther King’s assassination), has been declared “the Season of Nonviolence” by the Association for Global New Thought, a group based in Santa Barbara, California.
There has not been a major book about the subject of Gandhi in some years. The last book that garnered major international attention was the 2011 biography by Joseph Lelyveld, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter. Some of that attention was controversial, due to what Indian critics read as Lelyveld’s allusions to Gandhi’s homosexual relationship. Even before it was published in India, Gujarat’s state assembly voted unanimously to ban the book, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India.”
Gandhi was also scrutinized in British historian and biographer Jad Adams’ “Gandhi: Naked Ambition” (Quercus Books, 2010) for his sexual behaviour, particularly for reportedly sleeping next to young naked women; and then Adams came back in a second book a year later, “Gandhi: The True Man Behind Modern India” (Pegasus Books, 2011) with a book that takes a look at the man, not the myth, not the Mahatma.
Perry Garfinkel will look with an unblinking journalist’s eye at what has happened to the Gandhi movement. He will also be ruthlessly unforgiving of himself, closely examining his own struggles to adhere to the Gandhian way, monitoring and writing about his fight against the tyranny of dependence on and addiction to the material world, and about his lapses back into the ‘Perryian way’!
Perry’s personal goal will be to rise to and above these challenges and actually be the change in body, mind, spirit, work and relationships.
He will find both hope and frustration in his travels and in his research. Hope in the hundreds of organizations that promote the Gandhian way. Frustration at how far the movement has not come. But he will neither praise nor condemn Gandhi. “I may do a little of both, but in true Gandhi fashion BEING GANDHI will be honest in its reporting and I will be honest in my own reactions and impressions, as I was in my national bestseller ‘Buddha or Bust’.”
Gandhi readers will recognize that the subtitle of BEING GANDHI references two books that will play significantly in this book: Gandhi’s autobiographical The Story of My Experiment with Truth and Gandhi’s Truth, the 1970 Pulitzer Prizewinning biography by Erik Erikson, distinguished psychoanalyst, who attempts to know the man by delving into his family background, maintaining a Freudian arm’s-length from the living and breathing person. “Ultimately, to my mind, it fails to illuminate the Inner Gandhi who you or I could aspire to become.” Perry goes on to say that, “nonetheless, I will use his autobiography as my true north, a compass guiding me on the path to becoming Gandhi. From his book I will extract pearls of wisdom – advice, tips, suggestions, directions and guidelines that he says led him to, as he puts it, “my way of living” – that suggest a To Do list if one wants to closely follow the rules the Mahatma set for himself.”
Here, in a small extracts culled from a chapter or two of Gandhi’s autobiography Perry explains some of the examples he will himself undertake to follow:
- “I kept account of every farthing I spent, and my expenses were carefully calculated…this habit has stayed with me ever since…” Can I, the guy who struggles to keep his checking account balanced, morph into an accountant and not splurge when a big check flows in my direction?
- “I decided to reduce my expenses by half…” This may be difficult, as it would for anyone living a reasonably middle class lifestyle, given my fixed rent and phone charges. But there are corners I can and will cut. I may even consult some books on how to do so, such as “Be CentsAble: How to Cut Your Household Budget in Half” (Plume Books).
- “…Walks of 8 to 10 miles a day…kept me practically free from illness…and gave me a fairly strong body.” Easy peasy! But every day? Hmmmmm…
- “I also came across books on simple living…” I’ll check out the books he found then, plus the plethora of books from the last 10 years that would surely make Gandhi’s eyes roll, though they were probably inspired by Gandhi. I’ll look through the indices of the newer books looking for Gandhi’s name and references and report on them.
- “I had oatmeal porridge for breakfast, lunch out, and for dinner bread and cocoa.” I’ll try that…for a while!
- “I stopped taking sweets and condiments… Many such experiments taught me the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind.” Tough one but it’s been on my bucket list for the last, say, 10 years.
- “I gave up tea and coffee as a rule…” Ditto above.
In addition, in his autobiography Gandhi mentions a great many books he’s read that inspired him. In a whole chapter of my book, Perry will not just list all of them but will also read a lot of them, pulling out the most salient parts that influenced Gandhi’s thinking and philosophies, and that he hopes will do the same for him and his readers. ***
Living by Gandhi’s principles:
Perry’s journey will take place at a time when there has never been so much angst about so many lies taking over headlines around the world.
In India, in philosophy professor Sundar Sarukkai’s Nov. 22, 2016, essay in The Hindu entitled “The age of post-truth politics.” He writes:
“The U.S. election was explicitly about brazen lies and also about the indifference of the voters to obvious lies. We seem to be more used to lies in the Indian political scene but here too the scale and the obviousness of lies seem to be increasing.”
News organizations such as the Associated Press and PolitiFact dedicate enormous resources to separating politicians’ truthful wheat from their dishonest chaff. But if we’ve come to expect and even joke about office-seekers who seem truth-challenged, many of us have given little thought to our own fibs and self-deception.
There’s plenty of academic and social research identifying an uptick in lying, which would extremely disappoint the Mahatma. But telling the literal truth – which is just the surface of what Gandhi means by Satyagraha – is only the first of Gandhi’s 6 major principles that have become hard-to-impossible to live up to, namely:
#1 – Being truthful: Learning from your own mistakes and conducting experiments on yourself;
#2 – Acting non-violently: In thoughts as well as deeds;
#3 – Vegetarianism: Carved into the Hindu and Jain traditions of India, for health reasons as well;
#4 – Brahmacharya (celibacy): Spiritual and practical purity and sexual abstinence, in body and mind;
#5 – Simplicity: Giving up unnecessary spending, moving from a consumptive culture to “voluntary simplicity”;
#6 – Maintaining a faith: Belief in a Higher Power, as well as faith in oneself and the faith that good things will come.
Gandhi conceived of these pillars in the 1930s and ‘40s, a period of great turmoil as the Indian independence movement gained momentum. Yet, in retrospect, they were a much simpler time culturally and socially compared to today’s frenetic pace and information overload.
Perry will keep a daily diary of his attempt to live by these principles, the successes and failures will be recounted, balancing keen insights, a reporter’s rigor and self-effacing humor. Like “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible,” Perry’s book will take Gandhi literally, if slightly irreverently, but in the end with greatest admiration for the high bar he set for Man and Woman to honor and obey the rules by which to live a life of integrity, of respect for all living things – in short of setting one’s moral compass and following it to a promising present and future.
Some principles will be easier than others to follow as Perry reflects:
“While others have walked the 241-mile (390 km) Salt March in commemoration – from Sonia Gandhi (she walked only part) to Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi, to a recent writer for National Geographic Magazine – even the Indian Ministry for Environment and Forests has now designated the route an ecotourism destination – I plan to walk it with another agenda, one that parallels the life and mission of Gandhi on a more personal level. For me it will signal an act of personal independence: after two hip replacements and simultaneously learning to live with an autoimmune dysfunction, my reenactment of the March makes the dramatic statement that my Self is not defined by my Body.”
In Gandhi’s case, the simple act of defiance – to take salt from the sea, spitting on British-imposed taxes on what was rightly and freely theirs – captivated the world’s attention and admiration. In mine, I will defy the limits and decline of my own body. I feel that will be more captivating to the current generation.
I should add here that the march and the entire book commemorates another personal achievement: I will be entering my 70th year in 2018. In much the same way the great American broadcaster and adventurer made of habit of climbing mountain to celebrate monumental birthdays, I will honor my attainment of this albeit dubious peak by making this statement: that I can indeed still make life-changing strides toward self improvement.
My march could turn out to be the narrative along which I reflect on the effect and influence of Gandhi on India today, as well on the influence of my “experiment” on me. We shall see.
The walk – even talking the walk – is one thing. But the greater challenge will be to live day in and day out according to the strict Gandhian moral code of ethics.
What he meant by truth, or satya, was something much more than metaphorical. Gandhi dedicated his life to the wider purpose of discovering this truth, partly by learning from his own mistakes and conducting experiments on himself. He stated that the most important battle is with one’s own demons, fears, and insecurities. He first summarized his beliefs when he said, “God is Truth.” He would later change this statement to: “Truth is God.”
And here lies the Grail that gives this search universal appeal. We’re all driven by the desire to unearth our own “truth.” Denied of that opportunity, especially to the point of oppression, we will go to whatever extremes are necessary to dig deeper for that truth. And, by turn, we will demand it of others – whether from lovers, family, friends, business colleagues or our own government.
In these times, when conflict and violence continue unabated, when everyone from politicians to celebrities to the police to every man and woman who cheats on his/her spouse seem to make lying accepted policy, we all could use a little of Gandhi’s “truth” and moral fibre.
In the end, I’ll suggest that Gandhi’s, my own, all our own (including various societies/cultures) struggles living up to the potential of truth and peace are valiant and worthy in and of themselves – whether we attain them or not. Ultimately, the commitment to striving for a nonviolent approach to life’s oppressions and obstacles – to finding The Truth or just the truth – makes us better humans, and better societies. It’s the striving that matters. As Buddhists would say, “Fall off the meditation cushion 9 times, get on it 10.” As many Buddhists and pacific Judeo-Christians would also say, non-violence must begin within and then can spread out. The eye-for-an-eye approach – well, how’s that working out?
It’s already clear I will find both hope and frustration in my travels and in my research. Hope in the hundreds of organizations that promote the Gandhian way. Frustration at how far the movement has not come. But BEING GANDHI will neither praise nor condemn Gandhi.
It may do a little of both, but in true Gandhi fashion it will be honest in its reporting and I will be honest in my own reactions and impressions, as I was in “Buddha or Bust.”
BEING GANDHI will be an in-depth look at how one man copes with trying to live the principles of Gandhi in the 21st Century. The “depth” will reveal itself in how deeply he goes with his own honesty. This “experiment with Truth” will be soul-searching, challenging and at times uncomfortable. Honest self-examination often is painful. Perry Garfinkel will go dangerously close to the bone with no-holds-barred in his self-assessment.
As a journalist, his global journey exploring how the Gandhi movement has spread will be unblinking, honest, frank and straightforward. Some will call his reportage outspoken. At the same time he will use humour and self-effacement as portals through which to bring readers gently into the grit of looking at him…them…human nature. “Long ago a sage editor taught me that if you bring a reader into your house through a door they are familiar and comfortable with, they are more willing to let you lead them into rooms they would otherwise eschew. Laughter loosens us up, as research has shown; it relaxes muscles, fights stress and depression, and creates a commonality. I’m known to be a funny guy so I will not try to blanket that humor – or that willingness to observe the irony and sometimes absurdity of humans being human. Yet, as Mr. Gandhi wrote in 1928: “If I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide.” OUTLINE OF OTHER EXPEDITIONS/INTERVIEWS:
These sections of BEING GANDHI will bring the same discerning perspective Perry Garfinkel brought to BUDDHA OR BUST (see a chapter at end of this proposal), separating fact from fake-fact, hypocrisy from authenticity. They will include profiles of unique, unexpected and sometimes quirky personalities, as well as revisiting all-too-familiar people and places but with fresh objective perspective, on whom Gandhi left an indelible mark, and who continued to spread Gandhi’s Truth to others.
Among others these will include:
- Shall Sinha, who was born in the same area where Gandhi first practiced nonviolence in India, then moved to Canada, where he graduated with degrees in engineering. But passionate about Gandhi, he devoted the rest of his life to writing and lecturing about the Mahatma. But the unique hook here is that he presents all his talks in the character of Mahatma Gandhi – eerily looking just like Gandhi, with bald head, steel frame glasses, home-spun loin clothes, tire slippers and a bamboo walking stick. Perry will go with him, from his home to his makeover to his presentation.
- Srimati Kamala, an American born in 1945, Srimati has dedicated her life to the interpretation of Gandhi’s message. She is the founding director of the Gandhi Memorial Center, and an ordained minister of the Self-Revelation Church of
Absolute Monism in Bethesda, Maryland. She received an award as “Ambassador of Indian Philosophy and the Ideals of
Mahatma Gandhi in the USA” from the Association of Indians in America (Washington, 1980). His Holiness the Dalai Lama presented her with the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for promoting Gandhian values outside India. Perry will interview her, visit the Church and meet some of the congregants.
- Varsha Das, is the former director of the National Gandhi Museum near Rajghat, the peaceful riverside memorial where the sage’s bullet-riddled body was cremated. Her interest in Gandhi is more than political – it’s personal. Varsha’s mother shared a cell with Gandhi’s wife. She has some amazing reflections via her mother. Varsha’s own daughter, the renowned Bollywood actress/director Nandita Das is also an ardent social activist who credits Gandhi’s most famous advice as her moral compass: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Perry will get perspectives from both of them, and explore how mother influences daughter.
- Porbandar, as is well known by anyone vaguely familiar with Gandhi’s life, is his birthplace. Kirti Mandir, his family home, is now a memorial temple and easily the most popular tourist attraction in town. However, now Porbander is also known for its crime and corrupt politicians, all fighting over the vast riches generated by the limestone deposits. An investigation by local and the State Mines and Mineral Department revealed politicians and operators illegally mine these quarries, triggering more and more violence and retaliation. As recently as February 2017 the Gujarat High Court the state government called for a ground-level survey to assess the magnitude of illegal mining. Set against the historic backdrop of Porbander’s significance to Gandhi’s life and the movement, Perry will interview city officials and others in the mining world with a journalist’s honest eye, revealing a certain irony at the distance between the moral values today in Porbander versus what Gandhi envisioned.
- London, where Gandhi studied law and joined the Vegetarian Society of London, is now home to an estimated 500,000 British Indians, or 6 per cent of the capital city’s population, a far cry from when Gandhi arrived in 1888. Many U.K.
Indians are now third generational and proportionally part of the largest Indian community outside of Asia. They are a vibrant force socially, culturally, economically and politically. To gauge the extent of Gandhi’s influence in England, especially with Indians there, Perry will visit Leicester, the southeast British city known as Little India, where Indians comprise 25 per cent of the population, making it the largest Indian community in England and Wales. It was estimated that by 2011, 50 per cent of Leicester would consist of ethnic minorities (mostly Indians), making it the first city in Britain not to have a white majority. This is the same Leicester that 30 years ago was one of England’s most racist cities. The local newspaper ran advertisements telling immigrants not to come to the city. Tensions became so high the city created Britain’s first-ever race relations council committee.
- The ‘Gandhi Walking Tour’, has been offered since 2007 by London Walks, financed by a wealthy Indian entrepreneur. It takes visitors back to Gandhi’s days in London to see and feel the inner London that Gandhi saw, places he lived, studied, explored and walked. Perry will join the tour.
- Pietermaritzburg, the South African village where Gandhi was thrown off a train, bills itself as the birthplace of nonviolent resistance. At the railway station, largely unaltered since Gandhi’s time, plaques commemorate that 1893 event. Perry will visit that spot and meet people still living in the area inspired by Gandhi. He will track Gandhi’s experience in South Africa, where he was so moved by the injustices he saw that he questioned long-held bedrock beliefs – about man’s innate humanity and spirituality, and about a legal system that would put up with it, even turn the other way from it. This is where Gandhi came to the conclusion that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Pietermaritzburg apparently remained blind. From the 1970s to the ’90s, again it became an important and regrettably bloody battleground of defiance for the freedom struggle during the height of the Apartheid wars. This section will give Perry a chance to show Gandhi’s influence on the great Nelson Mandela, the leader of the modern anti-Apartheid movement. “For example, Mandela called Gandhi “the sacred warrior, an intellectual and moral genius” in a Time Magazine essay celebrating great people of the 20th Century: “The Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless… I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone.”
In Durban Perry will meet and interview Mewa Ramgobin, the chair of Phoenix Settlement Trust, a cultural project aimed at preserving Gandhi’s legacy in South Africa.
- Suraj Sadan, an India-born artist living in Montreal, Canada, who has painted more than 400 portraits of the Mahatma, shown in special exhibitions since 1969. The 78-year-old Mr. Sadan created the iconic portrait that went on to become the 20 paise stamp released to commemorate the centenary celebrations of Gandhi in 1969. His interest in making portraits of the Mahatma started as a young boy. He and his family had been displaced from Quetta, now in Pakistan, and were in the post-Independence refugee center at Kingsway Camp in Delhi when the Mahatma visited it. He was 9 years old and since then started painting his portraits.
- There are at least two rock bands that claim Gandhi as their spiritual influence. One is a Costa Rican band appropriately named Gandhi. Another is the socially conscious progressive rock band of young women called Truth on Earth that credits Gandhi as its lyrical muse. Perry will check them out and any others he may find in the course of his research.
- At first glance, Skokie, Illinois, may seem to have little to do with the Mahatma. But in 1967 this small city 12 miles north of Chicago (population 70,000), in many ways the epitome of American middle class Midwest suburbia, became an official “sister city” to Porbander. Skokie is a microcosm of how far Gandhi’s ideas have come in the West – and how much further they still have to go. In 2004, led by a group of immigrant Indians, the city erected a bronze life-size statue in Gandhi’s memory. The second largest Indian population in the state of Illinois after Chicago, they are proud of the significant impact they’ve made in keeping their culture alive in heartland America and in promoting the idea of a peaceful world. At the Indians’ urging, for example, nearby Oakton Community College now offers a Gandhi-inspired course on peace strategies. Yet, all is not as Gandhi would want it to be in Skokie. At the major convocation unveiling the Gandhi statue, the first of its kind in the state, an embittered feud erupted on the podium between two factions of the sponsoring Indian group, much to the confusion and embarrassment of city officials and the several hundred others in attendance. It was a most un-Gandhian demonstration of Gandhi’s truth. And then there was the Skokie incident that certainly would have given Gandhi pause. In 1977, a small neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Party of America, attempted to hold a demonstration march in the city where 15 percent of the population then was Jewish. The event erupted into a nationwide controversy about First Amendment rights; there was even a documentary film about it. In the end, the courts ruled in favour of allowing the Nazi group march, on the grounds of the free speech amendment. Perry will muse on where Gandhi would have stood on this one.
- The Self-Realization Fellowship, a Hindu group dedicated to the guru Paramahansa Yogananda and based in Palisades, California, claims to have some ashes from the body of Gandhi. The story of how the ashes got to Los Angeles is part of a broader story — a tale of family feuds, intrigue, and national politics — that has still not been fully resolved. Perry will visit to see the precious ashes, weigh his reaction, as I did seeing the finger relic of the Buddha at Famen Temple in China and the tooth of the Buddha at the Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
- There are a multitude of organizations and institutes that are based on Gandhi’s philosophy, Perry will focus on the K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, in a neighbourhood of Rochester, New York, challenged by poverty and violence. Founded by Arun Gandhi, the fifth grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, the non-profit equips people between the ages of 12 and 24 to use nonviolence to create a sustainable and just world for all. It collaborates with local organizations, academic institutions, students and committed peacemakers in the following areas: nonviolence education, sustainability and environmental conservation, and the promotion of racial justice. Before moving to the U.S., Arun and his wife Sunada spent years working in India on behalf of the country’s poorest people. Arun grew up outside Durban, South Africa at Phoenix Ashram, the first centre for nonviolent living Gandhi founded in 1903. The Institute also raises funds for a school in India that Arun helped to found for children rescued from child labour abuse. Among other recent achievements, Arun has written two books for younger children about his grandfather, the award-winning “Grandfather Gandhi” and, a new book in 2016, “Be the Change.”
- Non-violent Communication (NVC) Movement, a communications skills training program, has flourished in the United State and Europe, where there are Centres for NVC that teach people how to shift not just in their language usage but their way of thinking. Founded by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, the Centre for Nonviolent Communication emerged out of work he was doing with civil rights activists in the early 1960’s. During this period he also mediated between rioting students and college administrators and worked to peacefully desegregate public schools in longsegregated regions. Perry will take some courses and training to see how this helps him to let go of violent thoughts processes, and apply them in work and family situations.
- Gandhi’s descendants. Perry hopes to catch up with as many of the living grandchildren as possible, to see how their lives have unfolded. Some have done better than others. A quick bit of research reveals that Gandhi’s grandson Gopal Krishna was the Governor of West Bengal and also chairman of the Gandhi Heritage Committee, and is still involved in state level politics. Gandhi’s great-grandson, 49-year-old Tushar Gandhi, will join with a New York-based company called Go Philanthropic in a venture targeting affluent people interested in donating to Indian projects that follow Gandhi’s principles. “It’s tourism with a cause,” Tushar said.