Is Gandhi Relevant?

NOTE:The following speech was made extemporaneously from any outline. There was no script beforehand. This printed version is composed from memory and so will not be precisely the same. An effort will be made here to be both reasonably accurate and true to the spirit of what was said, using brackets ( ) to help the reader visualize some of the physical actions that were used while delivering the speech.


The Speech:


Today I have been asked to speak on the subject of Gandhian Social Values and Society Today. Yet as I watch the Freedom Fighters of the Independence Movement walk out of our gathering (their departure was then in process), I feel compelled to modify my comments. I can see they are up in years and are approaching the end of their lives. As they leave here, we may not see them again. I have felt humbled by their presence. They have earned our greatest respect. Yet they deserve more than our respect. We should allow them to inspire us to action.


We need to become freedom fighters ourselves in a New Independence Movement, as there is a New Colonialism spreading through the world today. It is Globalization. It is more difficult to confront than the British were, because Globalization is not directed by any one or group of countries. It is reflected in Mulitnational Corporations whose power is often beyond the control of even those nations where they are based. This New Colonialism still has profit as its purpose and exploitation of resources and people as its consequence. The executives and stockholders of the Multinational Corporations, which are its representatives, may not even be conscious of the colonial roles they play.


Yet even during British rule in India, there were sincere people who saw India not as a colony but as a place benefitting from what was too often accepted as a superior culture. India was seen by many more as British than as a colony. Today many Indians want Globalization even as before many wanted British culture. They want to share the wealth Globalization brings, at least to the few who can benefit from it.


Before he was assassinated, Gandhi left us a note that has become known as his Seven Social Sins. To these his grandson Arun Gandhi, whom I have met in the U.S., has added an Eighth. These Social Sins are: 1) Politics Without Principles, 2) Wealth Without Work, 3) Pleasure Without Conscience, 4) Knowledge Without Character, 5) Commerce Without Morality, 6) Science Without Humanity, 7) Worship Without Sacrifice, and 8) Rights Without Responsibilities. In the few minutes left to me today,


I intend to show how some of these Sins are reflected in the New Colonialism which can rule our lives if we allow it to.


Gandhi tells us that Wealth Without Work is a Sin. In the world today, according the Fortune Magazine, there are 1,030 billionaires with a combined wealth of about $2.8 trillion. That is $2,800 billion. These few people include both Tata of India and Bill Gates — though most reside either in the U.S., Europe, or Japan. These Trilateral Regions of the world are where most of the largest Mulitnational Corporations are based. Is this a sin? When the poorest 2.8 billion people on this planet, 700 million of who reside in India, have a combined wealth that is less than that of the billionaires – I would say yes: this is a sin. The wealth of the few could more than double the wealth of the many who live on annual incomes of less than $2./day.


Gandhi tells us that Commerce Without Morality is a Sin. Here I suggest that 9/11 in India occurred in 12/84. Terrorism struck Bhopal through a gas leak which killed over 3,000 persons and affected over 500,000. Even today, over 150,000 need medical attention – which is not always available. I feel shame at the fact that Union Carbide is a U.S. based multinational corporation. Yet how should you feel? The fact is that Union Carbide is still allowed to operate in India! Your government is cooperating with the Globalization process. Commerce appears to be more important than morality. Is this a sin? The suffering of the Indian people of Bhopal is your wake up call, and yet most of us here seem to still be sleeping, engrossed in the dream of neoliberal commerce and the growing middle class who may benefit from it.


Arun Gandhi tells us that Rights Without Responsibilities is a Sin. (Pulling out a cell phone from my pocket, I hold it up to the crowd). I have a right to this cell phone, do I not? It was made by Samsung Corporation of Japan and is made operational by Reliance Corporation of India. Two multinational corporations cooperating together provide me this right! I NEED this cell phone! Or do I? As Gandhi knew, we often confuse our wants and needs. The truth is, we WANT cell phone service, we do not need it. Shall we also then be responsible for the consequences of this right we claim?


To charge this cell phone requires electricity. To provide us with electricity, India has built more dams since 1950 than all other countries combined. These dams have displaced 33-56 million persons – a number equal to more than the entire population of the state of Kerala. These people, 60% of whom are Dalit or Adivasi, have received little to no compensation for their loss of property and livelihood. Is this a sin? Rather than take responsibility for the true costs associated with our desire to have cell phones, we sacrifice nothing but a few rupees that add to the profits of the multinationals. The poor are the ones who are sacrificed on the altar of our wants that are not our needs.


What would Gandhi say if he were alive today? We can know. We can allow him to live today in our hearts, and we can listen to him. To do this will bring us the pain of confronting our own hypocrisy. I can see my hypocrisy. Can you see yours? If we look carefully at ourselves we can see our complicity not only in the New Colonialism which is expanding the gap between rich and poor and is harming people directly as in the case of the terror that is Bhopal as well as indirectly as in the case of those whose homes are under water due to the building of dams to satisfy our wants. And yet the New Colonialism is worse than all this because it is threatening more than our liberty.


It is also threatening life on this planet.


Globalization contributes greatly to greenhouse gases which impact climate change.


This is not about capitalism or communism. This past year Communist China has emerged as the number one producer of greenhouse gases, accounting for 21% of the global output. The Capitalist U.S.A. takes only second place at 20%. India produces 5% but is rapidly expanding. Climate change and loss of habitat, according to the World Watch Institute, now threaten or endanger fully 1/3 of the10 million known species of animal and insect life in the world. Half of the forests and woodlands that flourished in 1948 have been destroyed since Gandhi was killed. All of this is linked to Globalization, to the New Colonialism which consumes without conscience. All of this is made possible by our own hypocracies; our allowing ourselves to be ruled by our own wants rather than our needs; our cooperation with the New Colonialism.


Gandhi was clear that the British were not the problem in India. It was the cooperation of the Indian people who allowed the British to rule. Similarly today, it is not counties like the U.S.A. that are the problem, or even the multinational corporations that are expanding in power both there and elsewhere. It is our cooperation with these forces which allow them to expand their wealth and control the resources of the world. To cooperate or not is our choice. To be ruled by our own appetites or not to be ruled by them is our choice. We must hold ourselves responsible for our own behaviors and turn the searchlight inward. If we do not like the hypocracy we see, we can change our own behaviors and become the new Freedom Fighters that are needed to save the world from our own greed.


Gandhi was a wholistic thinker who saw individual and group interactions in this world as interrelated and subject to the Law of Karma. Society reaps the social values that are sown. As we think, so we behave. To the extent to which we are seekers of Truth and treat others as we would want to be treated, practice ahimsa, and are willing to build community through voluntary personal sacrifice – conflicts will be resolved and social harmony may prevail. To the extent we are ruled by our appetites to accumulate wealth and status, protect what we selfishly possess through violent reliance on physical force, and are willing to sacrifice others to satisfy our wants — desirable social values will erode. Both now and in the future we will collectively reap what is sown. What we choose to sow, how we choose to live, and whether and how we choose to fight for liberty and life is our choice.


Inspired by the Freedom Fighters we have honored this day, let us become new freedom fighters for the future of humanity. The New Independence Movement must be global because Globalization threatens all people and other life forms. Rather than be tempted by those who advocate use of any means that are necessary, let us ask what means are necessary? The light of Gandhi shines on the path before us. Hate cannot destroy hate, nor greed overcome greed. Only love can destroy hate and a life of simplicity overcome greed. Let us seek to embody improved understanding of truths that are revealed to us, practice nonviolence to degrees which respect all human and other life, and accept that it is only through our voluntary service and sacrifice that this world can emerge free of the exploitation which now threatens life on this planet.


Thank you for your attention. Peace Be With Us All.


Dr. Michael Warren Sonnleitner is a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar specialist in Gandhian Thought and Peace & Conflict Studies, teaching at St. Thomas College, Pala, Kerala until June 2010, then returning to Portland Community College, Oregon, USA.

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