Gandhi’s 150th Anniversary: How America Embraced the Mahatma – Qrius

Posted: October 17, 2019 at 1:50 pm


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October this yearmarks Mahatma Gandhis 150th birthday. One of the 20th centurys most iconic figures, Gandhis legacy defines how many people think about peace, self-reflection and the path to a more just world.

Much less celebrated is Gandhis friend and follower, the American pacifistRichard Bartlett Gregg.

Gregg never made any significant speeches, so no grainy newsreels feature his words. And his books are not required reading in college courses.

Gregg has nonetheless been an influential figure in taking forward Gandhis message regarding the power of nonviolence. Gregg explained Gandhis ideas in a way that made sense to a Western audience. His books eveninfluencedMartin Luther King Jr.s understanding of nonviolent resistance.

My own interest in Gregg was something of an accident. Im apolitical scientistwith interest in peace activists as agents of change. I learned of Gregg a few years ago from acolleague, who told me that dozens of Greggs personal notebooks weremoldering in a yurton a farm up in northern Maine. These journals soon became the subject of my scholarship.

Gregg was born to a Congregational minister in 1885. It was a time of rapid industrial growth andindustrial conflict, as railroads and industrialization proceeded quickly.

Gregg discovered Gandhi in a journal article he read in a bookstore in Chicago in 1924.Deeply impressedby Gandhis philosophy, at the age of 38, Gregg, a largely self-taught scholar, resolved to study with him in India.

In along letterto his family explaining his decision to move to India, Gregg said he was so profoundly disenchanted with the violence of American labor relations and the American system that he sought alternatives.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Gregg arrived at Sabarmati Ashram in the western Indian state of Gujarat in early February 1925. Gandhi, just released from prison, returned to his home at the ashram a few days afterGregg arrived.

During an evening walk,Gregg writesin his notes, he told Gandhi why he had come to India:

I felt at first awed by his presence, but he listened attentively to what I said and made me feel entirely at ease, Gregg recalls.

It was the start of a 23-year friendship thatended only with Gandhis death on Jan. 30, 1948.

Gregg spent those yearstraveling, teachingand studying in India.

At the time, apacifistmovement was emerging around the world. Pacifists are those who believe in confronting both domestic and international violence with peaceful resistance.

Gregg learned more deeply about Gandhis strategy of nonviolence. He wrote an important book, The Power of Nonviolence, in his first four years with Gandhi, whichprovided guidanceon how to make pacifism more effective.

Greggarguedthat onlookers should see the violent assailant, when confronted by nonviolent resistance, as excessive and undignified even a little ineffective.

This was a tactic that Gandhi had used with enormous effect during theSalt Marchagainst Britains domination of India in 1930. The march demonstrated Gandhis ability to mobilize tens of thousands of Indians, who were forced to pay a salt tax to the British colonialists.

The peaceful demonstrators, who followed Gandhi to the Arabian Sea Coast to make their own salt, were beaten up and more than 60,000 arrested by British troops. The world watched, appalled at therepression of the British colonial rule.

Learning from Gandhi, Gregg also wrote that nonviolent protests should serve as amedia spectacle. He knew nonviolence was not passive resistance: It was an active planned strategy that required intense even military-style training, both physical and spiritual.

This was controversial and shocking to many pacifists. But Gregginsisted that nonviolent protest represented a war of its own.

Gregg learned Hindi during his time with Gandhi and came to understand theGandhian valuesof simplicity, self-reliance and how to live in harmony with the world.

Gandhi encouraged each home to have its own spinning wheel so Indians would not have to depend on cloth made in British factories. Gregg embraced the philosophy behind each Indian home spinning its ownkhadi clothand became a leading advocate of organic farming and simple living.

Like Gandhi, Gregg believed that a peaceful world could only come about as humans developed inner peace and recognized theirharmony with nature.

In 1936 Gregg publishedThe Value of Voluntary Simplicity, a term he coined while serving as director of the Quaker retreat at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania. In that post, he continued to build on Gandhis belief in simple living and harmony with nature as part of the true path to peace.

He was not, however, a Quaker; he remained deeply Christian.

Although he rejected Marxism and Soviet-style socialism, Gregg came to believe that the only solution to violence and injustice lay in a completetransformationof production and consumption.

There is no doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. wasawareof Gandhis ideas from other sources. But Greggs book, The Power of Nonviolence, deeply affected how he thought about passive resistance. Gregg put these ideas in a context that more closely fit the American civil rights struggle.

I argue, Kings writing during this period carried very similar themes and perspectives to those laid out by Gregg. King made the distinction that nonviolent resistancewas not cowardicebut rather a brave act that required great training.

In 1959, King wrote theforewordfor The Power of Nonviolence, having already become deeply familiar with Greggs earlier editions of the work. It went on to be published in108 editions in six languages.

On the 150th anniversary of Gandhis birth, Greggs role in translating the Mahatma meaning a great soul for a Western audience and in being an early advocate of simplicity is worth commemorating, too.

How deeply he understood Gandhis ideas is evident in Gandhis own words, recorded in apersonal letterto him from a friend in India:

If you understood me as well as Richard Gregg does, he once said to a group of Indian independence leaders, I would die happy.

This article was originally published in The Conversation

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Gandhi's 150th Anniversary: How America Embraced the Mahatma - Qrius

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