Mohandas Gandhi believed that much could be accomplished through peace and nonviolent civil disobedience. He believed in religious pluralism and emancipation. And he believed in education for all.
Gandhi—often referred to as Mahatma, the Sanskrit word for venerable—was born 150 years ago this week. To commemorate his Oct. 2 birthday, the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence has for the last month celebrated his life and work through seminars and exhibits, a Walk for Peace and a play about his wife, culminating in an Interfaith Peace Prayer held Wednesday evening at Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
More than half a dozen religious sects were represented at Wednesday’s event, with a keynote address by Gandhi’s grandson Arun, who with his wife, Sunanda, founded the Gandhi Institute. The Peace Prayer also included remarks from Kit Miller, who has served as the director of the institute since 2009, and Jyothsna Ponnuri, chairperson of Rochester’s India Community Center, or ICC.
The Gandhi Institute worked with the ICC and others to bring “Gandhi@150” to life.
“The ultimate goal with this Gandhi@150 celebration is we hope to bring greater awareness of Gandhian principles, move away from violence and move towards peace,” said Ashwin Shah, a longtime volunteer and former board member of the Gandhi Institute.
An Indian lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi helped Indians living in South Africa gain rights, and upon returning to his home country was responsible for the nonviolent separation of India from British rule. He inspired world leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa of Poland and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. His principles of truth, love, nonviolence and peace are taught and revered worldwide.
The M.K. Gandhi Institute was founded in Tennessee in 1991 with those principles in mind. Prior to moving to the U.S., Arun and Sunanda spent time working in India on behalf of the country’s poorest people. Arun, now a resident of Rochester, grew up in South Africa at Phoenix Ashram, the first center for nonviolent living that his grandfather founded in 1903.
The Gandhi Institute moved to Rochester in 2007. Shah, who had connected with Arun when he spoke at an Education for Peace conference here, had stayed in contact with the institute and was tasked by University of Rochester with looking into whether there was a need for such an organization in Rochester. Several functions later and it became obvious that Rochesterians were looking for just that, Shah recalled.
The Gandhi Institute’s first home was at UR, but in 2012 moved to its current location on Plymouth Avenue.
“If you were to summarize the purpose (of the institute) in a few words, you take Gandhian principles and devise a system where you educate people of all ages,” Shah said. “It’s to educate, embody and serve. The goal would be to facilitate and make learning possible.”
The Gandhi Institute has mediated 12,881 students conflicts in schools, Shah noted, and nearly 14,000 people have attended community training initiatives, which include topics ranging from Cultural Humility and Relaxed, Resilient Communication to Conversation on Race & Poverty.
“There are many, many programs,” Shah said. “When we go to schools we find out that some kids don’t go to school because they don’t have food, proper clothes or books.”
If that’s the case, the institute works to encourage students to return to school.
In addition, the institute maintains a large vegetable garden to help support the principle of self-sufficiency.
“That was Gandhi’s main thrust, how can they become self-sufficient,” he explained. “We grow the vegetables in the garden and it is open to the entire neighborhood. Come pick up what you need and nobody has to pay anything. The idea is to demonstrate that this is something we all can do in our back yard and support ourselves in a different way.”
The idea for Rochester’s participation in the Gandhi@150 initiative came from Shah, who had met with Miller late last year to lay out a vision for the programs.
“Ashwin did what I would call a very Gandhian task. He picked up the baton,” said Abhas Kumar, a volunteer and past chairman of the ICC.
The Gandhi Institute had a substantial collection of historical photographs of Gandhi which had been converted into cards for teaching lessons. But the institute never had the space to display the original photos, some of which were quite large, Kumar recalled.
Meanwhile, the ICC—which has an auditorium and property in Macedon that serves as a meeting place as well as a summer camp for children—recently had invested in and built its new Luthra Center, an exhibition hall of sorts that can serve multiple purposes.
“I always thought that the India Community Center is a hidden gem, a beautiful place with great potential, but it was not explored enough by the larger community in Rochester,” Ponnuri said. “This year for the first time we had a tent at the Jazz Fest. We wanted the India Community Center to be more out there in the community. As we were doing that and I’m thinking of how to do more education, the pieces fit into place.”
Ponnuri had connected with Miller and Shah and learned of the Gandhi photos and other items. So the ICC’s new Luthra Hall became the exhibition space for the Gandhi@150 artifacts. The exhibition runs through Oct. 6, Kumar said, but that may be extended due to interest from school districts.
“Our goal is to continue to do more collaborations of this kind. This vision we have for this new center is more so to do outreach to the larger Rochester community and be a source of education, in collaboration with other Rochester organizations and nonprofits and businesses,” Ponnuri said. “This is our inaugural event at the Luthra Center so those discussions are still going on, on how to further go ahead, but this is what I’m hoping and expecting will happen in the new building.”
Kumar noted that the two organizations had been informally collaborating for some time. The ICC supports a group of high school students who hold a fundraiser each year for charities specifically targeted towards kids. The Gandhi Institute has been a recipient of those funds.
The partnership between the organizations is something Gandhi himself likely would have applauded.
“We hope for peace and harmony in the community we live in, where everyone can live their natural life, raise their family with an emphasis on education, prosper and grow in an environment of peace and nonviolence,” Shah said of the Gandhi Institute’s mission, the vision for Gandhi@150 and the collaboration. “That’s the dream, actually, but definitely achievable.”