Arun Gandhi, the fifth grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi (often referred to as “Mahatma,” meaning “great soul” in Sanskrit), is an international bestselling author, a social activist, and an advocate for the same form of transformative nonviolence that was at the heart of his grandfather’s work and teachings. 

On Nov. 1, Arun will be at Roosevelt Library to announce the 2020 release of Guided by Gandhi, a feature-length documentary in which he is the main subject.

The actual and ideological basis of the documentary comes from the Gandhi Legacy tours in India, which are designed to help people more fully grasp Mohandas’ famous philosophy that we should all seek to be the change we wish to see in the world.

The film, created by San Antonio Filmmakers Marti Nonemaker and Alejandro De Hoyos, weaves key aspects of Arun and Mohandas’ biographies with an up-close look at individuals and organizations doing transformative work in India.

The whole idea, according to Nonemaker, is to “inspire people to be the change in their own communities” and be an extension of “Gandhi’s work in action.”

The film acts as an answer to a question that Arun has frequently been asked — Can one person really make a difference?

“A lot of people have written about Gandhi’s concept of non-violence,” Arun said, “and have focused on protest and social justice. I think there is a much more comprehensive aspect to his philosophy that has been largely ignored, which is personal transformation.”

Filmmaker Marti Nonemaker

Arun, 85, was born in Durban, South Africa and grew up at Phoenix Ashram, a center for nonviolent living founded by Mohandas in 1903. 

His father, Manilal Gandhi, was the only one of Mohandas’ four children who dedicated his life to following in the elder Gandhi’s nonviolent activist footsteps. As such, Manilal, like his father before him, made an enemy of the British colonial government and was frequently imprisoned for his protests, Arun remembers.

All the while, Arun and his family visited Mohandas in India when they could, cherishing their relationship with their homeland and with the Mahatma. Even at a young age, Arun was conscious of the fact that his parents’ way of life, and by extension his own, set him apart from his peers.

He said that he didn’t think much of the lifestyle difference at first, but eventually experienced some difficulties with it.

“By and large, I just accepted it because that was just the way we lived,” he said, “but as I grew up I would notice that friends of mine had more material things than I did. I felt curious about that… but my parents were always very compassionate and explained things to us in a manner that we could understand. … so I began to understand the importance of the difference between my life and the life I saw others living.”

Arun recalls that his true acceptance of and commitment to nonviolence and social activism came when he spent two years, from ages 12 to 14, in India with his grandfather. These would be the final two years of Mohandas’ life — the elder Gandhi was assassinated just weeks after Arun returned home to South Africa.

“The things he taught me, especially about dealing with anger and the daily ways in which we commit passive violence, changed my life,” he said.

Kusumbehn Adani Mahatma, Gandhi’s niece, Jamunabehn Gandhi, Narandas Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi, Abha Gandhi, and Arun Gandhi at Dr. Dinshah Mehta’s nature cure clinic in Pune, 1944.

As an adult, Arun returned to India, married and settled into a 30-year career as a journalist and later as a champion of social and economic justice, working on behalf of some of the poorest communities in the world.

He moved to the United States with his wife Sunanda in 1987, and founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, which was originally located at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, and is now at the University of Rochester. 

“I spent all my activist years in India,” he said, “Now I am an advocate for nonviolence, a teacher.”

Arun’s aim is to cultivate an awareness of self that can help engender the kind of inner transformations that he sees as necessary to pave the way to a better world.

In his estimation, one important transformation that can begin with individual efforts is to move away from “our materialistic lifestyle that only brings negativity out of human beings.”

Arun believes that the primacy of material wealth in society has made people greedy, selfish and self-centered. 

Each person, he insists, must do the internal work it takes to cultivate compassion, understanding and a penchant for inclusiveness — not just tolerance.

“This is what nonviolence gives us, it gives us the opportunity to look at ourselves, look at where we are going and what we are achieving and what we want to do with our lives, what we want the legacy of our lives to be on this earth.”

“Not everyone,” he said, “is a natural leader, but everyone can transform themselves.”

Citing the fact that the civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s did very little to change peoples’ prejudicial mindsets or provide for true equality, he insists that “there’s no law on earth that can make a person respect another person if they are unwilling.”

Arun sees greed, materialism, selfishness, and ignorance at the heart of our most pressing societal and environmental issues. He argues that systemic changes in the educational system are foundational to shaping people who are willing to seek the truth, seek understanding and do no harm.

“The biggest tragedy is that our education system is all geared towards giving people the ability to go out into the marketplace and make money,” he said, “It’s not about teaching people about character and human relationships and cultures and broadening perspectives.

“We need to give a good foundation to our children… so that they know about people and cultures and relationships and differences and the world and what their role in the world is. It’s not to make money, it is to contribute something so that we can all together make this world a better place.”

For more information on the Roosevelt Library event, or to RSVP, email rsvp@rooseveltlibrary.com. On Nov. 2, Arun will serve as the guest of honor for the 11th annual Diwali San Antonio festivities at Hemisfair, which is open to the public. 

James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.