Philosophy Department spearheads Gandhi commemorations for 150th birthday

As the world celebrated Gandhi’s 150th birthday, the Fresno State Department of Philosophy joined in with a series of events which not only memorialized the man and his accomplishments through non-violent protest and civil disobedience, but also the lasting legacy he left on California, the United States, and the world.

Anyone familiar with Fresno State will recognize the Peace Garden, just north of the Henry Madden Library, as one of the most beautiful and serene places on campus. The statues begin with the larger than life head of Gandhi who gazes east at the depictions of those who have followed his legacy. With the Peace Garden’s location near the center of campus life, these ideals of civil rights and non-violence lie at the heart of Fresno State.

It is against this backdrop that on October 2, 2019, Fresno State faculty, students and the surrounding community gathered to celebrate Gandhi’s 150th birthday. Philosophy professor Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor, the founder and champion of the Peace Garden, hosted the event which included speeches by Consul Sumati Rao, representing ambassador Sanjay Panda, Indian Consulate Office in San Francisco; Juan Felipe Herrera, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017;  and several other prominent members of the campus and community.

Juan Felipe Herrera performs a poem about Gandhi during the 150th celebration of his birth.
Juan Felipe Herrera performs a poem about Gandhi during the 150th celebration of his birth.

About a week later on Oct. 10 and 11, Fresno State hosted “Gandhi’s Global Legacy International Conference” organized by Dr. Veena R. Howard, associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, which brought together some of the country’s top civil rights organizers, such as Rev. James Lawson, Dr. Mary King and Dolores Huerta, along with the next generation of nonviolence enthusiasts including founder Nipun Mehta and Ramsey Jay Jr., accomplished Fresno State alumnus and leader of the Fresno State President’s Southern California Council.

“Commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary has been planned at various universities in the United States and abroad. By organizing a major international Gandhi conference at Fresno State, we have asserted Fresno State’s leadership and demonstrated the university’s commitment to addressing issues of peace, justice, and equality,” said Howard.

As the first speaker in the conference, Jay set the tone with a powerful presentation on a shift in mindset happening in the business world from “greed is good” to “doing well by doing good.” 

After experiencing the folly of businesses focusing on maximizing profits for the shareholders — especially through the market crash of 2008 — Jay points that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were among the first to reject greed mentality in favor of intentional philanthropy. In August of this year, Ray says, the CEOs of nearly 200 companies put out a joint statement saying that shareholder value is no longer their main objective. Those business leaders are now shifting their focus from short-term profits to long-term success through investments in their workers and the communities they operate in.   

That evening, Lawson took the stage in the Satellite Student Union where he talked about his journey discovering Gandhi and his principles of non-violence and working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to build the civil rights movement in the United States. Through Gandhi’s philosophy, Lawson found that he did not have to become an “alternate racist to resist the ills and criminalization of racism.” Lawson went on to describe Gandhi’s methods as the “science of social change” which when used correctly affect lasting political, economic, spiritual and moral change in societies without fail.

With increasing passion, Lawson made the case that western civilization as we know it was born in violent conquest. During exploration of the 15th century, heavily armed ships were sent to discover distant lands and claim them for their kings and queens.  

“That western exploitation was not, as we are taught in the United States, all good or all wonderful for the shape and forming of the world, or the shape and forming of the human race” said Lawson. “It brought with it the dirty notion that the best, most superior civilization is the European civilization. It brought the dirty notion that Christianity is the only valuable true religion in the world and you must be Christian. It brought the demand that your cultures must… submit to our culture from the European area.”

That violent conquest and continued assumption of superiority, Lawson argues, is the cause of many of the world’s problems today.

“ISIS did not make this world as it is. We made ISIS,” exclaimed Lawson. He went on to say, “Gandhi, as the father of non-violence, represents the necessity of the world to choose a new paradigm.” 

Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, Director, James Lawson Institute; Fellow at the University of Oxford
Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, Director, James Lawson Institute; Fellow at the University of Oxford

Following Lawson, Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, Director of the James Lawson Institute and Fellow at the University of Oxford, presented examples of the practicality of nonviolent resistance and described the underlying structure which maximizes the effectiveness and solidifies the future of the movement. She got her start in the Civil Rights movement while running communications for activist Julian Bond. It was there she discovered that communication is at the center of the nonviolent philosophy.

“Everything we do in nonviolent resistance is communications,” said King. “It’s communication of the claim and demands, the grievances, the oppressions, what needs to be altered.”

As the Civil Rights movement progressed, and under the pressure of a resistant society, King described laying the foundations of alternative institutions, which ran parallel to existing racist institutions which were not meeting the needs of African Americans. 

The evening ended with King and Lawson answering questions from students and the audience — many of which focused on the mechanics of how to implement their philosophies in the modern world with modern technology.

“Being able to participate in Gandhi’s Global Legacy conference was truly inspiring. Some of the most impactful moments were listening to Reverend James Lawson speak, enjoying music and chants at the peace garden, and seeing how Gandhi’s philosophy has impacted so many different walks of life,” said Ingrid Garcia, student.

A group of during Gandhi's Global Legacy International Conference.
A group of during Gandhi’s Global Legacy International Conference.

The next morning the campus community buzzed with excitement as Fresno State Provost Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval and Joseph I. Castro welcomed students and the community and introduced Dolores Huerta, President and Founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association — later named the United Farm Workers (UFW) union.

Dolores Huerta, President and Founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation
Dolores Huerta, President and Founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation

Huerta spoke about her involvement with Valley farm workers and working with César Chávez to set up the UFW. The organization, based on the principles of Gandhi, was comprised of hundreds of volunteers who were working for no money — just passion and a vision. 

The struggle continues today, Huerta says, as Fresno County not only ranks as number one in agriculture, but also in poverty. 

“Dolores Huerta gave an inspiring talk. She reminded us about Gandhi’s influence on César Chávez and the early stages of UFW movement,” said Howard. “She highlighted the value of Gandhi’s principles and nonviolent activism to address our modern day challenges.”

Nipun Mehta began his presentation with a description of “soul force” and provided specific, unlikely examples of how love has triumphed over violence.  In looking at how to bring the power of love and soul force into the 21st century, Nipun presented a concept of Gandhi 3.0 — which he described as the “modern manifestation of the ancient values of Gandhi.” 

“In the Gandhi 1.0 it was one of Gandhi Ji and many of us. In the Gandhi 2.0 world… Vinoba Ji, instead of doing one to many which is what Gandhi Ji did, did one to one; he walked village to village,” said Nipun in a video explanation. “And what both of them pointed to, was an era where we would have many to many. And this is Gandhi 3.0.”

Mehta went on to talk about how technology and the internet as the potential to make this dream possible — the power to exponentially expand soul force connections across the globe.  

The conference ended with the classical Indian music concert “Melodies of Peace” which included Pandit Debasis Chakroborty, Mangalayatan University, India; Gourisankar, School of Indian Percussion and Music, Texas; and Dr. Lovely Sharma, Dayalbagh University, Agra, India; and was moderated by Prof. Joan Sharma, Department of Art and Design.

The two day event provided insight into the ideals of non-violence and civil disobedience, the practicality of implementing those ideas now, and the future of those ideals through business and technology. 

“This experience opened my eyes to the lack of academia on the subject of nonviolent action and has compelled me to be considerate of Gandhi’s teachings in all subjects I will study in my academic career,” said Elizabeth Valdez, political science student.

Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Following the conference on Oct. 14, Dr. Kapoor organized an event featuring Gandhi’s granddaughter, Ela Gandhi, who spoke in the North Gym at Fresno State. Ela’s primary focus was on her grandfather’s 1909 book “Indian Home Rule,” which she hoped the younger generation would embrace. 

Ela pointed out that Gandhi advocated teaching the ideas of ethics and morality above other things to young people in school. 

“Our education system is geared towards producing somebody who is good at work, doing some kind of occupation,” said Ela. “But there’s no focus on ethics or morality in our training.”

She went on to say, “When you have ethics and morality guiding the way you work, the way you carry out your profession, there would be a different type of lawyer, a different type of worker, a different type of doctor, a different type of teacher. Each person would consider the future of the other and not just their own aggrandizement.”

She advocated for the youth to think about their own direction and the importance of pointing them towards the direction of nonviolence when working to affect change. 

“Action is good, but let it be nonviolent action,” said Ela.

Hundreds of people enjoyed the events which commemorated Gandhi’s 150th birthday at Fresno State. For those looking to make a positive change in the world, it provided the inspiration for love and soul force, inspiration for nonviolent action in today’s world, and inspiration for life.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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