“Whether we believe in it or not, the universe is interested in the greater good of everybody,” said Dr. Ravi Patel. “It’s the impulse of life which promotes the wellbeing from the smallest of seeds to the biggest of elephants. The only way to be connected to the music of life is to be interested in the greater good of the universe.”
As a boy of Indian descent growing up in South Africa under apartheid, Dr. Ravi Patel saw and experienced intense racism. At the same time, he was able to see the effects of Mahatma Gandhi’s early work in South Africa before Gandhi returned to India in 1914.
“When I was growing up, I could see the effects of racism and the courage of those who fought against it. Amazing people like Nelson Mandella and Desmond Tutu were great followers of Gandhi,” Ravi Patel explained. “They had the opportunity to create freedom through the use of violence. But they actually went out of their way to make sure they did not use those kinds of means to bring about liberation and equality.”
In rural India, Dr. Naina Patel learned about Gandhi at a young age.
“Growing up, I would see my father adopt a lot of Gandhi principles in his life like helping others as much as possible, respecting all religions, and disregarding notions of superiority or inferiority of different casts,” she said.
While growing up with Gandhi’s influence all around her, it was not until she settled down in Bakersfield that she began reading and studying the life of Gandhi. Gandhi as a person and his stance on truth, nonviolence and social justice, truly inspires her.
Due to the deep racism in South Africa, it was difficult for Indians to get into medical school. So, he traveled to India to attend Gujarat University Medical College, where he met Naina.
After medical school, the two married in India. They then moved to South Africa, then Chicago to complete their residency. Once they completed their residency, they moved to Bakersfield. In 1984 Ravi founded the Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center (CBCC).
The Patels first became involved with Fresno State 2020 when the Ravi and Naina Patel Foundation became one of the major donors to create the Endowed Chair in Jain and Hindu Dharma at Fresno State. Inspired by the bust of Gandhi in the Fresno State Peace Garden, representatives of the Jain and Hindu communities got together to form the combined chair.
“nonviolence is one of the major points of both Jainism and Hinduism, so we thought this would be a good thing to start,” Naina Patel said.
After celebrating Gandhi’s 150th birthday with a series of events in Bakersfield, they began looking for a way to propagate the knowledge of Gandhi’s philosophy in a meaningful and permanent way. They started by building peace gardens at Bakersfield College and California State University, Bakersfield. They also founded the Gandhi Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship at CSU Bakersfield to bring Gandhi’s philosophies of environmental and social sustainably to the business world.
Still, the Patels wanted to do more. They were looking for a place where Gandhian philosophies could be taught permanently. While they have close ties to CSU Bakersfield, they saw the nonviolence scholarship of Fresno State Philosophy Department Professors Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor and Dr. Veena Howard.
“So we thought this would be the right place to establish the ‘M.K. Gandhi Center: Inner Peace and Sarvodaya,’” said Dr. Naina Patel. “The leadership team consisting of the dean, provost and the president was excellent. All of them are very visionary and enthusiastic.”
Naina explained that Gandhi based his philosophy on three pillars, inner peace, Sarvodaya and systemic change. The inner peace aspect focuses on self-transformation, and Sarvodaya translates to the upliftment of all. Naina said these two pillars need to be in place before one can realize the third pillar of non-violent systemic change.
“During the Summer of 2020 there were many protests, against the murder of George Floyd. The protests were good, but despite what many people said, they were not non-violent. They were shouting at people, and destroying property so that is not real nonviolence,” said Naina Patel.
She said Satyagraha, or non-violent truth force, is relatively well known worldwide as the tactics implemented by Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella and others. But the inner peace and Sarvodaya, or upliftment of all, are not very well known, yet just as important.
“The whole message is for true inner transformation, kindness, and acceptance to all forms of thinking, embracing all of humanity as part of your own family,” said Ravi Patel.
As an example, he reflected on the truths he witnessed as a child in South Africa and the change after moving away. It was not until 1990 that the apartheid system began to crumble, being entirely eradicated in 1994 with the formation of a democratic government.
“Nelson Mandela was kept locked up in a cell smaller than the smallest bathrooms we can have in our country. He came out of that with zero violence or anger towards the people who did that to him,” Ravi Patel said. “It’s amazing to see that he lived and breathed these values in such a beautiful way.”
With a $1.5 million donation to fund the “M.K. Gandhi Center: Inner Peace and Sarvodaya,” the Patels hope students will have the opportunity to engage with all of the pillars of nonviolence.
“Along with education, there’s a deeper meaning to life which we need to address that encompasses the basic values of respect, compassion, kindness, for not only human beings but for the entire universe,” Ravi Patel said.
Naina Patel agreed, “You can be very successful at so many things, but if you don’t have that inner peace and inner happiness, it doesn’t matter.”
Educational programming has begun with Philosophy Professor and Gandhi scholar Dr. Veena Howard appointed as the Jain and Hindu Dharma Endowed Chair. Howard was also named the Director of the M.K. Gandhi Center, which will be operated by the Department of Philosophy and housed in the Fresno State library.
“It is my hope that the seeds of Dr. Naina and Ravi Patel’s endowment would yield bounteous fruits of wisdom and knowledge in the lives and minds of our students leading to creating peaceful, diverse, and sustainable ways of lives,” said Howard. “As a scholar and student of Gandhi’s philosophy, I am personally excited about launching the Gandhi Center work. We have already begun the programming on M.K. Gandhi Centerthis semester and I have already incorporated Gandhi’s writings and philosophy in my courses. I plan to broaden the scope and create modules that can be incorporated in various areas, from criminology and social work to business and agriculture.”
Howard said the M.K. Gandhi Center’s programming includes academic lectures, courses, symposia, student work competitions and workshops focusing on Gandhi’s principles, especially inner peace and Sarvodaya as they relate to students’ personal growth and current issues on campus and in the community.
“Fresno State students enjoy the beauty of the Peace Garden every day, and now the M.K. Gandhi Center will inspire them to make the wider world more beautiful by speaking the truth and creating change and societal improvements through nonviolent means,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. “We are so grateful to the Patels for not only their generosity but also their vision and inspiration. They are living out the ancient idea of ‘actions not words’ in a profound way through the creation of this center that will encourage generations of students and community members to seek peace and upliftment of all. It’s simply amazing, and doubly so, since it’s the first of its kind in our country.”
Naina Patel is excited about the future and what she and Ravi Patel have started at Fresno State.
“It makes you feel good doing something to help humanity, it gives purpose to your life,” she said. “I think you feel more satisfaction and happiness, and you feel that you are helping someone – that you are making a difference in someone’s life. Of course, it’s not you that is doing it; it is the divine that is working through you. But it is still a great feeling to be an instrument.”
The Ravi and Naina Patel foundation seeks to promote increased happiness through spirituality and self-transcendence. Their work focuses on homelessness, education, environment nutrition and spirituality in their local community and around the world. Additionally, their CBCC Foundation focuses on medical philanthropy.