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Being the Change: In Gandhi's Footsteps

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Gandhi, 1929. Image from wikipedia
Gandhi in 1929. wikicommons

After trying for years to achieve social change through mainstream institutional activism, I have turned to an approach deeply rooted in my own culture and history. I have spent the past nine years trying to understand how to live my values today rather than waiting for the system to change. My search for the roots of deep transformation have led me to re-engage with the seemingly mundane, the small, the slow, the inefficient, the unorganized, the invisible.

I became involved in activism in college. I focused on stopping discrimination against marginalized groups. I thought we could make the system work by reforming it to give equal rights to all. We signed petitions, held protests, issued policy reports. But despite minor gains, I felt we were losing our dignity, being made into beggars. I started to learn that the price for “redistributed benefits” to people in North America was being paid by people and nature in so-called Third World countries.

After college, I spent eight years in the belly of the beast—Wall Street, Harvard, the United Nations, NGOs—seeking to change the system from within. But I discovered that the problem was bigger than just removing a few bad apples or making some clever policy declarations. I started to question the labels we use, such as “under-developed,” “poor,” or “illiterate”; the manic logic of unlimited growth and obscene profits over all other values; and the reliance on experts and technocratic solutions, rather than on the people.

During this time I came across Hind Swaraj, a booklet written by Mahatma Gandhi in 1909. In it, he explores the nature of India's freedom struggle. He says, “It is not about getting rid of the tiger [the British] and keeping the tiger's nature [tools, systems, worldview, etc].” He calls for swaraj (rule over the individual and collective self) and urges us to look beyond “modern” colonizing systems of health, justice, and technology. I learned that non-violent political strategies require tremendous self-discipline and the courage to challenge our own comfort zones.

Gandhi's insights helped me transcend such false polarizations as capitalism vs. communism, Left vs. Right, and East vs. West. I found the courage to move beyond playing “big” power games to fix the state and market systems which, no matter how clever they were, only fueled the monster.

I started to reorient myself to a practice of honestly questioning my own complicity, fear, and insecurity, as well as searching for my own real sources of organic power. I resigned from UNESCO and moved back to India. I have been experimenting with hands-on alternatives—from self-healing to community media to urban organic farming—which reduce dependence on institutions and revalue physical labor as an essential part of intellectual growth, political activism, and spirituality. Much of my own unlearning has resulted from our family decision not to send our daughter to school.

I have met people from around the world who are working to regenerate their communities—many of whom do not call themselves activists and would never think of doing so. One is my “illiterate” grandmother, who is one of the greatest environmentalists I have ever known. She is not a member of Greenpeace, nor an environmental scientist. But she is an amazing up-cycler, taking responsibility for her own waste by finding new uses for everything from mango pits and peels to old toothbrushes. She cares for the people, creatures, and place around her, giving concrete meaning to “localization” and “zero waste” living.

For me, the most exciting change movements seek to re-legitimize and reconnect to the knowledge, imagination, and wisdom of traditional communities. Giving top priority to regenerating diverse local languages, ways of seeing, and systems of natural learning is urgent if we are to co-create our way out of the massive crises that face us today. Equally important is finding the courage to walk out of institutions and structures that reinforce violence, injustice, and exploitation. Through an active practice of non-cooperation, we can withdraw the legitimacy that they have in our minds and open up spaces of calmness from which to explore new possibilities.

It is critical that we search for real expressions of our nature, not the tiger's. Only then can we reclaim the dignity of our lives on our own terms.


Manish Jain wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Manish lives in Udaipur, India with four amazing women to keep him honest: his loving wife, sister, daughter, and grandmother. He co-edited an e-booklet on Now Activism and invites you to dialogue on it at www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/nowact_toc.htm

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