2003 Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Nonviolence,

Centre for Peace Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada


Total Culture of Peace

Acharya Ramamurti
Shrambharati, Patna, India

Acharya Ramamurti is the Director of Shrambharati (NGO) and the Institute for Gandhian Studies, Patna (India).

Born and raised in a North Indian rural village, Acharya Ramamurti graduated on the top of his class with a MA degree in History from Lucknow University.  He joined Queen's College,Varanasi as a lecturer but in 1954, heeding the earlier call of Gandhi to serve the poor villages of India, he quit his professorial job and joined the newly established Gandhi Ashram at Khadigram in Bihar.  He followed a motto of  "four hours of bread labor and four hours of intellectual work" and guided Khadigram Ashram to become one of the largest and most successful nonviolence and peace movement centers in India.

For nearly 50 years, Acharya Ramamurti has served the people of India by joining Vinoba's Land Gift Movement and collecting land for the landless, participating in Jaya Prakash Narayan's Total Revolution Movement for building a participatory democracy, running "Earn and Learn" centers in thirty villages of Bihar, and promoting peace education throughout the country.

In February 2002, the Centre for Peace Studies, McMaster University, co-sponsored an International Peace Conference in Vaishali (Patna, India) which became the starting point of a new national peace movement, Mahila Shanti Sena (Women's Peace Corps), that has spread quickly to eight States of India and has trained over 3000 rural women in peace, nonviolence and
participatory democracy.

Presented at McMaster University, Canada, October 2, 2003

We three friends have come from India – far off India.  We have not come for any trade talks or diplomatic deals.  We are not among those wise men of the east who come to the west to deliver spiritual messages or religious sermons.  We have come to meet friends, to talk and agree with them.  That was the great Buddha’s way of meeting, talking and agreeing. 

          We have come to share common concerns.  What are they?  Our own concern just now is Peace.

          About a year and a half ago, in February 2002 to be exact, thirteen friends from Canada visited us in Vaishali and participated in a programme spread over a week.  It consisted of (1) a week – long training camp for ‘Women’s Peace Corps’, (Mahila Shanti Sena, as we call it); (2) a seminar on Democracy, Peace and Non-Violence, which was largely attended by social workers and friends; (3) a General Assembly of rural men and women who came from all the eight modern districts of Bihar that once made up the ancient republic of Vaishali.

          So far as we could see, it was the women’s training camp that interested the visiting friends most.  The training camp had a total of 109 trainees – 13 from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in the N-East, and the rest from different districts of Bihar.  Some of the trainees belonged to the lowest social castes.  They were absolutely illiterate, and had never before worked with, or lived, in mixed groups.  Let me tell you, Bihar’s society is strictly purdah-observing.  But the women who came from Bihar stayed in the camp for a whole week.  It should be no wonder to know that 45,000 women – few of them educated - were elected three years ago in a total of about 8.5 thousand panchayats (village councils) of Bihar.  This is an indication of how women are fast becoming active members of the male-dominated Indian society. 

          Why, of all the places, was Vaishali chosen to be the venue of our weeklong programme?  The reasons were significant.  Vaishali is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists who come from all parts of the world.  The Buddha himself spent at Vaishali a few months every year.  His biggest ‘Sangha’ of about 13,000 monks flourished here.  Vaishali, a big town once, was the capital both of the Vaishali federation, as well as a confederation whose 7707 elders met periodically to consider matters of state.  Taking a hint from this hoary tradition we called our weeklong programme ‘Vaishali Sabha’.  This name has since gained currency.  It was the Vaishali region in which Buddha walked from village to village.  Vaishali later became a part of the Magadh empire when the Mauryan King Chandragupta Maurya annexed it.  Ashoka, who was third in the line of the Mauryas, became a follower of the Buddhist doctrine of non-violence.  He was the first emperor in history to renounce war and enter into non-aggression pacts with neighbouring states.  Several centuries later, in 1917, it was here that Mahatma Gandhi carried out his first experiment in non-violent resistance against British settlers.  It is for these reasons that we have chosen the Vaishali region for our work in creative social transformation that is being presently led by women ‘soldiers of peace’ (Mahila Shanti Sainiks).

          Mahila Shanti Sena (Women’s Peace Corps) does not stand for mere empowerment of women in the conventional sense.  It aims at building a total culture of peace.  For it, peace is not merely an interval between two wars.  It regards peace as a way of life.  Peace should govern the social structure and its institutions as well as the functioning of the state.  Peace, in fact, should govern life in its entirety. 

          It was Karl Marx who for the first time said that all civilizations developed by man so far have been rooted in violence.  When Gandhi was asked whether he agreed with what Marx had said he only added: ‘Including Indian’.  In 19th century Europe Marx had direct experience of economic exploitation, while in far away S.  Africa Gandhi was face-to-face with the white man’s growing colonialism.  Whatever the motive, whatever the form, and whatever the factors that promoted it, it has been violence, violence, everywhere in the name of culture and civilization.

          In his Communist Manifesto Marx did not indict the industrial civilization as such, while Gandhi in his book Hindswaraj, written in 1909, sees the crisis at the civilisational level and condemns industrial civilization as such.  At this time of globalization when the forces of the market appear to be stealing a decisive march over the forces of culture and civilization it is for us to decide whether we agree with Gandhi or not.  With weapons of mass destruction at our disposal, can we treat violence as being a part of our human civilization?  Can civilization survive in the face of growing violence?

          Man has already reached the moon.  Soon enough he may be on some other planets too.  Will a second earth also be found?  Who knows?  There are scientists in the USA - they may be here and elsewhere too - who have already started talking in terms of ‘conscious evolution’.  Does this mean that future evolution will no longer be left to the whims of blind forces of nature; and that man, with new tools of science, will be able to intervene in the evolutionary process.  If that is going to be a reality, the question arises as to  what end will man apply the means at his disposal?

          What further does this talk of conscious evolution mean?  Is this an indication of the fact that man is destined one day to live in a world of his own making?  Then the doings of man will have replaced the play of cosmic energy, which we have hitherto known as God.  Surely it should be no wonder if soon we find ourselves in an interplanetary phase of human civilization.  The globalization that we see around us cannot inaugurate that phase.  With its globalised capital and market, it is too greed-based.  Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ continues to be its inspiration and philosophy.  As Gandhians our inspiration is different.  We believe in the ‘survival of the weakest’, not of the fittest alone.  For us, unlike Darwin, life is a creative, cooperative venture.  Let us go to the moon by all means, but let us not take Darwin with us.  Let technology manufacture a thousand things for our comfort and convenience, but let it not manufacture lies in the service of war and violence.  Let not organized falsehood be one of the globalized industries of the new age.  Let us leave weapons of war and violence behind.  Let us go to the moon with clean hands and warm hearts.  A new culture of peace beckons us. 

          It is this culture of peace of which Gandhi talked in his Hind Swaraj.  Once this culture is globally accepted, no man or woman will be judged, as Martin Luther King wanted, by the colour of his or her skin or sex, nor by wealth, religion, or learning.  That will be a great day, indeed! Man will have then forgotten that once he believed in a religion or followed a tradition that sanctioned violence, even war.

          Who has a road map for the building up of a total culture of peace?  Who, except Gandhi?  Let us see what the salient features of that culture are.  When Gandhi was shot dead on January 30, 1948, he was succeeded by two equally great men, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash (J.P.) Narayan.  These three make what is known as the Gandhian tradition in India.  This tradition stands for the building up of a new culture of peace – a new economy, new polity, new education, new religion, new social order - in every way a whole new design of life.  That is why J.P. called his movement Total Revolution.  Total Revolution is not totalitarian.  It is whole; it is continuing; it leaves no aspect of life untouched, including spiritual.  Why should science and spirituality not come together to find answers to the many questions that have tormented mankind since the very beginning?  The first thing that the Gandhian tradition would want to do is to take the articles for man’s primary needs out of what we know as the market because the free market is controlled and manipulated by greed, individual, national, or global.  How then must primary needs be met?  Let people live in face-to-face communities, and let technology give every home a piece of productive machinery.  The community would become agro-industrial, each family producing something for itself or for its neighbours.  The small community and the small machine go together very well.

          Obviously, this face-to-face community should be self-managed, with little occasion for the coercive arm of the nation-state to interfere with the peaceful working of the local sector.  Gandhi said that that government is the best that governs the least.  Marx went a step further and wanted a totally stateless society.  Democracy consists of individuals whose autonomy and integrity must be guarded at all costs.  At every level - local, regional, national or global trade should be in ‘surpluses’.  Trade is not for promoting consumerism or accumulating capital for bigger markets, bigger cities, and bigger wars.  Let this not be interpreted as a plea for isolationism.  It is, on the other hand, a plea for a creative, cooperative life at the base and upwards.  It will be peace organized for the welfare of all. 

          The self-managed community would not have parties fighting for power but each community would be free to develop its own style of functioning in its local participatory democracy with emphasis on areas of agreement rather than on decisions by majority.  We in India have paid, and are still paying, a heavy price for this majority-minority game which has become an inalienable feature of the functioning of the nation-state.  Once mankind decides to live in face-to-face agro-industrial communities, the main function of the state will be that of coordination, and not of maintaining large armies for internal and external security.  It will be a new state then. 

          Where to begin and who is to begin building this new utopia, a war free world?  Is not a violence-free, productive, cooperative neighbourhood the starting point?  And is not the woman who has managed our homes the best person to initiate the process?

          The foundation was laid in Vaishali in Feb.  2002.  Since then we have been steadily going forward.  We would like to go faster, but there are handicaps.  Out of 37 districts in Bihar we are already functioning in 11.  Our friend Shri Ravindrabhai has already started working in Assam and the adjoining states of North-eastern India.  Two training camps have been held so far.

          The N.E.  is not a violence-free region.  Both the people and the government will have to be educated in the ways of the new culture of peace.  With its cultural background, and the uninhibited life of its women people in the north-east will, hopefully, learn the ways of peace and democracy sooner than others.  Once peace comes, democracy is bound to come.  Peace and democracy together will then lead to building of a violence-free culture.  The way to building a moral society may be clear.

          The woman-president of Indonesia has given a lead.  In the wake of the Iraq war she gave a call to the women of the world to unite and raise their voice against war and violence.  It is a new voice.  It is bound to be the voice of peace.  There should be no doubt it will be heard.

          Gandhiji once said that the alert masses of the west are likely to understand him better and sooner than the inert masses of the east.  We fondly wish it were so.  Gandhi is no monopoly of us Indians.  We anxiously wait for the voice of the west to be raised.  Total peace or total destruction, if that remains the only choice, there is every hope that humanity will make the right choice.  In that hope we live and work in far off India.

          Our namaskar to you all.