in a Virginia Community
The Gandhi center at
advances the practice of nonviolence.
Photographs courtesy JMU Photography
SPAN March/April 2010
Nestled in central Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, tucked among rolling farmlands and deep indigo mountains, students and neighbors of James Madison University gather for discussions on ahimsa and satyagraha, and Nobel Peace laureates come to address thousands on compassion and conflict resolution.
In the small town of Harrisonburg, the university hosts an annual conference on Gandhi studies each April. On the edge of the campus, the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence provides hundreds of the university’s 17,000 undergraduate students, most from the state of Virginia, with lectures, courses, events, and research support on Gandhi’s life, ideas and place in world history and culture. Students of Asian descent make up about 5 percent of the university’s population, and those involved in the center reflect that same proportion.
The center was founded in 2005 to advance the understanding of, appreciation for, and practice of nonviolence. The center offers programs for university students as well as for residents in the area, including conferences on Gandhi studies for graduate students and scholars from around the world. Children from the community attend summer camps on nonviolence. Student internships, publications, a research library and lectures are among the many learning opportunities offered.
In 2007, the center presented the first Mahatma Gandhi Global Nonviolence Award to Desmond Tutu of South Africa. In 2009, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, came to Harrisonburg to receive the second Gandhi Award. Thousands of people packed the auditorium to celebrate each of these events, meant to honor leaders who have upheld the ideals of Gandhi. Specifically, the center describes awardees as those with global recognition who believe humans everywhere are to be peacemakers, support nonviolence, love their enemies, seek justice, share their possessions with those in need and express and demonstrate these beliefs in their words, life and actions.
Sushil Mittal, associate professor of Hinduism at James Madison University and founding director of the center, began teaching classes on Gandhi in 1998 at the University of Florida. As he finalized his syllabus for a Hinduism course there, his friend and mentor advised him that a course focusing on Gandhi would be popular with the American audience. He created the class and it quickly became a success, with a waiting list to get in. “Gandhi attracts people,” Mittal says. Courses on Gandhi continue to be offered at the University of Florida, although Mittal left there to teach at Millikin University in Illinois a year later.
There he developed more courses with different angles: Gandhi and politics, Gandhi and literature, Gandhi and film. As Gandhi continued to be in high demand, before long Mittal realized that Gandhi studies had become his field. In 2001, the school began offering a minor in Gandhi studies as part of the degree program. Due to financial cutbacks, the once-thriving program is no longer offered there, but by the time he left for Virginia in 2004, Mittal had created over a dozen courses on Gandhi.
Drawn to the Shenandoah Valley by the serene beauty of the surrounding mountains, Mittal moved to Harrisonburg with his wife and children to begin a professorship in James Madison University’s religion department. In less than a year, his concept of a Gandhi center had become a reality, with humble beginnings in his small office, staffed by him and one or two students.
Now housed in a modest two-level brick building, the center opens its door to students streaming in and out to work on a variety of projects they design and manage. Student interns organize and catalog the growing Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King Reading Room housed on the lower level. They run a summer camp for children, and organize an international Drawing Peace Contest. They work with former prison inmates to study and write about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. They organize annual conferences on Gandhi studies for students and scholars.
Inside the center, students relax in the living room, discussing plans with Mittal, and work on their programs. The rooms are carefully appointed with items of relevance to the mission of the center, including a tall, ceremonial, brass oil lamp and a small statue of Gandhi. Photos of King, Tutu, the Carters and Gandhi adorn the walls. Even the attire of Mittal carries significance: a Nehru-style suit is his formal wear as of last year when he made the decision to stop wearing Western-style suits and ties.
“Honestly, I’ve been surprised at the popularity of the Gandhi center,” states Mittal softly. “The context leads us. Our job is to start the process and that brings us the end result. And with Gandhi’s appeal, many students come here because their friends have told them about the work of the center, the courses on Gandhi, the ideas of Gandhi.”
“We have 12 students working as unpaid interns this semester,” explains Sharon Kniss, who joined the center staff as executive secretary and program coordinator in the fall of 2009. “For the most part they are doing it out of personal interest in the mission of the center, with some working for class credit and some not. They all commit to at least 10 hours per week.” Putting on the award event for the Carters, which drew 7,000 attendees, took an extra effort by a team of 100 active volunteers. Through involvement in the event, students like senior Kaylie Duff became more connected and energized.
Duff, an international justice major from Bristol, Virginia, volunteered to sell Gandhi center T-shirts at the Carter event in the fall, and found the process of putting on the huge program “amazing.” A peace studies class introduced her to Gandhi, followed by an intriguing course on conflict in India. Currently helping the center expand Gandhi’s work online, she plans to work for an international nonprofit organization after graduation.
Emma Sheehy, a justice studies and Spanish major from Falls Church, Virginia, is both an intern at the center and the teacher’s assistant for Mittal’s Gandhi course. Now in her junior year, she works on three programs at the center, all related to children’s outreach, including the summer camp and the international Drawing Peace Contest. Sheehy is also creating a nonviolence library at the local middle school for 11- to 14-year-olds, featuring titles like Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. As part of the program, students will select three books from the library to read over the next several months, and keep an online journal where they see responses to their writings, fostering dialog on the issues and ideas sparked by the readings.
Mittal emphasizes that interns have many creative opportunities to make a difference, and a lot of responsibility that keeps the center in a constant process of improvement and growth. “This center is student-run. Our interns are given responsibilities to work on real projects, and the programs continue to get better. The excitement and dedication among the growing number of interns is contagious.” He pauses for a long moment, shaking his head in wonder. “They show a commitment to the center that is remarkable.”
The way to build change, Mittal believes, is to reach and inspire individuals who embrace Gandhi’s ideals of a nonviolent and more just world. He hopes that the students attending his classes and interning at the center go out to practice and expand the understanding of these ideals around the world.
Chris Gray, a former intern who graduated last year and is now at Syracuse University in New York working on his advanced degree, continues to volunteer for the center long-distance. He is coordinating the bi-annual student conference, coming up in April. Graduate students from around the world are invited to submit papers on a general theme relating to Gandhi studies for this year’s conference, exploring “International (Dis)order and Violence in the Twenty-first Century.”
“We will have about 20 presenters over the course of a day, with 100 or 150 people attending each lecture,” explains Gray, who helped with the program in previous years. He has seen interest grow in Gandhi studies, and notes that it draws scholars from across disciplines. “Gandhi offers a good template for examining issues in our contemporary world—socioeconomic issues, ethnic conflicts. His ideas are trans-national, not just applicable to India’s historic struggle for independence. They are universal.”
Prior conferences have included discussion topics such as an investigation into what happened in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, why peace agreements fail, a case study from Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, interfaith peacemaking, a study on modern refugees and the emotional impact of war, and methods of resisting terrorism.
Gray emphasizes that Gandhi is relevant today in areas outside the religious realm often associated with him. “His work on economic issues is often ignored by history. There’s a growing interest in reexamining this work, especially as it applies to developing countries.”
Gray’s own interest in Gandhi began during his first year at James Madison University, when he enrolled in a course with Mittal on Rethinking Gandhi. “Through his interest in Gandhi, Mittal has built a real following. He’s surrounded himself with a lot of bright, motivated students who follow him and his passion for the Gandhi center and his work with peace studies,” he says.
At 8 a.m. on a chilly January morning, Mittal quietly enters the small auditorium. About 40 students sit with notebooks and pens, laptop computers ready to begin their second session of a course on Hinduism. He gazes out at the class, then rests his hands on the outer edges of his table, and leans in toward his students. “Today we begin with Gandhi, because for me everything starts with Gandhi and ends with Gandhi.”
He goes on with what he describes as the folklore of Gandhi’s assassination: a tale about the assassin bowing and Gandhi raising his hand as he fell. He asserts that through these gestures, both would have acted in the name and spirit of Hinduism, and continues with an evolving discussion of the Hindu’s comfort with contradictions. “No Hindu can say anything without another Hindu denying it,” he says slowly, then repeats it. As he surveys the room, he sees several students begin to write this down, but Mittal says not to worry about notes. “Put down your pens. Just observe. Absorb. Think. Come to your own conclusions.”
He challenges them repeatedly to puzzle over statements like that of Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at Montreal’s McGill University, who said, “One is most a Hindu when least a Hindu.”
Sohrab Najafabadi, in his fifth year at James Madison University and pursuing a double major in biology and philosophy, is taking his first class with Mittal. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia but was born in Iran. His old roommate worked as an intern at the Gandhi center and recommended the Hinduism course and the engaging and challenging style of Mittal. By the second week of the semester, Najafabadi was enjoying the different way of thinking that the course offers, in particular that day’s discussion about embracing contradiction. “In philosophy or biology, you can’t just accept a contradictory statement. According to Plato it wouldn’t make sense. In the sciences if you have a contradictory result, it means you messed something up. This class gives me an entirely different perspective.”
Senior Katie Cook finds the class inspiring. He “encourages us to question what we think about our own religion, because seeking answers brings us closer to our faith. He spoke today about being deeply rooted in Hinduism, so that nothing threatens or offends him. It makes sense.” An international affairs major from Falls Church, Virginia, Cook nurtures her lifelong interest in peace through her work as an intern for the Gandhi center. For a second year, she is working on coordinating the summer camp for children aged 8 to 12.
The purpose of the free camp is to teach the next generation about nonviolent conflict resolution, caring for the Earth and caring for humanity, offering the children new ways to look at the world. Cook notes, “We really didn’t know how the kids were going to receive all of the things we wanted to teach them. But the most surprising thing was how intelligent and perceptive all of the children were. They grasped the concept of peace so quickly and their reflections and writings during some of the camp activities were incredibly insightful.” And what better way to learn the interconnected nature of human experience than through an old-fashioned three-legged race?
“Our purpose at the Gandhi center is to spread global nonviolence, but our main focus starts in our backyard. I feel this children’s program really helps to get our message out into the community,” says Cook.
In 2009, the Government of India established an endowed chair, the Mahatma Gandhi Chair in Global Nonviolence. The position, with responsibilities for teaching, research and outreach, will rotate every two years to continue to bring new thoughts and dialogue on the study of Gandhi. Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor of political science at the University of Delhi, joins the center in August 2010 as the first chair.
Mittal is optimistic about the future of the center. “We have the strong support of the provost, along with the deepening connection to the Harrisonburg community and beyond. We began in a 200-square foot office with myself and two students. Now we have our own building—can you imagine?—a small staff, a new chair arriving soon, our dedicated interns, our programs, publications and supportive community members committed to the ideals of a more just and nonviolent world.”
“But it’s all the process,” he says. “Like the symbol of the spiral in our logo, guiding us outward, expanding, slowly transforming.”
Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.