Interview | Karnataka

Take the essence of Gandhi’s principles and apply it to the present: Bernie Meyer

Bernie Meyer

Bernie Meyer   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


"Who has all the truths? Not even Gandhi did. He learnt new things every day and changed himself."

Bernie Meyer, a long-time peace activist from the United States, is known as “American Gandhi”. He has been visiting India for about a month every year since 2005 and makes all his public appearances dressed like Gandhiji. At 82, he is still actively involved in climate change and anti-nuclear weapon campaigns. He was at the Central University of Karnataka in Kalaburagi recently. Excerpts from an interview with him:

You were a priest at a church in the U.S. How did you get attracted to social activities?

I became a priest in 1965. I was on the path of social concerns, the Jesus path, of course. There were a lot of struggles in the U.S. at that time. There was growing resentment over the Vietnam War and the American bombing of Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the civil rights movement. I, as a young priest, got involved in it. The Dow Chemical Company produced deadly napalm bombs that were dropped on Vietnam. We launched an agitation in Washington D.C. against the company and I was arrested in 1970. I was in prison for three months and under supervised probation for three years. From that point, I have been working for peace.

How did you come across Gandhiji’s philosophy?

I was a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., who was deeply influenced by Gandhi. What appealed to me about Gandhi was his approach to truth. For him, truth was God and God was truth. In 2002, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international peace group, asked me to pass Gandhi’s message to the people. In 2004, I was invited to come to India to teach the youth about Gandhi. From 2005, I began coming here. This is my 15th visit. India has become a second home for me.

Can an ideology have universal applicability?

No. I would like to call it Gandhian principles rather than Gandhian ideology. Ideology is rigid while principles are flexible and can be applied when things change. Who has all the truths? Not even Gandhi did. He learnt new things every day and changed himself.

For many years, I had said that I was going to portray the real Gandhi and give his original message. Now, I am saying that I am with Gandhi, but beyond Gandhi. I am with Gandhi’s humanist principles of truth and non-violence. I am living beyond him in 2019.

You mean we cannot copy Gandhiji?

I am opposed to the copying of ideas in toto. I don’t use the spinning wheel today as Gandhi did back in the day. It won’t work now. Gandhi said that India was a country with seven lakh villages. The British took away all the spinning wheels and people were hungry. For Gandhi, spinning wheels were the means for locals to have a little more income to feed themselves. We have to take the essence of Gandhi’s principles and apply them to our present-day conditions.

Can Gandhiji’s concepts like Gram Swaraj that were against the capitalist order of market economy be realised in this advanced stage of capitalism?

In general, I agree with the point that Gandhian principles are against capitalism. But it is not that alone. The capitalist market economy that drives for over-consumption of natural resources is unsustainable. It is going to collapse at some point. It is already collapsing in many ways now. The question is whether people will find a way to develop a new type of economy. We can take some of the ideas from Gandhi to create an alternative. We have to come up with a way to use natural resources in a more equitable way.

How serious do you think the Indian government is in following Gandhian principles?

Last year, [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi had a meeting with 123 people seeking inputs on what should be done for commemorating Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. He had invited me too for the meeting. I stressed the urgent need for eliminating nuclear weapons and controling climate change. I don’t think he liked my suggestions.

What is your take on the growing intolerance?

Intolerance is a global phenomenon now. In the U.S., [President] Donald Trump is giving permission to go after the people who hate him. In India, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and other organisations want to make it a fundamentalist Hindu country and not one that is open to all religions. These are all kinds of ways to manipulate to get power.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 10:00:04 PM |

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