Mandar Apte

Like every year, today, on the third Monday in January, many Americans will participate in events that honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There will be marches, parades, and speeches. Many will go down memory lane and listen to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Some will even do symbolic acts of service as this is also a National Day of Service. 

Many, however, will just see the MLK holiday as a Monday off from work – a long weekend in American parlance! Until 2016, I was also one such ignorant soul.

In 2016, while on a holiday trip to India, I read Dr. King’s autobiography. It showed me the struggles faced by this iconic leader (and the African American people). It deepened my appreciation of the role that Dr. King (and other Civil Rights leaders) have played in the reconstruction of America – where now, immigrants, like me, can aspire to experience freedom, liberty, justice, and equal opportunity. 

It is well known that Dr. King had a deep admiration for Mahatma Gandhi and had used the philosophy of nonviolence (or Ahimsa) as the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the most profound take-away for me, while reading the book was that Dr. King had made a five-week trip to India (along with his wife) to deepen his understanding of Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolence and how they were used to fight against colonial oppression.

In a radio address that he had made during that trip, he had said, “I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity.” Upon return, he wrote, “ I have returned to America with a greater determination to achieve freedom for my people through non-violent means. As a result of my visit to India, I believe that my understanding of non-violence is greater and my commitment deeper.”

I asked myself – who goes anywhere for a five-week study trip – and that too, in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle. The calling must have been intense! Upon arrival in India, he said “To any other country, I would go as a tourist. To India, I have come as a pilgrim.” The immersive travel across India would have perhaps given him a healthy ‘time out’ to look at the challenges back home with a fresh lens. The trip to India had clearly played a transformative role in shaping Dr. King’s understanding of India’s ancient “Ahimsa” or “nonviolence” principles.

Now, sixty-three years later, the senseless violence in America continues – domestic abuse, suicides, homicides, drug overdose, the opioid crisis, school shootings. The list goes on. 

Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Dallas, Newtown, Oakland, Baton Rouge, Milwaukee – the list goes on.

Today, violence can affect everyone regardless of our socio-economic status and political views. For instance, a mass shooting can happen in our child’s school. A disgruntled employee might start shooting at a coffee shop where we are enjoying our latte. The pandemic has created an added dimension of unrest as millions have lost their jobs. America is desperately looking for solutions to end the systemic violence and bring peace and harmony in our communities and neighborhoods.

We are all in this together.

How do we stop the violence and help to heal and restore harmony in America? Can the universal and timeless wisdom of nonviolence help us today? Can the wisdom of nonviolence help us to learn how to ‘agree to disagree’ and enhance social cohesion?

Most acts of violence arise from fear, hatred, and a lack of trust. It is high time that we reinvigorate our commitment to understand and implement the principles of nonviolence (or ahimsa). The true practice of nonviolence starts within – we can quench violence by developing the inner capability to manage our feelings, emotions, and subsequently our thoughts, words, and actions. This is possible by empowering ourselves to address the violence within, that may arise due to anxiety, stress, and lack of inner peace. Through the practice of contemplation, as well as yogic breathing and meditation exercises, we can develop higher states of consciousness and transform our negative feelings into love and peace. And when such individuals transform, they can #BeTheChange for their organizations and communities.

If Dr.King was alive today, I think he would embark on another pilgrimage to India to seek solace and to recalibrate, reinspire and rejuvenate himself. He would probably meet with India’s civic leaders of today like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who are successfully implementing the wisdom of Ahimsa across the world to promote peace and compassion.

In order to truly honor Dr. King today – we will have to step up and #BeTheChange in our organizations and communities. We will have to ignite the power of love and nonviolence within.

In March 2016, we hosted six Americans who were affected by violence on a pilgrimage to India. Through this pilgrimage, the group followed the intention behind Dr. King’s trip to India. The experience was converted into an educational module that promotes peace and compassion education. On the auspices of the MLK holiday, set aside an hour to watch the module with your family and have a conversation about peace at the dinner table. And then reach out to collaborate.

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