The American journalist's quest for a moral compass in immoral times led him on a three-year journey of self-discovery, which saw him trace Gandhi's footsteps from India to England to South Africa

Perry Garfinkel, the veteran American journalist, first arrived in India in 1973 as a hippie on the trail of a guru, seeking salvation. At that point of time, he had little idea about Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the nation. Disenchanted with America, and disconnected from the religion he was born into (Judaism), he had found it hard to relate to him as a human being. His first touchpoint to Gandhi had been during the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. declared how he drew inspiration from the Gandhian philosophy, which according to the Black leader of the movement, was “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” When Garfinkel returned to India in the early noughties as a working journalist (the California-based author has travelled to the country almost every year since then), little did he know that his relationship with Gandhi, and his ideals, would be changed forever. For good.

The hairbrained idea to embark on a three-year quest to explore the enduring relevance of Mahatma Gandhi’s code of ethics in today’s immoral world, which resulted in his latest book, Becoming Gandhi: Living the Mahatma’s 6 Moral Truths in Immoral Times (Simon & Schuster India), came to Garfinkel as an experiment to follow in the footsteps of ‘the half-naked fakir’ (Winston Churchill’s words) when Barack Obama began campaigning for the United States President in 2007. Obama, like Martin Luther, seemed to have been immensely inspired from Gandhi too, and had adapted an oft-repeated quote attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Drawing on Gandhi’s ideas, Obama said during his campaign: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Being the change

When Garfinkel read (in Promised Land) that Obama was more inspired by Gandhi than Martin Luther King Jr, it set him thinking how millions of people in the world knew little or nothing about Gandhi in the 21st century, with Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film the only source of their knowledge about the man. The reasons for Garfinkel’s interest in Gandhi, which unfolded over the years, was both personal and political: he has been concerned about the decline of the Western civilisation, and the moral rectitude: “We have lost our moral compass as a society.”

He zeroed in on the Mahatma after taking a long and hard look at some likely figures in the last 100 years who impressed him ‘with a vision of what a moral compass would even look like.’ His Holiness the Dalai Lama — ‘a living icon of moral impeccability’ — came close, but Garfinkel found it hard to relate to the life of a sentient being who was elevated to be the exalted leader of Tibet. “Mohandas Gandhi, by contrast, showed little to no potential for greatness as a young student, even as a young lawyer. He had human flaws. He was at times divisive; not everyone loved him. He was, in short, relatable, especially to me,” Garfinkel writes.

Though the idea had taken root in his heart, it took another 12 years for Garfinkel to carry out his experiment. “I had read some books about Gandhi, but I didn’t feel that I could experience what he was proposing just by reading about him,” he tells The Federal. In 2007, he had published Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All, in which he did something similar — tracked the historical course of Buddhism from Sri Lanka to Thailand, China, Tibet, Japan to San Francisco and Europe, as well as the application of Buddhist principles to resolve social, environmental, health, political and other contemporary problems.

Becoming Gandhi

The idea of ‘Becoming Gandhi’ stemmed from the increasing violence and a disregard for truth in the world. By retracing Gandhi’s steps, Garfinkel sought to personally experience the six cornerstones of Gandhi’s teachings — truth, non-violence, simplicity, faith, vegetarianism, and celibacy — rather than merely reading about them. On his global expedition, he lived these principles on a daily basis, using them as prisms through which he examined the ‘dimensions and implications of living a moral life, personally and globally.’

During his travels, Garfinkel also met a clutch of people who swear by Gandhian ideals. Among other things, he discovered that while Gandhi propagated non-violence all his life, it was violence that had come to pervade all aspects of life. There is a poignant paragraph in the book in which he recollects what Arun Nehru, one of Gandhi’s five grandsons, told him: “The world is caught in the culture of violence, a culture that has seeped so deeply in us that everything about us is violent. Our sports, our entertainment, our language, our relationships, our religions — everything is violent.” Garfinkel writes that these were the most chilling words he had heard during his globe-trotting in Gandhi’s footsteps.

Initially, the title Garfinkel had in mind for the book was Being Gandhi. But he soon realised that it was a task that would always remain in the realm of impossibility. So, he ‘surrendered to the reality that the best I could hope for was to eternally strive to become closer to what Gandhi stood for’. He writes: ‘The journey of becoming Gandhi is an effort that will continue to engage me as long as I live.’ It’s a journey that has transformed his life, made him a better human being, endowed with empathy and compassion. “It’s important to understand that the goal is not always about achieving it. The goal is going towards the goal,” he says.

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