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The Ping-Pong Effect: Radical Social Change Through Cultural Diffusion

Reverend Manish Mishra-Marzetti

Lecture notes from the Gandhi Memorial event organized by India Discovery Center at Lincoln Public Library on Oct 15, 2017

 "The Ping-Pong Effect:
Radical Social Change Through Cultural Diffusion"


Origins of The Gita – oral tradition potentially as old as 1000 BC, written form between 200 BC and 100 AD.

Gandhi on The Gita:

When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.


British scholarship/translations – Colonialist Interpretations

Karma yoga

Individual action guided by dharma and non-attachment

          Focus is on the individual as the locus of moral agency

          What informs that moral agency?


Reinterpretations of flawed/biased British translations of Hindu texts

Emerson, direct individual access to divinity >> Individual as the locus of Divine/Universal Wisdom.


Has read The Gita, British translations.  Protégé of Emerson.

The Next Step: The individual experience of divinity, grounded in the natural world around us. 

His famous book "Walden" (1854), which was written after "Civil Disobedience," (1849) captures his enduring approach towards spirituality.  Thoreau wrote in "Walden,"

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to know [life] by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.

Antecedents to “Civil Disobedience” (1849):

Prior to his arrest, Thoreau had lived a quiet, solitary life at Walden.  Income tax did not exist; he owned no property and paid no property taxes, but he did have to pay a poll tax.

Non-compliance with unjust laws.  Jailed in Concord, MA in July 1846 for non-payment of poll tax.  Tax went to the state.  The state supported slavery, he didn't: 

“I cannot for an instant recognize . . . as my government [that] which is the slave's government also.”

State also supported Mexican-American War (underway), because of annexation of Texas.  He opposed the War.

Aunt Maria paid the tax, without consulting him.  Spent only one night in jail.  Imprisonment was Thoreau’s first direct experience with state power, and it led him to reflect on two questions: (1) Why do some individuals obey laws without asking if the laws are just or unjust; and, (2) why do others obey laws they think are wrong?

His ruminations led him to several responses, in “Civil Disobedience,”

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.

He went on to say:

The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.

Emblematic of his focus on the individual as being more important than the State, his account of what happened in "Civil Disobedience" ends with him recounting,

[I] joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour ... was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.


1900 - Gandhi was introduced to Thoreau's writings by Henry Stephens Salt, a professor of his, while attending Oxford University. Salt - Thoreau scholar.  As a result, Gandhi read "Civil Disobedience."  Later translated it in South Africa in the newspaper Indian Opinion.  In this South African newspaper Gandhi wrote,

Many years ago, there lived in America a great man named Henry David Thoreau.  He wrote much against his own country, America. He considered it a great sin that the Americans held many persons in the bond of slavery. He did not rest content with saying this, but took all other necessary steps to put a stop to this trade. One of the steps consisted in not paying any taxes to the State in which the slave trade was being carried on. He was imprisoned when he stopped paying the taxes due from him. The thoughts which occurred to him during his imprisonment were boldly original.

January 1908 - Gandhi arrested for the first time for refusing to carry an identity card.  "The Registration Law."

October 1908 - Second time arrested, Gandhi refused to pay the tax of twenty-five pounds imposed on all Indians by the South African government.  Because of this, Gandhi was arrested along with 75 other Indians.  With respect to this Gandhi wrote,

Placed in a similar position for refusing to pay his poll tax, the American citizen Thoreau expressed similar thought in 1849. Seeing the wall of the cell in which he was confined, made of solid stone 2 or 3 feet thick, and the door of wood and iron a foot thick, he said to himself, “If there were a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was still a more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was.

While in jail, Gandhi reads "Walden."

1915 - Gandhi returns to India, opposes British there as well.


          can't achieve the right ends without the right means

          Truth + firmness of force = Truth-Force

          active, not/not passive resistance, active spiritually. 

Gandhi writes:

          Non-violent resistance implies the very opposite of weakness. Defiance combined with non-retaliatory acceptance of repression from one's opponents is active, not passive.

          Key features:

          1) civil disobedience

          2) non-cooperation

          3) fasting

Different than Thoreau!

          Thoreau - individual action/disobedience

          Gandhi - communal action/Truth-Force ('civil resistance')

March 1930 - Salt March.  First organized action after INC declares independence.  Salt - basic staple.  British taxing Indian salt, and importing salt to India.  Gandhi - make salt on the beach, so as to by-pass the unfair British salt tax.  Second act was a protest at a salt works factory.  Hundreds beaten by police, unprovoked by violence.  International sensation.  Massive protests; British wouldn't budge.  Tax remained until Indian independence.

Gandhi on his enduring influence:

I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.



MLK learns of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence in a course offered by Professor George W. Davis, at Crozer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, but it had not struck fire.


Rev. Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University, travels to India. An admirer of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Johnson visited India in 1950 and later spoke about Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha as a method of social change at Fellowship House in Philadelphia to a gathering that included King, while still a student at Crozer.  King later wrote that Johnson’s talk was “so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.”

MLK goes on to write:

Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means truth force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. ... It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.


Rosa Parks.  Her words about that day, from her autobiography:

People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't           true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being        old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

MLK is minister at her church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at the young age of 25 – it was his first congregational ministry after completing his studies.

MLK Chairs the Committee leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

King says in his autobiography that “Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change” during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1956 that ended segregation on that city’s buses.


Indian disciple of Gandhi, Ranganath Diwakar, makes a three day visit to Montgomery in August 1958.  He was one of Gandhi's chief lieutenants during the Indian independence movement and had written a book on non-violent resistance.  He particularly had experience with Gandhi's philosophy of going to jail as a civil resistance strategy; MLK and Diwakar discuss this.

After Diwaker's visit, Coretta King later said, “we began to think more deeply about the whole philosophy of non-violence. We talked about how superficial and shallow our knowledge of the whole thing was.”


Following up on an invitation, MLK and Coretta visit India.  Arrived in Bombay Feb. 9, 1959, and stayed for a month.  He called it a 'pilgrimage,' not an ordinary trip.  (50th Anniversary of this trip was celebrated in 2009; State Department Delegation.)

King appreciated being enthusiastically welcomed by Nehru and other Indian political leaders at a time when he lacked similar access to America’s top leaders.

King contrasted India’s constitutional and legal protections for untouchables with the “pervasive racial discrimination in the U.S.” While India’s leaders exerted their “moral power” against caste discrimination, King said, “in the U.S. some of our highest officials declined to render a moral judgment on segregation, and some from the South publicly boast of their determination to maintain segregation.”

King met with Prime Minister Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad and other officials; social reformers such as Vinoba Bhave, who was one of Gandhi’s closest associates in the Indian freedom movement and his spiritual successor; writers; academics; and many others. King laid a wreath at the site of Gandhi’s cremation, met with Gandhi’s relatives and followers, and discussed human rights in America and India at press conferences, universities and public meetings. “Because of the keen interest that the Indian people have in the race problem, these meetings were usually packed,” he later said.

King declared his belief that "the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence is the only logical and moral approach to the solution of the race problem in the United States."

He went on to say, "I returned to America with a greater determination to achieve freedom for my people through nonviolent means. As a result of my visit to India, my understanding of nonviolence became greater and my commitment deeper."

MLK's deeper understanding of Gandhi's philosophies would come to inform his use of sit-ins as a form of non-violent resistance.  They would also go on to be the foundation of his active resistance from prison, as witnessed in 1963 in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Commonalities - Sermon on the Mount, Matthew Chapter 5

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) focus on the virtues of self-discipline, renunciation, unconditional love, self-suffering, and seeing the Divine in all human beings.  Gandhi found this in both The Gita and The Sermon on the Mount.

A purported conversation between the Hindu leader Mohandas K. Gandhi and the former British Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin:

Lord Irwin asked Gandhi what he thought would solve the problems between Great Britain and India. Gandhi picked up a Bible and opened it to the fifth chapter of Matthew and said:

When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.

Matthew 5:

1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them saying:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted. 
5 Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.



Nonviolent resistance works because of the Rule of Law

          >> Create cognitive dissonance; shame the powers that be

          into cooperation

WWII -- Genocide

Terrorists, etc

War is sometimes necessary in order to do what is right; critique of the U.S. in WWII -- we waited too long, millions died.  Aggression must at times be met with aggression.

Non-violent resistance does not address the problem of 'evil,' however defined. (Theodicy)


Ping-Pong Effect - rich cultural, generational dialogue that has fundamentally impacted both India and the United States.  Both are stronger because of the other, both have left lasting social imprints.

From MLK's All India Radio Address, March 9, 1959 (given on his last day in India):

We must come to see in the world today that what [Gandhi] taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can [truly] win a war.  Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence; it is either non-violence, or non-existence.

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