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TBI Blogs: Meet an American Gandhian Who Has Spent His Life Exploring Non-Violence as an Alternative to War

Prof. Michael Nagler is one of the world’s foremost peace activists and leaders of the non-violence movement, taking Gandhian philosophy to thousands in the USA and elsewhere.

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Professor Emeritus of Languages at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder and former chairperson of the University’s Peace and Conflict Studies Programme, Prof. Michael Nagler, who has devoted his life to exploring non-violence as an alternative to war, has become one of the world’s most respected peace scholars and activists.

Born on 20th January 1937, Prof. Nagler belongs to a rare category of peace activists who came to Mahatma Gandhi through the spiritual route. He knew something about Gandhi when he joined the Department of Classics & Comparative Literature of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966 at the age of 29. But it was his contact with an Indian savant, Eknath Easwaran, and residence in the latter’s Blue Mountain Centre of Meditation that was the turning point in his life. To quote him, “not until he began to see Gandhi through the eyes of Eknath Easwaran did he begin to understand Gandhi”.

In the mid 1970s, looking for a way to make his teaching more meaningful, he offered a course on non-violence and Gandhi. The course was successful with the students. Since there was no place for such a course in the University’s curriculum, he brought together some like-minded colleagues and began the long process of establishing the ‘Peace and Conflict Studies Programme’. He taught a major non-violence course in Peace and Conflict Studies for 25 years.

His course on non-violence had about 70 students each semester. The programme has been one of the largest in North America, and is now being used as a model for similar courses at some other colleges and universities.

During the last 15 years, Prof. Nagler has become increasingly involved in the peace movement. His concern all along has been that principled non-violence, as practiced by Gandhi, should be adopted in both constructive programmes suited to American conditions, and in non-violent resistance to injustice and oppression.

He is the founder of the Metta Centre for Non-Violence Education and Educators for Non-Violence, together with the Dalai Lama Foundation, and is now its President. He has been the moving spirit behind the ‘Shanti Sena’ project (now called Non-violent Peace Force), the first pilot project of which is at present under trial in Sri Lanka.

Prof. Nagler has delivered numerous lectures, and published articles on non-violence and conflict resolution as well as reviews of books by and on Gandhi in the journals in America and Europe. He is the author of America without Violence (1972), The Upanishads (with Eknath Easwaran) (1987), Is There No Other Way, Search for a Non-Violent Future (2002), Hope or Terror: Gandhi and the Other 9/11 (2006), and Our Spiritual Crisis (2006).

In the last-mentioned book, which is now being used for courses in the United States and other countries, he has interpreted Gandhi and non-violence in an idiom best suited to the western readers today. It is scholarly, but highly readable for intelligent lay readers.

He is now engaged in the preparation of a feature film on Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, who could infuse the war-like Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province in pre-partition India with the spirit of non-violence.

Over 20,000 students have taken courses in Peace and Conflict Studies since it was founded by Prof. Nagler in the 1970s. In addition, about 50 courses in North America have adopted his latest book, and two translations (Italian and Korean) are underway.

Prof. Nagler helped found a Non-violent Peace Force, which placed its first Non-Violent Intervention team in Sri Lanka in the summer of 2003. He has been a frequent speaker and writer on world peace and similar issues since 1972 for schools and colleges, church groups, and many public and private venues.

Prof. Nagler’s commitment to non-violence is total. This is explicitly reflected in his own outstanding work The Search for a Non-violent Future. His unerring grasp and deep perception of the Sarvodaya philosophy is undoubtedly not only very significant, but also amazing. This may be because of his strong sense of identity with Indian spirit and culture.

Prof. Nagler is now the President, Metta Center for Non-Violence Education, Berkeley, C.A. The most significant recent development has been the expansion of Metta. This office has become a busy hub for student volunteers and a resource and consultation centre.

Its new website is rapidly becoming a significant resource for students, educators, journalists, and activists.

To commemorate the launching of Satyagraha in Johannesburg in 1906, Prof. Nagler wrote the booklet Hope or Terror: Gandhi and the Real 9/11, which Metta distributed worldwide. Metta translated and distributed it in Italy as well in time for the September 11, 2006 observances. Prof. Nagler has been propagating the message of non-violence through every available media, including books, feature films, documentation, DVD, etc.

More and more students are absorbing Gandhi’s principles and incorporating them to varying degrees in their personal and active lives. Two of his students just returned from the conference “Celebrating Nonviolent Resistance” in Bethlehem, Palestine, sponsored by Non-Violence International. Others are doing human rights’ work in Lebanon and many other parts of the world. Still others are actively working in non-violence education.

One enthusiastic group has organized a “Gandhi Walk” to raise funds for Gandhian study at Berkeley. Another has initiated the development of a graduate-level programme in Peace Studies.

Prof. Nagler’s ground-breaking work in promoting Gandhian values recommends itself. His scholarly peers consider his contributions in the field of peace, non-violence, conflict resolution, and development unequaled in these disciplines. He is among the most significant living scholars in the field of Peace Studies in the USA today.

In the year 2007, Prof. Nagler received the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Promoting Gandhian Values outside India.

For more information about other past winners, visit the Jamnalal Bajaj Awards website.

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Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation was established in 1977, in memory of Jamnalal Bajaj, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. The Foundation aims to serve the ideals to which he had dedicated his life and promotes Gandhian constructive activities in which he was deeply involved during his lifetime.