In honor of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday today, we share the thoughts of teachers who analyzed his practice of ahimsa, or non-violence on their 2015 FFT fellowship. Katie Seltzer and Eric Berge spent five weeks in India learning about the teaching of non-harm present in Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. They share some of their experiences and insights below:Q Can you briefly describe your fellowship — where you went and why? A We were truly immersed in the culture of non-violence during our participation in the International School for Jain Studies Teaching for Peace Program by living, (even eating!) and studying nonviolence. Additionally, with our side trip to Varanasi, we explored the Buddhist roots of nonviolence in India by visiting Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon, where he taught the origins of suffering and the method for overcoming suffering. In Varanasi, we explored the Hindu practice of cremation on the sacred Ganges River—a returning of body and soul to the earth in a non-violent burial practice. From these experiences, we deepened our understanding of ahimsa through the study of Gandhi’s writing and visiting his home in Mumbai, his home in New Delhi and site of his assassination, and the site of his cremation. We were impressed with Gandhi’s commitment to simple living, exemplified by the exhibit on his few possessions. The inspiration for our learning was to determine how schools and students can be agents of peace in the midst of diverse cultures and religious illiteracy. Q How did your fellowship translate to the classroom? A
Eric: I incorporated the religion of Jainism into my teaching of World Religions. In India, we had the opportunity to learn about the Jain teaching of nonviolence directly by spending a month living in Jain communities. Students were fascinated to learn about how the Jain teaching of nonviolence extends to animal and plant life. I shared with students the strictures of the Jain vegetarian diet—eating no meat, leafy green vegetables, and root vegetables. I had the students read the story of the Mango Tree, which we learned about in India, to teach about why Jains follow this diet. Students read the story, which talks about a group of friends walking through the forest and encountering a mango tree. In order to get the mangos, one friend suggests cutting down the tree, another cutting down a branch, and another picking the mangos off the tree. However, the final friend tells them that if they look around, there are enough mangos on the ground to feed all of them. This friend illustrates ahimsa by limiting his harm of the natural world, and ensuring that there will be enough for everyone to go around. We also learned about the Jain commitment to nonviolence by learning about the lives of Jain monks. After watching an Indian cartoon about Mahavir, the founder of Jainism, and his commitment to nonviolence, students looked at photos of Jain monks and nuns that I took in India. I shared stories of the Jain monks that we met, and we watched a short video I filmed of a woman taking the vows to become a Jain nun. Students then reflected on what Jainism can teach them about nonviolence. Students realize that nonviolence can include what we eat, how we interact with others, and living simply. These Jain truths are relevant to all students regardless of religious traditions.
Katie: I incorporated my experience of Gandhi into my teaching of Religion and Social Justice. We begin by studying the life of Gandhi through images of him, a brief documentary on his movement, and primary source documents, including his own writings. Students explore how nonviolence is an active, not a passive, method of working for social change. A new student project has students find their own injustice in society and create the idea for a nonviolent movement to address the problem, using the methods of Gandhi. Additionally, students look at how Gandhi’s methods can help them resolve conflicts in their own lives. We watch a Bollywood movie, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, about Gandhi coming back to life to teach a mobster about how ahimsa is more powerful than physical force. The humorous movie builds on the concepts of Gandhi that students explore earlier in the unit. The students then work on applying Gandhi’s techniques in case studies of interpersonal conflicts and then to conflicts in their own life. The goal is to make Gandhi’s teachings of ahimsa relevant, and have his movement educate a new generation of students.Q What do you consider the lasting impact of your learning in India? AIn a sense, words fail to describe how fully we were able to deepen our study of ahimsa by experiencing it in our daily life. We maintained a strict vegetarian diet, which may not sound life-altering, but the impetus behind it (that non-violence starts with how you sustain your life at the most basic level) is a completely different world view from an American one. Participating in the ISJS Teaching for Peace Program enabled us to live as and among Jains who are firmly committed in all that they do to reducing violence in the world. While we won’t be testing our students on how to be vegetarian, we will be better equipped to answer questions about belief-systems that are so radically different from mainstream American views. Our fellowship enabled us to meet and with students, teachers, monks and lay people daily striving for ahimsa. Their example became an example to us—ahimsa made visible in their welcoming of us and their daily practices. So our main take away from the fellowship really came from those whom we met as living examples of Gandhi’s quote: “There is no path to peace, peace is the path.”
At the time of their fellowship, Eric and Katie both taught at Cristo Rey New York High School in Harlem, but have since moved to Portland Oregon and teach at Valley Catholic High School and Oregon Episcopal High School, respectively. They are proud that that their fellowship is affecting three schools on two coasts. Eric received his BA in Religious Studies from Gonzaga University and an MS in Conflict Resolution from Portland State University. Katie is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and Harvard Divinity School.