Although the Gandhi Memorial Center, on Western Avenue, Bethesda, just over the D.C. line, has been around since 1976, it appears that many Montgomery County residents—even including many of Indian descent—are unfamiliar with its history, purpose and offerings. With two early October open-to-the-public events at the center, Director Srimati Karuna answered CultureSpotMC.com’s questions.
Please share some details of the history of the center, and how it came to be in Bethesda.
The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation Inc. was founded in 1959 by Swami Premananda of India. He first came to the Washington, D.C. area in 1928 to share India’s spiritual heritage at the request of his guru, Swami Yogananda Paramahansa, who settled in California. First, Swami built the Self-Revelation Church of Absolute Monism on Western Avenue in 1938, later building the Golden Lotus Temple in 1952, which became the main church building. The Gandhi Memorial Center was built in 1976 next door to the Church on the church property on Western Avenue.
Interestingly, when the property was first developed for the church and later, the Gandhi Memorial Center, the address was actually 4748 Western Ave NW, Washington, D.C. 20016. Today the address is 4748 Western Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20816 (the other side of the street being Western Ave NW, Washington, DC 20016).
When did you discover the center, and how did you become involved?
As Director, of the organization I have the privilege and blessing of guiding the life and activities of the Gandhi Memorial Center. The staff of the foundation and the Gandhi Memorial Center are dedicated workers who serve without remuneration throughout the year. This is an example of the volunteerism that Mahatma Gandhi himself advocated.
I have been involved with the Gandhi Memorial Center for nearly 20 years…since I was a graduate student at American University. Once I discovered the center, its people, activities and resources, I spent every spare moment I had helping with the work. It became my home, figuratively and literally. I became full-time Director of the Gandhi Memorial Center in 2006. I follow in the footsteps of my predecessor, Srimati Kamala, who was the Director of the Gandhi Memorial Center for 30 years, from its opening in 1976 until 2006.
What are the organization’s goals?
The purpose of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation is to disseminate and represent the philosophy, ideal, life, service and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi as well as the cultural heritage of India. The foundation is a legally independent, nonprofit cultural and educational organization.
The Gandhi Memorial Center houses headquarters for the foundation, a library and special meeting rooms for lectures and films depicting the life and activities of Mahatma Gandhi and the cultural heritage that nourished him.
In the words of the Founding Director Srimati Kamala:
“The real purpose of our Gandhi Center is not research or book lending, but life building. Gandhi’s aphorism, ‘My life is my message,’ means not only that we should see him more in light of what he did than in terms of what he said or wrote—but also that we ourselves should be more and do more than what we merely say or theorize. Ours is not a museum or shrine for inert thoughts, but an environment for self-realization in service of Satyagraha as the Mahatma himself described it: ‘self-purification, self-dedication and selflessness.’”
What kind of events do you hold?
The type and number of events we hold each year vary. Our events at the Gandhi Memorial Center are primarily cultural and educational. At times, the programs are public events for which we will look for various ways to promote the event to the surrounding communities. And at other times, we will have special programs specifically prepared for visiting groups. Recent groups that have visited the Gandhi Center for programs on Gandhi and or Indian culture have included: the State Department International Visitor Leadership Program, the D.C. Psychological Association, the South Asian Language Studies Institute and the National Society of Arts and Letters.
Throughout the year, the center receives visiting groups, classes, field trips and after-school programs. A variety of educational programs are offered to preschool, elementary, high school and college students as well as community and mentoring groups.
The center also presents a wide array of cultural expressions from the Indian sub-continent throughout the year, including programs of music, dance, literature, art and photography. The center brings together the spiritual and philosophical ideal of the arts, exploring nature and humanity as one in the beautiful and creative expression of life.
The Gandhi Center Library has a collection dedicated to the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, offering a broad representation of authors from many cultures and times, as well as displays, exhibits and demonstrations of cultural and educational value. The library is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment. It is a lending library, and a very beautiful and peaceful space for study and contemplation.
Please talk about what will happen at the Oct. 2 event listed on your calendar. What will happen during the annual anniversary observance? Are there changes from previous years?
Every Oct. 2, the center, in cooperation with the Embassy of India, commemorates Gandhi Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Special guest remarks, devotional music and dance offerings are all part of this inspired gathering. Each year, there will be some similar features, but there is always a little something new and different in terms of the devotional offerings. This year, the concluding musical homage will be offered by Montgomery County resident Deepak Ram, who is trained in Indian classical music on the bansuri (bamboo flute). He began his music studies at Tolstoy Farm in South Africa (Gandhi’s ashram in South Africa).
To accommodate a larger gathering, the observance is held in the Golden Lotus Temple next door to the center. Around the reflecting pool in front of the temple are placed lit oil lamps, one for every year since the birth of Gandhi. This year, there will be 148 lights lit around the reflecting pool.
We always have our gathering on Oct. 2, regardless of what day of the week it may be. This year, the observance will take place on Monday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. It is a very inspiring and beautiful occasion to share. All are welcome.
The Gandhi Memorial Center has presented Gandhi Jayanti observances for over 40 years. A wonderful tradition in Montgomery County!
What about the Oct. 8 book launch event?
The book launch on Sunday, Oct. 8, is open to the public, but we ask that participants RSVP so that we will have an accurate account in preparing for the seating and refreshments in the Gandhi Center Library. The two individuals who will present their new publication, “Unveiling Sufism: From Manhattan to Mecca” are not local authors, however, one of the authors did live in Bethesda for a time. Both are currently professors in Canada. Though this book is not specifically connected to Gandhi and to India, the tradition of the Sufi faith is certainly very strong in India and other parts of South Asia. And the Gandhi Memorial Center has from time to time presented authors, exhibits and other presentations to share the cultural and spiritual tradition that influenced Gandhi.
The Gandhi Memorial Center, 4748 Western Ave., Bethesda, will hold a 148th Birth Anniversary Observance of Mahatma Gandhi at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 2, and a book launch for “Unveiling Sufism” by William Rory Dickson and Meena Sharify-Funk from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8. Call 301-320-6871 or visit www.gandhimemorialcenter.org.