Raising the Curtain on “Gandhi Centre Stage”

“History … is a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history.” —M.K.Gandhi

I have never bothered to respond to Gandhi detractors because, like the Mahatma himself, I tend to think their pathetic writings are best left to die a natural death—the eventual fate of all untruth. Nevertheless, when Michael Lerner urged me to reply to “Gandhi Centre Stage,” the article by Perry Anderson that appeared in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, I assented.


Gandhi takes part in the Bardoli Satyagraha in 1928. Credit: Creative Commons.

Anderson is a brilliant traditional historian; his article (the first in a series) is well written and very well researched. His article provides a detailed and at times astute analysis of Gandhi’s life and career—from a political perspective. It is, in short, a brilliant failure.

Reading Anderson’s Gandhi, I felt as though I were watching a play where the curtain had gotten stuck about six inches off the stage: you hear the muffled voices of the actors but can only guess, from their feet, what’s really going on. Let me start with a real howler. At the end of the day, says Anderson, “Satyagraha had not been a success.” Excuse me? Are we saying that the British still rule India—or they just decided to march out for some other reason? As early as 1926, when Gandhi wrote the preface to his classic, Satyagraha in South Africa, he spelled out the step-by-step advance of Satyagraha in India from the earliest campaign, against the Viramgam tariff lines, through the brilliant success in Champaran and finally nationwide non-cooperation. All that experience set the stage for the campaign at Bardoli, in 1928, which Anderson calls “farcical” but was actually a perfect testing ground for the climactic Salt Satyagraha of two years later. Similarly, Anderson writes that the decision to launch “Quit India” twelve years later on was “sudden,” by implication capricious, but in reality it was twenty-six years in the making. In his own assessment, after fifty years of experimentation with Satyagraha in every walk of life, Gandhi declared that he “knew of no instance in which it has failed.”

Not all historians miss this essential point, to be sure. Arnold Toynbee said, “He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India, but he made it possible for us to leave without rancor and without humiliation.”

Who was Gandhi? A British prelate once made the mistake of approaching him with the words, “We’re both men of God, Mr. Gandhi, aren’t we?” The Mahatma replied, “You are a politician disguised as a man of God; I am a man of God disguised as a politician.” Why did he take on the disguise?

According to Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi the Man, Gandhi once said:

To see the universal and all-pervading spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into politics.

Because a satyagrahi (practitioner of Satyagraha) relies on a not-very-visible “living power,” as Gandhi called it, and does not think of her or himself or anyone else as a merely thinking, cost-benefit calculator (not to mention as an enemy), Satyagraha works at a level  different from  ordinary political struggle. One has to know what to look for in order to evaluate whether a given episode succeeded or failed (the latter result being  not possible in Gandhi’s understanding of the principle). In Satyagraha, as Gandhi’s biographer, the late B. R. Nanda, explains, “it is perfectly possible to lose all the battles and go on to win the war.” That is because you are trying to win over the opponent as well as, or even more than, force him to make different political arrangements. Hearts and minds don’t show up on the radar screens of political scientists, but in the long run they definitely shape political as well as other human realities. Gandhi scholars are quite aware that while the Salt Satyagraha, to take the climactic example, failed to change the salt laws to any significant extent, it showed that “all hope of reconciling India with the British Empire is lost forever” (D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma). It was a perfect example of what we call today a “dilemma action,” where the opponent either lets you do what you want (which the British tried at first) or has to use such brutality to stop you (as they subsequently did) that either way you win. This win was the big one. After what the British-led Surat police did to unresisting “raiders” at the Dharasana salt pans ( May 21, 1930), everyone knew that India was now free.

And yet, even that momentous change was only the beginning. In the words of American correspondent Webb Miller, closely paraphrased in Attenborough’s Gandhi, “any moral ascendancy the West has held was lost here today.” Nobel prizewinner Albert Szent Gyeorgyi got it in his book The Crazy Ape:

Between the two world wars, at the heyday of Colonialism, force reigned supreme. It had a suggestive power, and it was natural for the weaker to lie down before the stronger.

Then came Gandhi, chasing out of his country, almost singlehanded, the greatest military power on earth. He taught the world that there are higher things than force, higher even than life itself; he proved that force had lost its suggestive power.

If one is unfamiliar with the dynamics of Satyagraha  it is often difficult to connect the dots. In the event known as “Prague Spring” (1968-1969) Czech resisters failed, once their leaders were co-opted, to hold the Warsaw Pact armies at bay and carry through with  reforms. But in this “failure”  the activists got a taste of what popular nonviolent resistance can do. As Petra Kelly observed:

The Soviets were able to reassert their authority and delay the reforms of the Prague Spring by twenty-one years. But through their sacrifice and suffering, the people of Czechoslovakia … later did indeed succeed in their ‘Velvet Revolution.’ These events demonstrate the power of nonviolent social defense.

Another statement of Anderson’s also shocked me:

His autobiography was subtitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth, as if truth were material for alteration in a laboratory, or the plaything of a séance. In his “readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment,” he was freed from any requirement of consistency. ‘My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements,’ he declared, but ‘with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment’…. The result was a licence to say whatever he wanted, regardless of what he had said before, whenever he saw fit.

We have to sympathize with Anderson’s frustration. Many of Gandhi’s associates felt it, too. For example, when he explained that his phenomenally successful “Epic Fast” against separate electorates in 1932 was prompted by his hearing the voice of God and therefore not open to counter-arguments (compare Socrates’s daimon). But for Gandhi, as for Socrates, the ability to hear “the Inner Voice” is real (though there is no question that others, probably most others, who make such claims are fooling themselves): “I have stated a simple, scientific law that can be verified by anyone who will carry out the necessary preparations.”

It might be helpful to bring to light the basic assumptions that underlie the logic that Anderson and many other detractors follow.

  • There is no such thing as a God-conscious person.
  • Gandhi claims to be a God-conscious person.
  • Therefore, Gandhi is a phony.

I do not accept the first premise. To me it seems that Jesus, St. Francis, the Buddha—fill in your own list—became aware of God more or less the same way that Gandhi said he did, namely by “a course of long, prayerful discipline.” I believe that these people are not phonies (what an understatement!), although their behavior is bound to cause befuddlement, if not consternation, to the vast majority of us who simply have not (yet) developed that blessed awareness. Anandamayi Ma, the Bengali mystic who was a young girl at the time of the Epic Fast, would pack up her whole retinue and tear off on a train to some spot hundreds of miles away at the prompting of her kheyal, or inner command to go to a devotee who, she had somehow sensed, was in some kind of trouble.

But if Gandhi was prompted at times by the “Inner Voice,” many of his decisions appeared inconsistent only to those who missed the subtleties of his logic. When violence broke out during Quit India and Gandhi did not call off the Satyagraha or fast as he had done in 1922 when police officers were killed by protestors at Chauri Chaura, a liberal British MP, Robert Bernays, asked him about the inconsistency. Gandhi appreciated the chance to explain: in 1922 he had been in sole charge of the Satyagraha, which was no longer the case. He had had to prove to the people that he was dead serious about the inadmissibility of violence, while now they were at a different stage both in their national “conversation” and their dialogue with the British. The thing to do now was “let their lamp of nonviolence continue burning in the surrounding storm.”

Yet, in the end, there will still be things that appear inconsistent to even a careful observer who does not share a Gandhi’s spiritual insight. You cannot expect to pour spiritual wine into political bottles. Toward the end of his life, when Gandhi was asked why so many of his associates left him as soon as Independence came into view, he said, referring to the region of the Himalayas where sages have long withdrawn to practice their disciplines, “I was on the train to Rishikesh; they got off at Delhi.” If you cannot see what a Gandhi is seeing, you either throw up your hands (as Anderson does) or stand back in admiration (as I do).

Let me mention just two other serious errors of interpretation in “Centre Stage,” and then draw what I think is an important conclusion for all of us.

Anderson claims (again in an offhand remark) that Gandhi “admired Hitler.” In the same breath he characterizes difficulties posed by the notorious Subash Chandra Bose, or “Netaji” (the Leader) as “an affront which Gandhi, who was not prepared to let democracy get in the way of his will, swiftly punished.”

Here we are perilously close to intellectual dishonesty. Anderson cannot possibly be unaware that Bose was advocating violence, that he in fact would take up arms against the British, go on to pay a visit to Hitler, and appear with him in public before a cheering crowd. Does Anderson not know the difference between violence and nonviolence—or not care? He may not, but for Gandhi the difference was one of night and day. There could be no room for advocates of violence in a party which was trying, for the first time in history, to show that nonviolence could prevail in politics. Gandhi could not possibly accept “by any means necessary,” not even in the name of “democracy”—as though you can sustain democracy, which is based on the dignity and priceless worth of the individual, by violence, which is the contradiction of that principle.

In short, the words “affront” and “punished” in Anderson’s characterization are completely out of place—and we have the irony that Anderson calls Gandhi, who wrote a letter to Hitler begging him to desist and telling him that he was “no friend of the German people,” an “admirer” of the Nazi leader while Bose, who really was such an admirer, gets no such critique. Gandhi did strain to find some good things about Hitler’s character, but to say on the basis of these good qualities that Gandhi, with his uncanny generosity of spirit,  “admired” the German dictator misses the point: for one such as Gandhi it would be a fatal hypocrisy to hate any person, however much he hated their doings. Finding the good hidden in even Hitler was one of the greatest tests of Gandhi’s ideals, which he passed. Unfortunately for us, in doing so he also passed the limits of ordinary comprehension.

Unlike many products of the burgeoning industry of Gandhi detractors, Anderson’s article is a serious, though I think misguided, piece of work and is not vulgar. Unlike Joseph Lelyveld and his followers, Anderson only mentions in passing, as a snide but not prurient observation, things about Gandhi’s behavior in the sexual arena that Westerners find difficult to understand. That much we can certainly appreciate. But by now you will realize that the mischaracterization of Gandhi and the failure to understand the significance of violence and nonviolence go hand-in-hand, and are precisely the confusion we are facing, e.g. in the Occupy movement, when those who, seeing only the political level of human experience, call for a “diversity of tactics.” For Anderson, who sees only failure in Gandhi’s Satyagraha campaign (because it did not always deliver precisely the desired political result), “his great achievement lay elsewhere, in the creation of a nationalist party.” This would be like saying that Einstein’s great achievement was playing the violin.

The lesson of this sad failure of even a brilliant intellectual such as Perry Anderson to understand Gandhi is that we spiritual progressives have to be creators of a new culture.  We must everywhere, calmly and persuasively, uphold the new narrative: that all life is one and the spiritual force that aligns us with that reality is invincible.


4 thoughts on “Raising the Curtain on “Gandhi Centre Stage”

  1. Professor Nagler,
    The Perry Anderson essays have created a mini storm in the serious intellectual circles; but most responses have been defensive, people have misunderstood his essays and attacked his integrity which is unfortunate. Your piece above is the kind of rebuttal rhat was needed. Thank you for a very well written piece. One would have to be a Gandhian to write it.
    And I mean it as the highest form of a compliment.

  2. Mahtmah Gandhi was man of many talents – but not a Hindu Saint by any mean. He was not an admirer of Hitler or the World Zionist Movement. The Zionist lobby took Gandhi’s words out of context. In a letter to Hitler, Gandhi did address Hitler as “Dear Hitler”. Last year, Bollywood announced producing a movie by the name “My Dear Hitler”.

    Gandhi was against the partition of Palestine. He had advised the Eurpean Jewry to stay in its western homeland and fight Nazis with non-violent mass protests. He did not want the Palestinians to be punished for the crimes of the Nazis. Before his assassination in 1948 – He told Doon Campbell of Reuters: “It has become a problem which seems almost insoluble. If I were a Jew, I would tell them: ‘Do not be so silly as to resort to terrorism…’ The Jews should meet the Arabs, make friends with them and not depend on British aid or American aid, save what descends from Jehovah.”

    Gandhi was not a Jew-hater. According to Gandhi’s Jewish biographer, Joseph Lelyveld, Gandhi had a Jewish gay boyfriend. Though the author ignore to mention that Gandhi’s 17-year-old personal secretary in South Africa, Sonja Schlesin (1888-1956) was also Jewish.

    Former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld in Gandhi’s biography ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India’ – has claimed Gandhi to be a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist – one who was often downright cruel to those around him.


  3. It strikes me as juvenile to act as if Gandhi was without significant flaws. Most people who seek power — and don’t be deluded, he did — are driven by forces that defy an easy moral construct. This nonsense that Jews should have stayed in a Western homeland after their almost perfect annihilation is a cruel after thought. It’s emminently possible that Gandhi had his own bigotries and was animated by them just like the rest of us. A god he was not. A complex man striving to do good, he was. Perfection eluded him then, it eludes him still.

  4. In pursuance with above all commentaries, I would like to share my views on Gandhi, “a dual personality”, according to Dr. BR Ambedkar. Since Gandhian era in Indian political ambiance strove to relieve all Indians from British rule and sought to obtain their “just” share in administration, it was Gandhi, the Mahatma who denied untouchables in India their justified rights to the end of his life.
    I fondly ask Mr.Nagler, “Is opposing thousand year’s downtrodden’s rights a sole sign of being called a Mahatma ?” To other minorities, he consented to be a part of Indian social milieu, not untouchables ? Why ?
    Dr. Ambedkar, in the context of social and religious reformation, was much ahead than Gandhi. There can be no denying the fact that Gandhi was praised by many credulous people whereas Dr. Ambedkar was canonized as the Messiah of the bereaved for centuries.