Gandhi Needs No Defense- We Do

Dear friends,

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you — and then you win.”

Gandhi detractors come and go and usually we pay no attention to them.  Some scabrous reviews that take off from the recent biography by former NYT editor Joseph Lelyveld, however, have sent shock waves across the internet and many friends have written to ask us to respond.  We do, in what follows.  Please forward to your network or anyone worried about these attacks; and take this opportunity to deepen your familiarity with the Mahatma’s legacy.

By Michael Nagler

If the greatness of a man or woman can sometimes be measured by the vehemence of his or her detractors, then Mahatma Gandhi is surely the greatest human being of the Twentieth Century, and perhaps more.  Surely he deserves that tribute that Einstein paid him, that “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this trod the earth in flesh and blood.”

That is the problem with Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography, Great Soul — or at least with the review by Andrew Roberts in the Wall Street Journal for March 26, 2011 (The book itself is sometimes insidiously suggestive but rarely as bad as this and some other reviews which are spreading shockwaves around the internet).  He (Roberts) scarcely can believe that Gandhi could possibly have risen above the reductionist, downtrodden image of humanity into which we have allowed ourselves to be dragged by the culture of modern industrialized and commercially advertising societies. Roberts tips his hand himself when he writes, “Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.”  What a travesty on a man of whom one follower said “it was as if he was always blessing you with his eyes” and others explained they were happy in the ashram “because we are near Bapu [Gandhi].

No, Gandhi was not Ivan Karamazov.  Who was he?

He was a human being who “by a course of long, prayerful discipline” (in more modern language, over years of meditation and allied disciplines) so utterly reduced the ego-function that he could claim, in all humility, to have ceased hating anyone on earth.  Our problem is, we don’t really have a category into which to put such a person.  “Saint” won’t work, for most of us.  Even in India, Gandhi’s self-realization was unusual in that he went all the way with the third, and until recently less-travelled path of karma yoga or realization through selfless action according to the implicit formula of the Bhagavad Gita that I summarize as: Choose the right task (in accordance with your dharma and with the overriding Dharma [eternal Law]), carry it out with the right means (aka nonviolence), and take no ownership of the personal results.  Working 15 hours a day for fifty years to liberate India from the greatest empire the world had ever known — showing the world in so doing the inestimable power of nonviolence — and ending up owning about $10 worth of material possessions: he followed the formula perfectly, and yes, generations to come have scarcely believed it was possible even though it happened.

This lack of a category in which to understand someone of Gandhi’s stature, plus the sheer inconvenience of recognizing his challenge — Gandhi himself had insisted that “any man or woman can do what I have done” — makes it extremely difficult to accept the towering message of that life.  It is not the first time.  The young Rush Limbaugh went on the air after immediately Attenborough’s substantially accurate portrayal of Gandhi appeared in 1980 with the standard litany of detractions that critics fire off from left and right when anyone, especially a nonviolent champion, is mentioned.  And as Gandhi himself said about our civilization, rather cuttingly, “the only people who don’t realize that Jesus was nonviolent are the Christians.”  Because he’s the biggest challenge for them — and the biggest inspiration for Christians who accept that challenge, like those in Christian Peacemaker Teams, Pax Christi, and many others.

Given the recent successes of nonviolence against seemingly entrenched regimes it is not surprising that those who are in alignment with such regimes should seize on these desperate, and shameless attempts to tear down its greatest inspiration.

There are downright falsifications in Roberts’s brief account also, for example where he says that “In August 1942, with the Japanese at the gates of India, having captured most of Burma, Gandhi initiated a campaign designed to hinder the war effort and force the British to ‘Quit India.’”  As a matter of fact, this was one of Gandhi’s greatest feats of restraint.  The British secret war plan, later leaked, was to abandon India the minute the Japanese invaded.  They had prevented him from preparing the country for nonviolent resistance (of the type called Civilian Based Defense, which worked well in the Ruhr invasion of 1923-25 and was to work brilliantly, within a certain frame, in the “Prague Spring” uprising of 1968, etc.) and they declared India at war with Germany without asking her.  Despite all this, Gandhi carried out his policy of “non-embarrassment,” as he had done brilliantly in South Africa with the European railroad workers’s strike of 1913, and offered a “Satyagraha of one” in the person of Vinoba Bhave that specifically did not interfere with the allied war effort while demonstrating India’s continued opposition to her colonization.

But there is really not much point arguing from specifics, because detractors like Limbaugh and Roberts and many others I have argued with over the years are not basing their beliefs on specifics.  They are choosing, or doctoring specifics to fit their beliefs.  Or rather, lack of same: to fit into the narrowness of their vision.

I would recommend to anyone upset by this firestorm to read some truly balanced, reliable biographies like Rajmohan Gandhi’s recent one or Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi the Man, and above all to keep our minds and hearts open to the possible greatness of the human person, no matter how unfamiliar or out of reach it may appear.

During his lifetime, Gandhi had a genius for turning apparent setbacks in to opportunities.  I have a feeling he’s going to do the same with this one.