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Gandhi And His Legacy

We’ll look at Gandhi — his achievements and his disappointments — with Pulitzer prize-winning writer Joseph Lelyveld.

Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1948. (AP)

Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1948. (AP)

Mohandas K. Gandhi – Mahatma Gandhi – is a global symbol of nonviolent struggle.

From India’s independence movement, to the American civil rights era, to Tunisia and Cairo’s Tahrir Square, his name has stood for an ideal of moral suasion – civil disobedience – without violence.

A new biography of Gandhi by Pulitzer prize winner Joseph Lelyveld looks again at the man in his time. His successes, his failures, his foibles. It’s raising a storm in India and beyond.

This hour On Point: Looking again at Gandhi.

- Tom Ashbrook


Joseph Lelyveld, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author. He worked for the New York Times in both South Africa and India and his since worked for the last four decades for the newspaper, most recently as executive editor. His book “Move Your Shadows: South Africa, Black and White” won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. His most recent book is “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India.”


Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India

By Joseph Lelyveld


It was a brief only a briefless lawyer might have accepted. Mohandas Gandhi landed in South Africa as an untested, unknown twenty-three- year-old law clerk brought over from Bombay, where his effort to launch a legal career had been stalled for more than a year. His stay in the country was expected to be temporary, a year at most. Instead, a full twenty-one years elapsed before he made his final departure on July 14, 1914. By then, he was forty-four, a seasoned politician and negotiator, recently leader of a mass movement, author of a doctrine for such struggles, a pithy and prolific political pamphleteer, and more-a self-taught evangelist on matters spiritual, nutritional, even medical. That’s to say, he was well on his way to becoming the Gandhi India would come to revere and, sporadically, follow.

None of that was part of the original job description. His only mission at the outset was to assist in a bitter civil suit between two Muslim trading firms with roots of their own in Porbandar, the small port on the Arabian Sea, in the northwest corner of today’s India, where he was born. All the young lawyer brought to the case were his fluency in English and Gujarati, his first language, and his recent legal training at the Inner Temple in London; his lowly task was to function as an interpreter, culturally as well as linguistically, between the merchant who engaged him and the merchant’s English attorney.

Up to this point there was no evidence of his ever having had a spontaneous political thought. During three years in London-and the nearly two years of trying to find his feet in India that followed-his causes were dietary and religious: vegetarianism and the mystical cult known as Theosophy, which claimed to have absorbed the wisdom of the East, in particular of Hinduism, about which Gandhi, looking for footholds on a foreign shore, had more curiosity then than scriptural knowledge himself. Never a mystic, he found fellowship in London with other seekers on what amounted, metaphorically speaking, to a small weedy fringe, which he took to be common ground between two cultures.

South Africa, by contrast, challenged him from the start to explain what he thought he was doing there in his brown skin. Or, more precisely, in his brown skin, natty frock coat, striped pants, and black turban, flattened in the style of his native Kathiawad region, which he wore into a magistrate’s court in Durban on May 23, 1893, the day after his arrival. The magistrate took the headgear as a sign of disrespect and ordered the unknown lawyer to remove it; instead, Gandhi stalked out of the courtroom. The small confrontation was written up the next day in The Natal Advertiser in a sardonic little article titled “An Unwelcome Visitor.” Gandhi immediately shot off a letter to the newspaper, the first of dozens he’d write to deflect or deflate white sentiments. “Just as it is a mark of respect amongst Europeans to take off their hats,” he wrote, an Indian shows respect by keeping his head covered. “In England, on attending drawing-room meetings and evening parties, Indians always keep the head-dress, and the English ladies and gentlemen seem to appreciate the regard which we show thereby.”

The letter saw print on what was only the fourth day the young nonentity had been in the land. It’s noteworthy because it comes nearly two weeks before a jarring experience of racial insult, on a train heading inland from the coast, that’s generally held to have fired his spirit of resistance. The letter to the Advertiser would seem to demonstrate that Gandhi’s spirit didn’t need igniting; its undertone of teasing, of playful jousting, would turn out to be characteristic. Yet it’s the train incident that’s certified as transformative not only in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi or Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha but in Gandhi’s own Autobiography, written three decades after the event.

If it wasn’t character forming, it must have been character arousing (or deepening) to be ejected, as Gandhi was at Pietermaritzburg, from a first-class compartment because a white passenger objected to having to share the space with a “coolie.” What’s regularly underplayed in the countless renditions of the train incident is the fact that the agitated young lawyer eventually got his way. The next morning he fired off telegrams to the general manager of the railway and his sponsor in Durban. He raised enough of a commotion that he finally was allowed to reboard the same train from the same station the next night under the protection of the stationmaster, occupying a first-class berth.

The rail line didn’t run all the way to Johannesburg in those days, so he had to complete the final leg of the trip by stagecoach. Again he fell into a clash that was overtly racial. Gandhi, who’d refrained from making a fuss about being seated outside on the coach box next to the driver, was dragged down at a rest stop by a white crewman who wanted the seat for himself. When he resisted, the crewman called him a “sammy”-a derisive South African epithet for Indians (derived from “swami,” it’s said)-and started thumping him. In Gandhi’s retelling, his protests had the surprising effect of rousing sympathetic white passengers to intervene on his behalf. He manages to keep his seat and, when the coach stops for the night, shoots off a letter to the local supervisor of the stagecoach company, who then makes sure that the young foreigner is seated inside for the final stage of the journey.

All the newcomer’s almost instantaneous retorts in letters and telegrams tell us that young Mohan, as he would have been called, brought his instinct for resistance (what the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called his “eternal negative”) with him to South Africa. Its alien environment would prove a perfect place for that instinct to flourish. In what was still largely a frontier society, the will to white domination had yet to produce a settled racial order. (It never would, in fact, though the attempt would be systematically made.) Gandhi would not have to seek conflict; it would find him.

In these bumpy first days in a new land, Mohan Gandhi comes across on first encounters as a wiry, engaging figure, soft-spoken but not at all reticent. His English is on its way to becoming impeccable, and he’s as well dressed in a British manner as most whites he meets. He can stand his ground, but he’s not assertive or restless in the sense of seeming unsettled. Later he would portray himself as having been shy at this stage in his life, but in fact he consistently demonstrates a poise that may have been a matter of heritage: he’s the son and grandson of diwans, occupants of the top civil position in the courts of the tiny princely states that proliferated in the part of Gujarat where he grew up. A diwan was a cross between a chief minister and an estate manager. Gandhi’s father evidently failed to dip into his rajah’s coffers for his own benefit and remained a man of modest means. But he had status, dignity, and assurance to bequeath. These attributes in combination with his brown skin and his credentials as a London-trained barrister are enough to mark the son as unusual in that time and place in South Africa: for some, at least, a sympathetic, arresting figure.

He’s susceptible to moral appeals and ameliorative doctrines but not particularly curious about his new surroundings or the tangle of moral issues that are as much part of the new land as its hardy flora. He has left a wife and two sons behind in India and has yet to import the string of nephews and cousins who’d later follow him to South Africa, so he’s very much on his own. Because he failed to establish himself as a lawyer in Bombay, his temporary commission represents his entire livelihood and that of his family, so he can reasonably be assumed to be on the lookout for ways to jump-start a career. He wants his life to matter, but he’s not sure where or how; in that sense, like most twenty-three-year-olds, he’s vulnerable and unfinished. He’s looking for something-a career, a sanctified way of life, preferably both-on which to fasten. You can’t easily tell from the autobiography he’d dash off in weekly installments more than three decades later, but at this stage he’s more the unsung hero of an East-West bildungsroman than the Mahatma in waiting he portrays who experiences few doubts or deviations after his first weeks in London before he turned twenty. The Gandhi who landed in South Africa doesn’t seem a likely recipient of the spiritual honorific-”Mahatma” means “Great Soul”-that the poet Rabindranath Tagore affixed to his name years later, four years after his return to India. His transformation or self-invention-a process that’s as much inward as outward-takes years, but once it’s under way, he’s never again static or predictable.

Toward the end of his life, when he could no longer command the movement he’d led in India, Gandhi found words in a Tagore song to express his abiding sense of his own singularity: “I believe in walking alone. I came alone in this world, I have walked alone in the valley of the shadow of death, and I shall quit alone, when the time comes.” He wouldn’t have put it quite so starkly when he landed in South Africa, but he felt himself to be walking alone in a way he could hardly have imagined had he remained in the cocoon of his Indian extended family.

He’d have other racial encounters of varying degrees of nastiness as he settled into a rough-and-ready South Africa where whites wrote the rules: in Johannesburg, the manager of the Grand National Hotel would look him over and only then discover there were no free rooms; in Pretoria, where there was actually a bylaw reserving sidewalks for the exclusive use of whites, a policeman on guard in front of President Paul Kruger’s house would threaten to cuff the strolling newcomer into the road for transgressing on the pavement; a white barber there would refuse to cut his hair; in Durban the law society would object to his being registered as an advocate, a status hitherto reserved for whites; he would be denied admission to a worship service at an Anglican church.

It would take a full century for such practices to grind to a halt, for white minority rule finally to reach its inevitable and well- deserved end in South Africa. Now new monuments to Gandhi are scattered about the land, reflecting the heroic role attributed to him in the country’s rewritten history. I saw such monuments not only at the Phoenix Settlement but in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, and Dundee. Nearly always it was the elderly figure Winston Churchill scorned as “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer now posing as a fakir . . . striding half-naked” who was portrayed, not the tailored South African lawyer. (Probably that was because most of these statues and busts had been shipped from India, supplied by its government.) In Johannesburg, however, in a large urban space renamed Gandhi Square- formerly it bore the name of an Afrikaner bureaucrat-the South African Gandhi is shown in mufti, striding in the direction of the site of the now-demolished law court where he appeared both as attorney and as prisoner, his bronze lawyer’s robe fluttering over a bronze Western suit. Gandhi Square is just around the corner from his old law office at the corner of Rissik and Anderson streets, where he received visitors under a tinctured image of Jesus Christ. The vegetarian restaurant, steps away, where he first encountered his closest white friends is long gone; hard by the place where it stood, perhaps exactly on the spot, a McDonald’s now does a fairly brisk nonvegetarian trade. But it’s not entirely far-fetched for the new South Africa to claim Gandhi as its own, even if he failed to foresee it for most of his time in the country. In finding his feet there, he formed the persona he would inhabit in India in the final thirty-three years of his life, when he set an example that colonized peoples across the globe, including South Africans, would find inspiring.

One of the new Gandhi memorials sits on a platform of the handsome old railway station in Pietermaritzburg-Maritzburg for short-close to the spot where the newcomer detrained, under a corrugated iron roof trimmed with what appears to be the original Victorian filigree. The plaque says his ejection from the train “changed the course” of Gandhi’s life. “He took up the fight against racial oppression,” it proclaims. “His active non-violence started from that day.”

That’s an inspirational paraphrase of Gandhi’s Autobiography, but it’s squishy as history. Gandhi claims in the Autobiography to have called a meeting on arrival in Pretoria to rally local Indians and inspire them to face up to the racial situation. If he did, little came of it. In that first year, he had yet to assume a mantle of leadership; he was not even seen as a resident, just a junior lawyer imported from Bombay on temporary assignment. His undemanding legal work left him with time on his hands, which he devoted more to religion than to politics; in this new environment, he became an even more serious and eclectic spiritual seeker than he’d been in London. This was a matter of chance as well as inclination. The attorney he was supposed to assist turned out to be an evangelical Christian with a more intense interest in Gandhi’s soul than in the commercial case on which they were supposed to be working. Gandhi spent much of his time in a prolonged engagement with white evangelicals who found in him a likely convert. He even attended daily prayer meetings, which regularly included prayers that the light would shine for him.

He told his new friends, all whites, that he was spiritually uncommitted but nearly always denied thereafter that he’d ever seriously contemplated conversion. However, according to the scholar who has made the closest study of Gandhi’s involvement with missionaries, it took him two years to resolve the question in his own mind. On one occasion Gandhi acknowledged as much to Millie Polak, the wife of a British lawyer who was part of his inner circle for his last ten years in South Africa. “I did once seriously think of embracing Christianity,” she quoted him as having said. “I was tremendously attracted to Christianity, but eventually I came to the conclusion that there was nothing really in your scriptures that we had not got in ours, and that to be a good Hindu also meant I would be a good Christian.”

Late in 1894 we find this free-floating, ecumenical novice flirting, or so it sometimes seemed, with several religious sects at once, writing to The Natal Mercury on behalf of a movement called the Esoteric Christian Union, a synthesizing school of belief, as he explained it, that sought to reconcile all religions by showing that each represents the same eternal truths. (It’s a theme Gandhi would repeat at prayer meetings in the last years and months of his life, more than a half century later, where the spirit was so all-embracing that “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” had its place among chanted Hindu and Muslim prayers.) In an advertisement for a selection of tracts meant to accompany a letter to the editor he wrote in 1894, he identified himself proudly as an “Agent for the Esoteric Christian Union and the London Vegetarian Society.”

(Excerpt provided by Random House)

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  • Arnon

    Gandhi legacy includes political failure.

    The biography makes clear that he was a hypocrite and was somewhat of a racist in his dealings in South Africa and the Indian caste of “untouchables.”

    Too bad that the biographer shows all this but tries to soft paddle it in his excellent book.

    • DH

      Why is starting as an imperfect advocate of self interest and moving into the role of inspiring leader hypocritical? Yes, Gandhi has often been packaged as some sort of angelic presence that he was not. But at the same time the practical example he set has been emulated many times to great effect.

      Think about a world where Gandhi is subtracted from the equation like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The struggles against colonialism and for civil rights would have been greatly impovrished by his absence. Those who have emulated Gandhi have been rightly selective, and I would hope so. Do Americans apply all of the actions of George Washington to the way we conduct business today, or do we exclude from consideration his mistakes and foibles, such as being a slave owner?

      A world without Gandhi’s example would be an even sadder Potterville indeed.

    • KR

      You are such an imbecile.

  • RHL

    Historian Paul Johnson describes Gandhi as a “political exotic”, and with justification. As he aptly avers, “Hand-weaving made no sense in a country whose chief industry was the mass production of textiles.” Arguably, Gandhi caused more harm than good in terms of the appalling sectarian and racial bloodshed that ensued over the course of his career. And certainly England would have abandoned its colonial footprint regardless of the “great soul’s” machinations, as Churchill promised and Atlee would pursue.
    What strikes this observer is the amusing extent to which he has become a “progressive” icon (witness the murals in so many of our public schools) based simply upon superficial notions of his advocacy of non-violence – clearly a triumph of press agentry over historical reality. MLK, Jr was more savvy in promoting related principles, and certainly less self-aggrandizing.
    RHL, Cambridge, MA

    • DH

      And yet King would not have been King had he not studied and been inspired by Gandhi.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I read a biography of Gandhi in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I’m thinking the man set a pattern used in many permutations. When Cher adopts a child from the Maghreb (I believe it was she), when Liz Taylor goes out on a limb for AIDS sufferers and research, they are using the capacity to create out of oneself an icon that changes perception and then reality.
    So it is a pattern for defining celebrity (or newsworthiness) as a tool for change. Perception rather than violence being the trigger. Of course plenty of violence then came to pass.
    The book I read only tangentially addressed the poverty in India, and the role of ignorance and bigotry, the various forces besides decisiveness at the top, whether in London or New Delhi.
    It is always true that we like to keep our saints saintly, so I am not surprised to hear about soft-peddling. I wait to hear.

  • LinP

    Gandhi is rolling over in his grave at the realities examined in the previous hour’s program.

    • karam

      Well Gandhi was cremated (as are most hindus!) :-)

      • LinP

        LOL! Yes, you’re right! In any case…where ever he is swirling about the cosmos, he is very sad at the current state of affairs in our world. :)

  • Anonymous

    Great soul? Please. He acted in his own self and national interest. That’s not exactly unselfish. Besides which, pie-in-the-sky drivel is not equal to achievement in the real world. India’s rise to greatness has come only years later, once the country moved into the modern world.

    Greg Camp
    Springdale, AR

    • Jjmcmillin

      And you presume that Gandhi’s leadership by example in forcing the British Empire out of India is not part of India’s rise to greatness? Gandhi’s vision of a peaceful world and how to achieve it, was/is much further developed than most of the rest of the world, still.

  • TAusten

    Anyone interested in the paradoxes of modern sainthood should check out Oliver Broudy’s The Saint. Broudy follows a guy who basically believes himself to be Gandhi down a rabbithole of megalomania. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s a totally gripping read.

  • Siva

    He is no God. He lived a life just like you and me. What makes him a Mahatma (great soul) is he was true to himself, true to this thoughts. From this perspective, I believe, we can understand his failures and foibles. He is more spiritual than political.

  • Anonymous

    The problem here is that too many people worship persons, rather than ideas.

  • Anonymous

    There are people in the Western world who revere Gandhi just because he’s foreign and therefore different. But the totality of his beliefs have little application in our culture.

    • Anonymous

      Gandhi appears to be the generic symbol of an enlightened person for uncritical westerners who are spiritual (whatever that it). I recently saw a really bad series of portraits of people the alleged artist was inspired by and of course, it featured Gandhi and the odious Mother Teresa. I guess Princess Diana was too difficult to draw.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Nonviolent change is not applicable? Isn’t that the essence of democracy? I mean, we do vote. But we also have the right to speak and assemble and try to shape our culture as drastically as we see fit, IF we are nonviolent. (If we don’t break any laws — or if you want to consider satyagraha, firmness in truth, you break the law and “pay your dues”; you sit-in at the front of the bus or in the college dean’s office or whatever, and when hauled off, you don’t resist. When asked did you trespass, you say yes.

      • Anonymous

        Democracy is a great idea, but that comes from a different culture. Nonviolence is only applicable when others refrain from violence as well.

      • Grady Lee Howard

        American exceptionalism and white man’s burden at work?
        Democracy originates in band level society before race was invented.

  • Ellen Dibble

    More than an idea, he was using himself as a lever for change. As I get older I find a few points that I think should be leveraged into reality. Along the way, some of these points have come to pass unshepherded by me; apparently they were good enough. Some come to pass after relentlessness on my part but possibly without anyone even noticing me. Sometimes I think of Gandhi and the extent he went. His cultural milieu was too different for easy comparison. But — if it were just a matter of going on hunger strikes and maybe being assassinated later on, certainly there are points I feel have been entrusted to me. But it takes an awful lot of savvy and clout to have enough pull. It seems to me, if you feel all alone on something, uniquely able to push something or other, find in Gandhi a fellow spirit, one who tried.

  • Ellen Dibble

    More than an idea, he was using himself as a lever for change. As I get older I find a few points that I think should be leveraged into reality. Along the way, some of these points have come to pass unshepherded by me; apparently they were good enough. Some come to pass after relentlessness on my part but possibly without anyone even noticing me. Sometimes I think of Gandhi and the extent he went. His cultural milieu was too different for easy comparison. But — if it were just a matter of going on hunger strikes and maybe being assassinated later on, certainly there are points I feel have been entrusted to me. But it takes an awful lot of savvy and clout to have enough pull. It seems to me, if you feel all alone on something, uniquely able to push something or other, find in Gandhi a fellow spirit, one who tried.

  • ghostofsichuan

    Individuals who raise the expectations of human beings are often derided for their efforts. Gandhi had a Hindu belief system and that shaped his views. He was complex because the events he was confronted with were complex. Easy to be critical of someone who had the responsibility and ambitions of a nation on his shoulders. It is not really different with any social change…..perfection is not always something achieved by those proposing social change but the message is more important than the messenger. One should remember that India had a long history of outside rulers and the people of India had been subjected to a second class citizenship in their own country. People may wish to devalue Gandhi but they can not diminish his accomplishments. Human being like to bare leaders naked because human beings lack the courage to place others before themselves.

    • Anonymous

      His accomplishments? The people of Kashmir might object. The people of Pakistan could as well. His idealism was impractical.

      • DH

        As opposed to what? Gandhi asserted that he was experimenting with truth. Experiments do not always produce the results expected or desired. Yet the model of Gandhian revolution, applied in the moments that it can contribute to long term positive change, is certainly heads above what has generally resulted from Leninist revolts as well as no holds barred capitalist development. If his idealism was impractical it none the less provided an alternative model of social change that has planted the seeds for positive developments around the world. Case in point: if it had not been for the nearly four decades of nonviolent struggle, initiated in part by Gandhi, that preceded the turn to armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa, then the end game and transition to majority rule would have been even harder and bloodier.

        Attempting nonviolence in the face of ruthless suppression will not instantly bring about change; neither does violence. But the evolution of any long-term struggle for social betterment (and to be effective they must all be long-term) is shaped positively by attempts at nonviolence. Case in point: the nonviolent Tienamen protests of 1989 were violently suppressed, yet the long term effect has been to prompt the Chinese leadership to be more responsive to the will of the people. Had that uprising moved to armed struggle, the government would have had the justification for its move to suppress it. The whole world knows of the bravery of a movement represented by a man willing to block a tank with his body, which distinguishes that movement from the many represented by a man with a gun raised above his head.

        For another example we can look closer to home: Would the election of a black president in 2008 have been possible without the nonviolent sacrifices made by civil rights activists for over 100 years prior to the election of Obama? President Obama has acknowledged his debt many times.

        For me the main question is not the practicality of nonviolence, but rather the negative side effects of violence that ALWAYS accompany armed struggles and interventions. Cruise missiles did save the rebel forces in Libya for now. What will be the long-term impact of the alliance of forces who have always been more interested in Libya’s oil than in its people be for the rebel movement? Only time will tell. But I am forced to ask why do those who dismiss the role of nonviolence never answer for the demonstrable horrors that accompany the use of force? When asked about the result of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai responded “Too soon to tell.” A similar standard for measuring the impact of Gandhian nonviolence is in order.

        I think Orwell, in his essay “Reflections on Gandhi” said it best:
        “One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”

        Three cheers for clean smelling politicians!

    • Anonymous

      “Human being like to bare leaders naked” — Perhaps he should have worn more clothes.

  • Kurt

    I second the comment about THE SAINT, a kindle single. Thought-provoking questioning of what makes a saint, was Gandhi one, what does one lose by being a saint, and what can we learn from that for our lives today. Also a gripping adventure tale.

  • Ellen Dibble

    The biography I read in the 1950s said the vow of celibacy came about because Gandhi was engaged in coitus right at the moment of something happening he would rather have been doing. He missed something because of being otherwise engaged. I remember that because it seems to me he should have given up sleeping too, which takes quite a bit longer. At the time I wouldn’t have known but I made a mental note to find out just how far from reality sex would take one.

    • Anonymous

      Freud could say something here about repressed sexual desire.

      • Anonymous

        Did Freud ever say anything else?

        • Anonymous

          Not really. He was an expert–someone who knows more and more about less and less.

          At this point, I’m dropping the subject.

          • Grady Lee Howard

            My information is that Gandhi had a strong libido that he never overcame. Maybe he just learned to delay gratification. Sexual alliances can reinforce powerful personal and political alliances. Coitus can be a political act.

  • Anonymous

    Nothing like Gandhi’s values in current Indian politics? Notice that India is moving into the First World these days. Someone ought to investigate the possibility of a link there.

    Greg Camp
    Springdale, AR

  • Linda

    what you are describing about Gandhi’s practices of massage, extreme diet, enemas, etc is simply a description of the Indian, Hindu, yogic ascetic lifestyle. He certainly didn’t make this stuff up. These practices were and still are used by thousands of ascetics in that part of the world.

  • Arnon

    I have an advanced reading copy of the book.

    I am sorry that Joseph Lelyveld needs to refer to reviewers who disagree with his conclusions as “right wing.” I am not right wing, having voted for Obama.

    It’s also disappointing that the host has not taken up Gandhi’s view of how Jews should have dealt with Hitler. His advise was either racist or showed a man out of touch with the real world.

    • Jjmcmillin

      Not unusual to have inconsistencies in any human being. Gandhi would admit that freely of himself. It is too easy for us to find a fault reason enough to dismiss an entire life of huge accomplishments. Some of us watch too much TV and want the world and other humans to be unreasonably simplified.

  • Anonymous

    Violence is never necessary or right? Perhaps you should have said that while standing in Warsaw in 1939 or in Paris in 1940 or in Auschwitz throughout the war. There are times when violence is exactly what is needed.

    Greg Camp
    Springdale, AR

    • Grady Lee Howard

      You need to read Chapter Two of Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges. Chris has been in and near combat many times unarmed and can tell you how weapons systems solve nothing. It might be a different case facing people with handguns and no heavy weapons. Gandhi organized an unarmed peace army that faced armed troops. It can be a matter of numbers. There are certain situations in which I would peacefully risk my life for good cause or to protect others. Many immature souls cannot conceive of that. Assuming Imperial Japanese troops are any more violent at heart than Imperial British troops may be an error of racism.

  • Anonymous

    So someone who uses violence is inferior? If a criminal is breaking into my home or attacking an innocent person, saying “please stop” is hardly effective.

    • James McMillin

      Of course. It is the base line of defense. Violence is (usually) our last resort and automatic in some sense. It only becomes necessary because we have not explored other means enough ( or as much as we have practiced violence ) to know what other possibilities are out there. Because I do not know something, does not mean it does not exist. We are constantly learning new things and because we have not spent time studying, researching and practicing nonviolence, does not mean the answers are not yet to be discovered. Just as we know enough to know we do not know everything, we keep exploring to find out more of what we did not know yesterday. That is a huge part of our human experience. It is time to leave our obsession with violence because we know it only leads to more of the same. It is time to concentrate on nonviolence, because it is just as likely to lead to more nonviolence.

  • Anonymous

    And what if Gandhi faced the Japanese Empire in 1945, instead of the British?

  • Ellen Dibble

    As a child, I saw Gandhi as an example of early multiculturalism. He was educated in London, as I recall. And I thought he must have learned that he and India needed to take on board the values and the scale of success that London was dishing out. A colonial India would lead him in that direction. Then as I recall Gandhi was the rather successful lawyer in South Africa, and I could well understand that Indian caste system crossed with British Imperial class system crossed with South African black/white splits would make him a Thinker, with a capital T. As an Indian in a black/white nation, though there were other Indians, it gave him a certain perspective. “Belonging” was never central, it seemed to me. He knew about being an outsider, and the costs and advantages of perspective. And he used that. It is an interesting lifespan of transition.

  • Pat

    I have read about Tagore. He and Gandhi represent internationalism vs. nationalism, asceticism vs. a worldly aesthetic, modernism vs. a belief that a god could cause natural disasters, etc. I am sympathetic to both, but modern India seems to revere Gandhi while following Tagore. Does that make sense to you?

    • Anonymous

      Just as the West reveres Jesus, but follows a different set of values? Yes, it makes sense, and it’s a good outcome.

      • dh

        Or as the US reveres Jefferson but lives out the Hamiltonian vision.

  • Jonathan Burroughs

    Question for Joseph,

    I was struck by Gandhi’s radio message regarding God in London in 1931. Did your research reveal the contact Gandhi had with Meher Baba on the voyage coming to England?

  • Anonymous

    If he had been purer, the Muslims and Hindus wouldn’t have slaughtered each other? Isn’t that an example of megalomania?

    • Ellen Dibble

      The curious thing (again, reflecting from when I was about 12 years old) was that the megalomania was donned like a responsibility. It seemed to me that Gandhi decided to be a megalomaniac: If I consider myself determinative, therefore it might happen.
      (Certainly not so likely if he did NOT regard himself as so central, like an atom that would replicate itself, or the DNA of the idea of nonviolence. The stem cell of it.)

      • Anonymous

        You’re working hard to defend this, but why? Why not just see it for what it was–self aggrandizement?

        • Ellen Dibble

          Fine. Self-aggrandizement. I don’t have a problem with that. I think that people who lose one set of bearings then find something to be gained. When a door is closed, sometimes a window is opened.
          Did Gandhi have ANY doors closed on him? He worked to open doors for himself, for sure. But he understood well about doors being slammed on other people.
          And all we hear about Hindu asceticism makes me think that Indians learned how to make a virtue out of necessity. How to make it self-aggrandizing to self-limit.
          To some extent, that’s what nonviolence is all about. After standing up to a far greater force, one might be totally humiliated, flat out shot down, but the grander effect is that the illegitimacy of the force you are countering is in clear focus. Straight from the sermon on the mount: The power of the meek, the weak, all that. Does it come from becoming armed? No, it is an ideal, but along the way there is mention of the poor and the meek. Aggrandizing them. If you are poor and helpless, instilling in a representative such as Gandhi is a start for the kind of ego and confidence that might take people to become leaders with the kind of generosity of spirit that can lead a nation otherwise torn into parts by centuries of conflict. Might or might not.

  • Anonymous

    The author can’t understand Gandhi’s behavior? Call it what it was: Gandhi came to believe his own propaganda.

    • Michael

      Kind of like the No Fly Zone only purpose is to protect civilians or the world is behind use when Germany,India, Brazil are clearly not plus some, nor the African Union.

      Or the Saudi are concern with protecting civilians right to protest?

  • JamesFayal

    Does the author at least entertain the possibility that Gandhi was bisexual? I find that many today have a reluctance to entertain the idea that famous people in history might have engaged in homosexulaity, even when those same historical figures–if practicing today what they did in their lifetimes—would clearly point to being gay.
    James Fayal

    • RajK

      I completely disagree with your viewpoint.
      Do you have proof on Gandhi’s sexuality?
      Let me put it in another way – do you have any insight into eastern lifestyle, philosophies and spirituality.

  • Anonymous


    Apply nonviolence in Libya? Do you remember Tianamen Square? Sometimes, a tank requires a bomb to be dropped on it.

    • Anonymous

      Or misapplying the label: How is using the military to impose a no-fly-zone and example of nonviolence? Maybe Obama is trying for a second Nobel Peace Prize.

  • VW

    As a young Indian – I had a complex relationship with Gandhi growing up. Portrayed as a ‘god’ to us when very young – several young Indians rebel enthusiastically by finding imperfections in Gandhi in their teen years. However with age you come to realize that Gandhi was but human – and for him to struggle so openly with his limitations as a human is what makes him great. It is hard – almost impossible – to find a public figure as humble as Gandhi.

  • Michael

    Interesting show

  • Cory

    After browsing through the comments (he was a gay megalomaniac who believed his own propoganda etc) I’ve decided to keep my quaint impression of a little man who preached non-violence and civil disobedience to affect great political change. Thank you, and good night.

    • Grady Lee Howard

      Bisexual is good; little is good; colored is good; peaceful is good; educated is good; outspoken is good; justice-seeking is good; teacher is good; spinner of cotton is good; great lover is good. The more I hear about Mahatma Gandhi the more I like him.

    • LinP

      I’m with you. Honestly….people in the first hour defending like crazy the notion that corporations should pay fewer taxes, and now a view of Gandhi as a megalomanical, shady, terrible character. What planet am I on?

  • Grady Lee Howard

    Match this biography with that of pro-Empire politician Winston Churchill to gain perspective. Contemporary and parallel, I’d say.

  • Rseylon

    Gandhi & Churchill — by Arthur Herman ( The Epic Rivalry That Destoryed an Empire and Forged Our Age) Bantam Books 2008

  • http://www.facebook.com/sgsilver Steve Silver

    An interesting show, but I was disappointed that the oppression of women in India was not mentioned. What did Gandhi say and do in support of equality and opportunity for women in India?

  • Andrew Cottonwood

    I’d like to know more about the music that was played during the program.

  • http://twitter.com/al_beruni jonas prabasi

    gandhi is well known for his eccentricities, his wacky sexual hangups and peculiar obsession on diet and excretion. It sounds like Mr. Lelyveld has unearthed some more concrete examples of this type of kookiness.

    The real impact of gandhi was, of course, on indians. Most of the discussions here focus on gandhi vs. british imperialists, or, gandhi on various western historical events (WW II, holocaust,…). The Brits would certainly have left india one day; Gandhi knew little of european politics or figures like Hitler and Stalin. Its like evaluating George Washington by his impact on British society or european history.

    George Washingtons legacy is in his impact on the US; Gandhi’s legacy is in India. India was appallingly backward and divided society in 1900. It had 5% literacy with an extraordinary mix of religions and cultures, some of which were quite literally in the stone age.

    Gandhi’s genius was to find a way to talk about freedom in moral and personal terms, with a strong religous gloss. Freedom wasn’t about hating brits; it was about no longer being afraid, it was about “swaraj” or self-rule. Gandhi said – Non-violence was a weapon of the strong, violence was a weapon of the weak and fearful. Even women and children could participate in shared symbolic acts (salt march, boycott of british goods, filling up the jjails) and thereby create a community of shared sacrifice and togetherness. Whether you were hindu or muslim, tribal or caste hindu, you could participate in Gandhi’s concept of freedom struggle.

    India today is a flawed and tumultuous democracy. But many of its positives flow from Gandhi’s role in shaping its political culture. And that is how he should be evaluated – not as a kook (which he was), not as a commentator on the holocaust (he was clueless), not as a family man (he was terrible at that too).

  • Sneha

    Hi everybody

Aug 21, 2014
In this November 2012, file photo, posted on the website freejamesfoley.org, shows American journalist James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. In a horrifying act of revenge for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, militants with the Islamic State extremist group have beheaded Foley — and are threatening to kill another hostage, U.S. officials say. (AP)

An American is beheaded. We’ll look at the ferocity of ISIS, and what to do about it.

Aug 21, 2014
Jen Joyce, a community manager for the Uber rideshare service, works on a laptop before a meeting of the Seattle City Council, Monday, March 17, 2014, at City Hall in Seattle. (AP)

We’ll look at workers trying to live and make a living in the age of TaskRabbit and computer-driven work schedules.

Aug 20, 2014
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A half-century ago Monarch butterflies, tired, hungry and bursting to lay eggs, found plenty of nourishment flying across Texas. Native white-flowering balls of antelope milkweed covered grasslands, growing alongside nectar-filled wildflowers. But now, these orange-and-black winged butterflies find mostly buildings, manicured lawns and toxic, pesticide-filled plants. (AP)

This year’s monarch butterfly migration is the smallest ever recorded. We’ll ask why. It’s a big story. Plus: how climate change is creating new hybridized species.

Aug 20, 2014
A man holds his hands up in the street after a standoff with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

A deep read on Ferguson, Missouri and what we’re seeing about race, class, hope and fear in America.

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