Gandhi’s Courage & Ours

by Mark Chmiel

For Dr. Nima Sheth

I don’t want to see a single coward in India.
Mohandas Gandhi[1]

A few years ago, when Norman Finkelstein was schedule to speak at the University of Louisville, my friend Pat had the task of picking him up at the airport. What most struck her in the course of her small talk with Finkelstein was when he said, “I never let anything interfere with my reading time.”

He is a man of his word.  To prepare his recent book, What Gandhi Says about Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage, Finkelstein read about half of Gandhi’s 100 collected volumes (each comes to some 500 pages).

Finkelstein’s career is marked by this tireless assiduity as a reader, as is evidenced by three of his most thorough and illuminating critiques:  Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial; Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel.

Several years back, Finkelstein began a study of Gandhi to stimulate his thinking on ways to move toward justice for Palestine.  In this slim volume, the Occupy Movement was foremost on his mind, as he wanted to see if he could extract the rational core of Gandhi’s nonviolence, which could be of some use to a younger generation of citizens seeking fundamental change.[2]

Finkelstein does not bow down before the Mahatma in the present work.  With brio, he tackles Gandhi’s limitaitons, contradictions, and oddities.  This demystification may appall some, and delight others, but when all is said and done, Finkelstein retains respect for Gandhi.

There is plenty worth pondering in Finkelstein’s retrieval of Gandhi, for example, his critique of Gandhi’s emphasis on self-suffering.[3]  Here, I want to highlight one theme in Finkelstein’s book, that of courage.

Here’s a crucial passage: “Should one be incapable of nonviolently resisting an outrage [via satyagraha], then the only honorable recourse would be to resist violently, whereas flight would be wholly shameful…. Gandhi ranked not violence but pusillanimity and effeminacy as the worst personal failings and the most egregious ‘shortcomings’ of Indians, while he prized the qualities of courage and manliness….” [34]

Finkelstein quotes Gandhi in one stark articulation of such “nonviolence of the brave”: “If we are to train ourselves to receive the bullet wounds or bayonet charges in our bare chests, we must accustom ourselves to standing unmoved in the face of cavalry or baton charges.” [40] How many of us who have participated in antiwar demonstrations or actions can honestly say we were so prepared?[4]

To underscore Finkelstein’s point, consider the following three passages, which are taken from Eknath Easwaran’s account of Gandhi’s spiritual transformation in his book Gandhi the Man:

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.

He who trembles or takes to his heels the moment he sees two people fighting is not nonviolent, but a coward. A nonviolent person will lay down his life in preventing such quarrels.

Strength of numbers is the delight of the timid. The valiant in spirit glory in fighting alone.[5]

Finkelstein himself has manifested such courage over the last three decades in his standing up to established power; for example, his tenacity in exposing the Joan Peter’s book as a fraud and the machinations of the Holocaust industry. It’s no surprise that he gravitates to this feature of Gandhian praxis as opposed, say, to the spiritual aspects.[6]

In his conclusion, Finkelstein observes that, “[i]f a criticism is to be leveled against Gandhi’s nonviolence, it is that he sets the bar of courage too high for most mortals to vault.” [81]

Yet Gandhi would disagree: “I claim to be no more than an average man with less than average ability. Nor can I claim any special merit for such nonviolence or continence as I have been able to reach with laborious research. I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith.”[7]

Given the damage and death generated by the U.S. economic and military juggernaut, we have much training in courage to undergo.


[1] Quoted in Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire (University of California Press, 2008), 397.

[2] Rather than plow through so many volumes of Gandhi’s, Finkelstein could have read a few of Gene Sharp’s works on nonviolent action for such a rational, non-spiritual and efficacious method of struggle. See, for example, Gene Sharp, Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] “Self-suffering might move a loved one to mend his ways. It might also awaken the conscience of a public otherwise passive in the face of injustice. But as a rule it will not deter persons driven by righteous fury and defending perceived interests. Only a Gandhi could possess such overpowering spiritual force; it loved and died with his person. This was his great personal triumph, but also his great political failure. The tactic has no generalized value.” Finkelstein, What Gandhi Says, 57.

[4] In a rousing conclusion to a speech he gave in the Netherlands in November 2008, Finkelstein said, “Gandhi translated satyagraha as ‘hold on to the truth.’ Herewith is our challenge: to hold on to the truth that what Israel has done to the Palestinians is wrong; to hold on to the truth that Israel’s refusal, backed by the U.S., to respect international law and the considered opinion of humankind is the sole obstacle to putting an end, finally, to their suffering. We can win if we hold on to the truth, and if, as the Negro spiritual put it with cognate wisdom, we ‘keep our eyes on the prize, and hold on.’ That is, if we keep remembering what the struggle—the prize—is all about: not theoretical fad or intellectual provocation, not holier-than-thou radical posturing, but—however humdrum, however prosaic, by comparison—freeing the Palestinian people from their bondage. And then to hold on, to be ready for sacrifice and for the long haul—do I dare mention the example of Hezbollah’s heroic resistance?—but also, and especially, to be humble in the knowledge that for those of us living in North America and Europe, the burdens pale next to those borne daily by the people of Palestine.”

[5] Eknath Easwaran, Gandhi the Man (Nilgiri Press, 1978), 87, 90, 92.

[6] One of Gandhi’s devotees, Narayan Desai, has written a compelling Handbook for Satyagrahis.  Therein, he spells out the various levels of this commitment to “holding on to truth”, the first of which is “sadhana,” or spiritual preparation. Sadhana is also the title for the first of his four-volume biography of Gandhi, on Gandhi’s life from 1869-1915. Apropos of Finkelstein’s theme of courage, Desai quotes Gandhi:   “There no is other remedy for calamity except courage. As to the means, there is no doubt in my mind that they are the same both in the Transvaal and in India…. It is our duty to remain undaunted even while sleeping in a cremation ground; it is, however, likely that a person would die of fear when he tries to sleep there. Thus, India is, at present, like a cremation ground for us. We ought to—we have to—prepare ourselves here, so that we spread our bed there and sing Mirabai’s bhajan, ‘Bola ma, Bola ma’ and the like…. I always feel that I shall be strong enough to welcome death in any form and at any time. I wish all may get this strength.”  Narayan Desai, My Life is My Message: Sadhana (1869-1915), v. 1 (Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd, 2009), 429.

[7] Easwaran, Gandhi the Man, epigraph page.