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Gandhi’s Charisma

GhandiThe following is an excerpt from the chapter “A New Kind of Force: Examining Charisma in the Light of Gandhi’s Moral Authority” by Dilip Simeon (Chapter 1 from Charismatic Leadership and Social Movements: The Revolutionary Power of Ordinary Men and Women, edited by Jan Willem Stutje).

The Dilemma of Detachment

Our first duty is to preserve the noble presence of moral responsibility in nature: of a being who is able to recognise the good-in-itself as such.1

Max Weber is renowned for advocating the idea of a value-free science of culture. It was Nietzsche for whom an irrational ‘will to truth’ became aware of itself as a problem, and who characterized modern culture as one in which the ‘highest’ values had withdrawn from the public sphere. The phenomenon of the autonomous individual developed within this culture. For Weber, the world is objectively meaningless and visible only through the perspectives of ideal-types. Value-perspectives are created by the dynamic of charisma and routinization, which confronts and displaces prevalent forms of culture.2 Charismatic individuals are those whose devotion to a calling gives them a capacity to create a community of judgement.3 Charisma is thus a grievous matter for Weber; it is the source of norms, standards and meaning bestowed upon society by dominant personalities. Hence,

charisma, in its most potent forms, disrupts rational rule as well as tradition altogether and overturns all notions of sanctity. Instead of reverence for customs that are ancient and hence sacred, it enforces the inner subjection to the unprecedented and absolutely unique and therefore Divine. In this purely empirical and value-free sense charisma is indeed the specifically creative revolutionary force of history.4

Years before his embarkation on a scholarly quest for value-free truths about society, Weber had stated his motivational force in the form of a pedagogical ideal: ‘We do not want to train up feelings of well-being in people, but those characteristics we think constitute the greatness and nobility of our human nature.’5 The work of the cultural scientist expresses the immanent political goal of evoking the noble side of human character. Political morality remained an abiding concern for him, as reflected in his comments on the dialectic of the ethics of conviction and responsibility. Weber seems stranded between scientific detachment and political commitment. There is a further problem. To the extent that the personality of the law-giver (and one who creates a community of judgement is a law-giver) appeals to an ideal of nobility, the charismatic person must appear, intuitively, to be a bearer of noble qualities. But perceptions of nobility change over time. Charisma is unstable. The greater the degree of stability, the closer the charismatic figure is to being noble; that is, representing the Absolute in popular consciousness – hence the attempt to harness charisma to the functions of state.6 Stability in charisma signifies that the perception is acknowledged over time, unlike Hitler’s for example, which dissipated rapidly during the Second World War. But placed as we are in history, how do we theorize a historically fluctuating perception? This could be an intractable problem, but we must think about it. A political system that relies increasingly upon tyranny to preserve itself, whose functionaries seek to secure its civilization via increasing doses of intimidation, is a system on the edge of disintegration.

In its last phase the British colony in India was reverting to its foundational violence, a fact that both reflected and accelerated the erosion of its hegemonic legitimacy. In the face of rising nationalist sentiment during and after the Great War, the British elite became radicalized: the 1919 Amritsar massacre was a deployment of state terror designed to educate a rebellious populace.7 The colonial animus towards Gandhi and the Congress was deeply felt at the highest levels of government. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill was reportedly in favour of letting Gandhi die in case he went on a hunger strike. This was also the view held by Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy from 1936 to 1943, who took India to war without consulting the Indian political leadership.8 This radical imperialism could be countered by radical nationalism, as indeed it was, but the consequences were likely to be destructive. Gandhi invented a form of resistance that was radical precisely on account of its moderation – this despite the official depiction of him as an anarchist and Bolshevist. It was his firm rejection of imperial arrogance combined with moderation in conduct that gave rise to Gandhi’s political authority. And this authority was based on an alternative perception of public virtue.9


Gandhi’s Charisma

Charisma is not reducible to an aspect of an individual personality, though personal strength and style are essential to it. Nor is it a quality bestowed upon the charismatic figure by an adoring public. It lies, rather in the resonance between leader and followers, and signifies an awareness of historical needs. These needs include psychic expectations that may take many forms, some of them conflicting with others. But howsoever substantial be the public mood, the emergence of a charismatic personality remains a fortuitous event, irreducible to objective determinations. It would be a travesty of historical method to say that had there not been Gandhi, someone like him would have appeared on account of historic necessity.

I find it noteworthy that the word ‘resonance’ carries an acoustic meaning. This means that certain emotions and ideas are awakened in the followers, who in turn will the leader to nurture those feelings and ideas in furtherance of the cause. Charisma is a psychological power and expresses self-recognition on the part of everyone involved, a recognition of qualities of head and heart of which they were previously unaware, or only dimly aware. It was Gandhi’s capacity to pierce the hearts of everyone, including those who were personally engaged in violence and killing, that lay at the heart of his charisma.


Gandhi’s charismatic influence has not waned, despite the iconization, cynicism and hostility directed at him by the Indian middle classes. The latter has ebbed recently with the appearance of films such as Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) that popularized the idea of Gandhigiri,43 although it was a depoliticized Gandhi that was presented here. Aside from the middle class, if there are still thousands of humble citizens who visit the site of his assassination every day, this is because he touched an unshakeable chord in the hearts and minds of ordinary Indians. We need also to take note of Gandhi’s stature in the world outside India, which perhaps respects him more than do his compatriots. What is the reason for this lasting impact? I suggest the following:

  1. His reputation as a tireless worker for communal harmony. Since the subcontinent has been plagued by communal strife, and since a communal Partition took place despite Gandhi’s best efforts, a nostalgic memory of those efforts persists.
  2. His stature as the man who prised India’s freedom from the grip of the mighty British Raj.
  3. The people’s experience of Gandhi as a leader who remained physically close to his most humble compatriots, scorning police protection, who did not flinch from placing himself in dangerous places.
  4. His insistence on the secular character of public space in independent India. His charisma lent legitimacy and weight to the norms he wanted to see inscribed in the Indian Constitution.
  5. A renewed interest in Gandhi’s critique of modern technology.

But there is something more. In a country so conscious of local and caste identity, Gandhi is perceived as one who left vernacular identity behind him. He was a bania by caste, and a Gujarati-speaking and Englishtrained lawyer. However, he surpassed these identities and obtained the allegiance of so-called ‘virile’ ethnic groups as well as poor, ‘outcaste’ rural communities. Banias, traditionally the caste-cluster engaged in commerce, are typecast as instrumentalist in outlook, disinclined to engage in confrontation. For a bania to command the unstinted respect of Pathans and Sikhs was remarkable. It is noteworthy that by his demeanour, Gandhi was almost unconsciously democratic. As Orwell said of him:

he was not afflicted by envy or by the feeling of inferiority. Colour feeling, which he first met in South Africa, seems to have astonished him. Even when he was fighting what was in effect a colour war, he did not think of people in terms of race or status. The governor of a province, a cotton millionaire, a half-starved Dravidian coolie, a British private soldier were all equally human beings, to be approached in much the same way.44

Gandhi bore the identity of a renunciator, someone who cannot be summed up in terms of caste or linguistic identity, but whose character has risen above it all. He was no populist, and never bothered to adjust his ideas and convictions to shifting public moods and perceptions. In the midst of the most bitter public recriminations, especially during the dark and tragic days of Partition, Gandhi endured vicious barbs from people who had lost everything, including their loved ones, to communal hatred and cruelty. In this upsurge of bitterness, he asked people to retain their faith in humanity, comforted the inconsolable, and silently suffered the barbs, even abuse of humans damaged by grief. A young Punjabi judge, himself a refugee from Lahore, who met Gandhi in October 1947 to discuss mundane matters pertaining to evacuee property, noticed his calm, practical and matter-of fact demeanour as they spoke, but then felt onstrained to observe, ‘Realisation came to me that this man had only one sentiment in his heart and that was the sentiment of love. When he looked at me I noticed a softness in his eyes and I felt ashamed.’45 The wife of the American journalist Upton Close expressed it as follows: ‘In his presence I felt a new capability and power in myself rather than a consciousness of his power. I felt equal, good for anything – an assurance I had never known before, as if some consciousness within me had newly awakened.’46



  1. From Lawrence Vogel’s introduction to H. Jonas. 1996. Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 17.
  2. D. Owen. 1994. Maturity and Modernity: Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault and the Ambivalence of Reason, London and New York: Routledge, 91–93, 101, 96.
  3. Owen, Maturity and Modernity, 130–31.
  4. M. Weber. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 4 vols, ed. Roth and C. Wittich, Berkeley: University of California Press, vol. 2, 1117. Emphasis added.
  5. From ‘The Nation State and Economic Policy’ (Freiburg Address); cited in Owen, Maturity and Modernity, 98.
  6. I refer to the Absolute not as an eternally valid and unquestionable Order, but as a manifestation of law and social stability.
  7. D. Rothermund. 1991. Mahatma Gandhi: An Essay in Political Biography, Delhi: Manohar Publications, 34.
  8. On 1 January 2006 the BBC cited newly published Cabinet papers showing that Winston Churchill favoured letting Gandhi die if he went on hunger strike. The prime minister thought India’s leader should be treated like anyone else if he stopped eating while in custody. His ministers persuaded him against the tactic, fearing Gandhi would become a martyr if he died in British hands. (Accessed 9 April 2009.)
  9. ‘Nobility is a perception, not a concept. Or – what comes to the same thing – our concept of nobility is rooted in a perception, not in another concept …[;] nobility is a value, an estimation, a ranking, and therefore it is an ambiguous mixture of aesthetic and moral qualities that may be named and understood but that must in any given case be recognized directly.’ Rosen. 1989. The Ancients and the Moderns Rethinking Modernity, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 12.
  1. A neologism that can roughly be translated as ‘Gandhi-like behaviour’.
  2. G. Orwell. 1949. Reflections on Gandhi, retrieved 10 April 2009 from:
  3. From the memoir of G.D. Khosla, cited in R. Gandhi, Mohandas, 654.
  4. Cited in R. Gandhi, Mohandas, 633.