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Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism (Critical Histories)
Joseph S. Alter
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000
216 pp., $55.00
Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution
University of California Press, 2002
186 pp., $15.95
Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
Oxford University Press, 2002
336 pp., $21.95
By Jean Bethke Elshtain
There are numerous Mahatmas. There is the saintly Mahatma (or "great soul," as the honorific is often translated) about whom the more that is positively said, the better, and critique of any kind seems churlish; there is the ascetic Mahatma, living and burnishing an ideal of the simple life; there is the political Mahatma, cannily outfoxing the British; there is the ambiguous Mahatma, whose views on the body and on women may be extreme or not, politically correct or not; there is the messianic Mahatma leading the way to social justice and peace, a Mahatma good for all times and places. Each of these Mahatmas makes an appearance in the books under review, to which one must add the intolerant and jealous Mahatma who generated a "cult of personality" that must be scrutinized critically.
Mark Juergensmeyer's Mahatma is a rather predictable figure who shows the way to contemporary political protest and, even more grandly, to peace on both the personal and political levels. Gandhi's Way is not in fact a new book but rather a newly titled reissue of a book previously published as Fighting with Gandhi and Fighting Fair. Tellingly, Juergensmeyer subtitles his book a "handbook" for "conflict resolution." The problemand it is a pervasive one in Gandhian literature, especially that of a hagiographic tiltis that Gandhi's approach is not challenged for its possible inapplicability to conflicts between nation-states by comparison to conflicts within nation-states, at least those that have some developed rule of lawas did the British Raj.
The critical distinction posed by Augustine and taken up by Aquinasthat what is incumbent upon the individual may be forbidden to the statesman responsible for the safety and well-being of an entire peopleis simply ignored by Juergensmeyer. If I am engaged in the vocation of statecraft, it may be necessary for me to undertake tasks of collective self-defense-protecting the innocent from certain harm. There was a reason ...