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Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India
Joseph Lelyveld
Knopf, 2011
448 pp., 28.95

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Tim Stafford

Saint, Crank, Martyr

Gandhi's struggle with India.

Those who know Mohandas Gandhi only as a saint will be surprised to learn that in India today he is often viewed skeptically. "Gandhi was a very shrewd Hindu," Christian activist Joseph D'Souza told me recently, and he did not mean it favorably. Gandhi is particularly disliked by Dalits (untouchables), the lowest and poorest of the caste groups—the very group whose concerns Gandhi carried most persistently, if patronizingly, through much of his life.

In Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger, posters of Gandhi decorate a corrupt official's wall. The Chinese premier, to whom protagonist Balram addresses the book, will be met at the airport with garlands and "small take-home sandalwood statues of Gandhi." The thought of that gift prompts Balram to "say that thing in English," a sentiment he claims only English can convey: "What a f_____ joke."

Gandhi's legacy is complicated, and so was the man himself: principled and yet self-contradicting, dedicated to the poor while out of touch with the reality of their lives, willing to die for truth and yet prone to rationalize, humble but insufferably sure of his rightness. Joseph Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former executive editor of the New York Times, thoroughly explores Gandhi's complex and ambiguous history in a rich and textured biography. He helps you understand why Gandhi was adored as few saints (and fewer politicians) ever have been; and also why he was thoroughly despised.

Gandhi launched his campaign for independence in 1915 on returning from South Africa, where he had lived almost all his adult life, and carried it on to his death in 1948. His approach was built on four pillars: Muslim-Hindu unity, the end of untouchability, nonviolence as a way of life, and (improbably) homespun yarn and handwoven fabrics as a self-sustaining cottage industry for India's villages. None of these was accomplished. His three decades of leadership left hardly a tangible trace on modern India—no important institutions, no visible improvements even in the poor villages where he lived for years at a time, no political legacy even though he led the nationalist cause.

Lelyveld's subtitle emphasizes Gandhi's struggle with, not for, India. Gandhi lost. Independence came, but not at all in the way Gandhi hoped. His last years were despairing. "Yet from a distance of more than seven decades," Lelyveld writes, "what stands out is the commitment rather than the futility." Despite Gandhi's failings, Lelyveld is convincing in entitling his book Great Soul. Gandhi was some kind of great man, passionate, original, creative, spiritual, committed unto death. Who else compares? Who else carried on a just cause before the whole world and managed to preserve the deepest yearnings of the spirit? Martin Luther King, Jr. Nelson Mandela. Leo Tolstoy. Mother Teresa. Any others?

Gandhi was a crank. An ardent Theosophist while studying law in England and a familiar face in evangelical Christian prayer meetings in South Africa, he remained more a Hindu holy man than anything else. He preached mud baths and cow protection as enthusiastically as independence, and indeed they were all closely related for him. Lifestyle was a form of swaraj (often translated "self-rule") incorporating both political nationalism and personal discipline. A strict vegetarian who ate a bare minimum of carefully measured vegetables, he prosecuted "a grim fight against that inherited and acquired habit of eating for pleasure," as he described it. A full meal, he wrote, was "a crime against God and man."

He also fought against sexuality, taking a vow of celibacy at the age of 36, though married and the father of four sons. His only love appears to have been a German Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach, an inseparable companion for many of Gandhi's South African years. But that mutually adoring relationship cannot be easily interpreted today. In any case, the two were separated when Gandhi returned to India in 1914, and they would not see each other again until 1937.

"No man or woman living the physical or animal life can possibly understand the spiritual or ethical," Gandhi wrote, and he "regarded childbirth as prima facie evidence of a moral lapse," nagging his daughters-in-law whenever they had children not to let it happen again. This struggle against the flesh made him a cold and usually absent husband and father. It led to a scandalous crisis when, in his seventies, he took to sleeping naked with his young assistant Manu in order to test his freedom from sexual desire. Gandhi took these experiments in self-control with deadly seriousness. His mission and his spiritual striving were intimately related in his mind. He seemed sometimes to believe that his personal spiritual failings kept India from liberation.

Gandhi's 22 years in South Africa gave him an outsider's perspective on India, Lelyveld says. In South Africa, upper-caste Hindus mixed freely with Muslims—Gandhi's first political speeches were in mosques—and he was far less bound by family and caste than he would have been in India. So when he visited India and attended a Congress Party meeting, he was stupefied. The party of liberation took strenuous precautions not to eat with the impure. They would defecate anywhere, sometimes even on their hotel verandas, and expect Bhangis—the sweeper untouchables—to clean up. Sweepers were the Indian form of a sewage system. People from higher castes hardly noticed their existence, and anyway traditional Hindus believed the system reflected the sins of some former life. Gandhi immediately got a broom and began to do their job.

Ever after he proclaimed himself an honorary untouchable. Dalits were not allowed to eat with or touch food and water used by others; they could not enter Hindu temples or use village wells; Dalit women were raped at will. Gandhi preached against these practices throughout his three decades in India. He believed that Indians could never overcome British racism unless they confronted their own caste prejudices.

Gandhi earned the contempt of Dalits, however, by his assumption that he could speak for them. "I claim myself in my own person to represent the vast mass of the untouchables," he proclaimed, even though B. R. Ambedkar, the intellectual Dalit politician whose statue adorns Dalit villages all over India today, told him he didn't. Gandhi would urge upper-caste Hindus to change their ways, but he undermined attempts by Dalits or their allies to change the system through protest or political action. He could be maddeningly self-contradicting when rationalizing his insistence that Dalits not use fasts or marches or civil disobedience—the very tools of nonviolent protest that he had pioneered—for their own welfare. He somehow maintained, until quite late in his life, that caste was a good thing that had only to be morally reformed.

As with diet and sex, so with politics: Gandhi was a stickler for what he called truth. This made him courageous and strikingly idealistic. It also made him inflexible. He insisted that he had a unique understanding of the Indian poor, even though he had mostly avoided them in his younger years and later could hardly get near them, due to his large cadre of protective attendants.

He loved to expostulate on almost any subject—here his crankism flourished—and was at his most naïve when instructing foreigners on his solutions to international problems. He once met with Mussolini and came away impressed by Il Duce's "service to the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about coordination between capital and labor … [and] his passionate love for his people." Trying to prevent World War II, Gandhi wrote Hitler, "Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?" British officials pocketed the letter, but Hitler offered his own advice to a British minister. "All you have to do is to shoot Gandhi," he said.

And yet, there was no one like Gandhi. He brought a deeply ethical consciousness to the hottest of political scenes. He insisted on nonviolence, on humility, on love, and on personal purity, and he was willing to die for them. He connected miraculously with the masses of India, who flocked to him (even though many could not understand a word he said) and bathed in the glow of his presence. His tactics bore the marks of political genius. Just at the moment of hopeless stalemate, he would find a way—original, symbolic, principled.

As India neared independence, though, he grew increasingly despairing. He had long since abandoned the attempt to bring Muslims and Hindus together. Now he saw that their violent split would lead to what he called the "vivisection" of his country. Vicious and deadly rioting spread throughout India. He personally fought it by going to the places of violence, setting up camp in the poorest districts, and beginning a fast to the death in protest of the killing and burning. He had some success. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, noted, "In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large-scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting."

Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fundamentalist while making a similar effort for peace in Delhi. A saint can be more useful dead than alive; newly independent India honored Gandhi's body with a huge military parade. The production of sandalwood statues became an export industry.

But time and historical inquiry have not been altogether kind to Gandhi. The Dalit leader Ambedkar, often a bitter foe, complained that for all his noble rhetoric, Gandhi remained a Hindu politician: "As a Mahatma he may be trying to spiritualize politics. Whether he has succeeded in it or not, politics have certainly commercialized him."

Lelyveld admits that Ambedkar had a point, but says that calling Gandhi a politician "didn't take much insight or carry much sting. If Ambedkar was saying that the Mahatma's insistence on 'truth' as his lodestar was self-serving and therefore delusional, was he also saying he'd have admired the national leader more if he let go of that claim? Gandhi may have been a politician, but there were few, if any, like him in his readiness to summon his followers, or himself, to new and more difficult tests."

Tim Stafford's latest article on India appears in the July issue of Christianity Today magazine.

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