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Finding a New Gandhi in the Book ‘Great Soul’

• August 02, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Like other great figures, new writings about Mohandas Gandhi tell us something about the subject but perhaps more about our times.

Is there anything left to say about Mohandas K. Gandhi that has not already been said? If the sheer volume of writing by and about Gandhi is any indication, the answer is a resounding no.

Consider the section of any university library where the books on Gandhi are located. There is, first of all, the works of the very prolific man himself. His Collected Works — autobiography, political treatises, letters, newspaper articles — now run to more than 100 thick volumes. The sheer weight and often contradictory nature of his output is both an archival goldmine and a great challenge for anyone writing on Gandhi.

Next, there are the more than 20 biographies that run from the hagiographic to the fair and well balanced. Then there are the scholarly works that attempt to work through the political, social, cultural and psychological implications of Gandhi and his life. From the standpoint of unpacking the Gandhian legacy, this section of the bookshelf — filled with volumes by Judith Brown, Partha Chatterjee, Erik Erikson, Raghavan Iyer, Bhikhu Parekh, among many others — is vital. And then there are the makers and extenders of the Gandhi myth — the simple, spiritual man from the western Indian state of Gujarat who made the British Empire buckle — in the legion of books written by people who came into contact with Gandhi or were greatly affected by him. We can place Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi in this last category.

In light of all this work, is there anything new left to say about Gandhi? Any new archives or troves of letters to suddenly uncover? Not really. But when it comes to Gandhi, discovering something new is no longer the point. Writing about a man who was born in 1869 and came of age reading the very 19th century Leo Tolstoy and then went on to become the face of 20th century mass political movements is a thoroughly 21st-century experience. One must take on the sheer volume of information available by and about Gandhi and make sense of it by creating a pattern out of his thought and varied ideology. And it is in the creation of a pattern that a new Gandhi can be discovered.

The pattern that emerges from Joseph Lelyveld’s recent book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India is both fresh and rigorous and perhaps a little surprising for readers really engaging with Gandhi for the first time.

Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times, who had stints for the paper in South Africa and India, has not written a traditional biography of Gandhi. He does not directly cover Gandhi’s childhood nor his time as a student in London. Those early years have been well covered, not only by Gandhi himself in his candid autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, but also by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose book Gandhi’s Truth examines Gandhi as a child in order to understand his emergence as the Mahatma, or “Great Soul,” years later.

Instead, Lelyveld traces Gandhi’s political and social consciousness by starting with his birth as a political agitator and leader. And to tell this story, Lelyveld begins in South Africa, where Gandhi arrived in the early 1890s after being unable to find adequate work as a lawyer in India upon completing his law training in London.

It was in South Africa, Lelyveld argues, where Gandhi developed the cornerstones of his political and moral philosophy — satyagraha (truth force), ahimsa (nonviolence) and passive resistance. It was there where he experimented with bringing together large crowds of people, peacefully demonstrating and resisting a law they felt was unjust. And it was in South Africa where Gandhi developed an interest in the needs of untouchables and the indentured.

And all of these ideas, Lelyveld suggests, have their origins far beyond the Hinduism of his childhood in Gujarat. “If there is a single seminal experience in his intellectual development,” Lelyveld writes, it occurs in 1894 when Gandhi receives a copy of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. The book is Tolstoy’s late-life confession “of a passionate Christian creed, founded on individual conscience and a doctrine of radical nonviolence.” Gandhi’s embrace of Tolstoy’s ideas would later lead the Bengali revolutionary Sri Aurobindo to quip that Gandhi “is a European — truly a Russian Christian in an Indian body.”

This forms the core of Lelyveld’s argument about Gandhi. The South African years formed Gandhi intellectually and politically, and the building blocks of the formation were not purely Indian. Here he expands on V.S. Naipaul’s assessment that Gandhi was the “the least Indian of Indian leaders.”

The recent protests over the publication of Lelyveld’s book in Gandhi’s native Gujarat-led by the rabble rouser and ultra-nationalist leader Narendra Modi — may have been over Lelyveld’s discussion of the lesser known and more controversial sides of Gandhi: his homoerotic (as opposed to homosexual) relationship with a bodybuilding German Jewish architect in South Africa, his sometimes racist relationship to the Zulus, his experiments with celibacy and the laying with naked young women, and his courting of death as he neared his assassination at the hands of a Hindu extremist. But the protesters’ more nationalist point of complaint may have been that Lelyveld is essentially removing Gandhi as the pure product of his Indian Gujarati environment and suggesting instead that Gandhi learned his tricks in the cosmopolitan space of South Africa.

In a wider sense, Lelyveld’s larger argument has been well tread. For more than two decades, the critical historiography of South Asia has critically analyzed what Ashis Nandy has called “the illegitimacy of nationalism.” Critics have not only examined the ideology of nationalism — and its negative effects on minorities within a nation, its destructive power and its ability to shape a generation of historical writing — but they have also tried to show the transnational roots of nationalist thought.

Lelyveld splits the book into two parts. The first deals with South Africa, the second with India. He spends a lot time in South Africa in order to set up the more commonly known story of Gandhi in India: “With a the brief span of five and a half years after landing in his vast home country, though still largely unknown to the broad population that hasn’t yet had a taste of modern politics, he takes over the Indian National Congress … and turns it into the country’s first anticolonial mass movement, raising a clamor in favor of a relatively unfamiliar idea, that of an independent India.”

While this narrative has been the popular one of Gandhi’s presence in India, Lelyveld suggests something further. The word “struggle” in the book’s subtitle is important to note. Gandhi’s ideas were not always completely accepted after he returned to India in 1914. And in this second part of the book, the chapters on Gandhi’s attempt to banish untouchability and on religious violence between Hindus and Muslims are particularly stirring and convey the point that while political leaders and the masses alike may have embraced Gandhi, they did not always agree with him.

Lelyveld’s book provides a portrait of Gandhi as both human, and at times, peculiar. But his primary contribution may be in reminding us of a cosmopolitan Gandhi, a man formed by his childhood in Gujarat, his education in London, his apprenticeship in politics in South Africa and his arrival back in India. It is this portrait of Gandhi that may explain why 60 years after his death, with his influence in India waning, he continues to have a global presence.

The attention Lelyveld’s book garnered upon publication speaks to the abiding interest in Gandhi in this country. His quote — “Be the change you want to see in the world” — still fires the imagination, particularly among the hippie yoga set. But perhaps most significantly, while his name was not on banners, his tactic of mass, peaceful demonstration as a means of gaining political power was clear and present in the recent Arab Spring.

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Sameer Pandya
Sameer Pandya, formerly an assistant professor of English at Queens College, CUNY, is a lecturer in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Other Voices and Epiphany Magazine. He is currently working on a book about Asian-Americans and sports.

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