Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From Sameer Pandya

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.