Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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