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

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

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