Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

Picture of Young Gandhi

Our popular image of Gandhi comes from posters, vivid quotes on nonviolence and the excellent Attenborough Film in which Gandhi is played with great spirit by Ben Kingsley. It is a picture of a fearless idealist and political messiah who discovers the heart of his culture and from that insight comes to lead his people to freedom by sheer will. We imagine him as a modern saint who embodied the virtues of nonviolence and forgiveness and whose message was accepted without question by the receptive Indian masses. He had the right message at the right time for India. 

A new biography has been published entitled Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India that challenges all those stereotypes. It is written by Joseph Lelyveld, a journalist who knows both South Africa and India. His intention in this innovative biography is to show that Gandhi was a reformer of Indian culture as much as a nationalist leader. He also wanted to show how difficult the task of reform could be and how many of his original goals were not achieved at independence or since. Through this perspective we can see how Gandhi absorbed many social and political ideals of democracy and equality from the West and how in trying to implement them in India he ran into many obstacles. He was foreign in many of his values and political ideals according to Lelyveld.

We also see how many Indians resisted the ideals of nonviolence and rural development and sought another path to national development. In this book, Lelyveld uses the strategy of choosing key issues in Gandhi’s political development as a reformer to frame each chapter; his intention to abolish the caste system, plan to lift up the poor, programs to engage in village development and passion to encourage Hindu-Muslim unity are featured. He shows how much Gandhi's solutions to these problems were subject to debate within Gandhi’s circle and his disagreement with many Indian leaders over his approach to these problems. Most significantly, we see Gandhi matched against Ambedkar, the greatest leader of the untouchables.

They had very different ideas about how to raise the status of the untouchables, or Harijans as Gandhi called them. Gandhi wanted to include the untouchables in the Hindu political community as well as in the system of custom and faith called Hinduism, while Ambedkar wanted to opt out of Hinduism and have them become Buddhists and insist on their own voting block within the emerging Indian political system.

Finally, Lelyveld show how Gandhi failed to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity and resisted the formation of an independent Pakistan with his last breath while the rest of the Indian leadership had accepted this separation. Gandhi ended up a very lonely figure, who realized that his ideals, from nonviolence to Hindu-Muslim unity, were not embraced or implemented by most fellow Indians. Gandhi did not like the India that was emerging into independence and stated that his vision had been rejected. It was only his assassination that saved him as the image of the father of his country.

Lelyveld often seeks to shock his readers with unfamiliar details of Gandhi’s life that make us reconsider the man. His most surprising information is that of the close and erotically tinged friendship Gandhi maintained with Hermann Kallenbach, a young architect from Prussia. Their way of living as a close couple residing in a single apartment was considered unusual. This was especially so because Gandhi was a married man who left his wife in another city to live this kind of life. So, too, was the nature of their intimacy where they shared diet, exercise, massages and common projects of self-improvement. The image thus presented of a possible homosexual union between Gandhi and another man, even when merely suggested, created a firestorm in India. The biography was banned in his native Indian state of Gujarat by the legislature of that state while it was debated in the nearby state of Maharashtra. The biography was denounced as defamatory in articles and in speeches all over India. This reaction just shows how challenging the new image of Gandhi  is when he is pictured as troubled reformer who failed to fulfill his dreams even as India achieved independence.

From the information given in the biography, we have to reconsider the logic of many of Gandhi’s positions, including his view of how to reform caste, his obsession with rural India and his unrealistic notion of the possibility of communal harmony between religions. Yet because of these very debates, we can see that Gandhi’s thought and aspirations have a power to move people even today.