Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

Few figures seem more remote from contemporary India than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma, or “Great Soul,” who spearheaded the struggle for independence. Gandhi’s beloved rural poor figure only intermittently in the consciousness of a country now focused on call centers, software entrepreneurs and movie stars. In the cities the Gandhian ideals of service, self-denial and universal uplift have been drowned out by the aggressive nationalism and shiny consumer culture of India’s urban boom.

In this context, Joseph Lelyveld’s judicious and thoughtful new book, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India,” [Knopf 425pp] seems almost eccentric, devoted as it is to explaining the evolution of a social and moral philosophy that, 60 years after the end of the British Raj, has lost the attention of the nation it once enthralled.

Mr. Lelyveld (once a New York Times correspondent in India and South Africa and later the newspaper’s executive editor) teases out the forces that transformed a sheltered young Gujurati Hindu lawyer from a conservative merchant caste into the Mahatma, a figure part politician and part saint, who renewed the ancient tradition of Hindu asceticism in the hope not just of political independence, but also of a social and spiritual transformation based in the Indian villages.

In Gandhi’s early years in South Africa we see an ambitious lawyer, an immigrant almost by chance, brought over in 1893 to assist in a civil suit between rival Indian-owned trading companies with roots in his hometown. Initially orthodox in his religious beliefs, he was drawn — like many Indians later active in the national liberation movement — into the fringe milieu of Theosophy, a creed whose blend of Hinduism and Western Spiritualism made it a magnet for holders of unconventional ideas. Theosophical meetings were one of the few places where Indians and Europeans could meet socially on equal terms.

In 1894 Gandhi would go so far as to identify himself in a newspaper advertisement for a series of self-published tracts as “Agent for the Esoteric Christian Union and the London Vegetarian Society,” and it was through a Theosophist friend that he discovered Tolstoy, whose creed of universal brotherhood and radical nonviolence affected him profoundly.

Gandhi soon became a spokesman for the Indian business elite of Natal Province in South Africa, lobbying against a system of discriminatory legislation which was rapidly evolving toward full-blown apartheid. Despite his later claims, Gandhi did not immediately champion the rights of indentured laborers, the underclass of mainly low-caste South Indians who had been transported to labor in mines and on plantations in conditions of semi-slavery. He was also yet to become the staunch anti-imperialist of later years. Hoping to gain concessions from the British colonial authorities, he organized an Indian stretcher battalion to serve in the Boer War, and in an ignoble episode in 1906 assisted (also as the leader of a corps of stretcher-bearers) in the brutal suppression of a Zulu uprising.

Throughout Gandhi’s time in South Africa there is no sign of any attempt to make common cause with the black majority. Imprisoned with Zulu convicts, he reported un-self-consciously that “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.”

Gandhi has been the subject of at least 30 full-length biographies in English alone. To American readers who may know only the basic outlines of his life, “Great Soul” will come as a revelation. Divided equally between Gandhi’s years in South Africa and his return to India as the fully fledged Mahatma, the book scrupulously avoids sensationalism, which is for the best, given that even readers in India, more familiar with the idea of Gandhi as a complex figure, will still find the portrait of a troubled, changeable, wily and occasionally egotistical politician challenging.

While Gandhi’s political rivalries and his shortcomings as a husband and father have been publicly debated, Mr. Lelyveld’s frank discussion of Gandhi’s erotically charged friendship with the German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach is likely to ruffle feathers, especially in a country where homosexual activity was a criminal offense until 2009.

Gandhi left his wife to live at Kallenbach’s house in Johannesburg for a period, and Kallenbach donated to Gandhi the 1,100 acres that became their communal Tolstoy Farm in 1910. As Mr. Lelyveld notes, “in an age when the concept of Platonic love gains little credence,” the romantic tone of their letters (including pet names) is likely to be read as indication of a straightforward homosexual intimacy.

Yet it is also clear in Mr. Lelyveld’s account that Gandhi’s celibacy was a profound and deeply felt position. His vow of brahmacharya, or self-imposed celibacy, taken in 1906, was to become the foundation of his moral authority in the eyes of the Indian masses. Nearing 70, he had a wet dream. The “degrading, dirty, torturing experience” was shattering, he wrote. It “made me feel as if I was hurled by God from an imaginary paradise where I had no right to be in my uncleanliness.”

Gandhi returned to India in 1914 and threw himself into the struggle for self-rule. Repeatedly imprisoned by the British, he led a campaign of civil disobedience, culminating in the Salt March movement of 1930, which, as Mr. Lelyveld writes, “shook the pillars of the Raj” and resulted in 90,000 arrests after Gandhi defied a British tax by the simple act of going to the seashore and harvesting salt.

As Mr. Lelyveld tracks Gandhi’s life, it becomes clear that any attempt to understand Gandhi as some kind of contemporary liberal humanist avant la lettre is off the mark. He was a disciplined religious ascetic. To a degree unmatched by any modern leader of comparable stature, Gandhi’s politics were played out through his body.

Where he ate, what he ate, who cooked it — all were properly political questions for a leader trying to maintain shaky unity between Hindus and Muslims, while engaged in a battle against the caste system, which was one of the foundations of Hindu belief. By voluntarily performing actions considered polluting or degrading, like collecting human waste and living with untouchables, Gandhi earned the right to offer new definitions of what was uplifting and purifying — definitions that were both spiritual and political.

Mr. Lelyveld has restored human depth to the Mahatma, the plaster saint, allowing his flawed human readers to feel a little closer to his lofty ideals of nonviolence and universal brotherhood.

This review first appeared in the New York Times