Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, by Joseph Lelyveld (Knopf, 448 pp., $28.95)

Former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Great Soul (which is what “Mahatma” means, a title given Gandhi by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore), has attracted media attention for some bad reasons. Lelyveld’s remarkably detailed research on Gandhi’s life hints at the ambiguous relationship between the great Indian freedom fighter and a Jewish architect from Riga, Hermann Kallenbach. They met in South Africa, where Gandhi spent the first half of his adult life. Kallenbach was doubtless Gandhi’s best friend, maybe his only true friend. Together they founded, near Johannesburg, Tolstoy’s Farm, a self-sustaining community that would later inspire Gandhi’s communes in India and Kallenbach’s decision to join the kibbutz movement in what was then called Palestine. Lelyveld demonstrates how the kibbutzim and the Gandhian concept of a self-sustainable economy share common origins with Tolstoy’s religion of peace and love. He also reveals that Gandhi and Kallenbach’s correspondence was full of sexual innuendo at a time when Gandhi had broken from his wife and publicly committed himself to total sexual abstinence. Lelyveld admits that we will never know the truth about these matters, but the government in Gujarat, where Gandhi was born, has now prohibited sale of the book, which has sullied Gandhi’s saintly reputation in India.

Much more fascinating than the Mahatma’s sexual life, or lack of it, however, is the syncretism that inspired his vision. Gandhi’s appeal for non-Indian leaders, from Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Liu Xiaobo, may have something to do with the universalism of his sources. Gandhi found inspiration and solace in Christianity, Islam, and Tolstoyan New Ageism, as well as in the Hindu scriptures. His universalism led to his own demise: Hindu nationalists accused Gandhi of not being fully Indian. He was killed in Delhi by one of those militants—still vociferous in today’s India—who considered him too obliging toward Indian Muslims.

Beyond the minute details of a long public life, and now, thanks to Lelyveld, a much-exposed private life, one is struck by the contradiction between Gandhi’s actual political failures and his enduring influence. After the 1930s, Gandhi had lost any political role in the struggle for Indian independence, and he took no part in its eventual achievement. He proved unable to realize his ultimate goal of keeping India united as a multiethnic and multi-religious nation. He also failed to transform India into a utopia of self-sustaining villages, an alternative to Western capitalism and Soviet socialism. Gandhi embraced no secular ideology of collective redemption. He rejected any “ism,” whether socialism, capitalism, or “Gandhism.” His only political program was the example of his own life, based on complete honesty, frugality, tolerance, and love for the poor. No surprise, then, that the French writer Romain Rolland, who published the first Gandhi biography in 1924, called him the Jesus Christ of the Orient. Gandhi reportedly told Rolland: “Not only have you made me famous, you also invented a man named Gandhi!”

How does such an awkward, even exotic, character maintain such appeal in our contemporary world? The main reason is likely the power of a new political tool that Gandhi pioneered: nonviolence, or the Power of Truth (“Satyagraha” in Sanskrit). It was Gandhi who conceived of nonresistance to police or military aggression and of fasting, potentially until death, for a just cause. Satyagraha would eventually convince the British public that imperialism in India was unjust, and decades later, it would break apartheid in South Africa. Its power has been proven by men like King, Mandela, and Havel. At the same time, its effectiveness has been overestimated, a fact perhaps not fully understood by Gandhi himself.

The Power of Truth works only when the adversary shares the same ethical principles as the victims. Addressing Americans, King, for example, spoke as a Christian to other Christians: he made them discover their own moral failure. Gandhi may have had more support among the guilt-ridden British than among the Hindu nationalists. Today, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have succeeded with only minor violence thus far, in part because the military would not shoot their Muslim brothers. But the limits of Gandhi’s Satyagraha were proven in his own time, when he wrote to German-Jewish community leaders that they could deter Hitler through passive resistance. To Zionist representatives who asked for his support before the creation of the state of Israel, he suggested that they peacefully persuade Arabs of the justness of Jewish aspirations.

Gandhi seemed unable to see the evil in the world. He could hardly understand the unlimited violence of tribalism, religious sectarianism, and ideological bigotry; he imagined that wolves could become vegetarians. Despite such limitations, which sometimes approached absurdity, one can understand how Gandhi’s unlimited faith in humankind remains attractive and, sometimes, effective. After all, he is the only major political leader of the twentieth century without blood on his hands—no minor achievement.

Another of Gandhi’s controversial legacies is his view of progress. Many Gandhi discourses sound like the ravings of a Luddite. We know that he weaved his own clothes and asked his disciples to do the same. His dream for an independent India was built upon “Swaraj,” or self-reliance. He often requested that Indians burn their clothes if they were imported. He saw capitalism and free trade as imperialist ploys to enslave the Indian people. However, the same Gandhi would call for a British surgeon when he needed an appendectomy. He traveled extensively throughout India on British-built railways, not on an oxcart. He may well have been the twentieth century’s first media-savvy political actor, using the newsreel to reach Western audiences. Lelyveld describes the famous March to the Sea in 1930, when Gandhi broke the British salt monopoly by gathering a pinch of salt on the seashore. The author fails to reveal, though, that Gandhi walked briskly only when a film crew covered his steps; when the cameras were turned off, he would shift to a more leisurely pace.

Was Gandhi a hypocrite, then? The accusation remains common among right-wing nationalists in today’s India, though both they and the ruling Congress Party are fully committed to capitalism and economic growth. Gandhi’s understanding of progress was in fact somewhat subtle. He doesn’t fit into the same categories as contemporary advocates of “slow food” or zealots for zero-percent growth. Gandhi summarized his thinking in a well-known aphorism, which Lelyveld quotes, on the measure of progress: “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” In contemporary India, many Gandhi followers still apply this recommendation. The most respected among them is M. S. Swaminathan, dubbed the Father of the Green Revolution. In the early 1970s, he introduced new hybrid wheat seeds, which have increased food production in India and kept it ahead of the country’s population growth. Thanks to Swaminathan’s work with the Nobel Prize–winning American agronomist Norman Borlaug, Indians have escaped the famines of the past and now accumulate wheat and rice surpluses. Asked about biotechnology, Swaminathan, now in his eighties, has said that genetically modified organisms are welcome in India if “they are of any use to the poorest Indian woman,” thus extending the original Gandhi quote to women as well.

Gandhism may not be the engine of the current Indian economy, but it does act as a brake on corruption and inequality, the two scourges of the rapidly developing country. The ruling Congress Party, which Gandhi chaired in the 1920s, is fully committed to an active capitalist strategy. But new wealth in India hasn’t trickled down much. This has led the Congress Party chairman, Sonia Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma), to implement poverty-alleviation programs in the poorest villages in the Mahatma’s name—a name that continues to trouble the conscience of the well-to-do Indian elite.

Gandhi is also a vivid source of inspiration for thousands of nongovernmental organizations throughout the country. Foreign NGOs feel unwelcome in India, because so many Indian NGOs are already at work on the ground. Many deal with sanitation issues, following Gandhi’s principled fight against “open-air defecation,” which he rightly perceived as one of the country’s major health threats.

Early this year, a veteran Gandhian social activist, Anna Hazare, who established a model village in Maharashtra, started a hunger strike against corruption. Sonia Gandhi had no alternative but to travel to Hazare’s straw hut and beg for an end to his fast in exchange for the creation of a high-level anticorruption board in New Delhi, which will evaluate the honesty of ruling ministers and government officials. Swaminathan and Hazare may be tiny specks in the vast landscape of today’s India, but they show that the Mahatma’s power is not confined to history books.


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