*REVIEW* Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

gandhi1Joseph Lelyveld,
Great Soul:
Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
448 pages

This book is comprised of two parts, with five chapters in the first and seven in the second. Part one is devoted to Gandhi’s life and experiences in South Afrika. Part two focuses on his contributions to India’s struggle for independence from British imperialism. There is also a very helpful glossary of terms, chronology of Gandhi’s life, and list of sources. The book does not present much that is new in relation to standard narratives of the life and times of Gandhi in South Afrika and India, but rather amplifies a number of things portrayed in them. Joseph Lelyveld does an excellent job of portraying a Gandhi who was thoroughly human and as susceptible to moral and other mistakes as any other human being. The novice and those who have heard or read very little about Gandhi tend to think of him as having been a saint, a characterization that he himself rejected. In Great Soul the reader gets a good sense as to why.

In this book we see a Gandhi who at times was verbally abusive to his wife, and who, disapproving of his oldest son’s marriage at age eighteen disowned him. Gandhi also took a vow of brahmacharya (chastity) without even consulting his wife. We see a Gandhi who declared his great passion and love for the untouchables (who later named themselves Dalits), but who did not fight for their self-determination and equality when he was the leader of the Indian National Congress, even though he fought to do away with untouchability. Moreover, when untouchable leader B. R. Ambedkar argued for special representation and special electorates for the untouchables, Gandhi said that he would resist this with his life, vowing to fast unto death if these were granted. He claimed that granting such a demand would only serve to institutionalize untouchability. Ambedkar and others came to believe that Gandhi was soft peddling the issue of untouchability. Indeed, we see in this book a Gandhi who was perceived as being an autocratic decision-maker who often made decisions without consulting even those most affected. We also see a Gandhi who tended to recall a more rosy version of events, a tendency, the book suggests, that was not generally the result of a faulty memory, e.g., his recollection that in South Afrika he started the Natal agitation with a small number of highly trained satyagrahis—those committed to nonviolence as a way of life (46, 108, 202). What the author does better than most writers on Gandhi is to amplify many of these matters by revealing the complexities involved, thus reminding the reader that even regarding some of the questionable ideas and practices of Gandhi these were not often black and white, so to speak.

Unlike one recent writer on Gandhi (G. B. Singh), Lelyveld assumes (as does Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi and a host of other scholars) the truth of the well known racial train and coach incident of 1893 when Gandhi was traveling to Johannesburg shortly after arriving in South Afrika. Gandhi wrote in his Autobiography that he was racially assaulted and made to leave the train at Pietermaritzburg. Lelyveld does an excellent job of chronicling Gandhi’s relations with the authorities in South Afrika, with the Indian community (especially the untouchables), and with the Zulus. Gandhi’s relationship with black South Afrikans was strained from the beginning since he uncritically accepted the Indian community party line that they were vastly superior to blacks and resented the tendency of whites to place the Indians on the same level with the natives. For more than a decade Gandhi often used the pejorative term “Kaffir” when referring to the Zulus. Moreover, he encouraged the Indians to side with the British against blacks during the so called Zulu rebellion of 1906. During this period Gandhi also concurred with other Indians by declaring his preference for racial purity.

Interestingly, Lelyveld does not accuse Gandhi of having been a racist toward black South Afrikans, although he points to a number of instances when he made racially insensitive comments. This is one of the places where the author believes the matter was more complex than the poorly informed mind is aware. Gandhi exhibited racist tendencies, Lelyveld seems to say, but one must take other things into consideration in order to get a better sense of what was really going on. For example, no one knows how much Gandhi actually knew about the Zulus before going to South Afrika. In addition, although much influenced by Tolstoy, Gandhi rejected his absolute stance against nationalism. This may have led, in part, to his devotion to the Indian people such that his liberation efforts were primarily to free them from British rule. To this extent he embraced nationalism. While he sympathized with the oppressed Afrikans his primary concern was the well being and dignity of his own people. Nevertheless, one must also consider that Gandhi’s position evolved over time and he ceased referring to blacks as Kaffirs.” However, while in South Afrika he could not see his way to support any potential alliance between the Indians and black South Afrikans. This was as interesting stance exhibited by one usually thought of as a racial, cultural, and religious universalist.

In the chapter entitled “Upper House,” the author goes well beyond the standard narratives on Gandhi when he discusses Gandhi’s relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, the Jewish German architect and benefactor who provided the land for Tolstoy Farm in South Afrika. The two men became best friends, indeed, quite possibly more than friends. It is significant however, that the author does not expressly say that the two men were involved in a homosexual relationship, but he introduces a number of statements that strongly implies that theirs was a homoerotic relationship. This information comes from letters written by Gandhi and saved by Kallenbach. For reasons unknown Gandhi early made the decision to destroy Kallenbach’s letters to him. The year that he made the vow of brahmacharya Gandhi moved in with Kallenbach “in what became…the most intimate, also ambiguous, relationship of his lifetime” (88). The author nowhere says the two men’s relationship was ever sexual, despite what could be construed as such in Gandhi’s letters.

We also see in Great Soul a Gandhi who could be incredibly naïve. For example, he praised Mussolini (223), and also stated that a single Jew trained in the discipline of nonviolence and standing up to Hitler “might be enough to ‘melt Hitler’s heart’” (256). Of course, Hitler proposed what he perceived as the perfect remedy to nonviolence, namely to shoot and kill Gandhi (281).

Gandhi held that in order to render real service one had to overcome all sexual lust. One was not to desire sex for pleasure, but only for procreation. He was eventually challenged by Margaret Sanger, founder of the movement that became Planned Parenthood. Sanger took issue with his stance and argued that sexual intimacy was healthy for both men and women. Gandhi held firm to his stance, but is thought to have paid a hefty price. The author writes that Gandhi’s “conversation with the American—unlike any he’d previously had with a woman—seems to have sent his worrisomely high blood pressure higher and, by some accounts, left him in a state near nervous collapse” (257).

Gandhi fought hard for a united India rather than a partitioned India. He even offered to live with the Muslim Suhrawardy until Hindus and Muslims began to live like the kin they are (326, 327). Young Hindus, especially extremists, demanded of Gandhi to know why he was so concerned about Muslims. Just over a year before he was assassinated Hindu hecklers in Delhi even called for his death (334, 340). Eventually circumstances, including death threats, were such that he was forced to live in a mansion in Delhi, where, four months later he would be assassinated on his way to evening prayers in the ostensibly secure garden.

Despite Gandhi’s protests, Hindu violence against Muslims in Delhi continued. On January 13, 1948, seventeen days before he was assassinated, he began a fast on behalf of the Muslims. There was an explosion on January 20 meant as a cover for an attempt on Gandhi’s life. Although it was a failed attempt, and the authorities captured the bomber and discovered the plot and intent of the bomb, they failed to connect the dots and to break up the conspiracy (341). In the waning days Gandhi anticipated his impending death many times, bringing up the subject fourteen times in the ten days following the failed bomb attempt (342). Gandhi was shot twice and mortally wounded by the Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse on the evening of January 30, 1948 as he walked through the garden to daily prayers.

Although I have read and pondered more books by and about Mohandas K. Gandhi than most people, and also teach a course on the ethics of nonviolence in Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., I do not consider myself a Gandhi scholar as such. I do know a good book on Gandhi when I read one however, and Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul falls into that category. Although he does a better job than most in trying to make sense of Gandhi’s sense of racial and cultural superiority regarding black South Afrikans during his first decade or more there, and the fallout of this in later years among such notable African National Congress members such as a young Nelson Mandela, I frankly found myself wishing the author had dug even deeper.

Prior to reading this book I was unaware that the relationship between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach was quite possibly homoerotic. Because of the innuendoes in Gandh’s letters that left openings for speculation that homosexual relations may have taken place—and “speculation” is the most we can say at this point— I wish he had discussed this in light of the fact that Gandhi had taken a vow of brahmacharya that would have precluded sexual relations with either gender. The vow of brahmacharya was something that Gandhi felt very strongly about, going as far as to say on numerous occasions that without such a vow of chastity and complete curbing of the sexual appetite, one will not likely be able to engage in genuine service to the people. Moreover, Gandhi was the first to admit that to the extent that he periodically experienced arousal he could not say that he was a perfect bramacharyi, although he was more perfect than most. Less than two years before he was assassinated he vowed to deepen his self-sacrifice (yajna) by further testing his 40 year vow of brahmacharya in extreme conditions (303, 306). At this time he began the controversial practice of sleeping with female attendants (304), including his great niece, Manu Gandhi. He believed that God could better use him for service if he could prove that he had been completely emptied at this point and was completely without sexual desire. Although this practice of Gandhi’s receives attention in Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi: The Man, His People, and The Empire (2007), Yogesh Chadha, Gandhi: A Life (1997), Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (1991) and in a number of other books on Gandhi, one could wish for an even deeper amplification by Lelyveld.

I get no sense from this book that the author seeks to cast a shadow on Gandhi’s reputation or otherwise diminish his accomplishments, such as one finds in the provocative book by G. B. Singh and Tim Watson, Gandhi: Under Cross Examination(2009). Generally I find a balanced account of the incidents depicted in Great Soul. The book is very well written, thus making the reading pleasurable. Moreover, the author does an excellent job of supporting his claims with the best available scholarship and sources left by Gandhi himself. For these reasons I unequivocally recommend this book to both scholarly and popular audiences.

Rufus Burrow, Jr.
Indiana Professor of Christian Thought and
Professor of Theological Social Ethics
Christian Theological Seminary


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