Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

  • Joseph Lelyveld
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 425 pp.

From experiences in South Africa came a new vision for Indian society and culture.

Reviewed by Dane Kennedy

The first clue that this engaging biography intends to take a fresh approach to Gandhi comes in its subtitle. It stresses Gandhi’s struggle with India, not his struggle for India. This subtle but striking choice of preposition announces that Joseph Lelyveld’s purpose is to show how Gandhi “struggled to impose his vision on an often recalcitrant India.”

What Gandhi referred to as the “four pillars” of his platform were reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims; an end to untouchability; the embrace of nonviolence; and the promotion of cottage industries by self-sustaining village communities. Despite many Indians’ reverence for Gandhi as their country’s founding father, none of these goals have made much of a mark on modern India. As Lelyveld sees it, Gandhi’s true greatness lies less in his campaigns for political independence than in his efforts to reshape a society that resisted him every step of the way.

Gandhi’s vision took shape in South Africa, not India. He came to the British colony of Natal as a novice lawyer in 1893 and did not return to India until 1914. The 21 years Gandhi spent in South Africa were his most intellectually fertile and politically formative. It was here that Gandhi first mobilized Hindus and Muslims to campaign together against racially discriminatory colonial legislation, first developed the doctrine of nonviolent resistance he termed satyagraha and first challenged caste boundaries with his work on behalf of Indian indentured laborers. He also established two communes, the Phoenix Settlement in Natal and Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal, where he extolled manual labor and promoted agrarian self-sufficiency. His experiments extended into his personal life. He toyed with Christianity, adopted a strict vegetarian diet, took a lifelong vow of celibacy and left his family at Phoenix Settlement to live with a German-born, body-building Jewish architect at Tolstoy Farm.

Lelyveld is not the first biographer to recognize the importance of the two decades Gandhi spent in South Africa, but he is unusually insightful in showing how the Mahatma’s sense of social justice and strategies of political action grew gradually, developing in the contexts of public pressures and personal preoccupations. It does nothing to tarnish Gandhi’s reputation as an advocate of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation to note that he originally took up this cause because practical considerations made it necessary. The Indian population of South Africa was simply too small to exert much influence so long as it remained divided along religious lines. Nor is Gandhi’s moral stature as a critic of untouchability diminished by acknowledging that he initially shared upper-caste Indians’ disdain for South Africa’s largely untouchable indentured laborers, referring to them dismissively as “coolies,” and only gradually coming round to a more enlightened stance. At the same time, Lelyveld doesn’t shy away from evidence that Gandhi’s sympathies never extended to Africans. Some readers may be surprised to learn that Gandhi seemed to share the racist views of Africans so prevalent among the British. Moreover, he remained an empire loyalist in South Africa, organizing Indian stretcher-bearer units for British forces during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901) and the Zulu Rebellion (1906).

Lelyveld is attentive to Gandhi’s seemingly naive “fealty to the empire” during this period, but does little to help his readers make sense of it. Like so many western-educated Indians of his generation, Gandhi initially bought in to the Victorian liberal promise that all “civilized men,” regardless of race, could win a place at the table and share in the governance of empire. This stance might seem inconsistent with nationalist aspirations, but settler colonists in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa had managed to reconcile those aspirations with imperial loyalism, gaining control over their own colonies’ internal affairs while maintaining their bonds to the empire. Why not the same for India? Gandhi’s repeated displays of loyalty to the empire were meant to show that self-governing Indians would remain responsible partners within the empire as well. But the British government’s failure to restrain the racially discriminatory policies that South African and other settler regimes placed on Indian immigrants and its reluctance to allow educated Indians at home to contribute to their own country’s governance exposed the liberal promise of the empire as an empty one. This was one of the most important lessons Gandhi drew from his South African experience.

Gandhi made one last gesture of British loyalism when he returned to India, recruiting peasants to join the army during World War I despite his own self-professed belief in nonviolence. At the same time, however, he took control of the Indian nationalist movement and turned it into an increasingly formidable instrument of opposition to British rule. Lelyveld is not especially interested in Gandhi the nationalist politician who came to dominate the Indian National Congress, marginalize his rivals and baffle the British. You will not learn much here about how Gandhi was able to mobilize the Indian masses and turn the nationalist campaign into a popular movement that helped to make modern Indian civic democracy possible. Little attention is given to the course of the nationalist struggle, and almost no mention is made of the “Quit India” campaign, which did more than any single event to undermine British power in India. Readers interested in how Gandhi led India to independence will have to turn for answers to books like Judith Brown’s Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (1989).

What Lelyveld does do, however, is give great insight into the Gandhi who was determined to reshape Indian society and culture, to impose his own principled if somewhat idiosyncratic vision on his countrymen. This sensitive, illuminating analysis focuses on how Gandhi transferred the ideas and practices he had developed in South Africa to his Indian homeland. Gandhi began by supporting the Khilafat campaign by Indian Muslims who opposed the British war against the Ottoman Caliphate. His aim was to mitigate Muslim distrust of the Hindu-dominated nationalist campaign. It worked in the short term, but broke down with the rise of the Muslim League and the spread of communal violence. Gandhi had greater success with his satyagraha campaigns, especially the remarkable salt march of 1930, which inspired large-scale nonviolent resistance to British rule. But most of these campaigns were relatively short lived, shut down by Gandhi when violence broke out. And the culminating “Quit India” campaign was far from nonviolent.

Gandhi’s efforts to end untouchability provide one of the most illuminating sections of the book, especially his disagreements with the Dalit (untouchable) leader Ambedkar over what strategy best served the interests of the Dalit community. The fact that Ambedkar, not Gandhi, is the patron saint of most contemporary Dalits speaks to who won that argument. Lelyveld also gives considerable attention to those periods when Gandhi withdrew from politics, retreating to his ashram and focusing his efforts on reshaping caste relations, reforming notions of hygiene and defilement, and promoting cottage industries at the village level. Few of his initiatives seem more quaint and futile in retrospect than this last one.

While Lelyveld clearly admires Gandhi, he does not shy away from his subject’s flaws and failures. Gandhi was capable of manipulative, egotistical, paternalistic, condescending, calculating and contradictory behavior. In short, he was human. Frankly acknowledging this fact makes his tireless efforts to give moral purpose to his own life and to the political and social causes he pursued seem all the more admirable. For Lelyveld, Gandhi was “never more heroic, never more a miracle worker” than during the last year or so of his life, when he used the threat of fasting to death to try to halt the terrible Hindu-Muslim violence that accompanied the independence and partition of India. Today’s India may be a profoundly different place from the one Gandhi envisioned and tried to create, but this book shows why he still deserves the designation of Mahatma, or “Great Soul.”

Dane Kennedy teaches history at George Washington University and writes on the history of British colonialism.

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