Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The New York Times, has written a biography of Mohandas Gandhi called Great Soul. It doesn't seem like Lelyveld set out to pen a hatchet job--The Wall Street Journal characterizes the book as "generally admiring"--but Great Soul has been making headlines for its salacious details and catalogs of Gandhi's hypocrisy. It seems the Indian leader may not have been such a great soul after all.
Among the juicier tidbits: Gandhi routinely slept nude with his teenage great-niece and other young women. He didn't think much of black people, referring to South African natives as "Kaffirs" (a term today regarded as highly offensive) and complaining that "they are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals." He seemed weirdly okay with fascists, praising Mussolini and addressing Hitler as "my friend" in a letter.
And he was evidently in love with a German architect and bodybuilder named Hermann Kallenbach, for whom he left his wife in 1908 and with whom he spent the next six years. Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach about "how completely you have taken possession of my body," made the German promise not to "look lustfully upon any woman," and gave himself and Kallenbach the nicknames "Upper House" and "Lower House," respectively.
These points are lingered over in Andrew Roberts's review of Great Soul at the Journal. Lelyveld may not have set out to write a piece of character assassination, but Roberts writes like Gandhi wronged him personally. Most of Roberts's 2,000-word review is given over to instances of Gandhi contradicting himself or acting gracelessly.
A few of the points Roberts surfaces are genuinely outrageous, like when he talks about Gandhi bailing out on civil-disobedience campaigns halfway through. "Between 1900 and 1922, Gandhi suspended his efforts no fewer than three times," Roberts writes, "leaving in the lurch more than 15,000 supporters who had gone to jail for the cause."
Elsewhere, Roberts comes across as just petty. He points out that "Gandhi denounced lawyers, railways and parliamentary politics, even though he was a professional lawyer who constantly used railways to get to meetings to argue that India deserved its own parliament." He notes that "after taking a vow against milk for its supposed aphrodisiac properties, he contracted hemorrhoids, so he said that it was only cow's milk that he had forsworn, not goat's." And he calls Gandhi "the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals."
Other publications don't rag on Gandhi quite so hard. And the revelation about Kallenbach doesn't seem to have made many waves. Mike Vilensky at New York calls the relationship "cute," while Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic simply writes that Gandhi "joins Lincoln in the growing ranks of great gay men in history." (Although, not to nitpick, but since Gandhi also talked about "the organ" becoming "aroused" in the company of women, it would probably be inaccurate to call him gay. See also: these mice.)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.