Joseph Lelyveld subtly tips his hand in his title. The word Mahatma (often employed in ordinary journalistic usage without any definite article, as if it were Mohandas Gandhi’s first name) is actually the Sanskrit word for “Great Soul.” It is a religio-spiritual honorific, to be assumed or awarded only by acclaim, and it achieved most of its currency in the West by association with Madame Blavatsky’s somewhat risible “Theosophy” movement, forerunner of many American and European tendencies to be found in writers, as discrepant as Annie Besant and T. S. Eliot, who nurture themselves on the supposedly holy character of the subcontinent. The repetition, unlikely to be accidental in the case of a writer as scrupulous as Lelyveld, seems to amount to an endorsement. In a different way, the subtitle reinforces the same idea. Not Gandhi’s struggle for India, but with it: as if this vast and antique land was somehow too refractory and ungrateful (recalcitrant is a word to which Lelyveld recurs) to be fully deserving of Gandhi’s sacrificial endeavors on its behalf.
But with perhaps equivalent subtlety—because he generally refrains from imposing any one interpretation upon the reader—Lelyveld furnishes us with the very material out of which one might constitute a refutation of this common opinion. The belief that India fell short of, and continues to disappoint, the ideals of one of its founding fathers is an extremely persistent one. The standard view of Gandhi is that he cut his ethical teeth by opposing racial discrimination in South Africa, failed to dent the intransigent system there but had greater success with nonviolent civil disobedience in British India, broke his heart and ruined his health by opposing the Hindu caste system, strove to reconcile Hindus and Muslims, failed to prevent a sanguinary partition, and was murdered just after attaining a partial and mutilated independence that nonetheless endures: a monument not to his own shortcomings but to those of others.
Lelyveld examines all these pious beliefs and finds, or permits us to conclude, that they belong in the realm of the not-quite-true. Thus, Gandhi and his followers were not much exercised by the treatment of black Africans in South Africa, alluding to them in print as “kaffirs” and even organizing medical orderlies and other noncombatant contributors for a punitive war against the Zulus. Then, Gandhi did fight quite tenaciously against the horrors of “untouchability” but for much of his life was less decided about the need to challenge the caste system tout court. He was not above making sectarian deals with (and against) India’s Muslims. And he considered India’s chief enemy to be modernity, arguing until well into the 1940s that the new nation should abhor industry and technology and relocate its core identity and practice in the ancient rhythms of village life and the spinning wheel. “India’s salvation,” he wrote in 1909, “consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors, and such like have all to go.” The rather sinister concept of “unlearning,” explicitly tied to the more ethereal notion of “salvation,” has more in common with Wahhabism than with the figures of Mandela, King, or the other moral heroes with whom Gandhi’s name is linked.
A related argument has to do with the moral texture and relevance of Gandhi’s concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence, with its counterpart of satyagraha, best translated as “civil disobedience.” It is most usually conceded that, without the declining and increasingly desperate British as his antagonist, Gandhi and his tactics would have fared no better than they had in the face of the remorseless pioneers of apartheid. This concession usually preserves intact the belief that Gandhi’s methods were pure in heart. But it may be observed that the threat to starve himself to death involved him in the deliberate and believable threat of violence, he himself once referring to this tactic as “the worst form of coercion.” It could certainly be argued that launching a full-blown “Quit India” campaign against the British in 1942 amounted to letting Hirohito do his fighting for him.
And it is not disputable that Gandhi himself regarded his own versions of ahimsa and satyagraha as universally applicable. By 1939, he was announcing that, if adopted by “a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees,” such methods might suffice to “melt Hitler’s heart.” This may read like mere foolishness, but a personal letter to the Führer in the same year began with the words My friend and went on, ingratiatingly, to ask: “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?” Apart from its conceit, this would appear to be suggesting that Hitler, too, might hope to get more of what he wanted by adopting a more herbivorous approach. Gandhi also instructed a Chinese visitor to “shame some Japanese” by passivity in the face of invasion, and found time to lecture a member of the South African National Congress about the vices of Western apparel. “You must not … feel ashamed of carrying an assagai, or of going around with only a tiny clout round your loins.” (One tries to picture Nelson Mandela taking this homespun counsel, which draws upon the most clichéd impression of African dress and tradition.)
Gandhi was forever nominating himself as a mediator: in 1937 in Palestine, for example, where he concluded that Jews could demand a state of their own only if all Arab opinion were to become reconciled to it; and later unsolicitedly advising the peoples of Czechoslovakia to try what Lelyveld calls “satyagraha to combat storm troopers.” The nullity of this needs no emphasis: what is more striking—in one venerated so widely for modest self-effacement—is its arrogance. Recording these successive efforts at quasi-diplomacy and “peacemaking,” Lelyveld lapses into near-euphemism. At one point he calls Gandhi’s initiatives “a mixed bag, full of trenchant moral insights, desperate appeals, and self-deluding simplicities.” The crawling letter to Hitler, he summarizes as “a desperate, naive mix of humility and ego” and as one of a series of “futile, well-intentioned missives.” We can certainly detect the influence of Saul Bellow’s “Good Intentions Paving Company,” but the trenchant moral insights and the humility are distinctly less conspicuous.