The Real Mahatma Gandhi

Questioning the moral heroism of India’s most revered figure

When Mother Teresa—another denizen of that unworldly India of redemption by self-abnegation—had her audience with Pope Paul VI, she reportedly took a bus to the Vatican and wore only her everyday sari and sandals. I wrote at the time that, if true, this was not modesty but ostentation. Perhaps this shows only my Eurocentric bias (though vide my point above about Nelson Mandela), yet whole passages of this book are rendered oppressive to read—and this is by no means Lelyveld’s fault—by the necessity of recording every meager gram that Gandhi ingested on his dietary regimes, every square inch of unclothed limb and torso that he felt it necessary for the whole world to see, every stitch of painstakingly homemade cloth in which he draped the remainder, every act of abstention from sex, and every exercise in physical self-mortification. In point of personality, these are more usually the lineaments of the fanatic and martyrdom-seeker while, in point of ideology, they represent the highly dubious idea that asceticism and austerity—even poverty—are good for the soul.

Again, such reactionary ideas were supposed by Gandhi to be binding on others as well as himself. He adopted the Hindu form of chastity known as brahmacharya and thought it enough to merely inform his wife of his decision. Talking with a visiting Margaret Sanger, advocate of female sexual emancipation and birth control, he not only denied the importance of women’s sexual health but—according to witnesses of the conversation—gave himself a blood-pressure attack while doing so. Lelyveld has created a minor scandal in India by instancing some lapses on Gandhi’s part—including one possibly homosexual episode—from this supposedly exalted standard. But given what we know about gurus in general, this is fairly mild and, to be fair, it does not seem to have involved the exploitation of credulous acolytes, or not all that much. (He did employ his grand-niece Manu for the furtive purpose of lying in bed with him to test his ability to resist erections.) Nonetheless, one might take a moment to imagine life in one of Gandhi’s often-vaunted “700,000 villages of India,” beating heart of the traditional society, if the spinning wheel had indeed remained the leading mode of production and the position of women had been brought into accord with his teachings. If the main residue of that bucolic sentiment is the ubiquitous spinning-wheel symbol, this situation may represent not the triumph of a vulgar materialism that would have brought sorrow to the Mahatma, so much as the observably universal ambition of Indians to urbanize as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

How did Gandhi confront the other salient tasks of a nation builder: the question of Hindu fundamentalism and the directly related problem of relations with the large Muslim minority? Here one is obliged to emphasize another word from the Gandhian thesaurus: the naming of the country’s immiserated “untouchables” as Harijans, or “children of god.” Here, the euphemism is direct and unvarnished. But as it happens, and as is very frequently forgotten, the millions of untouchables had their own highly literate and articulate spokesman in the person of B. R. Ambedkar, who called on the victims of the caste system to abandon outright the Hindu faith that codified and enshrined their status as subhumans. (Ambedkar himself adopted Buddhism.) Untouchables also tended to reject the condescension implicit in the Harijan designation, preferring to go under the title of Dalits, which modern India has adopted. Gandhi and Ambedkar quarreled repeatedly over the question of special political representation for those at the despised bottom of the caste ladder; Ambedkar supported it, suspecting that Congress Party rule would be another name under which high-caste Hindus would become the successors of the British Raj.

Lelyveld offers in passing the startling observation that Gandhi, who loftily asserted, “I claim myself in my own person to represent the vast mass of the untouchables,” had in point of fact “done next to nothing to organize and lead” them. On his way back from the 1931 London conference on Indian independence at which the differences with Ambedkar revealed themselves as insuperable, Gandhi stopped in Rome for a meeting with Mussolini, after which he wrote effusively of Il Duce’s “service to the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about coordination between capital and labor [and] his passionate love for his people.” Imprisoned by the British on his return, he threatened to starve himself to death if special political dispensation was granted to untouchables … To my own alarm, I found myself sympathizing with Churchill’s tirade against this self-righteous combination of half-naked “fakir” and “seditious Middle Temple lawyer,” and with the viceroy’s exasperated staff who found themselves intercepting the correspondence between fakir and Führer.

If the Dalits had good reason to fear that they would be subordinated to Hindu-majority tyranny after the attainment of self-rule, the Muslims of the subcontinent equally dreaded a similar outcome. Lelyveld’s treatment of this still-inflamed subject is distinctive and original. I had not known that, in the early 1920s, Gandhi reposed his whole political weight in favor of the Indian Muslim demand for the restoration of the Ottoman caliphate as the guarantor of Muslim holy places. This so-called Khilafat movement, while conveniently anti-British in its implications, was by definition taking place in the realm of illusion, since by that time even the Turks themselves had rejected the rule of the sultan. But it gave Gandhi a platform to address sectarian and traditionalist Muslim throngs, and in his own eyes, this apparently trumped its quixotry. Whether the encouragement of Islamist ancien régime tendencies among Muslims was a useful path to overcoming communal divisions is a question on which Lelyveld is politely neutral. He does note that one Muslim leader who remained unimpressed by the Khilafat agitation was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a relatively secular nationalist and modernist who at an early session of the Congress Party pointedly referred to “Mister” rather than “Mahatma” Gandhi. He was not the only one to see through Gandhi’s theatrical attempts to base reconciliation on ephemeral and crowd-pleasing themes: Lelyveld records that as early as 1921, “the impressive coalition Gandhi had built and inspired was proving to be jerry-built.” Jinnah’s future as the founder of the state of Pakistan could not then be imagined, but when it did become imaginable it was again as a consequence of a moment of Gandhian opportunism: when “the Mahatma” called on all Congress Party officials to leave their posts in 1942, the Muslim League had only to tell its own supporters to stay at work to guarantee itself a much greater share of power after Japan had been defeated.

Gandhi cannot escape culpability for being the only major preacher of appeasement who never changed his mind. The overused word is here fully applicable, as Gandhi entreated the British to let the Nazis

take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself man, woman and child, to be slaughtered …

This passage is revealing, not so much for its metaphysical amorality as for its demonstration of what was always latent in Gandhism: a highly dubious employment of the mind-body distinction. For him, the material and physical world was gross and polluting and selfish, while all that pertained to the “soul” was axiomatically ideal and altruistic. (Let Hitler have Britain’s “beautiful buildings,” while their expelled inhabitants, even as they submitted to extermination, meditated on the sublime.) This false antithesis is the basis for all religious fundamentalism, even as its deliberate indifference permits and even encourages sharp deterioration in the world of “real” conditions. Not entirely unlike his contemporary fighter for independence Eamon De Valera, who yearned for an impossible Ireland that spoke Gaelic, resisted modernity, and put its trust in a priestly caste, Gandhi had a vision of an “unpolluted” India that owed a great deal to the ancient Hindu fear and prohibition of anything that originated from “across the black water.”

Lelyveld’s high standing as a reporter was earned largely by his work in South Africa, culminating in the memorable book Move Your Shadow, which anatomized the deep psychology of racism. And it may well have been Gandhi’s years in that country that helped imbue him with a lifelong fear of a distraught, occluded relationship between sexuality, violence, and “hygiene.” Originally projected onto the sheer physicality of the threatening Zulus, this extreme fastidiousness lent him a certain identification with essentially conservative ideas of purity and order and simplicity. Very cleverly, Lelyveld connects this ethos to V. S. Naipaul’s shocked confrontation with Indian squalor—or, to be more precise, with Indian levels of public defecation—in his first study of the country, An Area of Darkness. It is not, perhaps, so surprising that the Brahmin-like Naipaul found so much to admire in the prim ex-attorney who experienced such combined revulsion and exaltation at the sheer filth and chaos of his own version of the beloved country. This complex of odi et amo, which led Gandhi to handle the night soil of beggars and sweepers as an act of restitution, also made him suspicious of passions and repelled by those—not by any means excluding untouchables and Muslims—who seemed to exhibit them. The strenuous manner of his fasts and mortifications and personal sexual repressions found a paradoxical counterpart in his attachment to passivity and acceptance.

Auden wrote of Yeats that he “became his admirers,” and Naipaul was to annex this line in tracing the way that Gandhi became more powerless as he grew more revered. Lelyveld concludes his Author’s Note by saying, “Even now, he doesn’t let Indians—or, for that matter, the rest of us—off easy.” But can it be that the admirers are too inclined to return a lenient verdict on their own highly protean Mahatma? This book provides the evidence for both readings, depending on whether you think Gandhi was a friend of the poor or a friend of poverty, and whether or not you can notice something grotesque—even something conceited—in the notion that the meek should inherit the Earth.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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