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.