The Real Mahatma Gandhi

Questioning the moral heroism of India’s most revered figure


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.

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.