While employed at the New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld reported from South Africa, and then from India. Decades before, one of the world’s most famous individuals, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – better known as Mahatma (“great soul”) – had lived in both countries in the same consecutive manner. As a result, Lelyveld began thinking and writing about the complicated, consequential man, assassinated in 1948 at age 78.
Now in his seventies, Lelyveld has written an unusual book, hoping to find the words to understand Gandhi, a man who in many ways, to be sure, was a saint – but a saint who sometimes contradicted himself and who pretty much failed to change the world in the ways that he wanted.
To call Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India a biography is to stretch that genre’s meaning. The book does not claim to cover all the important events and individuals in Gandhi’s life; its progression is not always chronological; and Lelyveld’s speculative passages undocumented by hard evidence are numerous. To call the book an extended essay is to stretch another genre’s boundaries, because normal essays do not go on for nearly 400 pages.
Perhaps the best classification for the book is to call it a rumination, based on copious research and intellectual passion and an author’s search for the answer to this question: Is it possible for one individual to permanently alleviate centuries of hatred and misunderstandings over a vast geographical territory?
Born in 1869 near the Arabian Sea in the vast land mass encompassing multiple languages and cultures now known as India, it seemed as if Gandhi’s future would be mapped out by his family, as was customary then. He was betrothed by his family at age six to Kastur Makanji; they married when Gandhi was 13 and became parents as teenagers. To some extent, Gandhi broke free of the imposed constraints, traveling to England at age 19 to study law. He became a lawyer in Bombay, but in 1893 his lawyerly vocation took him to South Africa, where he would remain nearly full time until 1914.
Many other men and women born in India resided in South Africa, and those exiles often received second-class treatment from the reigning Caucasians of Afrikaner Dutch descent, the same ruling class that treated South African blacks as subhuman.
Nothing about Gandhi as a young Indian lawyer in South Africa immediately suggested he would become an apostle of passive resistance in a struggle to deliver de facto and de jure equality to the oppressed in either South Africa or India. Nor did anybody foresee that Gandhi – a husband of an arranged marriage who fathered four sons with his wife – would soon renounce sexual contact, meat and most other foods, and would begin what seems to have been a homoerotic relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a Jewish architect transplanted from East Prussia to South Africa.
When Gandhi returned to India during 1915 to live the remainder of his years, he was already lionized and idolized by millions, and feared as a cryptic agent of change by millions more. Could his personal striving for purity and his intellectual underpinnings truly overcome the cruel caste (class) system stamped onto Indian culture? Could his tireless preaching halt hatred between Hindus and Muslims? Could he play a meaningful role in driving away the British colonizers so that Indians could rule India?
It seemed as if Gandhi had set himself up for failure, and that his followers would eventually feel disappointment when seemingly unattainable goals in fact had not been attained. The eventual partition of India as the nation states of Pakistan and Bangladesh became reality suggest that Gandhi failed spectacularly in the realpolitik realm.
Lelyveld wrestles breathtakingly with the Gandhi-inspired conundrums on a high intellectual plane, with clear writing as a bonus. Lelyveld quotes Gandhi’s own words at length, as well as the words of many, many proponents and antagonists of the Gandhi way. Certainly a few snippets cannot do Lelyveld, or Gandhi, justice, but here is one small offering:
“The cleavages among Hindus he had anticipated and feared were now out in the open, but he never turned back. Missionaries travel to lands they deem to be heathen; presenting himself as a Hindu revivalist, Gandhi took his campaign to his own heartland. He didn’t have one set piece, what’s now called a stump speech, but the same themes reappeared in a more or less impromptu fashion. They all led to the same conclusion. If India were ever to deserve its freedom, he preached, [the caste of] untouchability had to go. Yet at many of the rallies, untouchables were segregated in separate holding pens, either because they were afraid to be seen by caste Hindus as overstepping, or because none of the local organizers was alive to the contradiction of putting untouchability on display at an anti-untouchability rally.”
Eventually, Gandhi aroused so much passion – some of it approving, some of it expressed as violent opposition – that death by the gun or the knife seemed inevitable. Gandhi himself began to express the belief that assassination would become the cause of his death. On January 30, 1948, a Hindu extremist made the prediction come true.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer based in Columbia, Missouri.