Mohandas K. Gandhi (the Mahatma) has interested me for a long time, and I have led a course devoted to him. Some of the things about Gandhi that disturbed me — his extreme views on celibacy, his weird dietary and medical notions, his need to completely control his followers — I dismissed as my own misunderstanding of a different culture and his place in it. In fact, he was often not in agreement with his own people.
Joseph Lelyveld, in Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, explores a number of important events in Gandhi’s history and shows us a man somewhat different from the one I thought I knew. Single minded in his desire to shape the India he desired, Gandhi tick-tocked back and forth between political activism and social reform.They are mixed in his “four pillars” of Swaraj (self-rule).
Swaraj would come when India solidified an unbreakable alliance between Muslims and Hindus; wiped out untouchability; accepted the discipline of nonviolence as more than a tactic, as a way of life; and promoted homespun yarn and handwoven fabrics as self-sustaining cottage industries….
His views had grown out of his only partially-successful years in South Africa. There, he initially identified with the problems of the Indian traders and middle class, only coming later to assist the mass of poor and indentured Indian workers. The problems of the black natives he resolutely turned away from.
Trying to identify with India’s impoverished villagers, especially its mass of untouchables, Gandhi became a prisoner of the expectations he has raised. In 1921,
But the crowd at that one, now nameless, rail siding on the Gangetic plain hadn’t stayed on by the thousands through a long night to express its enthusiasm for Gandhi’s four pillars or its fellow feeling for Muslims or untouchables or even to enlist in his next nonviolent campaign. It had come to pay homage to the man, more than that, to a saint. The idea that he cared for them in a new an unusual manner had been communicated only too well. The idea that he had demands to make on them had gotten across in a wispy, vague, and incidental way, if at all.
One can read Lelyveld’s book as an account of repeated failures: failure to create a unified India of Hindus and Muslims, failure to bring self sufficiency to the villages, failure to shift cultural attitudes about untouchability. For all that, the man still moves us and the Indians who turned away from him 60 years ago.
In India today, the term “Gandhian” is ultimately synonymous with social conscience; his example — of courage, persistence, identification with the poorest, striving for selflessness — still has the power to inspire, more so even than his doctrines of nonviolence and techniques of resistance, certainly more than his assorted dogmas and pronouncements on subjects like spinning, diet and sex.