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The Problem with Purity

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India
By Joseph Lelyveld
(Alfred A. Knopf, 410 pp., $27.95)

In 1914, the Tamil activist and editor P.S. Aiyar took to the pages of his South African newspaper to appraise Mohandas Gandhi. “Mr. Gandhi may have been a good man prior to his assuming the role of a saint,” Aiyar wrote, “but since he has attained this new state by himself without being ordained by a holy preceptor, he seems to be indifferent though not callous to human sufferings and human defects.” What is striking about this comment—apart from the notion that Gandhi was at least partially tone-deaf to misery—is the year it was published. With the exceptions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, there is no twentieth-century figure who approaches Gandhi’s status as a paragon of near-angelic virtue. But in 1914, after more than two decades in South Africa, Gandhi had not yet returned to India to lead the independence movement that would eventually give rise to a partitioned subcontinent and thereby cement his sainthood.

There was always something otherworldly about Gandhi, and it accounts for the scale of his defeats and his triumphs. It is his etherealness, combined with the fanatical austerity of his way of life, that makes Gandhi a more remote figure than King or Mandela. Before turning forty, he took a vow of celibacy, loftily presenting his decision to his wife as a fait accompli. (King’s infidelities and Mandela’s personal troubles, by contrast, highlight especially human flaws.) His dietary restrictions were severe by any measure—“I see death in chocolates,” he once said in reference to cocoa’s supposedly arousing properties. His comments on current events frequently made him appear untethered to reality. “By the end of the [1930s],” Joseph Lelyveld writes, “he was freely doling out advice on how his techniques of nonviolent resistance, if adopted by ‘a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees,’ might be enough to ‘melt Hitler’s heart.’ In a letter to a friend, in 1909, he wrote, “India’s salvation 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, and the so-called upper classes have to learn to live conscientiously and religiously and deliberately the simple peasant life.” This is less a misguided prescription than it is sheer fantasy. Gandhi’s purist vision for a postindependence India was never realized: he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist less than a year after the British departure, and many of his teachings were ignored. Untouched by the messy business of governing the free country he helped birth, he remains numinously stranded in time.

“No Indian who aspires to follow the way of true religion can afford to remain aloof from politics,” Gandhi once wrote. And yet Lelyveld shows that when Gandhi’s spiritual and political sides came into conflict, he would invariably remove himself from the political world (before eventually returning to it, of course). He could be both compromising and absolute, practical and doctrinaire; it was this mixture of distaste for the more prosaic side of public life and the intellectual recognition of the necessity of politics that accounts for his shifts and maneuvers. But underlying his career was an unceasing belief in his own moral compass. Judith M. Brown, his British biographer, wrote that for Gandhi politics was simply “morality in action.”

Gandhi saw little distinction between the purity of his life and the purity of his causes. “His experiments and discoveries and vows answered his own need as a Hindu, the need constantly to define and fortify the self in the midst of hostility,” V.S. Naipaul once observed. “They were not of universal application.” Unsurprisingly, this view of politics led Gandhi, a firm believer in India’s multiethnic character, to prefer dealing with other religiously oriented notables and factions. The partition of the subcontinent would not be the first time or the last time that such an approach to leadership would end in tragedy.

The subtitle of Lelyveld’s book is thus well chosen. He skillfully tells the story of his subject’s expanding consciousness on issues of caste and discrimination, and Gandhi’s heroic insistence that India must order its own affairs. But Lelyveld—like a number of recent Gandhi scholars—recognizes that Gandhi always had to struggle with the doubts of his countrymen who were wary of his piety, his conception of India, and his erratic approach to politics. His life contained a series of miscalculations and squandered opportunities, yet it is fitting that his belief in peace and non-violence—which grew out of a mix of the Hinduism of his youth and Jainist and Christian teachings, often the result of Gandhi’s attraction to non-Hindu figures such as Tolstoy—has managed to transcend his historical circumstances. Gandhi originally adopted non-violence in South Africa, though he would later drop it at opportune times. By the 1940s he had taken his philosophy to such extremes that he misunderstood his historical moment and failed to grapple with its most terrible curse, totalitarianism. Sixty-three years after his death, we can be clear-sighted about the limits of his career even as we are grateful for his example.

Gandhi once said that South Africa was where he realized his “vocation in life.” Lelyveld, who has done extensive reporting in South Africa for many decades, begins his biography in 1893, when the twenty-three-year-old Gujarati, already married with two children and a law degree from England, accepted a job in Durban and became involved in his new home’s precarious and unsettled civic life. The ever-present divide between Hindu and Muslim Indians, who had been transplanted from one imperial possession to another (usually as indentured laborers), existed alongside inequalities and tensions between Indians and native Africans, and Indians from different castes. Disputes between British colonials and Dutch Boers had already produced one war, and would lead to a larger war at the turn of the century. South Africa’s troubles would prove an important testing ground for Gandhi, even if he did not always draw the right lessons from them. (The South Africa sections, especially those detailing Gandhi’s closeness to a German architect named Hermann Kallenbach, have led to book bans in parts of India because of claims that Lelyveld implies a sexual relationship between the two men; but the book has little new information on this much-written-about friendship, and Lelyveld does not believe it was sexual—although such details hardly matter in regard to the absurdity of banning the book.)

Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress, an organization dedicated to civil rights, soon after arriving in South Africa. But his views on less privileged Indians were far from enlightened. He quickly became enmeshed in a dispute over the use of the word “coolie,” which was then being used to describe Indian laborers. His initial comments on the word showed a surprising lack of awareness and empathy. As Lelyveld explains, “[Gandhi] concedes that coolies may sometimes be disorderly, may even steal. He knows but doesn’t make a point of saying that most of those he has now agreed to call coolies are of lower-caste backgrounds. If anything, caste is a subject he avoids.... Temporarily, at least, he doesn’t identify with them.” A couple of years later, while Gandhi was engaged in protecting the voting rights of educated Indians like himself, he wrote that his peers “have no wish to see ignorant Indians who cannot possibly be expected to understand the value of a vote being placed on the Voters’ List.” As for native Africans, he noted: “The Indian is being dragged down to the position of the raw Kaffir.” Of this Arabic-derived term, Lelyveld writes, “In its most polite usage, as a noun, it signified a primitive being. When it came with a sneer, it amounted to ‘nigger.’ Kafferboetie was an abusive term in Afrikaans for anyone who liked or sympathized with blacks; a fair translation was ‘nigger lover.’” “It was something Gandhi was never called,” Lelyveld drily adds.

Gandhi’s maturation was partially the result of the discrimination that he suffered—being thrown off a train, being forced to remove his turban, and a slew of other indignities. His developing sympathy for indentured laborers seems to have led to more awareness of low-caste Indians, and of black Africans, too. “The exact connections are hard to pin down, but in a more general sense they seem obvious,” Lelyveld writes. “For Gandhi, the phenomenon of indentured labor, a system of semi-slavery, as he branded it, had fused in his South African years with that of caste discrimination.”

If there was one event that forced Gandhi to begin to confront his prejudices, it was the uprising among native Zulus against a poll tax in 1906. Gandhi was an enthusiastic supporter of the British decision to put down the uprising, and even commanded a volunteer medical corps (the British refused to allow Indians to serve in the military). In his autobiography, he wrote that his heart was with the Zulus, which sits awkwardly with his claim that “loyalty” prevented him from “wishing ill” upon the British Empire. Even if Gandhi’s account of the conflict is self-justifying, the brutality visited upon the native population (his charges ended up caring for wounded Africans), combined with his anger at the colonial authorities, provided further resonance for the commingling thoughts in his head.

In 1913, Gandhi commenced negotiations over colonial laborers with Jan Smuts, an Afrikaner and racist who, after the Boer War, had become colonial secretary. The final agreement managed to win Indians some minor rights, although Gandhi’s reference to the settlement as a “magna carta for Indians” was, he eventually recognized, an overstatement. The deal with Smuts displayed Gandhi’s emerging mode of operation: he was capable of compromise, but he viewed his struggle in absolute, even religious (although not sectarian) terms. And he saw activism as offering spiritual, as well as material, rewards. Lelyveld is probably right to say that the Mahatma viewed the struggle for indentured rights as “selfsacrifice” rather than “self-advancement.”

After arriving back in India in 1915, in what is surely the strangest interlude of Gandhi’s career, he helped to recruit Indian soldiers for World War I. Lelyveld speculates that Gandhi, who tried to wring concessions from the British, viewed support for the war effort as a way of cementing his leadership in India. There is little doubt that he still felt loyalty to a British society that had educated him, allowed him to travel, and offered certain concessions to his political machinations in South Africa. Lelyveld’s account of Gandhi’s numerous rationalizations display the latter’s proclivity to mix absolutism and pragmatism, even at the cost of logic: “He implores wives to send their husbands to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the empire, blithely promising, ‘They will be yours in your next incarnation.’ Fighting for the empire, he now argues, is the ‘straightest way to swaraj [self-rule].’ An India that has shown military prowess, his reasoning goes, will no longer need Britain to defend it. Fighting is a necessary step on the way to non-violence. ‘It is clear that he who has lost the power to kill cannot practice non-killing.’” Erik Erikson, who wrote a book about Gandhi, went so far as to suggest that Gandhi had undergone a psychological breakdown.


Lelyveld’s account becomes less assured back in India, where Gandhi committed himself to independence. Lelyveld almost completely omits the Amritsar massacre of 1919, in which the British brutally murdered Indians in Punjab, inadvertently hastening the demand for self-rule and exploding any moral claim about imperial control. Lelyveld also fails to paint interesting portraits of the two other central figures of the era, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and the eventual founder of Pakistan, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. It is impossible to understand the story of Indian independence without a proper regard for Nehru. Some accounts of Gandhi’s career, most notoriously Richard Attenborough’s ridiculous biopic, have depicted Nehru as the Mahatma’s passive acolyte. In Lelyveld’s book, he is more or less ignored.

Lelyveld tells a familiar narrative of Gandhi’s arrests, releases, re-arrests, leadership of the Congress Party, and historic march in opposition to Britain’s rule over the crucial salt market. The catalytic effect of Gandhi’s sacrifices and fasts—which resulted in British concessions toward independence—has been told in more depth by other biographers. In this instance Gandhi’s obstinacy played out beautifully on a world stage. There was no limit to his willingness to sacrifice his body and his energy to the cause of self-rule. And his belief in India’s need to erase the scars of caste was a fine examples of his conviction that India must improve itself even as it fought for freedom. Gandhi’s decision to use only non-violence was vigorously debated by his countrymen, but its effect was to rally a huge amount of support—internationally and in India—for his ideas.

The final six years of Gandhi’s life, in which he wrestled with fascism, war, independence, and partition, are in one way a saga of individual will: without his persistence and dedication, India would likely not have been on the brink of freedom when World War II began. But all the faults of Gandhi’s leadership style, his sanctimony and monumental stubbornness, would also play a part in exacerbating the tragedies of World War II and partition.


Although these later sections of Lelyveld’s book will be almost impenetrable for people unfamiliar with the history, his collection of anecdotes about Gandhi’s attitudes toward European fascism is extremely damning. Gandhi wrote a letter to Hitler referring to the Führer as “my friend.” He informed Czechoslovakia that non-violence was the answer to German aggression. Even his occasional acknowledgment that Britain deserved to win a war against Germany was mitigated by comments that verged on the sinister. “I want you to fight Nazism without arms,” he told the British. “Let them 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, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.” Accounts of an earlier conversation between Gandhi and Mussolini in the 1930s are similarly appalling. Gandhi was of course entirely unsympathetic to Hitler, but he showed no grasp of the nature of fascism, of the dark reality that it was more dangerous even than the worst of British colonialism in both India and South Africa.

This might have been irrelevant to Gandhi’s own cause, except that the Japanese began an eventually successful invasion of Burma and the abominable viceroy of India, without bothering to consult the Congress Party leadership, brashly declared that India had joined the Allied war effort. Thus, when the war began in earnest and India was faced with a Japanese invasion, Gandhi seemed completely unprepared, morally and practically. No doubt the arrogance of the British was in large part to blame, but in 1942 the Churchill government sent an envoy to negotiate with the Congress leadership. A number of Congress leaders, notably Nehru and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, as well as Jinnah, expressed an interest in cooperating with Allies in return for eventual independence. Gandhi’s demand for immediate independence, along with the perfidy of the British and the Congress Party’s eventual decision to follow Gandhi, resulted instead in the Quit India Movement of 1942. It landed the Congress leaders in jail. Not only did the movement fail to achieve immediate independence, but in the view of a number of historians it weakened the Congress Party and led to the rise of more sectarian elements that would eventually ensure partition.

Gandhi’s rashness was well caught by two strongly anti-imperial Englishmen writing about the time in question. Edwina Crane, the wonderful missionary in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, reflects on the “Mahatma’s spectacled, smiling image, the image of a man she had put her faith in which she had now transferred to Mr. Nehru and Mr. Rajagopalachari who obviously understood the different degrees of tyranny men could exercise and, if there had to be a preference, probably preferred to live a while longer with the imperial degree in order not only to avoid submitting to but to resist the totalitarian.” A similar point was made by George Orwell, and it is worth quoting at length:

Gandhi ... did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity.... He believed in “arousing the world,” which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the régime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? ... But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one’s own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practice internationally? Gandhi’s various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane?

To update Orwell’s criticism: the recent uprising in Cairo, which remained nonviolent, would have likely ended quickly if the army had chosen to treat the protesters in Tahrir Square the way the Chinese regime chose to treat the protesters in Tiananmen Square. A quick look at the Green Movement in Iran proves the same point. As Reinhold Niebuhr observed, “Gandhi’s identification of ‘soul force’ with non-egoistic motives and body force with egoistic ones is almost entirely mistaken. The type of power used by the will to effect its purposes does not determine the quality of the purpose or motive.”

Lelyveld, while noting Gandhi’s influence in South Africa after his departure, echoes Orwell: “The colonial regime in India had been repressive, regularly jailing Gandhi and his followers, but it had never imagined it could remove them permanently from the scene, that it could purge India of the Indian national movement. The Afrikaner regime had exactly that ambition.” Nelson Mandela, while always admiring and reverent toward Gandhi and his teachings, once said acutely, “Many of us did not believe in non-violence [as a principle].... Because when you regard it as a principle, you mean throughout, whatever the position is, you’ll stick to non-violence ... We took up the attitude that we would stick to non-violence only insofar as the conditions permitted that. Once the conditions were against that, we would automatically abandon nonviolence and use the methods which were dictated by the condition.... Our approach was to empower the organization to be effective.” This pragmatic approach to leadership is not at all lacking in moral grounds, but it eluded Gandhi’s grasp.


While the war may have vanquished European fascism, British imperialism suffered an almost equally decisive blow. The realization that independence was imminent thrust Gandhi again into a central role, with mixed results. His fear that Congress was coming to be seen as an explicitly Hindu movement led to an admirable concern about the rights of Muslims in India. But Gandhi’s desire to subordinate everything to considerations of faith and religious communities finally marred his leadership. In the early 1920s, he had gone so far as to support the radical Khilafat movement among Muslims in India, which called for reinstatement of the caliphate after World War I. Gandhi may have been willing to go a long way to insure support for self-rule from different interest groups and religious denominations, but the cost was an entrenchment of the sectarianism that would break India. His preference for religious leadership can also be seen in his feelings toward the leader of the Muslim League. “Mohammed Ali Jinnah wore no religion on his well-tailored sleeves,” Lelyveld writes. “How could the Mahatma conceive of speaking to Muslims through such a man?” Jinnah, in fact, represented an admirable ideal of secular nationalism, though his country long ago forgot this about its founder. If only Indian leaders could today negotiate with men like Jinnah.

What Lelyveld describes as Gandhi’s increasing inflexibility—owing to his allegiance “to the dictates of his ‘inner voice’”—is unquestionably one of the reasons that the eventual British departure from India was more violent and tragic than it had to be. In 1946, the British sent a “cabinet mission” to negotiate a plan whereby India would achieve a unified independence, along with a strengthened federalism that would ensure minority rights and Muslim rights. Congress and the Muslim League failed to come to an agreement on the plans. Gandhi’s insistence on keeping India united was rendered moot by his unwillingness to acknowledge how sectarian the country had become, particularly since the beginning of the war. As Penderel Moon, a colonial administrator who later wrote about partition, said in his memoirs, “The mistakes made by Congress under Gandhi’s leadership were due basically to the Gandhian facility for self-deception. Over-conscious of his own good intentions, he clung till too late to the fallacy that Congress could and did represent all Indians including the Muslims. Obsessed by the supposedly evil intentions of the British and unaware that his own methods of appeal were calculated to provoke Muslim antipathy, he shut his eyes till too late to the menace of Muslim separatism.” The best instance of this self-deception may have been Gandhi’s demand that one of the Congress representatives be a Muslim: noble in intent, muddled in execution, and eventually infuriating to all sides. By the summer of 1947, the country was partitioned amid a hasty British scuttle, and the mass slaughter that some had feared would result without a formal division happened anyway.


It is difficult to appraise Gandhi’s legacy, both because of partition’s awful toll and because independent India so completely disregarded his vision. Commentators frequently note that the “world is flat” narrative of Bangalore start-ups are a negation of Gandhi’s focus on the spinning wheel; but this understates the degree to which Gandhi’s political-spiritual program was entirely unrealistic and quickly became obsolete. “Not only did he reject birth control and recommend abstinence as a means of limiting population,” Lelyveld writes, “but he had no scheme that addressed glaring inequalities in land ownership and distribution beyond a wishful, wooly theory of ‘trusteeship’ that basically relied on the benevolence of the wealthy.” As the Indian scholar Sunil Khilnani once wrote, Gandhi] “assumed that the village could continue as a productive unit [in the absence of caste], a debatable judgment at the very least. It also led him to believe that caste could be dissolved through pressure of moral argument and example—in contrast to Nehru, for whom industrialization and the social relations it set in place were both essential practical solvents of the bonds of caste.” Gandhi’s romanticization of rural and village life will never be a solution to the problems of Indian society.

The Indian historian Ramachandra Guha once composed an essay comparing Gandhi with B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution and the great advocate for the so-called “untouchables” or dalits, the Indians at the bottom of the caste system. “Gandhi wished to save Hinduism by abolishing untouchability,” he observed, “whereas Ambedkar saw a solution for his people outside the fold of the dominant religion of the Indian people.” Guha went on to note Gandhi’s deep distrust of governmental structures. Ambedkar was the polar opposite: a democrat who believed that social action could guarantee political results, provided that a constitutional structure allowed the people to voice their concerns. Guha ended his essay by rightly saying that both men deserved a share of the credit for the weakening of the caste system over the last hundred years; but his comparison of the two figures resoundingly demonstrates why Gandhi’s political and social views seem even more out of place today than they did during his lifetime.

As for non-violence: one needs only to pick up a newspaper to realize that it will not vanquish all that ails the world. Would Gandhi have advised the rebels in Libya to lay down their arms and shame Qaddafi into decency? And yet Gandhi’s example remains imperishable. An account in The New York Times described a scene in Tahrir Square as Mubarak’s goons were menacing peaceful protesters, with the protesters unsure of how to respond:

Sameh Saber, another anti-government protester, started running toward the battle line with a tree branch. “Put it down,” an older man implored.
“Three of my friends are bleeding inside,” Mr. Saber yelled back, “and my friend lost an eye!” But he put down the branch.

If Gandhi deserves at least partial credit for the beauty of this impulse, and for the number of people who have been moved by it, then his legacy will long overshadow the disappointments and shortcomings of his life.

Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book. This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.