Great Soul

Thegreat are a pretty mixed lot, especially in politics. Hitler, Stalin, and Maowere among the great, each in his own monstrous way. Churchill was, too, forboth good and evil, and Roosevelt as well, though mainly he was lucky. DeGaulle may or may not deserve to be included in such company, but he certainlybehaved as if he was sure he did.

Gandhi is, to my mind, thegold standard of 20th-century political greatness. He producedtremendous effects, overwhelmingly good, and he achieved them not by luck,force, or guile but virtuously, by persuasion and example. Martin Luther Kingis perhaps his peer in these respects, but the scale of Gandhi’s accomplishmentwas much greater.

When every publishingseason seems to feature several new volumes on such lesser figures as Churchillor George Washington, there is plenty of room for a new book on Gandhi, evenone that makes no grand claims. Joseph Lelyveld was executive editor of The New York Times, and before that wasthe Times‘s correspondent in SouthAfrica, then in India. In both places he crossed and re-crossed Gandhi’s trail.His previous book, Move Your Shadow (1986), reported first-hand on the everyday realityof apartheid and the struggle against it, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Great Soul looks back across many decades at a similarstruggle that seems (but only seems, Lelyveld reminds us) to be over. The storiesof that struggle and of Gandhi’s life have been told and retold; the facts andgeneral outlines are well established. Lelyveld does not seek to alter orembellish them but to trace some themes within them: the “ambiguity of[Gandhi’s] legacy” in both India and South Africa; his “evolvingsense of his constituency and social vision”—by no means unvaryingthroughout his career; and his “struggle to impose his vision on an oftenrecalcitrant India”—a struggle he ultimately concluded he had lost,notwithstanding his many successes.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi(“Mahatma” is an honorific, meaning “Great Soul”) was bornin 1869 into a family of the merchant/administrative caste. He became a lawyer,studying for three years in London, and travelled to South Africa as an agentfor some Indian exporters. The severe discrimination suffered by the largeIndian community there—brought home by some nasty experiences of his own at thehands of white officials—made him a civil rights activist. And his reading ofRuskin, Tolstoy, and Thoreau made him a critic of industrial society and anadvocate of craft production, self-reliance, and nonviolence.

Theyoung Gandhi’s zeal and eloquence, together with a powerful little tract(immediately banned by the British) called Self-Rulefor India, brought him into the front ranks of the Indian independencemovement, even as an expatriate. When he returned to India in 1915, he wasalready nationally known. For the next three decades his fame grew steadily,though his actual influence waxed and waned. By the time India finally achievedindependence in 1947, he was universally revered. But paradoxically, he neverfelt more powerless or isolated. He proclaimed his life a failure and, in theweeks before his assassination in January 1948, often declared his readiness todie.


Great Soulsensitively explores this paradox. Gandhi always insisted that mere politicalsovereignty was an unworthy goal. Genuine swaraj(“independence” or “liberation”) for India rested on fourpillars. First was economic self-sufficiency for India’s 700,000 villages,which meant above all breaking the country’s dependence on cheap imported(mainly British) textiles. Gandhi’s famous homespun loincloth (which he woreeven to an audience with the King of England) was a political statement: allIndians should spin and weave, every day. Second was Hindu-Muslim unity.Religious fanaticism horrified him; the massive pogroms following independencebroke his heart, and his outspokenness on this score maddened fundamentalistHindus, until one of them took Gandhi’s life. Third was untouchability. Nearlya quarter of Indians were outside the caste system. They were powerless and despised,worse off in some ways than blacks in South Africa or the American South.Gandhi repeatedly shocked respectable India by living, eating, and working withuntouchables, even when that meant cleaning latrines. The fourth pillar was ahimsa, or nonviolence. From Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, he came away persuaded that “Turn the othercheek” and “Return good for evil” meant exactly that. His vastcampaigns of nonviolent resistance, or “non-cooperation with evil,”aimed to elicit an answering impulse of fraternity and respect from enemies—tosap their own will to violence.

Lelyveld’sprobing account of the visionary-as-politician reveals that, as one mightexpect, the politician often prevailed over the visionary. Mahatma had aremarkable capacity for compromise, and even for nimble rationalization. But hewas morally serious, a genuine “great soul,” and thus lacked the truepolitician’s talent for convenient self-deception. “By the end,”Lelyveld writes, he was “forced to recognized that the great majority ofhis supposed followers hadn’t followed him very far,” spirituallyspeaking.

By the end of Great Soul, a generous reader’s heartmay be broken, no less than Gandhi’s. But just as the Gandhian discipline oftruth-telling could fortify the soul, so does Lelyveld’s sympathetic yetunsparing look at Gandhi’s uncertainty and anguish.

George Scialabba is the author of What AreIntellectuals Good For? and TheModern Predicament (forthcoming), both from Pressed Wafer.