Mahatma Gandhi and the roots of modern India
Almost 63 years after Gandhi's death, India, the country that he helped usher in as a modern entity, is emerging as an economic super power. Through Joseph Lelyveld's work, "Great Soul," we now have an analysis of India's new role, Gandhi's scholarship, and how it has advanced Gandhi’s influence on modern India.
Joseph Lelyveld is a meticulous storyteller, but more importantly, he is able to historically define the development of Gandhi as an individual, a leader, a mystic and a politician. The analysis is made even more compelling as he traces the events in Gandhi’s life from his beginnings as a barrister in South Africa through the multitude of his campaigns in India. Lelyveld focuses on issues ranging from celibacy, India’s Untouchables and caste politics, the rapprochement with the Muslims during Gandhi’s lifetime, and ultimately, the quest for independence from Britain.
The real Gandhi
In the process, Lelyveld reveals his vision of the real Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi is portrayed as a complex man with many inconsistencies, ranging from an inherent streak of stubbornness to a personal need to straddle the spiritual and political worlds.
Of particular interest to Lelyveld was Gandhi's quest for celibacy throughout his life. This journey ultimately caused estrangement from family, and even caused a scandal towards the end of his life when he, like King David portrayed in the Bible, used his young niece to keep him warm — and help him to resist the temptation of overt sexual activity.
Gandhi’s tendency to straddle great historical issues was evident when he played a vital role in maintaining peace between Hindus and Muslims in pre-schism India. This role helped him to forge an Indian identity and support Muslim demands for a new Islam-based government, even at the expense of radical Hindu demands to maintain Hindu religious purity. The final touchstone of Gandhi’s moral certainty was his support of India’s lower-caste Untouchables joining upper-caste Hindus in Indian spiritual and political life.
As noted previously, Lelyveld expends considerable effort in capturing Gandhi's stubbornness. For example, with a premonition of his death, Gandhi insisted on fasting and trekking in one last-ditch attempt to maintain unity between the Hindus and the Muslims. Unfortunately, intense rioting during Gandhi's protest separated the two religions, causing the formation of the separate political entities of Pakistan (East and West), and India proper.
Joseph Lelyveld portrays Gandhi with admiration, but does not cease from expressing a perceived annoyance with Gandhi’s foibles and inconsistencies. Where the book breaks down is in Lelyveld’s tendency to dwell on these foibles. One such case is Lelyveld's emphasis on celibacy. While dwelling on Gandhi's celibacy might contribute to the narrative on certain occasions, it seems to detract from more robust events and occurrences in Gandhi’s life and circumstance.
It would have been helpful to see Lelyveld express more of a dynamic analysis of Mahatma Gandhi’s relevance to modern day India. There is no doubt why Mahatma Gandhi’s force of personality made him the spiritual leader for Indian independence, but based upon Lelyveld’s description, there's a question if Gandhi ever accomplished what he truly sought in his life.
Lelyveld, J. (2011). Great soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.