Great Soul

August 2, 2014

Many, many years ago I watched the movie “Gandhi” in the theatre. Like most audiences, I was captivated by the thin, saintly figure who led the struggle for India’s independence from Britain. Some years later, but still decades ago, I came across his autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” Equally captivating, but slower going, it revealed many other sides to Gandhi: an opinionated experimenter in economics, diet and sex, and a man who was never too shy to shell out the most provocative advice even when the topic, such as the predicament of Jews in Hitler’s Europe, appeared to be far outside his ken (he recommended that they sacrifice themselves).

Gandhi lives on in America in all sorts of ways. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed Gandhi as his spiritual ancestor. Those of us who lead more mundane lives often keep Gandhi’s face and one of his inspiring quotes handy (they make lovely refrigerator magnets). As for those Americans who wish Gandhi would vanish from history, either because they are annoyed by the magnet barricades, or because they disagree with one or more of his prescriptions, there is ample material for them to cite: “Did you know that when he was old he slept in the nude with his teenage niece?” (Actually, it was his grand-niece.)

It almost goes without saying, therefore, that Gandhi today is as poorly understood as he is widely recognized, so when Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld appeared in 2011 to positive reviews, I resolved to purchase a copy for my college library and read it myself.

The book has sat on my shelf for nearly three years, but it was worth the wait because it’s a wonderful book.

Gandhi the lawyer and politician, the saint, and the crank, all make their timely appearances. For me the most revealing parts dealt with Gandhi the politician. The book’s subtitle is “Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India” and the book explores Gandhi’s evolution as a leader of minority rights (in South Africa and then again in India), particularly his frustrated attempts to bridge the gaps between Hindu and Muslim, and between Hindu castes (note: this book contains a lot of material on the Gandhi-Ambedkar conflict). I also realized that I know very little about the history of South Africa (How did the Boers somehow “lose” the war and “win” the government?) and I was surprised by the striking similarities in the heartless way that turn of the 20th century British exploited indentured Indian workers and the way modern America uses alien workers to perform low-wage work in our own country.

Finally, I think it is important to reflect always on the fact that the saint was human and subject to human foibles. Gandhi was not born a saint. He rarely succeeded in his endeavors – saints invariably call on people to act by unfamiliar means and in directions that almost never coincide with self-interest – but when he did succeed, the results were sometimes truly miraculous. Still, he became a saint, deservedly so, and his path is available to anyone who would follow, i.e., to anyone willing to take the extreme step of opening their heart, to hold nothing as theirs, and to remove the illusory barriers that keep people apart.

Pseudo-spoiler alert: the following is how the book ends.

“No national movement survived him, an outcome he seems, on occasion, to have foreseen. “Let no one say he is a follower of Gandhi,” he said. Protean and infinitely quotable, Gandhi bequeathed an example of constant striving, a set of social values, and a method of resistance, one not easily applied to an India ruled by Indians, with a population nearly triple what it was when he perished.

One of the most widely known of his enduring exhortations is for sale as a printed sampler, ready for framing if not embroidering, at the gift shop of his first Indian ashram near Ahmedabad. It’s offered to schoolchildren and other tourists there for a few rupees as “Gandhiji’s Talisman.”

“Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test,” Gandhi urged in this undated note typed out in English just before or after independence, possibly to Pyarelal; possibly to D.G. Tendulkar, and even earlier biographer, the first to publish the note, which the Mahatma signed twice, in Hindi and Bengali; possibly to Manu, or to himself. “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubt and yourself melting away.”

Causing doubt and self to melt away is a traditional aim of Indian religious disciplines involving diet, meditation, and prayer. It’s causing them to melt away by means of social and political action that stands out as distinctively Gandhian. As leader and model, Gandhi himself mostly passed his “test.” But the hungry and spiritually starving millions in large measure remained.

Trying to build a nation, he couldn’t easily admit that their interests – those of Hindu and Muslim, of high caste and untouchable – often clashed. He struggled with doubt and self until his last days but made the predicament of the millions his own, whatever the tensions among them, as no other leader of modern times has. And so his flawed efforts as a social visionary and reformer can be more moving in hindsight than his moments of success as a national leader, if only because the independence struggle long ago reached its untidy end.

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 a 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. It may not happen often, but the inspiration is still there to be imbibed; and when it is, the results can still be called Gandhian, even though the man himself, that great soul, never liked or accepted the word.”

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