The National Catholic Review

Pulitzer prize-winner Joseph Lelyveld has written an insightful book on the “father of ahimsa or non-violence,” whose smiling face appears on every Indian currency bill and whose name marks countless streets, universities, institutes and centers in the land of his birth. Called the Father of the Nation, or Bapuji, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary (Oct. 2) is a public holiday, when the country bows in a national show of praise and remembrance of the person who was largely responsible for India’s gaining independence from British rule on Aug. 15, 1947. Politicians and religious leaders remind the people (at least on this day) of the need to imbibe the values he taught and for which he died.

Born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in 1869 in the state of Gujarat in western India, his various paths took him to study law in England, to a 20-year stay in South Africa and to a long and strenuous involvement in making India free until his death at the hands of a Hindu right-wing fanatic on Jan. 30, 1948.

Why does the world continue to remember and reflect on this unusual politician, social worker and visionary, who held on to truth as the ultimate weapon in his armory? Why this fascination with someone who said that he had been trying all his life to identify himself with the most illiterate and downtrodden and who preferred the company of the Indian untouchables to that of the high and mighty?

Lelyveld’s book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, is a splendid tribute to a man who continues to awe the world more than 60 years after his death. It is not about someone who dazzled the world with his brilliance or flamboyance but about a person who developed his homespun wisdom in support of freedom movements in South Africa and in India and lived it with its bitter consequences.

Lelyveld scores by devoting almost half his book to Gandhi’s stay in South Africa and by describing well how that long and varied visit formed the Gandhi of India. He mentions that as an author he traveled to South Africa merely looking for a story about Gandhi—and what a story he found. Gandhi had initially gone there himself as a young 23-year-old rookie lawyer to help in a legal dispute involving two Muslim families with roots in India and imagined returning in a year’s time. But that was not to be. His own experiences at the hands of racist whites while traveling in a train and his witnessing of other acts of discrimination suffered by the indentured Indian laborers there turned him into a fighter for their cause. Claiming that he had seen the world in its grim reality every moment, he sent regular missives to the South African newspapers, popularized for the first time passive resistance to government rule and cajoled his way, winning concessions for the workers, or “coolies,” as they were disparagingly called.

He owed a debt of spiritual gratitude to the Sermon on the Mount, to the writings of John Ruskin (“Unto This Last”) and to Leo Tolstoy setting up settlements (the Phoenix settlement outside Durban and the Tolstoy settlement outside Johannesburg), where residents took vows to lead austere lives of vegetarianism, sexual abstention and prayerful self-reliance. His work partially complete, he returned to India to finish the task at home. He did not plunge headlong into it but took time traveling the length of the country to meet and see firsthand the lives and the misery of his fellow men and women. He advocated early on, as president of the Indian National Congress (the main political plank at the time), the idea of swaraj, or self-rule, which he believed was larger than mere political independence from English rule. Under it, he affirmed, the dumb would begin to speak, and the lame would begin to walk.

Lelyveld takes pains to describe Gandhi’s insistence (while in South Africa) on dealing with the issues of untouchability, for the Mahatma insisted that as long as India allowed a large section of her people to be treated as pariahs at home, so long would they be treated as pariahs abroad. Gandhi’s African sojourn was not in vain. It provided him with a four-pillar program for addressing the Indian struggle: the unbreakable Hindu-Muslim alliance; the removal of the curse of untouchability; acceptance of nonviolence as a way of life; and the promotion of homespun yarn as a national industry. He saw very clearly in his dealings with Mohammed Jinnah, the leader of the Indian Muslim League, the need for the Hindu majority to make common cause with the Muslims. Hence his initial support for the Khilafat movement and the Indian Muslim struggle to preserve the authority of the Ottoman sultan.

Gandhi was most often a lone operator, and one never knew what he would do next. In March 1930, in a defiant show of strength, he walked 12 miles a day over a period of 24 days to Dandi (a coastal town in Gujarat on the west coast) to harvest salt and defy the British law against doing so. He joined hands with the National Congress in supporting the Quit India movement of 1942. Finally, when he could do nothing to avoid the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, he spent Independence Day far removed from Delhi in solidarity with Muslims who had been at the receiving end of Hindu fanaticism.

Lelyveld quotes the British economist Harold Laski: “No living man has, either by precept or example, influenced so vast a number of people in so direct and profound a way.” How true. Though Gandhi dealt with royalty, heads of government and celebrities (Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw and Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy in India, counted him as their friend) and lived with the poor and the untouchables, he finally felt that India had no longer any need of him. Broken in spirit that his social program had gone largely unfulfilled, he spent his last days in Delhi meeting well-wishers and attending communal evening prayers.

The author’s crisp and lively style eases the reader through the various facets of the Mahatma’s life and portrays movingly the eventual collapse and sadness of the man who worked passionately all his life for social and national causes. As the book’s subtitle indicates, while Gandhi had to fight the British, his greater fight was with the deep and growing social problems within India itself. Lelyveld’s tribute to the Mahatma captures authoritatively and penetratingly the unbelievable life of a man about whom he writes “the original, with all his quirkiness, elusiveness and genius for reinvention, his occasional cruelty and deep humanity, will always be worth pursuing.”

Charles J. Borges, S.J., is an associate professor of history at Loyola College, Baltimore, Md.