The New York Times Book Review features a new biography of Gandhi by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld that focuses on his role as a “social reformer,” and often a frustrated one:
Gandhi is still routinely called “the father of the nation” in India, but it is hard to see what remains of him beyond what Lelyveld calls his “nimbus.” His notions about sex and spinning and simple living have long since been abandoned. Hindu-Muslim tension still smolders just beneath the uneasy surface. Untouchability survives, too, and standard-issue polychrome statues of Ambedkar in red tie and double-breasted electric-blue suit now outnumber those of the sparsely clothed Mahatma wherever Dalits are still crowded together.
Gandhi saw most of this coming and sometimes despaired. The real tragedy of his life, Lelyveld argues, was “not because he was assassinated, nor because his noblest qualities inflamed the hatred in his killer’s heart. The tragic element is that he was ultimately forced, like Lear, to see the limits of his ambition to remake his world.”
Whether the fault lies with the book or the review I don’t know, but it’s odd to make a statement like that without mentioning the fact that one of the great focal points of Gandhi’s spirituality was non-attachment to results. He believed, and fought hard to make himself accept, that the outcome of his work was beyond his power to control, that results are not something for a doer to either expect or take credit for. This was a lesson he learned most of all from the Bhagavad Gita, in passages like this:
On action alone be thy interest,
Never on its fruits
Abiding in discipline perform actions,
Being indifferent to success or failure
But this attitude was also a matter of enormous tension with Gandhi the politician, the tactician, who designed campaigns not simply to express grievances but to advance particular causes in particular ways. It seems this latter Gandhi, rather than the spiritual thinker, is the focus of Leyveld’s book. But it would be a shame to lose sight of the other half. This lesson of non-attachment is one that activists today too rarely remember, especially when the challenges they face leave them with a sense of frustration and futility.
Also missing, at least from the Times review, is any mention of Gandhi’s legacy outside of South Africa and India. Modern India may fall short of his highest hopes for it, and his labors in South Africa did little for the black majority, but the “experiments with truth” he started there continue elsewhere. The protesters of the present Arab Spring are a mighty vindication not only of his tactics but also of his insistence that nonviolence transcends ethnic and religious barriers.
Nevertheless, it’s always welcome to see Gandhi revisited by a major author and discussed in a major book review. However much world events might incline us to think otherwise, his life and ideas don’t seem to be losing their power to captivate.
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Reply | Flag
Mar 29 2011 at 04:10 AM
The ‘twiiterization’ of the internet media is at full evidence with this story. A white supremacist historian, with biased sympathies for the malevolent British Empire, decides to twist a well researched biography on M.K. Gandhi, written by an admiring but earnest Pulitzer prize winning journalist.
The leading business daily in the world (go figure why!) the Wall Street Journal green flags the slanderous and libelous ‘book review’ onto its columns.
The twisted ‘facts’ are put into motion by almost every single major publication online and in print, sullying the name of the one man whose ideas and thoughts are the bedrock of the ‘another world is possible’ team. End of war, disarmament, equitable development, concern for the environment, care for animals, curbing of greed … in short everything that Wall Street and its journal stand opposed to.
This is a shameful act of a moneyed and morally bankrupt group of tacticians, who want to dilute and destroy Gandhi’s foresight and prescience by heaping opprobrium and magnifying his quirks.
And yet, in this whole wide world and this web of interconnectedness,
NOT ONE PUBLICATION DID THE NECESSARY DUE DILIGENCE OF CHECKING WITH THE AUTHOR OF THE BOOK.
In the socially networked chatterati, nobody is going to question this agenda? It requires too much intellectual alertness and alacrity. We have surrendered that responsibility to Newscorp. Do we really think we are free?
Gandhi said that everytime he was crestfallen to see the oppression of the demagogues, he drew courage from the fact that they always fell. Think of it, always. Andrew Roberts and this unthinking and irresponsible media, the hand maiden of narrow corporate interests, are the new demagogues. They too shall fail. But not without us being more critical about what we are being used as. Like pawns in the chess games of two opposed sets of ideologies. One that is for the earth’s needs and the other for the corporate greed.
Pick your side. Choose Gandhi. Fight Newscorp.
I wrote a reaction piece to the news that there has been this controversy about Gandhi, at this time titled “Meditations on Gandhi’s body”.
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