New book on Gandhi: a “Great Soul,” with wrinkles

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,
Abandoning attachment
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.