Nussbaum Reviews Joseph Lelyveld's Book on Gandhi

Gandhi and South Africa
Martha Nussbaum
The Nation
October 31, 2011

At the end of March, the Indian state of Gujarat banned the printing and distribution of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. The ban was proposed by the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, and it passed unanimously, as leaders of the Congress party vied to surpass Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in denouncing Lelyveld’s new book. The focus of the uproar was a claim made by Britain’s Daily Mail and, somewhat more subtly, by the Wall Street Journal, that Great Soul portrays Gandhi as a bisexual or homosexual. The headline in the Daily Mail blared: Gandhi “Left His Wife to Live With a Male Lover” New Book Claims. The “love of his life”—as the Journal put it—was a German-Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach, with whom Gandhi developed a deep friendship while trying out his ideas of nonviolent resistance in South Africa, where he lived from 1893 to 1914. Not to be outdone, Modi complained that Lelyveld’s book defames the Mahatma: “The writing is perverse in nature. It has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking.”

India’s law minister, Veerappa Moily, considered imposing a national ban on Great Soul under Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which empowers government authorities to outlaw books that contain material that breaches the peace or causes communal tension. But in April he announced that he had dropped the idea, explaining that Lelyveld (and sensible Indian journalists) had pointed out that Great Soul did not contain the statements about Gandhi and Kallenbach attributed to it. Meanwhile, in an interview published in an Indian online journal, Lelyveld charged that the Daily Mail and the Wall Street Journal had distorted his book in order “to trash Gandhi.”

Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, is the author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning book about South African apartheid, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White (1986). The strength of Great Soul is its detailed coverage of the evolution of Gandhi’s views about political activism, caste and race during his stay in South Africa. Although Gandhi worked there for twenty-one years, returning to India at age 44, his life there hasn’t been as closely chronicled as his later years in India. Lelyveld underscores its importance, explaining how through work on a constellation of political and ethnic issues Gandhi developed the combination of intense spirituality and canny pragmatism he later used so effectively as a political leader in India. In South Africa, he came to grips with the need to forge an inclusive movement among Hindus that embraced both Muslims and dalits, or “untouchables,” a central lifelong theme of his politics, although one he did not always pursue to the satisfaction of dalit leaders in India. (The second half of Great Soul contains a valuable discussion of the tense relationship between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, the American-educated dalit who, as Jawaharlal Nehru’s law minister, became the leading architect of India’s Constitution.)

Above all, it was in South Africa that Gandhi became adept at the politics of civil disobedience, forging a nonviolent mass strategy that met with uneven success but gave him a fund of experience to draw on when organizing the mass satyagrahas of his India days. It was also in South Africa that Gandhi, under the influence of the ideas of Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, began to live a life of premodern simplicity, publishing his famous critique of Western modernity, Hind Swaraj, and adopting a simple village way of life. Finally, it was in South Africa that Gandhi took his famous vow of sexual abstinence, or brahmacharya, an aspect of his spiritual development that cannot be separated from the others so far as his personality is concerned, although the rejection of bodily desire is to many of his admirers the least appealing aspect of his career. (Gandhi disciples such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. chose not to follow him in that respect.)

Martha C. Nussbaum