Mike Kueber's Blog

February 10, 2012

Sunday Book Review #63 – Great Soul, Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India, by Joseph Lelyveld

Filed under: Culture,History — Mike Kueber @ 6:38 pm
Tags: , , ,

One of my best friends emigrated from India to America when she was 13-years old.  Because of my affection for her, I have read some Indian history and a biography of the nation’s first president, Jawaharlal Nehru.  But I didn’t really know much about the “father of India,” so when this new biography on Mahatma Gandhi came out, I decided to read it. 

I’m not an expert on types of biographies, but my impression is that Great Soul is a psychological biography.  As the author notes:

  • This is not intended to be a retelling of the standard Gandhi narrative.  I merely touch on or leave out crucial periods and episodes – Gandhi’s childhood…., his coming-of-age in nearly three formative years in London, his later interactions with British officials on three continents, the political ins and outs of the movement, the details and context of his seventeen fasts – in order to hew in this essay to a specific narrative that I’ve chosen.  These have to do with Gandhi the social reformer, with his evolving sense of his consistency and social vision, a narrative that’s usually subordinated to that of the struggle for independence.

Gandhi’s “evolving sense of his consistency and social vision” is what most impressed me.  Like Nelson Mandela in Africa, Gandhi was treated almost like a god by his constituents, yet he remained humble about himself and his views.  His continually evolving positions reminded me of the famous quote from philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

  • A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.  He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.  Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

Incidentally, Gandhi’s first name was actually Mohandas; “Mahatma” is an honorific Hinduism that literally means “great soul.”  Traditionally, it is given to a person regarded with reverence or loving respect.  Of course, it’s only coincidental that Emerson referred to a “great soul” in this quote that he authored in the 1800s before Gandhi was born. 

Gandhi once established an ashram (a religious retreat for Hindus) with the following rules:

  • Celibacy (even if married);
  • Minimal eating (only enough to sustain the body);
  • Non-possession of material things (if you don’t need a chair, don’t use one); 
  • Vow against untouchability (and eventually the entire caste system); and
  • Take up spinning (to become self-sufficient and financially independent, a precursor to micro-loans).

The cornerstone of Gandhi’s philosophy is called “swaraj,” a term that generally means self-governance or self-rule.  According to Gandhi, swaraj would have four pillars – (1) forming an alliance of Muslims and Hindus, (2) wiping out untouchability (the so-called Dalits), (3) accepting the discipline of nonviolence as more than a tactic, rather as a way of life, and (4) promoting spinning as self-sustaining cottage industries.

Because of Gandhi’s constantly evolving positions, he often frustrated his allies and disciples because they couldn’t predict his course.  Among the most frustrated were not only his political heir who became India’s first president, Jawaharlal Nehru, but also Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was the modern leader of the untouchable Dalits, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the first president and “father of Pakistan.”

India finally achieved self-governance from Great Britain in 1947, but the achievement was diminished because the nation was partitioned into two states – Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.  Although untouchability and discrimination based on caste were prohibited in 1950 by India’s new constitution, some of the country’s caste system appears to have survived to this day, especially with respect to marriage between classes.  Untouchable Dalits comprise almost 20% of India’s population and workforce and are affirmatively protected by law. 

Following India’s independence, Gandhi continued to work for an accommodation of Hindus and Muslims, and ironically he was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu who thought Gandhi was too pro-Muslim.

p.s., toward the end of his life (at age 80), Gandhi became concerned when he would occasionally get an erection or have a wet dream, so he decided to subject himself to a test of  brahmacharya – the practice of sexual continence or celibacy.  According to Wikipedia, “At its most basic level, brahmacharya means abstinence from sexual intercourse, by eight types of sexual contact. For a male practitioner of Buddhist, Jain or Hindu monasticism, it refers more specifically to refraining from voluntary loss of semen. At more subtle levels, brahmacharya includes greater physical and mental sexual discipline, until ultimately the practitioner experiences complete absence of sexual desire despite the most alluring stimuli.”  To test himself, Gandhi took on as his personal assistant a nephew’s young daughter, Manu Gandhi.  In addition to attending to his daily personal needs, including a one-hour daily massage, Manu slept naked with Gandhi and cuddled with him.  Apparently, Gandhi passed the test, but he decided to continue testing himself up to his death. 

p.s., my Indian best-friend often scolded me for incorrectly using Hindi as a generic adjective for things associated with the Hindu religion or culture.  According to her, Hindi should be used only when referring to the language.  In all other contexts, use the adjective Hindu.

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