04/05/2011 05:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2011

Gandhi: The Truth

Rarely has ignorance made a mockery of greatness on the scale that it has in the past few days. If our world has taken to calling Gandhi a racist and a cheat, then we better invent new words to describe racism and dishonesty. Gandhi was a man who became a saint, a philosopher, a politician, and even a god to many. He was also not a man who put his family first in a conventional sense, nor was he a saint in a formal sense, nor was he a trained activist in a 21st century sense. He was all and none of these things, because he was a self-inventor, an experiment, a man against modernity but also more in it than most others of his time.

So before we say something about him we need to say something about our own selves first: neither our intellectual culture nor the worldwide digital inflammation we call our media culture can fully and accurately represent him.

This is not a eulogy, this is merely my position as a scholar who has tried to understand why the world we live in is the way it is and why we think the way we do about why the world is the way it is. And it is a needlessly unjust place for most people. And Gandhi thought, worked, and lived his whole life to change it. His vision was lofty, his determination incredible, his integrity as a seeker of truth and unity beyond superficial cultural differences impeccable. But he did not preach from a mountain top. He engaged the real world of politics, interests and powerful differences, and frequently faced limits, and challenges which he did not always overcome. That is the story we see vividly in Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul.

After reading the book, it makes me wonder if some of the reviewers even read the same book I did (or even if they were talking about the same man we know as Gandhi). In an unfortunate and wholly predictable electronic expectoration, the headlines and reactions proliferated, slandering author, book, and most of all, subject. Great Soul, to begin with, is no sensationalist drivel. It is a solid piece of writing. The jacket does not present the book as anything other than a serious study of political history through biography. And the supposed insinuations the book contains about Gandhi's personal life are neither the core of the book, nor more than a few lines, and are based at best on what may be called a citation of a citation. If there were authorial or editorial intentions to drop some hints along the way to create an uproar, then I was perhaps too naive to have seen them. The book does not say that Gandhi was untrue to his pursuit of total celibacy, and even handles the subject of his "experiments" in later years of sharing a bed (or hard floor) with young female companions to test his self-mastery quite sensitively.

The other major criticism about Gandhi has to do with his supposed racism. Once again, there is nothing scandalous or sensational about all this. Lelyveld does not call Gandhi a racist by any means, but does fairly criticize some of his early writings in South Africa as being condescending and racist. His critique of Gandhi's limited engagement with the struggles of native Africans is also fairly presented. But before we, the smart progressive 21st century world citizenry who can make no mistake in language-sensitivity, stand in judgment and pronounce Gandhi a racist on that basis, there is one thing we must acknowledge, something that Lelyveld too does not develop very much. In an age when globalization and communication of the sort we have today did not exist, and neither did intermingling even at a merely social level, it should not surprise us that the young Gandhi used words (and prejudices) for Africans that Europeans did. It should also not surprise us given the Gandhi we know that his understanding and position changed quite quickly. But if we decide to use the word "racist" for both a regime that followed it as a relentless policy into our own lifetimes and for a man who unwittingly and completely without preparation (education or training in sensitivity of the sort we have today) remains one of the first to have stood up to it, then we are merely wrong.

The other context in which the racist allegation has appeared has to do with Gandhi's stance on Indian casteism. Lelyveld acknowledges, once again quite reasonably in my opinion, the increasingly non-convergent views on this subject in India and the Indian diaspora. Gandhi, in Lelyveld's story, appears to be in the wrong place and time on fighting casteism despite his painfully sincere intentions. The relationship between Gandhi and Ambedkar is brought out carefully, leaving idealistic readers like me wondering about might have been instead. The main criticism of Gandhi on caste seems to be that he "believed" in it. This is true to the extent that he believed in a mythical, idealistic, non-oppressive fantasy version of it at first, even as he passionately condemned what it was in reality. Lelyveld shows the limits of Gandhi's position here, especially as he faces the formidable intellect and force of Ambedkar, and even when Gandhi begins to acknowledge that even his mythic beliefs are wrong, it somehow does not seem to matter any more. The charge that Gandhi betrayed Dalit (then "untouchable") interests at a crucial time is a serious one and is for scholars whose expertise is beyond mine. But I can offer my view on one thing. To call Gandhi a racist or casteist for not following a certain revolutionary dogma or principle as the case may be is unjustified. It is once again to Lelyveld's credit that he outlines Gandhi's limitations on this issue without denying him the credit he deserves.

The Gandhi story is not just a story about a man and his deeds. It is always going to be read and written, and re-read and re-written, as a story about humanity. There is no new mystery for us to find about what he was, and even the temptation to try and do that is a symptom of the pathos of our times. Great Soul has not uncovered any hidden truths about Gandhi beyond showing us that a man's greatness does not diminish even when we see his failures, though they were many, and never hidden by him. When was the last time a man of the people admitted to a "Himalayan blunder" (except to perhaps go through the media circus of faux expiation for infidelities)? Gandhi's life, words, and thoughts are all in plain sight for all of us. There is much for us to gain from admiration of him and indeed also from criticism of him. But just as how some admiration of him in this age of bumper sticker philosophies has been uninformed, so has the criticism. The latter, of course, is far more damaging, not only to Gandhi's memory, but to our own intellect and integrity. It is simply presumptuous of us to think we can slander a man like Gandhi for a few seeming inconsistencies in his actions and for a couple of outbursts of elderly peevishness. So for all of us who thought this was Gandhi's Tiger Woods moment, the truth must be plainly asserted. If Gandhi's pedestal shook, it was only from a dusting of it. It is time for us to know the man, and not the fantasy of him that our culture of celebrities and scandals has concocted for our easy consumption.