I’m a big ol’ Gandhi fan, so I was intrigued to learn about this new biography that’s so controversial it’s been banned in some parts of India. It’s a big, hefty biography that devotes as much time to Gandhi’s early career in South Africa as to his better-known years in India leading the non-violent movement for independence there. It’s also very much what they call a “warts and all” biography rather than hagiography: Gandhi is presented as a real man with struggles, flaws and failures.
The controversy has come almost entirely from a tiny portion of the book in which Lelyveld argues that Gandhi’s relationship with his friend Hermann Kallenbach had a romantic and perhaps even sexual element (though the sexuality was doubtless repressed, since Gandhi was obsessive on the subject of celibacy). Frankly, given that everybody already knew that in later life Gandhi used to “test” his celibacy by sleeping next to his scantily-clad young niece, I can’t imagine how the fact that he wrote coy, romantic letters to a close male friend is such a shocker. The guy obviously had his quirks and kinks, which were probably made quirkier and kinkier by his insistence on denying any legitimate sexual outlet. The fact that “Oooh, Gandhi might have been a bit gay” is enough to get this book banned, really says more about homophobia than it does about either Mohandas Gandhi or Joseph Lelyveld.
What really should be troubling here, for those who admire Gandhi, is not his close relationship with Kallenbach but the analysis of the many ways in which he failed to live up to even his own principles. He’s definitely showed as a flawed leader, one who wasn’t always consistent in treating others (including black South Africans and Indian untouchables) as generously as you might expect. In Lelyveld’s analysis, while Gandhi did much to further the cause of Indian independence, he also threw some roadblocks in its way due to his own peculiar stubbornness. And he was frequently depressed and discouraged, feeling that ultimately he’d failed far more than he’d succeeded — a conclusion that the reader might end up sharing.
None of this should be disturbing, unless you’ve confused Gandhi with God (a mistake he certainly wouldn’t have made, or encouraged). Gandhi’s life is inspiring because it’s the story of a flawed and fallible human being attempting to live out lofty ideals. Maybe too lofty for the real world, but that’s what makes his story challenging. It’s similar to the outcry over the revelations of Mother Teresa’s spiritual despair — did we think the path to spiritual greatness was supposed to be easy? If being a great soul were simple, painless and guaranteed to succeed, we’d all be doing it. The fact that we’re not is what makes it so interesting to read about the few who seriously attempt that path. Great Soul is a troubling and compelling portrait of one such man.