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An unsettling review of Gandhi

March 28, 2011

I’ll admit that I rarely make it through an entire book review. (No wonder I’m so poorly read [for an English major]. If I haven’t the patience for a review, how can I possibly get through an entire book?) But this WSJ review on the scandalous new Gandhi biography held my attention from start to finish. According to the WSJ, the book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, written by Joseph Lelyveld, paints Gandhi as a bisexual pervert and an inept political leader who was racist to boot.

I had previously read about some sexual strangeness with Gandhi (sleeping with naked young women as a spiritual test), but some of the other revelations (his racism toward Africans and admiration of Mussolini and his homosexual affair with a German-Jewish bodybuilder) in this book (again, according to the WSJ review) are staggering, given the way we venerate Gandhi as a man beyond reproach. (I remember watching the film Gandhi in the 7th grade when we were studying India and what a huge impact that had on me. He really seemed a saint in my mind.)

Now, many in India are calling the book blasphemous. But, according to the Times of India, the author is denying making some of the allegations reported in the WSJ.

Lelyveld told TOI, “I do not allege that Gandhi is a racist or bisexual in ‘Great Soul’. The word ‘bisexual’ nowhere appears in the book.” He also denied having called Gandhi a racist. “The word ‘racist’ is used once to characterise comments by Gandhi early in his stay in South Africa, part of a chapter summarising his statements about Africans and his relations with them. The chapter in no way concludes that he was a racist or offers any suggestion of it.”

Still doesn’t explain Gandhi’s habit of sleeping with naked women, including his 17-year-old great-niece. That’s enough for me to remove the halo from this man. But whatever the exact truth is, this is also a good reminder that we should be careful about idealizing spiritual leaders (and anyone for that matter).


6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2011 7:15 pm

    I read another biography of Ghandi years ago and was equally disturbed by aspects of his life as it was depicted in the book. His absolute devotion to dogmatic religious practices and rejection of many common sense solutions is what bugged me most.

    I wrestled for a long time with these kinds of failings in Ghandi and other venerated men and women. Mother Teresa, according to two friends of mine that worked with her in different capacities at different times, was an extremely flawed human. She practiced a similar dogmatic religious myopia to Ghandi. Martin Luther King’s sexual proclivities are also well know.

    People that achieve extraordinary things are by nature unbalanced for want of a better word. Their families suffer, their friends and often their collegues too, as a result of their dogmatic devotion to a cause. I agree that idealizing these spiritual leaders is a mistake. I would go further and say that the idealization of these men and women is more accurately practiced as idolitary.

    In any case, I’m rarely surprised by these kinds of revelations. We’re all human.

  2. Jack Wirtz permalink
    March 28, 2011 9:45 pm

    Welcome to the post-modern revisionist world, otherwise known as destructivism, or the end of civilization. Destroy the legendary heroes
    of the past, tear down the pillars of the mind that brought forth the Enlightenment’s freedom of man from the shackles of the despots
    by those who pledged their honor, their very lives for the good of their fellows.

    Garbage into the mind, garbage spewed out; the wretched stink of
    the dark ages revisited, only this time with printing presses, internets
    people that can no longer reason.

    The man who aims his arrow at the sun misses his target by far more
    than the man that shoots at a bush; yet it is truth indeed that he
    still shoots far further than the man who cannot raise his eyes higher
    than a bush.

  3. March 29, 2011 3:06 am


    Surely there’s nothing wrong with seeing our ‘heroes’ as fragile and fallible (ie human), as well as inspirational? Isn’t this kind of viewpoint on Ghandi, or anyone else, a more honest appraisal?

    What’s the use of ignoring all the failings and only to seeing Ghandi as a legendary hero? To do this is to create a mirage, an unreality that matches your desire for something to look up to.

    As for all the arrow stuff. It went straight over my head.

    • Jack Wirtz permalink
      March 29, 2011 11:47 am

      To shoot at a bush is to have set one’s goals so low so that they will never be either disappointed nor ever know what might have been.

      You say, “What is the use of ignoring all the failings and only seeing Ghandi as a legendary hero?”

      Ghandi represents the success of passive resistance, sacrificing his own body to abuse even unto death, willingly so, for the freedom of his people. That is reality! Verifiable, real history; it is not a legend that what Ghandi accomplished really happened. It is not a fable.

      Did you seek to verify the truth of what the author wrote? Did you verify the accuracy of the sources? Of course not. The author wrote what you were willing to accept; swallowing the camel of supposition without the blink of a gnat’s eye of concern for any intrinsic value of the narration?

      Ghandi offered his life, our founding fathers offered their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor, raising the eternal question, “What to you believe in so strongly that you will willingly offer up your life?”

  4. March 29, 2011 4:06 pm


    I understood the bush metaphor – I was making a joke.

    I agree with you about all the things Ghandi represents. I never said he wasn’t a hero. Again, I believe he is a great man who accomplished incredible things. To know of his failings rounds out our knowledge of him. Like, Ghandi, your ‘founding fathers’ won independence from the British Empire. Surely you can acknowledge this while at the same time acknowledging that many of them kept slaves – that is they fought for their own freedom whilst denying that freedom to others? That’s just one example of their humanity. This juxtaposition is the only point I’m trynibgt o make – must go to work.

  5. Michael McCoy permalink
    April 9, 2011 9:21 pm

    Crucify him!

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