Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
By Stanley Wolpert
Oxford University Press, 336 pp.

All of us know Gandhi's name. We know that he lived a life of great rectitude and that he preached a doctrine of nonviolence that propelled India to independence. But he

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  • has also achieved what might be called the anonymity of fame: We all know who he is, and therefore few of us bother to delve deeply into his life. Having seen the magisterial hagiographic film "Gandhi," and having read bits and pieces about his teachings, many might think they have some sense of Gandhi. In fact, we have a sense of his image. The actual flesh-and-blood person remains a mystery.

    That becomes abundantly clear on reading Stanley Wolpert's magnificent new biography. Wolpert has been writing about India for half a century, and his expertise permeates every page of the book. Wolpert provides us with a Gandhi who is neither the undistilled saint of popular imagination, nor a man much like other men. Gandhi emerges as a strange, complicated individual, obsessed with his body and what he took to be its impurities, and driven to help his world progress without violence. "To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of the Truth face to face," Gandhi wrote, "one must be able to love the meanest of creatures as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to truth has drawn me into the field of politics.... Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means." For most of his adult life, Gandhi lived this creed with unyielding integrity.

    His upbringing would not have suggested the man he would become. Born in 1869, he was raised as an upper-caste member of a heavily stratified society. He was sent to London, became a lawyer, and after failing to find work in Bombay or his native state of Gujarat, left for South Africa, where there was a large Indian population. At first, Gandhi found the transition jolting, and he tried to defend the privileges he expected as an upper-class Indian. Soon, however, he began a dramatic transformation, and shortly after the Boer War he started to believe it was his mission to champion the rights of Indians in the British Empire by means of what he called "satyagraha," or "truthforce."

    Satyagraha entailed the practice of "ahimsa," which literally translates as "love" and became for Gandhi a synonym for nonviolent protest against injustice. That was the message he brought with him when he returned to India during World War I, and it was the path he taught for the remainder of his life. Wolpert illuminates Gandhi's belief that British control of India was a moral wrong that could only be redressed by nonviolence and love on the part of all Indians.

    This required, of course, that Gandhi practice what he preached. Gandhi was an intense self-critic, and though he was often rigid and inflexible, he was always hardest on himself. He came to see any act of violence in his country as a reflection of his own failings, and he searched till his assassination in January 1948 for ways to uncover the dark corners of his soul. "There is," he told a friend, "an indissoluble connection between private, personal life and public." For Gandhi, that was not just an injunction against private immorality but an expression of his belief that India's ills were an immediate reflection of his own sins.

    That explains in part Gandhi's obsession with his physical self. In line with certain yogic practices, he saw sex and even sexual desire as a debilitating release of spiritual energy. Throughout his later life, he not only practiced celibacy, but he tried to squelch sexual desire and channel that energy instead toward healing India. He fasted as a way of purifying his body and uncovering any "sins" that might have caused the breakdown of nonviolence. In 1922, he called off a nationwide nonviolence campaign because of the slaughter of policemen by Hindu mobs and tried to repent by fasting, thereby leaving his allies very much in the lurch. He could also be puritanical in his approach to the suffering of his children, friends, and his wife, seeing whatever tribulations they may have had as a direct result of their unaddressed spiritual weaknesses.