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.

    Still, Gandhi never fell into hypocrisy. Harsh toward others, he was merciless toward himself. He also showed that he could be quite pragmatic. By the 1930s, Gandhi altered his stance about the means by which independence could be gained. While he continued to deplore violence, he dropped his absolutist position, accepting that not everyone was willing or able to follow his path. He used his influence to channel demands for independence into peaceful directions, but he didn't retreat in despair when others failed to live up to his ideals.

    Despair, however, was Gandhi's fate. He took no pleasure in India's independence. The violence between Hindus and Muslims that culminated in the partition that created Pakistan in 1947 struck him like a fatal blow. He felt that India was being torn apart, and he vowed to spend the rest of his life either in Pakistan or in poor villages. That was cut short by his assassination by a Hindu fundamentalist in January 1948.

    Wolpert doesn't spare readers the nitty-gritty of the politics Gandhi attended to so religiously. Gandhi's relations with Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, are closely detailed, as are his political campaigns, such as the famous "salt march" in 1930. But the book also makes clear that for Gandhi, the divide between the spirit and the body, between religion and politics, and between the affairs of the soul and the state of the nation were meaningless. Reading Wolpert, Gandhi becomes vividly human--rigid, obsessive, unsure of the right path, but in the end more admirable because he was a flesh-and-blood man who did not flee from the pain that often accompanies love. Those wanting a hagiography may be disappointed, but for everyone else this is a poignant and powerful rendering of a poignant and powerful life.

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