The fuss over a new biography of Mohandas Gandhi only makes sense to the extent that admirers and critics alike have put the Indian independence leader on a pedestal. In his book "Great Soul," former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld recounts how Gandhi's frustration about attitudes toward Indians in South Afica evolved into a broader notion of equality and human dignity everywhere. But Lelyveld also explores Gandhi's inconsistencies and political missteps. Perhaps most controversially, the book also makes mention not just of questionable cuddling between Gandhi and a young grand-niece but also of an ambiguous, possibly romantic relationship between Gandhi and a German man.
The book has been greeted with great relish by commentators who, one presumes, never thought much of Gandhi in the first place. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the conservative historian Andrew Roberts declares that the book "obligingly gives readers more than enough information" to conclude that Gandhi was "a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist — one who was often downright cruel to those around him." Indeed, the more salacious reviews (to which Lelyveld has objected, it should be noted) have prompted the Indian state of Maharashtra to consider banning the book.
If anything Lelyveld or his reviewers wrote comes as a shock, it's partly because even Gandhi's critics have bought into his image as a saint. In a famous review of Gandhi's autobiography, George Orwell faulted him for taking nonviolence and asceticism to an extreme:
The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. ... There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. ... Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.
While Lelyveld's book surely complicates this standard picture of Gandhi, it shouldn't undercut Gandhi's achievements. If anything, it's more inspiring when highly fallible individuals accomplish great things. As anti-government revolutions play out in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, Americans scan the scene nervously for Gandhi-like leaders who can rise above the temptations, prejudices, and petty disputes that bedevil every country. But in his own time, Gandhi himself wouldn't meet that standard.
Globe file photo: Mohandas Gandhi, right, with the man who was to be India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, at a meeting in 1946.