Skip Navigation

 

UCLA Historian Publishes Biography of Gandhi

Stanley Wolpert, Professor Emeritus of Indian History, publishes "Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi"

This article was originally published on the UCLA College of Letters and Sciences website. The book was released in fall 2002.

Mahatma Gandhi lived apart from his wife for years, shunned his eldest son, refused to attend his own grandson's funeral, slept nude beside female followers and resigned from his own political party.

So it's no wonder that even the world's foremost authority on modern India was stumped for 50 years in his goal to explain the leader whose name is practically synonymous with unwavering compassion.

"If you don't understand his primary motive, then Gandhi's actions seem incomprehensible," said Stanley Wolpert, UCLA's professor emeritus of Indian history.

In "Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi" (Oxford University Press), the author of 20 books on India presents what many other biographers have failed to supply: a rationale for the indisputably great leader's seeming inconsistencies.

"(Gandhi) believed there was a mysterious key and searched for the perfect self-purification and suffering," Wolpert writes. "Through the multifaceted prism of his passion for suffering, Gandhi's tragic weakness is revealed as the other side of his singular strength."

Gandhi's fixation on "purity in thought, word and deed" took a tremendous toll on his family, contributed to lengthy delays in India's 30-year quest for independence and may have inspired the assassination of the role model for many civil rights leaders. But the Great Soul's insistence that no end, however worthy, justified impure means was also responsible for his greatest insights: a complete rejection of nuclear weapons as a hedge against war and a resolute refusal to back the subcontinent's partition into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan.

"He alone accurately anticipated the tragic aftermath of partition and its murderous legacy of more than half a century of Indo-Pakistani wars and hatred," Wolpert writes.

Courting suffering

Born to wealth and privilege and educated in London, Gandhi first arrived at the transformational power of suffering during his 20 years in South Africa. After a series of personally humiliating experiences with discrimination, the barrister who could meet colonial powers on their own terms vowed "to try, if possible, to root out the disease (of color prejudice) and suffer every hardship in the process." "Satyagraha," or Gandhi's form of nonviolent civil disobedience - launched in 1906 in response to an act that forced all Indian immigrants to submit to fingerprinting and identification cards - similarly was rooted in suffering.

"We might have to go to (prison), where we might be insulted," Gandhi told his followers in urging them to defy the act. "We might have to go hungry. * We might be flogged by rude wardens. We might be fined heavily and our property might be attached."

This stance landed Gandhi for the first time in prison, and he returned several more times to the South African prison or "gaol" and was later often incarcerated in India.

"He who has tasted the sweetness of gaol life will never shrink from it," Gandhi said. "I find no happiness outside gaol."

This passionate pursuit of suffering ultimately took a wide range of forms, including cleaning the latrines of untouchables, establishing an ashram in India's most barren and hot area, shunning first-class coaches to travel with India's masses, frequent fasting and abandoning Savile Row suits for the rough cotton clothes he wove for himself.

"Gandhi's greatness was that he never hesitated to suffer all of the pain and deprivation of India's poorest peasants," Wolpert said. "He'd say, 'If peasants live this way, there's no reason why we shouldn't.'"

Pursuit of purification

Gandhi's pursuit of suffering won undying loyalty among the downtrodden, but his refusal to compromise on matters of principle often put him at odds with his own followers. After returning to India following World War I, Gandhi appeared close to success with his first nonviolent protest for India's independence in 1922, until a mob set fire to a police station and killed 21 people. Much to the consternation of fellow nationalist Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi immediately called off his campaign and ignored repeated appeals to return to the movement for years, preferring to spend his time spinning cotton - an activity he viewed as a spiritually purifying "sacrament." Whenever India's nationalists abandoned nonviolence, Gandhi returned to spinning and working to lift up India's downtrodden and to rid the country of its prejudice against the "untouchables" or - as Gandhi called them - "children of God."

"Gandhi never hesitated to reverse his position, particularly if he learned that his followers used violent tactics," Wolpert writes.

Premonition of conflict between India and Pakistan

While frequently frustrating to fellow nationalists, Gandhi's fixation on purity could have saved the region endless strife, Wolpert suggests. When Muslim nationalist leader M.A. Jinnah made an independent Muslim homeland a condition of his support for independence from the British Crown in 1940, Gandhi refused for seven years to support a "vivisection of the Mother," arguing "Muslims * can never cut themselves away from their Hindu or Christian brethren * We are all children of the same Mother."

Instead, Gandhi repeatedly tried to win support from British authorities and Hindu leaders for positioning Jinnah as independent India's first prime minister, reasoning that Jinnah would drop the demand for Pakistan if accorded such power. However, Nehru, who longed to be prime minister, refused to consider the plan, and Lord Mountbatten, Britain's last viceroy, followed Nehru's lead. When Gandhi urged Nehru to allow the predominantly Muslim Kashmiri people to determine their own fate through a plebiscite, Nehru also refused Gandhi's advice for fear of losing the region to Pakistan.

"How many lives would have been saved by India and Pakistan and most of all by the people of Kashmir if only Nehru had been wise enough to listen to the man he once considered his political guru," Wolpert writes.

After the subcontinent's partitioning and the predicted fighting erupted between newly independent India and Pakistan, Gandhi alone refused to give up the dream of Hindu and Muslim unity. Reading from the Koran, he preached brotherhood at nightly prayer meetings, and he continued the practice even after Hindu extremists sent hate mail and threatened his life for doing so. On Jan. 30, 1948, Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse murdered Gandhi as he was about to deliver his evening's prayer.

Irrational puritanism

Gandhi's fixation with purity put him on a collision course not only with his followers. In 1929, when his eldest son Harilal's 17-year-old son lay dying, Gandhi refused to go to his bedside or even stop working. "The cage had become old, was decaying and the swan flew away," he wrote after the death. "No cause in this for mourning."

Wolpert traces some of Gandhi's bizarre behavior to a profound distrust of sexual impulses, which he viewed as so sinful that he once refused to congratulate the wife of a nephew for having given birth. "I wish that you would learn to control your senses," he wrote her. For 32 years Gandhi refrained from having sex with his wife, explaining, "Desire for sex-pleasure is equally impure whether its object is one's wife or some other woman." When Harilal fell in love with one of his father's followers, Gandhi blocked the marriage and disowned Harilal. "How can I, who have always advocated renunciation of sex, encourage you to gratify it," Gandhi asked. Harilal then started a downward spiral, eventually becoming a homeless alcoholic.

"Regrettably, despite his saintly goodness and brilliance, Gandhi never came to probe the roots of his irrational puritanism, which haunted and obsessed him until the end of his life," Wolpert said.

Despite this aversion to sex as "impure," Gandhi started in his 70s to sleep nude beside young female followers, including one he called "granddaughter." He defended the activity that apparently never resulted in intercourse as an attempt to stop the division of India through "sublimating powers of sexual restraint." While scandalous to many of his followers, the prescription derived from ancient Hindu yogic faith, Wolpert found. When a follower resigned after learning of the practice, Gandhi went through a period of self-doubt and promptly stopped after his "granddaughter" requested that he do so.

"This is the first comprehensive book to deal forthrightly with some of these potentially unflattering issues within the context of Gandhi's life," Wolpert said.

Fulfillment of life's work

For Wolpert, the biography fulfills a long quest. As a young engineer in the U.S. Merchant Marine, he happened to land in Bombay on the precise day in 1948 when the ashes of the slain 77-year-old Mahatma were being scattered. Wolpert had never heard of Gandhi, but the outpouring that day piqued his curiosity: "I'd never seen so many people in my life." Wolpert did not become transfixed until he discovered that the religious orientation of the assassin was Gandhi's own. "I kept wondering how someone who claimed to be a good Hindu could possibly kill the man revered as the Great Soul of India?"

Early in his career, Wolpert published "Nine Hours to Rama," a fictionalized account of Gandhi's assassination, but the scholar longed to write a complete biography. Over the years, he personally interviewed such members of Gandhi's inner circle as his foremost follower, Vinoba Bhave; such members of Gandhi's family as two of his grandsons; such pivotal figures in India's independence movement as Jawaharlal Nehru; and such latter-day disciples as Martin Luther King Jr. Still, Wolpert kept picking up his biography and putting it down, "invariably daunted by Gandhi's elusive personality and the extent of his archive."

The turning point came in 1998 when, due to another extraordinary coincidence, Wolpert happened to be back in India on the precise day when the country detonated three nuclear weapons; some 50 years after Gandhi's death, India was suddenly embroiled in a nuclear arms race with Pakistan.

"To my amazement, hardly any Indian voices were raised against so complete a departure from everything Mahatma Gandhi believed in and had tried to teach throughout his (adult) life," Wolpert writes. "His total faith in nonviolent love as the surest path to peace, as well as Hinduism's 'highest religion' seemed forgotten by most of his newly militant, prideful heirs."

Asia Institute