Posted at 10:31 AM ET, 03/29/2011

Mahatma Gandhi: Saint or sinner? A review of a new biography stirs debate


Mahatma Gandhi (AP)

Usually, it is the book that makes the headlines, but its the reviews of a book that has stirred up waves over the weekend.

A Wall Street Journal review of “Great Soul” a biography on Mohandas Gandhi, written by former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, confronts the legacy of the nonviolent leader in a shocking and titillating way:

... Gandhi's organ probably only rarely became aroused with his naked young ladies, because the love of his life was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908.

The review, written by Andrew Roberts, goes on to detail how the book shows Gandhi as “implacably racist” toward the blacks of South Africa, and as a self-promoter more interested in retaining power than unifying the caste system or solving the Muslim-Hindu divide.

Reviews have not been quite so scintillating in other newspapers. The New York Times’ review has no mention of racism and hardly touches on Gandhi’s sexuality, but rather focuses on how much of Gandhi’s aspirations have been lost in today’s India. Even the book’s author took exception to the Wall Street Journal review, telling the Times of India that he never called Gandhi a bisexual.

The reaction in India, where Gandhi is often either classified as near sainthood or demonic, has been one of anger.

Wall Street Journal reporter Tripti Lahiri writes:

Gandhi relatives and historians have said they are upset by the interpretation of Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach, although it’s not clear whether they’re upset by the suggestion of homosexuality or by the suggestion that he was cheating on his loyal wife. There has been less reaction to quotes in the book in which Gandhi expresses racist attitudes to black South Africans.

The Indian newspaper Economic Times reports that the Maharashtra government will start the process to ban the book. The article quotes Mahrastran Congress President Manikrao Thakre as saying:

This is very serious that the author of the book has raised questions about the character of Gandhiji who initiated nonviolence movement. I condemn the book and this should not be made available.

Others saw the reviews as a chance to study the life of Gandhi further. Delhi resident Reena Kapoor wrote on Facebook that the Western film “Gandhi” “completely ignored any flaws or contradictions” in his messy personal life, including his poor treatment of his wife. “However his views on violence and religious tolerance were inspirational and laudatory. As is often the case, there is a baby in the bath water.... Time to tease out the truth vs. safe generalizations on both sides. In that respect, good that the debate is on!”

By  |  10:31 AM ET, 03/29/2011

 
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