Mohandas Gandhi said his life was his message. He left a vast trail of personal papers forbiographers to decipher that message. (His collected works add up to nearly 100 volumes.) He also wrote an unsparingly honest autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth,” which emphasized his explorations of different faiths, philosophical ideas and moral impulses. Gandhi became unwavering in his beliefs and was indeed a stubborn and complicated man. But the aura of saintliness surrounding him made it difficult for scholars to criticize him.

Six decades after his death and many biographies later, Gandhi is remembered through iconic images — a photo of him scooping up a fistful of salt in defiance of the British salt tax, or picking himself up at Pietermaritzburg train station after he was thrown off a first-class compartment because he wasn’t white. Richard Attenborough’s multiple Academy Award-winning film “Gandhi” (1982) brightened the halo around him; Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha” sanctifies him. Those images convey a simple, hopeful narrative of the triumph of good over evil.

As Joseph Lelyveld shows in “Great Soul,” Gandhi possessed “quirkiness, elusiveness, and genius for reinvention,” with “occasional cruelty and deep humanity.” The Indian-born novelist Salman Rushdie, who was aware of those nuances and frustrated by the film, told me in an interview in 1983, “Deification is an Indian disease: why should Attenborough do it?”

That disease can take a virulent form. Angered by a Wall Street Journal review and reports in British newspapers that Lelyveld’s book suggested that Gandhi was bisexual and a racist, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state, banned the book there, with other politicians considering similar moves. None of the politicians had read the book, and for the record, Lelyveld makes no such assertions. (He does write about Gandhi’s close but platonic friendship with Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish bodybuilder who donated a plot of land on which Gandhi established a commune named after Tolstoy.)

The deification of Gandhi is prompted by fascination, which is understandable. In a violent century dominated by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, Gandhi used passive resistance, civil disobedience and nonviolence to bring about astonishing political change. Living a life in pursuit of truth and championing nonviolence in the face of provocation are not easy. While Martin Luther King in the United States, Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa in Poland succeeded in different ways by advocating nonviolence, the patience of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and the Dalai Lama in exile from Tibet remains unrewarded; and South Africans who sought equal rights had to turn to violence when confronting an adversary more obstinate than the one Gandhi faced. (How universal Gandhi’s tactics are remains a matter of debate: His advice to Jews to submit to Hitler in order to shame him, while consistent with Gandhi’s principles, appears hopelessly naive to many.)

Gandhi is an Indian hero, but it was in South Africa, where he lived for 22 years, that he developed the skills he made so much of later. As the Indian film-maker Shyam Benegal showed in “The Making of the Mahatma” (1996), in South Africa Gandhi became the formidable, confident political leader who could spearhead a mass movement.

Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, is a worthy interpreter of Gandhi’s varied life. He has reported from both India and South Africa; hisgripping account of apartheid, “Move Your Shadow” (1985), won the Pulitzer Prize. Rather than focus on Gandhi’s chronology, Lelyveld slices through his life to understand his compulsions, read into his thought processes, and assess his actions and outcomes, maintaining a tone of admiring observation without tipping into hagiography or criticizing him with the wisdom that only hindsight can provide. Lelyveld has produced a scholarly reading of Gandhi’s intellect and life. In the South African section, Lelyveld describes Gandhi’s unwelcome status as an outsider who gradually grew to represent a constituency larger than the one to which he belonged and whose vision belatedly included the Indian underclass but not blacks. In the Indian section, Lelyveld focuses on Gandhi’s difficult struggle to win acceptance for the lowest members of society, the untouchables, whom Gandhi called harijans, or the children of god. Gandhi also focused on the nation’s villages, where an overwhelming majority of Indians lived, and maintained that India would not be free unless it placed the poor, “the starving, toiling millions,” at the center of society.

Lelyveld candidly says that by Gandhi’s own exacting standards, India has not attained swaraj, or self-rule. The marginalized, the disempowered and the poor continue to form the majority of Indians but remain on the periphery of a society dominated by elite politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats. Measured against Gandhi’s goals, that’s a sign of failure. Gandhi sought without success to unite the nation across its divisions of language, class, caste, creed and religion, and he laid out an economic vision that was never achieved. For example, he opposed the growth of giant industries and wanted villages to stand at the center of society, but India is now a major manufacturing nation that is urbanizing rapidly.

Lelyveld captures the breadth of Gandhi’s ambition. “Sage, spokesman, pamphleteer, petitioner, agitator, seer, pilgrim, dietitian, nurse, and scold — Gandhi tirelessly inhabited each of these roles until they blended into a recognizable whole,” he writes. He builds a full portrait of the man by blending the social, economic, political and religious strands of his life. Gandhi demanded that people change their lives, Lelyveld notes, adding, “even now he doesn’t let Indians — or, for that matter, the rest of us — off easy.”

But there is no hint of self-righteousness in that humble man. George Orwell, ever skeptical of humbug, wrote soon after Gandhi’s death, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” Orwell was put off by the claims of sainthood made on Gandhi’s behalf, and by the man himself, but acknowledged his success as a politician. Comparing him with his contemporaries, Orwell concluded, “How clean a smell he has managed to leave behind.”

That fragrance survives, smelling of jasmine in Tunisia as it wafts through Tahrir Square, reminding us of Gandhi’s enduring relevance.

Salil Tripathi , a writer based in London, is the author of “Offense: The Hindu Case.” He is working on a collection of travel essays and a book on a corporate scandal in India.


Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

By Joseph Lelyveld

Knopf. 425 pp. $28.95