Gandhi: The Saint and The Sinner?

Gandhi is to India what George Washington is to the United States:  A heroic, sometimes mythical figure who embodies the conscience and destiny of a nation.  At home, Washington demands historic respect and remains a symbol of our Independence.  In India, Gandhi engenders an almost feverish reverence for his struggle for moral perfection and his non-violent campaign to free India from British rule.

I mention him because as I learn more about Gandhi, I am reminded that like many leaders,  his story is far more complicated than the reputation formed by popular culture.

Apparently, Gandhi led an ascetic life partly to atone for making love to his pregnant wife, a sin in strict Hindu households.  As the story goes, Gandhi took a break from nursing his sick father, lost himself in the comforts of his wife, and while he was with her, his father died.  Afterward, he denied himself all realms of pleasure:  food, sex – comfort of any sort.

He was not particularly nice to his wife, Kasturba and I doubt that he consulted her when he later decided to become celibate.  He was also unusually cruel to his sons and there are questions about his own racism.   The stories are endless and as you read more about Gandhi you see that he was a bit nutty, extreme, dogmatic and like all of us, imperfect and desperately human.

There’s a big stink in India now about the latest biography of Gandhi, written by Joe Lelyveld, former Executive Editor of the NYT.  (He hired Jim.)  Two Indian states have banned his book, Great Soul, and the central government was under pressure to follow suit.  It rightfully decided not to get involved in censorship.   Even a few organizations in the US have cancelled book talks and there are rumors of extreme Hindu groups calling for Lelyveld’s death.

Why all the fuss?  I haven’t read the book yet, but apparently Lelyveld excerpts letters from Gandhi to a German man whom he met when he was working in South Africa.   The letters suggest intimacy.  Lelyveld says that he lets the reader draw their own conclusions about the relationship between the two men;  some Indians say he wrongly suggests Gandhi had an affair.

India is very conservative and the details of sexual indiscretions are rarely aired in pubic here.  Gay or not, celibate or not, I think it’s clear that Gandhi struggled with his sexuality and sadly considered it demoralizing.

Gandhi’s deeds for his country are indisputable  – his peaceful stand against the British and the unfair practices imposed on his people;  his struggle to enfranchise and not marginalize untouchables;  his work to seal the fissure between hindus and muslims – all this unfettered by his personal life.  That he was not insanely perfect makes him more interesting – and more worthy of the worship of a nation.


Happy Easter and Passover dear family and friends.  We celebrated Bunny Day as usual here, dying eggs, hunting for them, overdosing on chocolate and even, surprise of all surprises, making it to church for the first time in… far too long.  In the car on the way to church, George declared after complaining about having to go:  “Fine, I’ll go – but I’m NOT doing the Jesus thing!”  He hung outside the building for a while until he figured out that Jesus came with air conditioning… (as noted by a friend of mine.)


This moment wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as I wanted it to be.  It fast descended into bickering about how may eggs everyone had to dye, who was hogging all the good colors, etc…

Lala hunting for eggs:

Eddie counting his stash:

Little bunnies:

The annual Easter photo.  (Note how miserable George looks as we prepare to leave for church):

I shot this photo at a friend’s house:

And our mangy neighborhood stray taking liberties in my kitchen:

4 thoughts on “Gandhi: The Saint and The Sinner?”

  1. I’m chuckling over Georgie and “the Jesus thing”!! He comes up with such memorable and delightful comments! Remember “The Lion King,” when Georgie admonished Eddie the Lion to “get used to it” (i.e., the lion was now in “veggie” land)? I’m still laughing about that as well.

  2. Theo, I read a good review of Lelyveld’s book and it does say that he does not explicity state that there was an affair. I bet those most hysterical about the book have not read it.
    Is that dress of the material you got when we were at Nehru Place? It really looks great! Have you been able to trace the genesis of some of George’s ideas – like the Jesus thing? He remains a most interesting child.
    Alec and Kelly came for brunch today. They are very well and we had a good time.
    What’s the latest on summer plans?

  3. Here’s my take on the books controversy – and I will blog about it sometime: western authors of a certain vintage – Lelyveld, Katherine Frank, Wendy Doniger, Stanley Wolpert, etc. – feel compelled to “sexualize” their analysis of historical figures. Since they write about India, the historical figures in question are Indian. I don’t think such works should be banned at all. Far from providing any novel insight into the historical figures under study, these books provide a fascinating sociology of the ageing western author, and an insight into his/her motivations as a writer. Is it for expanding their market through shock value? To write believably about sex before they get too old to remember anything about it? There’s a good dissertation out there waiting to be written about the ageing western author and his/her Kama Sutra complex.

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