Much of Mohandas Gandhi’s historical life is obscured by the iconic nature of his fame. Guha addresses the need for a fuller understanding of Gandhi with a comprehensive two-part biography, the first volume, Gandhi Before India, chronicles his overlooked formative years in London and South Africa.
Is there any misunderstood aspect of Gandhi’s life that best illustrates the distinction between the real Gandhi and the popular Gandhi?
In the West, and especially after Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi is often seen as a saintly, supernatural figure who single-handedly delivered India from British colonial rule. In truth, he could have achieved little without a devoted, focused band of colleagues and co-workers.
What did you find most surprising about his background?
What surprised me most was the depth and intensity of Gandhi’s personal relationships. Gandhi’s social and political philosophy was fundamentally shaped by his friendships in England and in South Africa. They are, as I discovered, far more important to the making of Gandhi than his later Indian associates, since they came into his life when he was not a “mahatma” but a struggling, searching activist.
With Gandhi as devoutly religious as he was, how is it that he has been so comfortably adopted by both religious and secular communities as a model for humanity?
Gandhi’s religious ecumenism was precocious. He saw every religion as a mixture of truth and error. His open-minded, dialogic attitude to faith stands in stark contrast both to religious fundamentalism and aggressive atheism. Along with nonviolence, it may be the most relevant of his teachings today.
Do any contemporary leaders embody Gandhi’s pursuit of satyagraha (“truth-force”)? What can current world leaders learn from him?
I think the Dalai Lama and Aung Saan Suu Kyi uphold in some part the legacy of Gandhi, as did Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela. All public figures can seek to follow Gandhi in the transparency of his life.
Your book promotes a deeper understanding of Gandhi as a global, historical figure. Which of Gandhi’s peers deserves a similar reappraisal?
Badshah Khan, a fascinating figure who straddles the histories of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, deserves a solid, source-based, historical biography. The time may also have come for a capable—and courageous—historian to rescue Jawaharlal Nehru from the contaminating influence of his descendants. Nehru’s contributions to nurturing a democratic ethos are now forgotten; largely because of the misdeeds of a dynasty he had no wish to create.
Who are some other lesser-known figures to advance Gandhi’s teachings?
Gandhi’s most remarkable women associates were probably Mira Behn and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Mira joined Gandhi, went to jail with him, and later worked on environmental protection in the Himalaya. Kamaladevi made Gandhi more sensitive to gender issues; later, she traveled through the American South, acquainting Black activists with the ideas of satyagraha. Both were women of considerable achievement and independence of mind; both were creative interpreters of Gandhi’s thought; both await a definitive biography.