A 21st-Century Perspective on Gandhi

In New York on April 7, 2011, biographer Joseph Lelyveld assesses how Gandhi might be assessed in 21st-century India. (1 min., 54 sec.)

NEW YORK, April 7, 2011 - Mahatma Gandhi is a figure so revered in India that it is sometimes difficult to imagine him as an ordinary human being struggling to lead a troubled country. Joseph Lelyveld's new book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, attempts to do just that.

It's no surprise that Great Soul has met with mixed reactions: praised in the New York Times, maligned in the Wall Street Journal, banned in Gandhi's native state of Gujarat (with possibly other Indian states to follow), the book has undoubtedly made a splash.

But when Lelyveld spoke at Asia Society it became clear he wrote the book with great respect for Gandhi. "When I first became a foreign correspondent, I had tours in both India and South Africa, and somehow Gandhi lodged in my mind at that time, for various reasons."

Joined in conversation by New York University Professor Arjun Appadurai, Lelyveld explored the ways in which Gandhi was influenced by South Africa (where he lived from 1893 to 1915), and his powerful impact on the formation of modern India.

They also spoke about many of the difficulties that Gandhi encountered. Complex issues such as the ongoing troubles between Hindus and Muslims, and the struggle with dalits, or "untouchable" castes, were problems that he struggled with throughout his life.

However, Gandhi was not one prone to despair. His ultimate aim was to unite a complex and diverse country.

Lelyveld summarized: "Gandhi found himself preaching to his countrymen 'we're not just Bengalis and Hindus and Muslims. We're Indians; Indian is the one word to describe what we are.' And that's the beginning of Gandhi's stake in national politics. I thought it might be possible to trace these concerns, their emergence in South Africa, through to the end of his life. He called them the four pillars of Indian freedom."

Reported by Rachel Rosado