Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha

Guha’s biography is the essential work on Gandhi: much more detailed, better researched, and more persuasive than the earlier biographies that I know of. Volume Two, focusing on India, is 1,104 pages long but moves at a brisk pace. It’s detailed but never ponderous. The story is often suspenseful, even if you know how it will turn out in broad outlines. For example, just when all seems lost, Gandhi suddenly pulls off the Salt March. And the end of his life has the inexorability of a classical tragedy.

Guha generally proceeds chronologically, but now and then he pauses for an essay on a special topic, such as “Gandhi’s personal faith, his personal morality, as expressed in his words and actions in this decade of the 1920s.” The narrative is enlivened by numerous quotations from original documents, many never printed before. Along with Gandhi’s voice, we hear an amazing range of human beings who interacted with him or commented on him in one way or another, from Black American pastors to anarchists to the advertisers who used his silhouette as a brand.

One of the larger themes that emerged for me was Gandhi as polemicist. The Mahatma relished arguments, even though some of his opponents alienated and infuriated him. You could summarize his thought by capturing his long-lived debates with a few key rivals, especially B.R. Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But he also sparred with many others.

For instance, I love to think of Margaret Sanger, the sex educator and popularizer of the phrase “birth control,” staying in Gandhi’s ashram and arguing with the celibate old man about first-wave feminism:

‘both seemed to be agreed that woman should be emancipated, that woman should be the arbiter of her destiny’. But whereas Mrs Sanger believed that contraceptives were the safest route to emancipation, Gandhi argued that women should resist their husbands, while men for their part should seek to curb ‘animal passion’. (p. 585)

Sanger was just one of scores of such visitors.

Guha is even-handed, judicious, and open-minded. Only at the end, in an epilogue on contemporary interpretations of Gandhi, does he emerge as a defender of his subject. By then, Guha has explored many flaws, errors, and vices, but he insists that Gandhi was far more complex and responsive than some of his critics have been. For instance:

[Arundhati Roy] presented Gandhi as a thoroughgoing apologist for caste, further arguing that this was in line with his views on race. Gandhi, she suggested, was casteist in India because he had been racist in South Africa. Roy claimed that Gandhi ‘feared and despised Africans’; this he certainly did in his twenties, but just as certainly did not in his forties and fifties. Reading Roy, one would not know that Gandhi decisively outgrew the racism of his youth, a fact that people of colour themselves acknowledged, and appreciated. … Roy has all of Ambedkar’s polemical zeal but none of his scholarship or sociological insight. … [She seeks] —by the technique of suppressio veri, suggestio falsi so beloved of ideologues down the ages—to prove a verdict they have arrived at beforehand.” (p. 876)

In contrast, Guha situates Gandhi in his time and cultural context, appreciates the Mahatma’s critics and opponents, explores his flaws and limitations (and occasional weirdness) at length, and paints a real-life portrait–which thereby emerges as a portrait of greatness.

Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. See also: the question of sacrifice in politics (on Gandhi and Ambedkar); Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends; Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; and notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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