Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

18 Aug

Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma GandhiGandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The complexity of Gandhiji’s life requires careful attention to both his public and personal trials. This is the basis on which Wolpert proposes to build yet another biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most well examined and yet one of the most enigmatic personalities. Wolpert says that even as he was writing his many works on India, he was always drawn towards Gandhi’s life but yet shying away from the endeavor, invariably daunted by Gandhi’s elusive personality and the extent of his archive, yet hoping that greater maturity and deeper knowledge of India would help him to understand the Mahatma’s mentality and reasons for his often contradictory behavior. When he finally decided to do so and confronted the veritable mountain of literature that exists about the great man, he almost decided then to abandon his “Gandhi” once again, “feeling that perhaps I had nothing new to add to what was known about the amazing man who called his life an “open book,” and fearing that at age sixty-eight, completing my research and writing might take longer than my lifetime.”

While a noble quest in itself, in the search for an alternative take and for a more comprehensible explanation Wolpert can be said to have stumbled, and badly. One wishes he had taken better head of his own misgivings. Gandhi used to famously call his own life as his Tapasya. Wolpert translates this tapasya as passion (thence the title of the book), then elaborates on the classic, noble meanings of the word (in drawing a parallel to ‘the passion of the christ’, for the benefit of his western readers) then ends up reverting back to the modern and much more ordinary meaning of the word with no sanction from the original tapasya. He continues to use the word passion in all sorts of contexts and gets it thoroughly mixed up. The reader has to put in a special effort to keep things straight about which context the word is being used in in any given instant.

He then proceeds to analyze Gandhi’s life and his now much publicized ‘personal life’ from what can only be a called simplified western understanding of some vague tantric and magical ‘stuff’. This leads to selective attention to possibly controversial letters and passages and Wolpert eventually slides into a continuous exposé-mentality that makes not much of an attempt at trying to understand the real meaning behind the ‘experiments’. The world has been treated to a lot of this about Gandhiji by now but the mud does not seem to stick. This might perhaps be because he was open about his life in a way almost unimaginable now and just as when he asked his friends then to point out any error in his ways, the same question can hardly be answered assertively even now.

Wolpert’s overly spiritual take on Gandhi’s life and seeking an explanation in that alone is detrimental to any real understanding. Gandhiji was not a mere spiritual guru, he was a shrewd political leader who mobilized more people voluntarily than perhaps anyone ever has. He combined religion, politics, idealism and personal relationships into a single field of action. Gandhi’s life can even be said to be, without too much exaggeration, an object lesson on codes of purity and honor, on the meaning of martyrdom, and on the construction of a heroic life. Nevertheless, his life should be seen as a human life, no more and no less, and as a testament to the heights that the human spirit can climb with patient effort. That is where the inspiration of his ‘life as message’ lies: in replicating a part of that ambition of spirit, not in being a distant unattainable sainthood emulatable only through statues and honorifics.

In the end, the book is reduced to an overly romanticized set of platitudes, talking sometimes dreamily of yogic strength and sometimes of some mysterious ‘ancient civilization’ in Wolpert’s half-distracted quest to explain the reason behind these ‘experiments’ and of Gandhi’s ‘passion’. The explanations are not always coherent and shows scant understanding of the scriptural knowledge and Vedic traditions that Gandhi drew from in order to formulate his life and rules, and if drilled the author might be hard pressed to supply what he meant by half of these platitudinous terms.

The book also disappoints as a scholarly exercise: Wolpert has in fact tried to deconstruct Gandhiji from an almost anthropological perspective. There are many different ways in which the traditional subjects of social anthropology can be described, and one would perhaps contend, borrowing from Marc Augé, that anthropology has always been an anthropology of the ‘here and now’. This does not mean Augé would implore Wolpert that anthropology has to cast its eye only on objects that are near it, but rather that the mode by which knowledge is produced in anthropology is the mode of intimacy. The ‘here’ is the society in which the anthropologist must have travelled and lived, while the ‘now’ refers to the privileged place given to the present. Unfortunately Wolpert satisfies neither condition and hence his mode of producing knowledge, has a unique intellectual object – the ‘exotic Other’. This exotic Other can not be encountered accidentally, it has to be sought out as the opposite of the Self. Hence, as Amartya Sen would argue, anthropological knowledge can come to be a map of difference, of alterity or to be entirely slotted into his one of three categories: the exoticist approach. Any biography thus conceived is doomed to be a theatre of the exotic and hardly a source of knowledge or understanding.

In never being able to make up his mind about whether he wanted to explore the personal life or the political life, or in perhaps not being able to find any way to separate the entangled strands of the two, Wolpert compromises too much and presents us with a very shallow work. The book cannot serve as an introductory read because it leaves out and simplifies too much, and it cannot serve as a supplementary read since it has nothing original to add. So what purpose did the book serve? I cannot discern one.

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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Books


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