- Seeing Gandhi Whole
In Mahatma Gandhi, Douglas Allen distills a lifetime of thinking and writing on his subject to offer a tightly written, lightly referenced, and clearly articulated intellectual biography. The book is divided broadly into two almost equal parts. The first five chapters take us through Gandhi’s life while also contextualizing the development of his thoughts, practices, and persona. The last three chapters tackle the contemporary relevance of the major ideas we associate with Gandhi: truth and nonviolence, the critique of “modern civilization,” and the creative if idiosyncratic re-imagining of religion and its dialectical relationship with politics.
Although it can grate on occasion as the syntax becomes too complicated, Allen’s use of the present tense throughout the chapters on the life bring an urgency and immediacy to the narrative. The narrative itself focuses on the intellectual, moral, political, and spiritual implications of events in Gandhi’s life. This includes incidents famous from My Experiments with Truth regarding his youth and marriage, his psychological struggles in England, and critical events such as Gandhi being thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg for refusing to vacate a Whites-Only coach. But Allen also astutely foregrounds other crucial and less notable events in his reading of the life. He looks at Gandhi’s own account of his decision to travel to South Africa to take on a relatively trivial financial case between two people who were relatives: upon winning the case for his client, he was appalled by the adversarial nature of the legal system, and persuaded his client to reach a more amicable settlement with his relative. Allen takes this to be an early expression of the developed Gandhian notion of “the other” as not an enemy but “an integral part of your nonviolent, loving, truthful, interconnected, unifying ethical and spiritual reality” (p. 39).
But by no means does this sensitivity to the profound interpretive possibilities in Gandhi’s life and work become hagiographic; Allen is more than ready to look steadily and critically at puzzling, uncomfortable, and contradictory aspects of that life. Of course, Gandhi himself set standards for uncomfortable self-reflection that few have matched, but there were also issues that are of obvious salience to us that he perhaps never detected. Particularly telling is Gandhi’s organization of an ambulance corps of Indian stretcher-bearers on the side of the British, first during the Boer War and, more controversially, in a military action against the Zulus in 1906. As Allen points out, Gandhi’s justification for this action—that he wanted to show the British that Indians were not weak or cowardly—makes matters worse, by implying [End Page 956] that he could, “in a seemingly anti-Gandhian manner,” sacrifice the lives of other peoples for Indian ends (pp. 47–48). This is made worse by his statements about Zulus and other African peoples at that time, which Allen acknowledges people could find “uninformed, condescending and racist.”
After succinctly describing the way in which his time in South Africa transformed Gandhi, Allen turns to the complex events of the nonviolent struggle for independence with which the world will always associate Gandhi. Allen frames the rest of Gandhi’s life in terms of the familiar dialectic of the religious and the political, deftly bringing out the subtle and shifting forms of that dialectic to show how political and social work was always infused with moral and spiritual values for Gandhi, even as these values were cultivated for the purposes of public transformation. At the same time, Allen acknowledges that at different times in those tumultuous decades, Gandhi did alternate in his emphasis on the public life of political campaigns and the withdrawn yet constructive life of spiritual and social development.
Three features stand out in Allen’s account of the life. One is that he manages to offer a clear and simple chronology of major events without leaving the reader who is familiar with history feeling that anything significant has been left out for the nonspecialist. This is important, because the...