CRF Blog

Gandhi Was a Crank Before He Was a Saint

by Bill Hayes

In Gandhi Was a Crank Before He Was a Saint for the New Republic,  Maya Jasanoff reviews Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha.

How did a provincial young lawyer from western India become a globally recognized icon? The answers lie largely — if not widely known — in South Africa. During twenty years living in and around Durban and Johannesburg, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, once a mediocre student, a shy speaker, and an unsuccessful barrister, turned into a prolific author, a committed social activist, and a galvanizing leader with an international reputation. Nelson Mandela put it best, on a visit to India: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.”

Gandhi Before India, the first volume of Ramachandra Guha’s projected two-part biography, traces Gandhi’s activities up to 1914, when he returned permanently to India. The central achievement of this book is to establish the South African period — the first half of Gandhi’s life — as foundational to Gandhi’s later career, and worth sustained attention in its own right. What’s more, where authors have generally approached Gandhi’s time in South Africa through his own copious published works — all one hundred volumes of them — including recollections he produced long after the fact, Guha has turned up troves of hitherto unused private papers belonging to Gandhi’s many close friends and colleagues, to develop a far more rounded portrait. Deeply contextualized, dextrously researched, and judiciously written, this deserves to become the landmark biography of the early Gandhi. And it invites a critical question: how well does the familiar later image of the Mahatma hold up?

If some men are born to greatness and others have it thrust upon them, Gandhi seemed to stumble toward it on a path marked by historical conjuncture and circumstance. Nothing in his origins anticipated his subsequent cosmopolitanism. He was born in a part of India little touched by British imperialism: the tiny princely state of Porbandar in Gujarat’s Kathiawar peninsula, where his father and grandfather had held the position of Diwan (chief minister) to the Rajah. He studied with no particular distinction at local schools, and at thirteen he was married to Kasturba, the attractive and illiterate daughter of a wealthy merchant. As Banias, members of a middling caste known for its strict vegetarianism, the Gandhi family was deeply pious, provincial, and neither formally educated nor rich — far from the kind of family who might send a son abroad to study. [more]

For a free, related classroom lesson, see Bringing Down an Empire: Gandhi and Civil Disobedience from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.