Mohandas Gandhi

His philosophy of nonviolence and his passion for independence began a drive for freedom that doomed colonialism

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The trouble with the idealized Gandhi is that he's so darned dull, little more than a dispenser of homilies and nostrums ("An eye for an eye will make the whole world go blind") with just the odd flash of wit (asked what he thought of Western civilization, he gave the celebrated reply, "I think it would be a great idea"). The real man, if it is still possible to use such a term after the generations of hagiography and reinvention, was infinitely more interesting, one of the most complex and contradictory personalities of the century. His full name, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was memorably--and literally--translated into English by the novelist G.V. Desani as "Action-Slave Fascination-Moon Grocer," and he was as rich and devious a figure as that glorious name suggests.

Entirely unafraid of the British, he was nevertheless afraid of the dark, and always slept with a light burning by his bedside. He believed passionately in the unity of all the peoples of India, yet his failure to keep the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah within the Indian National Congress's fold led to the partition of the country. (For all his vaunted selflessness and modesty, he made no move to object when Jinnah was attacked during a Congress session for calling him "Mr. Gandhi" instead of "Mahatma," and booed off the stage by Gandhi's supporters. Later, his withdrawal, under pressure from Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, of a last-ditch offer to Jinnah of the prime ministership itself, ended the last faint chance of avoiding partition.)

He was determined to live his life as an ascetic, but, as the poet Sarojini Naidu joked, it cost the nation a fortune to keep Gandhi living in poverty. His entire philosophy privileged the village way over that of the city, yet he was always financially dependent on the support of industrial billionaires like Birla. His hunger strikes could stop riots and massacres, but he also once went on a hunger strike to force one of his capitalist patrons' employees to break their strike against the harsh conditions of employment.

He sought to improve the conditions of the untouchables, yet in today's India, these peoples, now calling themselves Dalits and forming an increasingly well-organized and effective political grouping, have rallied around the memory of their own leader, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an old rival of Gandhi's. As Ambedkar's star has risen among the Dalits, so Gandhi's stature has been reduced.

The creator of the political philosophies of passive resistance and constructive nonviolence, he spent much of his life far from the political arena, refining his more eccentric theories of vegetarianism, bowel movements and the beneficial properties of human excrement.

Forever scarred by the knowledge that, as a 16-year-old youth, he'd been making love to his wife Kasturba at the moment of his father's death, Gandhi later forswore sexual relations but went on into his old age with what he called his "brahmacharya experiments," during which naked young women would be asked to lie with him all night so that he could prove that he had mastered his physical urges. (He believed that total control over his "vital fluids" would enhance his spiritual powers.)

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