GANDHI BEFORE INDIA. By Ramachandra Guha. Knopf. 550 pages. $35.

As one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Mohandas K. Gandhi immediately conjures up the image of a slender, saintly looking old gentleman swathed in white leading millions of Indians from beneath the yoke of the British Raj. Less generally understood, perhaps, is Gandhi's background, education and early life. What serendipitous collection of influences and events produces such a person?

Ramachandra Guha attempts to answer that pivotal question in this first of a projected two-volume biography of the great leader, taking the reader from Gandhi's birth in Porbandar, India, in 1869, through July of 1914. The bulk of the narrative is concentrated on Gandhi's two-decade sojurn in South Africa, during which time he fine-tuned the approach to community action that he would carry back to India, as well as his philosophy of spiritual and physical health. The two would gradually become inextricably connected.

Trained as a lawyer in London and struggling to find work in his native land, Gandhi embarked for the Transvaal in 1893. Armed with his legal training and language skills, he was able to take on an underserved community of Indian laborers, traders and shopkeepers. Nothing, however, according to Guha, had prepared Gandhi for the type of racial prejudice that existed in South Africa, and he was soon drawn into, and eventually led, the campaign to dismantle the harsh anti-Indian laws that existed during the period.

Unlike their relationship with the largely subservient native blacks, both the Boers and the British were threatened by the often highly successful and ambitious "Asiatic" merchants and their families. The very real possibility that Indians would seek a foothold in the professional class made discriminatory practices like quota setting and electoral disenfranchisement popular with the governing minority.

In India, Guha points out, Europeans had come to rule. In South Africa, they had come to settle, making the presence of a competitive, dark-skinned populace infinitely more threatening.

Gandhi, who saw himself as an obedient servant of the British Raj and was a believer in an incremental approach to to change through traditional channels, soon realized what he was up against in South Africa.

Inspired by the writing of Henry David Thoreau, John Ruskin, Tolstoy, the strategies of the British suffragettes and tenets of the Hindu religion, he developed his own form of resistance, which he called "satyagraha," a belief, as defined by his friend and colleague Hermann Kallenbach, in not meeting "force and violence in a likewise manner," but with "passive suffering."

Thus began years of often glacially slow moving efforts to improve the lot of Indians in South Africa, an example, in Guha's words, of "diasporic nationalism," similar to that of the Irish in Boston and the Jews in New York.

It also reshaped the imperialist policies of Great Britain and laid the essential groundwork for Gandhi's activities in India.

If Guha offers only a cursory discussion of Gandhi's personal life, it is partially because Gandhi's near obsessive dedication to his career left him little time for other interests, or for his family, and, indeed, he was often an indifferent husband and father.

On the other hand, Guha delves deeply into Gandhi's theories on diet and exercise. A highly disciplined, celibate vegetarian who walked miles on a regular basis, Gandhi was, in many ways, far in advance of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, and in spite of his great gift for friendship, his extreme ascetism must have sometimes made him rather difficult to be around.

Ramachandra Guha has taught at Yale and Stanford universities and is the author of "India After Gandhi." He has constructed this latest study upon a voluminous amount of primary sources, allowing him to follow Gandhi very closely through these important years and, with great power, portray the arduousness of his long journey, the many setbacks, the often uncompromising nature of Gandhi's personality and, probably most significantly, the evolution of his political skills.

Invariably, with so much material at hand, Guha occasionally goes too far. Do we really need to know Gandhi's elementary school grades, how he fared at the dentist and what he ate at the countless public dinners he attended? Smaller portions of quotes could have been used and some eliminated altogether. Many are long tributes to his subject because, make no mistake, for all its academic rigor, this book is, at base, a celebration of the life of Mohandas Gandhi. There is very little negative commentary to be found within its pages.

"Gandhi Before India" succeeds thoroughly in excavating and describing in detail the set of circumstances that prepared Gandhi for his great work in the Indian sub-continent. What it leaves undefined is the source of his white hot fervor and relentlessness. The search for that doubtless lies in a realm to which no historian can reliably take us.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.