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Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 29, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2011: With Great Soul, Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Lelyveld accomplishes the difficult task of humanizing the fabled "Mahatma." Utterly unafraid of depicting Gandhi's less palatable tendencies--shameless self-promotion, inscrutable sexual mores, and an often narrow and ethnically specific application of his evolving political tenets--Lelyveld instead stands the man up against the myth. Comprehensively researched and confidently written, Lelyveld's exploration of Gandhi's politically formative years in South Africa, and the international profile he later secured in India, demonstrates laudable (if not unflinching) critical distance from his subject. It takes a brave biographer to pull this off respectfully. (See Christopher Hitchens’s book on Mother Theresa for a contrary and maudlin example.) Lelyveld is up to the job, delivering an ultimately indispensable take on the flesh-and-blood man who may have been his own best hagiographer. Everyone with an interest in Gandhi--from incurable skeptics to unabashed devotees--should find much to learn from one of the year’s best biographies to date. --Jason Kirk

From Publishers Weekly

In this rigorous biography of India's beloved political and spiritual leader, Lelyveld (Move Your Shadow) offers an unexpected perspective on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), one that focuses more on his failures and vexations than triumphs. Gandhi dreamed of Hindu-Muslim solidarity in a united, autonomous India (a hope dashed with the 1947 partition that split off Pakistan); acceptance of lower castes by upper-caste Hindus (still only partially accomplished); an economy built around cottage industries in self-sufficient villages (a quixotic fantasy). This program proved far more difficult than evicting the British, Lelyveld notes, and earned the Mahatma hatred—and, finally, assassination—in an India riven by sectarian animosity and caste prejudice. Lelyveld pairs a sympathetic but critical analysis of Gandhi's politics with a vivid portrait of the Mahatma's charismatic strangeness: his makeover from business-suited, English-educated upper-caste lawyer to loincloth-clad sage; his odd diet and abhorrence of sex; his strained family life. A stirring, evenhanded account that relates the failure of Gandhi's politics of saintliness while attesting to its enduring power. Photos. (Mar.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (March 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307269582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307269584
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #973,137 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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50 of 55 people found the following review helpful By S. Mitra on April 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a carefully researched, judicious and exceedingly well written interpretive biography of Gandhi. However, it is not a biography in the usual sense- you need to be familiar with the broad contours of Gandhi's political life and India's freedom struggle to appreciate this book- the author assumes quite a bit of knowledge. If you didn't know anything about this period, you might be puzzled about why Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were massacring each other in the late 1930's to 1940's and various other issues. Joseph Lelyveld rarely stops to explain complex political issues/movements during this time, he assumes you are already familiar with the material (as I was). Here are a few other points about this book.

1) Before reading this book, I believed that Gandhi was a great man. (based on my study of his life, not just because he was a national/global icon). I still do. In another book, an author (Patrick French) calls Gandhi "the most influential political campaigner of the 20th century" - thats a quick but accurate assessment. Gandhi was also a moral leader. (The author will agree with all this). But Gandhi also had significant political, personal and moral failings, so he was not a saint. Saints exist only in apocryphal religious tales or in the imagination of weak men who are looking for others to worship. In the real world, we are all human. Joseph Lelyveld doesn't want to dismiss or explain away Gandhi's flaws (as some hagiographers has done), nor does he intend to exaggerate them or take statements made by him out of context. He shows his quality as a researcher in how carefully he handles various episodes of Gandhi's life and in the judicious manner he reaches his conclusions. There isn't the slightest hint of sensationalism, nor is there any kind of personal or political agendas.
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77 of 89 people found the following review helpful By Richard S. Reynolds on April 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading the other reviews, I almost get the feeling that this book is like the Bible -- people have it, they read a few chapters, and then they put it down. Most regard the Bible as the Word of God; the rest as a collection of myths.
There seem to be two schools of readers here. Those who like Gandhi and those who don't. One at least has the honesty to say he never read the book, though for the life of me I cannot understand why his review of the book is even included here.
Anyway, I read the book, and have to say that the author is neither the bogyman nor a hagiographer. He is an investigative reporter and he writes as such. The sad thing is that he does not write well. The first third of the book seems to jump from event to event as he attempts to show how Gandhi's experiences in Africa shaped his thoughts and actions in India. The result is a mishmash of stories that seem disjointed and confusing. He would have done better to stay with strict narrative.
Probably what angers people most is his assertion that Gandhi had homoerotic feelings for one of his disciples, though he never says that Gandhi acted out on those feelings. The other bone of contention is that he views with skepticism some of Gandhi's recollections as published in his Autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. In this respect, having pursued some of Gandhi's earlier statements in newspapers and interviews, Levyweld is true to his task as an investigative reporter.
Overall I have to give this work a three simply because I found it to be hard to read and poorly organized.
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Reading Joseph Lelyveld's sensitive and informative biography of the life of Mahatma Gandhi is enriching in many ways: the quality of writing is first class, the manner in which he shares the entire spectrum of the life of one of the greatest contemporary philosophers of man is both learned and involving, and the ability to discuss the human aspects of a man who has been all but officially canonized takes great courage. GREAT SOUL: MAHATMA GANDHI AND HIS STRUGGLE WITH INDIA is most assuredly an apt title for this new study of the life of Gandhi because as soon as the book appeared it was banned in India and in other places where Gandhi's influence is considered akin to heavenly. And that is sad, because a careful reading of this book simply reveals those controversial aspects of a man whose life was anything but understandable as he was living it, and bringing to readers' attention the aspects of Gandhi that allow us to see that indeed he was very human, struggling with not only attempting to unite Hindus and Muslims, but also with racism and pacifism and vegetarianism, the South African cultural influence on his thoughts and so forth.

The primary reason for the censorship and reader condemnation of this book seems to center on the discussion of Gandhi's long-term intimate relationship with the German Jewish bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach. Yes, there are 'love letters' between the two men, but Gandhi managed to cope with the central focus of his affection with a similar focus on his wife and his young nieces, etc. What Lelyveld seems to be doing is examining the relationship between Gandhi's approach to South Africa and India, working to define how this great thinker arrived at his concept of satyagraha.
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