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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Serious, scholarly, fun to read...and an original contribution
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...
Published on April 21, 2011 by S. Mitra

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77 of 88 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Has anyone really read this book?
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...
Published on April 26, 2011 by Richard S. Reynolds


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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Serious, scholarly, fun to read...and an original contribution, April 21, 2011
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This review is from: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (Hardcover)
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. Please note that the Amazon.com review of this book is needlessly negative, the author doesn't set out to trash Gandhi or destroy his reputation - if you read the book, you will find that the author admires plenty of things about Gandhi,(so the title of the book "Great Soul" is not ironical), but he doesn't place Gandhi on a pedestal. Gandhi had his failings, as all of us do.

2) In India, many people were angry about the book, because allegedly Gandhi has been called "racist and bisexual" in this book! This is FALSE. However, the book is not banned in India, as one reviewer incorrectly stated. A British nationalist hack, Andrew Roberts was (very regrettably) allowed to review the book in the Wall Street Journal, which didn't help matters. Gandhi probably wasn't bisexual - and even if he was, would that reduce your respect for him, assuming you aren't an anti-gay bigot yourself? On racism, Gandhi did have some prejudices against black Africans and made very little attempt to know them intimately or make common cause with them in spite of his two decade long stay in South Africa (with some exceptions). To me, it is not news that Gandhi initially had some of the same prejudices that many Indians or British people of his time had. (Thomas Jefferson doesn't stop being a great leader because he had slaves!). What is more important is that he was able to rise above those prejudices, both in his personal life and as a leader to write "If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity, that all the different races commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen? There are differences and misunderstandings, but I do believe, in the words of the sacred hymn- we shall know each other better when the mists have rolled away".

3) Gandhi didn't think of the freedom struggle just in terms of driving out the British. He thought real freedom would also require a fight against the worst forms of caste discrimination, namely untouchability. And he also repeatedly emphasized the importance of bridging the divide between Hindus and Muslims in India. His different objectives created some contradictions in his political life which he found difficult to handle. For example, to end British colonialism, he had to unite all Indians against foreign rule - to end caste discrimination, he had to fight the Hindu upper caste orthodoxy- which will divide the Hindus. When he failed to condemn the caste system in entirety, lower caste activists criticized him for hypocrisy (they still do). We might say he had too many things on his plate. And of course, he had plenty of eccentric views on things like diet and sex! Another thing about Gandhi - as the many quotes in this book will reveal and as the author himself says - he wrote great English!

4) Hate the sin, not the sinner- how many of us can even try to do that? Gandhi didn't merely try, he succeeded. He was adamant about the need for Indian freedom fighters to be completely free of ANY animosity towards the British. In fact, Gandhi even tried to convince British officials of his point of view by arguments and moral persuasion. When he was criticized by Hindu traditionalists defending caste discrimination or by Muslim/Hindu religious fanatics, he often invited them for long chats/discussions irrespective of how violent or virulent their opposition to him was. As a political leader, he established a model for non-violent political agitation that has since been followed by countless others. (Of course, it can't work against Nazis or military dictatorships which don't care at all about the rule of law). He was also pretty media-savvy in the way he devised his political campaigns and the images he used (think of the salt march) and he frquently managed to put the British on the defensive. Above all, it is his fearlessness in the face of violent threats that makes him a "great soul".

5) I think Lelyveld is a little too pessimistic about India's social or economic progress since independence. (He doesn't say this, but this seems to be the case from some of his statements). I am not saying he is wrong- its a matter of different perspectives. But there has been impressive progress in many ways- both in fighting caste discrimination and in economic development/poverty alleviation. Chistophe Jaffrelot- one of the top experts on Indian politics thinks that the empowerment of the lower castes in Indian politics amounts to a "silent revolution". Think of the changes in Indian society/politics between 1900 and 2010. In very few countries have this much change been accomplished without any large scale violence. People from the lowest caste have succeeded in becoming Vice Chancellors of universities, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India and there are dozens of very rich Indian businessmen who have a lower caste background. If he was alive today, Gandhi would be happy with all the progress disadvantaged Indians have been able to make since independence. However, many lower caste activists will agree with the author that progress has been quite slow - even today 50% of the lowest caste people are below the poverty line and we continue to hear horrendous tales of discrimination and violence from rural India. Of course, India being among the few developing countries which chose to become a democracy, the kind of social change where a leader imposes his vision on the rest of the society was not possible. India's first PM Jawaharlal Nehru was a great modernizer, but even he had to struggle for eight years to get some laws passed in India's parliament which would guarantee (roughly) equal rights for women. The bills were introduced in 1951 and could only be passed by 1959.

Overall, I strongly recommend this book- this is a very thoughtful biography of Gandhi, but to get a lot out of it, you have to have some knowledge of Indian history/politics in the 20th century. I had read two biographies of Gandhi prior to this, but I still learnt a lot from this biography- the other biographies were good, but this one is the best. There is no sentimentalism of any kind- only calm perceptive analysis.
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77 of 88 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Has anyone really read this book?, April 26, 2011
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This review is from: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (Hardcover)
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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40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'To err is human, to forgive is divine', April 14, 2011
By 
This review is from: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (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. 'This is defined as resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience, a philosophy firmly founded upon ahimsa (nonviolence). This concept helped India gain independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.' The relationship with Kallenbach is simply an aside.

How a man who gave so much of himself to the welfare of society could be condemned for an intimate relationship with another man is a conundrum. The only solution to understanding the importance of this book is to read it. And it deserves to be read! Grady Harp, April 11
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It was time someone wrote this book..., January 13, 2013
Biography not hagiography: As Joseph Lelyveld emphatically points out right at the outset, this book is not a hagiography. Lelyveld puts Mahatma Gandhi under a microscope and enlarges and analyzes Gandhi's every action and every word. He attempts to disabuse the reader of commonly accepted narratives about Gandhi that have been `sanctified by careless repetition'. What emerges is the bildungsroman of a man who gave the world the concepts of passive resistance and non-violence; achieved a legendary status in his lifetime and yet failed in achieving Hindu-Muslim unity and eradication of untouchability; and died a broken and largely ignored man, at the hands of an assassin. We get to see the miss-steps, the warts, the stubbornness, the `experiments' and not just the `Mahatma' in Mahatma Gandhi. As described by Lelyveld, M.K. Gandhi was protean and infinitely quotable; he had a genius for reinvention as seen by his attempts to make himself relevant over and over again; he was a prolific writer of letters to newspapers and friends alike as well as articles; a political genius; an opportunist and not above self-aggrandizement. Lelyveld describes the martial vocabulary of this paragon of non-violence. Lelyveld strikes at the attempts of heritage myth-making around Gandhi by others and by Gandhi himself. He describes the fictionalizing and mendacity that made Gandhi embellish his autobiography. One example is that of Balasundaram, an indentured laborer who was ill-treated by his European master in South Africa. Two versions of this incident written by Gandhi - one written 2 years after the incident and the other after 30 years, show how Gandhi glossed over and changed the details to make it sound like a parable to the readers of his serialized autobiography. Lelyveld describes Tolstoy's influence on Gandhi and how it was reflected in Gandhi's simple living. We see how Gandhi became aware of class distinctions before becoming aware of caste distinctions - presumably because he was at the receiving end of the first and not the second while in South Africa - and how he avoided addressing caste distinctions while in South Africa. We find that Jawaharlal Nehru could not speak Hindi - the language that he promoted as the national language of India - something that few Indians are aware of. Lelyveld's language in this book as in his other book `Move your shadow' is precise and exquisite. Gandhi may not have become Mahatma Gandhi had he not gone to South Africa - it is easier to see the blemishes on one's country from a distance. This is one of the points that V.S. Naipaul makes and Lelyveld agrees. Another point that Lelyveld makes is that Gandhi did not make common cause with Africans in South Africa even though both Indians and Africans suffered the same fate at the hands of their common imperial master, but does not provide with a convincing explanation of why Gandhi might have done this. Lelyveld also brings home the point that the British agreed to give independence to India not because they were cowed by Gandhi's non-violent non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements, but simply because they were drained by World War II.

Politician par excellence: Gandhi was a master political alchemist. He had all the hallmarks of a consummate politician - his evolving sense of his constituency from the traders and educated Indians to the indentured laborers to the caste Hindus to the untouchables; his ideological flexibility - in South Africa he declared "Salt makes you eat more and arouses the senses" but later in India, he launched the Salt March saying it is one of life's basic necessities; his sense of dramaturgy as seen in his handling of political situations. He was not above narrow political concessions or manipulating the media - in this latter skill he was far ahead of his times. At times, he would only allow the publication of his written speech and not what he actually delivered. He was good at timing the release of information to reporters. He supported the pan-Islamic religious movement to restoring the `caliphate', known as the `khilafat' movement in India, but it could be thought of as exploitation of Muslim sentiments.

Social Reformer or Politician: From the beginning, the question of social reform before political freedom or vice versa had dogged the independence movement in India. Lelyveld paints this tension very realistically. Gandhi, in his infinite capacity for addressing multiple issues simultaneously, was both a social reformer and a politician. Lelyveld delineates not only Gandhi's sojourn through the most turbulent years of an India fighting for freedom but also gives a crash course on the caste system of India which has survived despite the best efforts of reformers to eradicate it. Gandhi tried to uplift the `untouchables' - the pariahs of the Indian society - by agitating to allowing them to enter Hindu temples, treating them as fellow human beings and so on. He encouraged higher castes to bring untouchables into their fold, but was accused of never encouraging the untouchables to help themselves. This became a point of contention between him and Dr. Ambedkar, a leader of the untouchables, who was an untouchable himself. Dr. Ambedkar's gripe against Gandhi was - why did Gandhi not try to `empower' the untouchables instead of trying to `reform' caste Hindus? Gandhi also stood steadfastly against separate electorates for Muslims and untouchables, working instead for a unified society.

Gandhi's propensity for extreme ideas and personal idiosyncrasies: Lelyveld has done a lot of research on Gandhi's propensity to radical ideas or seemingly simple ideas which then became extreme in Gandhi's hands. Lelyveld uses phrases like Gandhi belonged to a `small weedy fringe' of Theosophists to indicate how Gandhi was attracted to alternate ideas and religions. Gandhi was always trying to improve his diet. Contrary to what Lelyveld says, Gandhi's ideas about how bad diet had deleterious effects on celibacy were not his own. They are prevalent in Hindu culture. Gandhi started out in South Africa with a natty western outfit and a well shod foot, then changed to a more Indian outfit as he found his niche as the leader of Indians in South Africa and as he was about to move back to India. He took up weaving his own cloth. He became so extreme with his costume changes that he wore only a loin cloth for a large part of his latter life. He is almost modern in the way he uses the word `love'. For instance, in his letter to Kallenbach on the eve of his last fast against untouchability he ends the note with "much love"! In his later life, he wanted to find out whether hand pounded grain might be more nutritious than grain polished in the mills or what use could be made of the husk. He was interested in harvesting oil from orange rinds. All this sounds almost like new age agenda!

Relevance of Gandhi in India: The very title of this book `Great Soul - Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India' gives us an idea of what Lelyveld hints at, at the end of his book. Lelyveld describes the canonizing of Gandhi as a `Mahatma'. But in reality, especially in his later years he was not wanted anywhere - he was asked to go to Muslim areas by Hindus and to Hindu areas by Muslims in the aftermath of independence and the resultant communal massacres. He ran from place to place, overstretched and agitated, trying to bring peace to the newly minted nation. Lelyveld describes Gandhi's spiritual loneliness and disillusionment with Indians in such poignant terms that make one feel sorry for the father of the nation. He asked for the Indian National Congress to be disbanded after independence. He believed it had outlived its usefulness. He was proved right as seen by how it morphed into a corrupt political party. The description of the clash between Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi is telling and also a portent of how the untouchable issue would evolve in free India. It would have been interesting if Lelyveld had investigated the issue of `reservation' (i.e. reserved seats in educational institutions, electorates, and public sector jobs for lower castes) that has roiled India for the last 70 years with the `affirmative action' in the US. Lelyveld tries to show that despite Gandhi's idiosyncrasies, he was not tilting at windmills- he was trying to do what the educated Indians had turned a blind eye to.

Jarring: There are a few things in the book that I found jarring. Lelyveld puts everything that Gandhi did and said through a sieve and finds anomalies. This is justified as he has already declared that he is not in the business of writing hagiographies. Why, then, does he not apply the same high standards to others whose accounts of events cast doubt on the events as described by Gandhi? For instance, Lelyveld describes the small ambiguities in Gandhi's description of the battles of the Anglo-Boer war in which Gandhi led a team of stretcher bearers. When compared with other contemporary narratives, especially Churchill's, Gandhi's narrative appears to differ and has no overlap. Mr. Lelyveld doubts Gandhi's narrative because Churchill does not mention Gandhi and his team of stretcher bearers. Gandhi does not report the same devastation that Churchill reports. It strikes one as unfair because both narratives could be true. Churchill and Gandhi simply saw different facets of the same event. Besides, how could Churchill, with his callous indifference to non-British society, be trusted to portray a fair picture of the efforts of lowly brown-skinned people he so hated? Perhaps, to him, the war effort of the Indians was too trivial to mention. Then again, Gandhi's interactions with the British in Africa are used to show discrepancies in Gandhi's thought processes and his attempts to curry favor with the British; his differing views on caste and race; how he thought the coolies, who were overwhelmingly lower caste were `uncouth'; his attempts at aligning only educated Indians with the British and distancing himself from the Africans who too struggled against the same enemy; all these are dissected and laid out with surgical precision when it should have been presented as the evolution of a naïve and simple mind into a political creature par excellence. Lelyveld talks about Gandhi's attempts at fostering Hindu-Muslim amity but does not mention `divide and rule' - a staple of British policy in India. That Lelyveld hit upon the use of the caste-specific trait of `baniyas' to bargain hard - to describe Gandhi's tactics is bound to be anathema to all Indians who have chosen to rise above such caste-related adjectives. In narrating the story of Manu and the piece of pumice, in which Gandhi forced a young Manu to walk a dangerous path to retrieve the piece of pumice from a village they had left, Lelyveld says Manu cried with fear but Gandhi `cackled'. Perhaps the situation was not as dangerous as described? And lastly, the description of the intimate but ambiguous relationship with Kallenbach could have been interpreted in a different way. But not even the most ardent follower of Gandhi can excuse his celibacy experiments at the cost of young girls; one can only ignore them.

Interesting Trivia: His book banned in Gujarat, the home state of Gandhi and yet Mr. Lelyveld was invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, Gujarat in 2012 which he attended. His tongue-in-cheek remark on the Chief Minister of Gujarat who banned the book was "I'm a survivor of a fatwa from the great Gandhian chief minister of Gujarat who banned my book"!
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Book Without a Cause, May 3, 2011
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This review is from: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (Hardcover)
I did finish this book. It wasn't easy.
Why did Lelyveld write this book?
I kept reading, hoping that I would find an answer. But I never did. The book just kept going, clinging to vestiges of Gandhi's great soul with a fierce grip; but the narrative never rose above the journalistic mud of mundane equivocation and tactical feints. I felt less that the book portrayed Gandhi's own struggles between the mystic plane and the terrestrial role of leader than these contests provided measures for the author's own ambivalences. I couldn't help but also feel a bit of anger. What level of struggle between mystic vision and a leader's negotiating had this author undertaken in his own searching? On what does he base his historical, no less spiritual, judgements? When I came to the end, and the author still had revealed nothing about the learning Gandhi's great life impelled him to undertake, I also came to distrust the work as a whole.
People who know little about Gandhi will hardly be able to follow the narrative; people who know a lot about Gandhi might be edified by some journalistic detail; so I don't know who really benefits from this book. Except Lelyveld himself possibly.
The picture I get is not that of Gandhi, but of a man, the author, trying to negotiate between the gossip and the greatness, and using this exercise in depicting Gandhi to make sense of his own life. This is not to impute motives on the part of the author, it is only to provide myself with an answer as to why this book was written. I kept reading in the hope that Lelyveld could find his way through the thickets that the necessity of leading imposes and he would find his way to the spiritual release into hope that Gandhi lived for. But, between these covers anyway, this never happened.
The book is doleful throughout, succumbing to the smirks of gossip rather than extricating itself and permitting author and reader a glimpse into a living being who was willing to and did undertake suffering for the sake of a better humanity.
I give the book three stars because, it seems, as we slog through these pages, we readers, all by ourselves, get to test ourselves against this standard: gossip or greatness, which do we choose -- as Gandhi's legacy, as our own life path?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An (Incomplete) Review, September 9, 2011
By 
J. Smallridge (Kansas City, MO USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (Hardcover)
I read this book completely, but my review probably speaks more to the first part of the book than the latter half because most of the information at the beginning was new and fascinating to me. The discussion about Gandhi's years in South Africa, and the author's attempts to revisit the places in Johannesburg, Durban, and central South Africa, was really interesting and a revelation to me. Having read a lot about Gandhi's successes and failures in India, I was interested to learn about his racial perceptions of black South Africans, his relationship with the minority government in South Africa, his bisexuality while in the country. Lelyveld doesn't disappoint in his coverages of these issues.

Indeed, he covers these topics well (albeit controversially, and negatively, in some places). Although I'm sure others may have covered these aspects more thoroughly, or with greater reliance on primary sources, I appreciated Lelyveld's writing style and his attempts to connect an increasingly distant past to the present. He can be a bit long-winded, particularly in the later parts of the book. However, he offers a unique take on this important man that I appreciate thinking about it even months after reading the work.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Rajmohan Gandhi has written perfect review for this work, July 26, 2014
By 
swapan sanjanwala (buffalo, NY United States) - See all my reviews
Rajmohan Gandhi has written perfect review for this work:

Even those who have read the book should go over it.
http://www.rajmohangandhi.com/sites/default/files/Book%20review%20by%20Rajmohan%20Gandhi%20-%20Great%20Soul%20-.pdf

Rajmohan Gandhi summarizes Lelyveld's approach:

"
As the book opens, Lelyveld quotes Gandhi's
sentence: "For men like me, you have
to measure them not by the rare moments of
greatness in their lives, but by the amount of
dust they collect on their feet in the course of
life's journey". Where another might notice
the unusual character of a self-critical
remark
such as this (which was made, towards
the close of Gandhi's life, to his secretary
and companion, the anthropologist
Nirmal Kumar Bose), Lelyveld's response -
a perfectly valid one - seems to have been,
"I will locate
and exhibit Gandhi's dust".
"

To the above I will add, Lelyveld also makes it his mission to look for imaginary dust through insinuations and stretched interpretations.
In one word my advise avoid. I highly recommend Louis Fischer's Biography to start with. These were written by people who had lived the times and interacted with the man himself.

Rajmohan Gandhi himself is the author of one of the most exhaustive and authoritative books on Gandhi: Gandhi-The-Man- His People- And Empire.

http://www.amazon.com/Gandhi-The-Man-People-Empire/dp/0520255704.

Rajmohan Gandhi's book is a remarkable love of labor. But it is too detailed for anyone starting out.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gandhi's Struggle, Personal & Political, for Self Rule, May 3, 2011
This review is from: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (Hardcover)
How should we view and, if we must, pass judgment on Gandhi?

Ultimately, that's the question Joseph Lelyveld (Pulitzer Prize winner for Move Your Shadow) raises in Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.

Lelyveld's biography is considerably more targeted than the typical entry in the vast field of biographies on Gandhi, which tend to adopt a birth-to-death scope. The journalist author is upfront in spelling out that the focus of this book is narrower than others and focuses on Gandhi's struggle with India, which includes two efforts.

On a personal level, Lelyveld allows that Gandhi made good, to an unspecified degree, in achieving the four pillars of self rule (swaraj) that defined Mahatma's journey. But on the political resume, LeLyveld makes a case that Gandhi did not bring any of the four pillars into being.

Self rule applies to the emerging modern nation of India as well as individually to Gandhi. Briefly, the four pillars are: Hindu/Muslim unity, abolition of untouchability, nonviolence as a way of life, and spinning fabric in a village-based economy as the new nation's foundation.

In his introduction, Lelyveld writes: "The Gandhi I've pursued is the one who claimed once to `have been trying all my life to identify myself with the most illiterate and down trodden.'

"I've tried to follow him at ground level as he struggled to impose his vision on an often recalcitrant India - especially recalcitrant, he found when he tried not just its patience, but its reverence for him with his harangues on the `crime' and the `cure' of the untouchability, or the need for the majority Hindus to accommodate the large Muslim minority."

Lelyveld does not spare Gandhi's reputation as a saint and father of India in his examination. But the reporter's perspective is balanced and fair, giving credit for virtue and revealing warts as well.

Lelyveld's examination of Gandhi's quest is divided into halves. Initially Lelyveld portrays Gandhi's development as an advocate for self rule in South Africa, where the young lawyer was originally sent to represent the interests of Muslim merchants.

The book's focus tightens and becomes more compelling as Lelyveld follows Gandhi's return to India and advocacy of self rule for India.

I have read Rajmohan Gandhi's Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire and find it a comprehensive and worthy biography. The primary impression I gained from it was that Gandhi struggled greatly against the country and its people. Lelyveld confirms that in detail in his more tightly focused biography.

If you've not read a biography of Gandhi, Rajmohan's (Gandhi's grandson) might be the better starting point. However, if you want to focus on the man's struggle, Lelyveld's book will serve you well.

A couple of notes: Lelyveld's book has spawned controversy on a couple of accounts. The South Africa section goes into some detail into the relationship between Gandhi and one of his apostles. It is described as a homoerotic relationship. It adds little or nothing to lelyveld's book and in my estimate should have been covered in an appendix, or in some way that doesn't clutter up the otherwise focused flow of the book.

Secondly, Great Soul has been called out for portraying Gandhi as a racist. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Great Soul does give insight into how Gandhi's developed his profound and unique understanding for those oppressed at the bottom of the caste system.

Lelyveld includes a glossary of terms in the back, which is helpful. But he does not include any explanation of how the caste system came into being and how it has developed. It was originally based on labor divisions. I think some explanation in an appendix, or in the intro, might have been informative, certainly more informative than the space devoted to Gandhi's relationship with Hermann Kallenbach.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More truth than some want to know--, May 6, 2011
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This review is from: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (Hardcover)
I read the book carefully. I cannot say I enjoyed it since the details of the Great Soul's journey were painful. There is no doubt but what Mohandas Gandhi was Mahatma and Great Soul, but what struggles! He struggled again society as he battled against aparteid in South Africa and the caste system in India. In the process he discovered and refined his theories, his practices that would change the world, ahimsa and satyagraha.He also struggled against his own human nature, his sexuality, his fastidiousness, his prejudices. He had problems with his children, his wife, his best friends. His, our, human nature was revealed in graphic detail. The book made me sad that after all his experiences, losses, many triumphs, he couldn't accomplish what he most wanted. Muslims and Hindus kill each other. The untouchables continue in the shadows.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A unique window into an unfamiliar world..., September 9, 2012
By 
MikeyR (Irvine, CA United States) - See all my reviews
Maybe like many Americans, I do not really know much about Gandhi other than the pop cultural icon he has become, synonymous with peace and non violence. I took up this read as a way to better understand a critical juncture in world history and a well recognized historical figure. I was intrigued to learn the real story behind the man. For me, this book succeeds strongly in immersing me in Gandhi's world from his earlier days in South Africa where he got his start organizing Indians against the restrictions of the white regime to his treks across India to rural villages where he focused on his campaign against untouchability, or those at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. This book is expansive and weaves a bit away from a classical, linear historical narrative. Rather the focus is more around the individual campaigns that Gandhi was associated with. He sort of took India by storm, and as I read this book I could feel the crowds surrounding him and the influence of his soft power throughout the country. For some reason, I had always associated Gandhi with the independence movement to establish India as a free state away from the yoke of the British Empire. However, this book really painted for me the real driving force at the core of Gandhi which was his disdain for the utterly baneful state of the untouchables. Some of his most memorable campaigns in India were around opening up Hindu temples to the lower caste groups; previously only upper caste groups like Brahmans were permitted to be on temple grounds. I was also struck by Gandhi's determined focus on Hindu-Islam relations. He spent an inordinate amount of time an energy, both mental and physical, attempting to hold together a delicate balance of interests which saw him champion causes dear to Indian Muslims at the time such as the caliphate movement. Overall, though, I was moved and struck by an individual who was willing to suffer, abstain and persevere in what he believed in: the hunger strikes, taking meals with untouchables, doing prison time...it left me wondering how many of us would truly be willing to live that type of life for something we believed in? I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about this individual, about his non-violent belief system and about the movements he championed and inspired and how they have impacted India and Pakistan. The book is still highly relevant to today and gives a unique window into understanding a lot of the tension and pressure points in South Asia.
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Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld (Hardcover - March 29, 2011)
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