Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: GREAT SOUL: MAHATMA GANDHI… Joseph Lelyveld [Vol. 4, #12.5]

“A Man Who Lived Like Most of Us?

A review of
Great Soul:
Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

by Joseph Lelyveld

Review by Douglas Connelly.

GREAT SOUL - GandhiGreat Soul:
Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

Joseph Lelyveld
Hardback: Knopf, 2011.
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Joseph Lelyveld has written a generally admiring book about Mohandas Gandhi, the man revered as the father of modern India.  But Lelyveld also works hard at removing the clouds of sainthood surrounding Gandhi and his story.  He wants his readers to see the “Great Soul” as he really was – a man of contradiction and opportunism, but also a leader of conviction and principle.

Gandhi, for example, advised the Jews in Europe to adopt a policy of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis.  He said that “a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees” might be enough “to melt Hitler’s heart.”  Hitler, in response, stated that he would simply have Gandhi and his supporters shot.  Yet Gandhi used the methods of nonviolent resistance to force the British overseers in India to back down from oppressive policies and ultimately to bring the British colonial rule in India to an end.

Gandhi preached vehemently about the need for sexual purity and even abstinence, but in his later years he asked his 17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her “nightly cuddles” with him.  Lelyveld also details the relationship Gandhi had in South Africa with Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish architect, which leaves little to the imagination.  Lelyveld analyzes Gandhi’s contradictions in sometimes pain-staking detail, but he generally leaves it up to the reader to draw conclusions and to pass judgment.

Lelyveld’s book is not a biography in the traditional sense.  Almost nothing is said about Gandhi’s boyhood or his training in London to be a lawyer.  The focus is on the 21 years Gandhi spent in South Africa (1893-1914) and then his return to India to take up the cause of swaraj or “freedom.”  The book is not for novices either.  Lelyveld assumes his readers are familiar with the basic outline of Gandhi’s life and he often shifts back and forth from one event to another, occasionally making it challenging for the reader to follow his line of thought.

Gandhi had four main political and social passions: an alliance between Muslims and Hindus, the adoption of nonviolence as a political practice, the economic transformation of India’s villages by spinning and other crafts, and the end to the concept of untouchability toward the lower castes.  Different goals occupied Gandhi’s efforts at different times, but all of them were vital in Gandhi’s mind to the preparation of the Indian people for independence.

Lelyveld’s book has already caused quite a stir in England and India.  Gandhi’s own native state of Gujarat has banned the book (making sure that more people than ever will read it).  Ironically, it was the ruling Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party that accused Lelyveld of “hurting the sentiments of millions of people.”  The Indian leaders accuse Lelyveld of suggesting that the revered Gandhi was a bisexual and a racist – accusations that Lelyveld has denied.

It is surprising that this outcry should come from the Hindu right since it was from just such a group that Nathuram Godse emerged – the man who assassinated Gandhi on January 30, 1948.  Apparently there are political leaders in India who claim to be Gandhi’s heirs but who honor his teachings only in a greatly diluted form.

Great Soul is well worth a serious read.  The myths surrounding Gandhi are removed, but we also see a man who lived like most of us live – with inconsistencies and contradictions, with flashes of cruelty and times of great compassion.  Gandhi never claimed to be a saint, but he was able to capture the hearts and dreams of millions of his people.


Douglas Connelly is a writer and pastor in Michigan.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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  1. The controversy over this book as a debunking of Gandhi’s sanctity is really about the debunking of people’s hagiography. u00a0Gandhi never claimed sainthood. u00a0He saw himself as a seeker after truth. u00a0Gandhi was another master of suspicion (like Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx); but a political variant rarely seen. u00a0Gandhi suspected that many civilizational norms were death dealing deceptions. u00a0In order to find truth one must pursue a living that often crossed the bounds of “normal”. u00a0The necessity of violence was one of these norms; but there were others Gandhi confronted regarding caste, diet, community, agrarianism, health care, and yes, even sexual expression (no one has ever accused Gandhi of breaking his vow of bramacharya, even with his nieces). u00a0When Gandhi set himself as a exemplar it was only as a seeker never as a savior or a saint. u00a0I suspect he would find the Hindu outrage over this book amusing (and perhaps even comical given his rich sense of humor); and yes, thickly ironic as well, given the opposition of traditional Hindus to his attempts to reconcile the religious and class differences in Indian society. u00a0We keep puzzling over Gandhi’s life I suppose because there is an abiding suspicion that he was right about the vacuum at civilization’s center and the need for ex-centric modes of life. u00a0It was Gandhi’s passion for truth and the absence of any fear of being seen as abnormal that makes him continue to both frighten and fascinate us. u00a0u00a0