Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

In This Review

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India
By Joseph Lelyveld
Knopf, 2011
448 pp. $28.95
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Not a biography -- Lelyveld says there are already more than enough -- this is a meditation on the interlinked puzzles of Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi's strange personal disciplines, the communalistic passions of the two societies where Gandhi worked (South Africa and India), his improbable achievements against vast odds, and the ultimate failure of his ideals. Here is an eccentric who achieved mass followings; a near-naked vegetarian and celibate who, by force of will, made masses of people temporarily abjure the primitive passion of communal enmity; and an icon who is worshiped globally while the hatreds he opposed flourish. Lelyveld, who worked in both South Africa and India as a New York Times reporter, focuses on Gandhi's opposition to race, class, and caste oppression in the two societies. He weaves a dense fabric of social analysis, biographical detail, and psychological speculation; zooms out for context and in for anecdotes; shifts between past and present tenses; and scrambles the chronology to find patterns across time. The book tries to recenter one's understanding of Gandhi away from the themes of Indian nationalism and nonviolent political action and toward the issue of social justice, which remains sorely unresolved in both countries where Gandhi worked.