Mohandas K. Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa. He arrived in 1893 “as an untested, unknown 23-year-old law clerk brought over from Bombay,” Joseph Lelyveld writes in his fascinating study, Great Soul. By the time he left, “he was well on his way to becoming the Gandhi India would come to revere and, sporadically, follow.”

What did Gandhi learn in Africa? Everything from a theory of nonviolent resistance to ideas about proper nutrition. But Lelyveld’s particular interest is the evolution of Gandhi’s social vision, especially his efforts to overturn India’s caste system and to unite Hindus and Muslims, both of which he began to formulate while he was in Africa.

Lelyveld, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on apartheid in South Africa, traces the often problematic development of these ideas in Gandhi’s struggles in South Africa and, later, in India. A brilliant analyst, Lelyveld shows not the sainted Gandhi but Gandhi in the making. This is a Gandhi who was constantly renewing himself; who first outdistanced his family and then his followers; and who did not succeed. But, strangely enough, this view of Gandhi does nothing to diminish the man.

Although Great Soul follows Gandhi throughout his adult life right up until his assassination in 1948, this is not a full-fledged biography. Instead, Lelyveld intentionally ignores significant passages in Gandhi’s life—such as the details of the Indian independence movement—to highlight the specific themes he is pursuing. As a result, readers will not put down this book having gleaned a full knowledge of all that Gandhi accomplished. But they will definitely possess a deeper understanding of the complex human being behind those accomplishments.

 

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