Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

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Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India
Great Soul cover.jpg
Front cover of the first American edition
AuthorJoseph Lelyveld
SubjectMohandas Karamchand Gandhi
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf (US)
Harper Collins India (India)[1]
Published in English
March 29, 2011

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India is a 2011 biography of Indian political and spiritual leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld and published by Alfred A Knopf.[1]

The book is split between the time Gandhi spent in South Africa and his return to India as the Mahatma.[2]

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India claims that the founder of modern India had a sexual relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish bodybuilder, and also made disparaging remarks about black Africans during his early years in South Africa.[3]

One criticism is Lelyveld’s use of documentary evidence and informed opinion to point to the relationship that Gandhi had developed with a Prussian architect whom the Indian playfully boasted as “having received physical training at the hands of [Eugen] Sandow [the father of modern bodybuilding]”. Lelyveld’s inquiry includes quotes from a letter sent by Gandhi to Kallenbach from London in 1909: “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed… [The purpose of which] is to show to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”.[4] Later, the Indian government bought several personal letters.[5]

Critical and popular reception[edit]

Response in India[edit]

The Legislative Assembly of Gujarat, the lawmaking body of Gandhi's home state, voted unanimously on March 20, 2011, to ban Great Soul because of the controversy. Lelyveld has stated that the gay interpretation of his work is a mistake. "The book does not say that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual. It says that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach. This is not news."[6]

Review by the New York Times[edit]

Writing for The New York Times, Hari Kunzru finds Great Soul to be "judicious and thoughtful". Lelyveld's book, he writes, will be revelatory to American readers who may only be familiar with the rudiments of Gandhi's life and for those readers, perhaps especially Indian readers, who are better acquainted with the Gandhi story the book's portrait of the man will still be challenging.[2]

Reports of passages within the book regarding the nature of Gandhi and Kallenbach's relationship prompted the Wall Street Journal to ponder "Was Gandhi gay?"[1] Kunzru for the Times observes that modern readers who are less familiar with the concept of Platonic love may interpret the relationship, in particular their romantic-sounding letters, as indicating a sexually charged relationship. However, he adds that Gandhi in 1906 took a vow of celibacy, which both Gandhi and the people of India saw as a cornerstone of his moral authority.[2]

Review by the Wall Street Journal[edit]

British historian Andrew Roberts, in writing for The Wall Street Journal, counters this idea of celibacy, with descriptions of Gandhi's 'testing' of his vow of celibacy with young women. He also quotes passages from Gandhi's letters to Kallenbach included in the text, such as "how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance" to support his conclusion that Gandhi was a "sexual weirdo" along with being "a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist".[7]

Self-described as "extremely right-wing,[8] Roberts' invective against Mahatma Gandhi must be framed in an appropriate context. Roberts is a noted apologist for Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, perpetrator of the Amritsar Massacre, in which soldiers of the British Indian Army under Dyer's command and on Dyer's order, opened fire on innocent men, women and children engaged in non-violent protest, as well as Baisakhi pilgrims.[8] Roberts, in his rationalization of the massacre, also makes clear how explicitly distinct his own assessment of the implications of the actions committed on that day is from the general consensus among historians:

"Today's reactions to Dyer's deed are of course uniformly damning ... but if the Amritsar district, Punjab region or southern India generally had carried on in revolt, many more than 379 people would have lost their lives."[8]

Journalist Johann Hari has described Robert's assessment, and subsequent back-pedaling, as 'an extraordinary rationalisation for killing women and children in cold blood, and rejected by virtually all other historians. It was only after I exposed this passage that Roberts finally said: "I have never approved of massacring civilians."'[8]

Other reviews[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Thoppil, Dhanya Ann (12 November 2012). "New Aakash May be Tough Sell in India". Retrieved 26 December 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Kunzru, Hari (29 March 2011). "In 'Great Soul,' Joseph Lelyveld Re-Examines Gandhi". Retrieved 26 December 2017 – via
  3. ^ a b " > Latest news on India, Cricket, Bollywood, Business - from India's leading online news channel". 3 March 2013. Archived from the original on 21 June 2012. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  4. ^ "Controversial book on Gandhi banned in his native state". 30 March 2011. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  5. ^ Hibbard, Laura (12 July 2012). "Indian Government Spends $1.3 Million To Stop Auction Of Gandhi Letters That May Show He Was Gay". Retrieved 26 December 2017 – via Huff Post.
  6. ^ "India state bans book hinting Gandhi had gay lover". Retrieved 26 December 2017.
  7. ^ Roberts, Andrew (26 March 2011). "Among the Hagiographers". Retrieved 26 December 2017 – via
  8. ^ a b c d "Johann Hari: The dark side of Andrew Roberts". 31 July 2009. Retrieved 26 December 2017.
  9. ^ Review of Lelyveld's Gandhi biography by Christopher Hitchens, July 2011 in The Atlantic

External links[edit]