Understanding Gandhi through Autobiography : A Review


GandhiWe have failed Gandhi-the man of the millenium. We have failed his principles of truth and non-violence. Gandhi to a majority of us today just means enjoying a holiday on his birthday (october 2).

The Story of ‘My Experiments with Truth’ is a massive but attractive volume, written by Mahatma Gandhi only at the insistence of his friends. It has five major parts and each part with certain chapters enlightening chronologically on his life’s experiences in one way or the other. The first part with twenty five small chapters, mainly deals with Gandhi’s birth, parentage, childhood, marriage, schooling, chronicling, in addition, his childhood mischief’s and mistakes, his consciousness about the significance of truth, his studies and travails in England and so on and so forth.

Attractively presented and moderately priced, the translator of the book, Mahadev Desai, succinctly informs us in the preface that this thought-provoking book was published in 1927 for the first time. As for the title, it is eminently suitable as the whole book revolves round Gandhi’s encounters with life’s different experiences – both sweet and bitter – and the title itself speaks a lot about the book.

One of the major underlying themes that capture one’s attention in the book is Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of truth and his experiments with it, which justifies the title to a greater extent. He discusses at length his conception of truth through out the book but his implementing it so prominently it in the title, connotes the meaning of sovereign, supreme and absolute. He seems to be the desperate searcher of truth as he says, “I am prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest”(selected works of Mahatma Gandhi,vol.6,page 95) and at the same time he argues about the absolute and relative truth, which speaks of his intellectual vision. In a difference worth learning for the students, he argues,” but as long as I have not realized this absolute truth so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it”(ibid.p-95) as for him absolute truth is truth “as it is’ and relative truth is as it appears to us.

The beauty of the whole autobiographical narrative lies in the simplicity of its writing, which is quite simple, spontaneous and natural and avoids the usage of complicated jargon and phrases. Gandhi believes that his method of realization of truth is experimental and to me he is right because he tastes every experience to the full, both bitter and sweet, which tells the reader the tale of his suffering and amusements as well. His experiments with truth are numerous and are part of his struggle to realize the eternal truth. The idea of “experiment with truth” primarily means the way one follows truth and lives in it and to Gandhi living in truth means abiding by the principle of truth in thought and action, explicitly and implicitly.

Especially dealing with the chapters of the first part, one perceives that it is not literally a piece and not even an attempt to make it so but a simple narration of life’s events and sometimes more than a mere narration, it turns out to be more of a confession, wherein Gandhi expresses remorse over the lapses committed in the past. However, the beauty of the book lies in his expert narration of even bizarre and astounding revelations and deepest affairs just to speak the truth shamelessly. While reading the chapters, the reader feels that each chapter of the book is his life’s reflection and an important learning lesson for Gandhi. As Gandhi himself insisted, “this book is not in the strict sense an autobiography. It is a selective record of experiments with truth, involving vegetarianism, celibacy, non-violence, and many other things.”

For him mere mental adherence to truth is not enough, because it has to be translated into action. For Gandhi, thought, action and speech make one united whole since each one is inextricably linked with the other. Therefore what is true in thought must be true in action and speech as well. Gandhi’s idea of truth is free from any theological connotation because, though he calls truth God, he does not intend to keep truth within the domain of religion alone. For Gandhi, truth transcends the rigid framework of all religions and therefore cannot be appropriated by any religion for that matter. Truth is the foundation of all religions and so cannot be part of any religion.

Recounting the period from his birth (1869) up to 1921, he remembers his religious minded mother, he remembers his books which used to be his lone companions in school, he remembers his loving father and he recounts the story of his child marriage at the age to 13 to Kasturba. He argues of his being suspicious and strict with her and simultaneously talks of her rebellion. He talks of being a child stubborn husband so indifferent to his wife, he remembers his friends who even took him to a brothel, and he remembers his submissive nature. He discusses frankly and at length all his sufferings and even bad habits and above all, he talks of the truth consciousness naturally inherent in him. He feels a great pain when he was convicted of lying, for missing his gymnastic class, though he had spoken the truth. He argues that a man of truth must also be a man of care (page21). He did not copy the question even when instructed to do so by his teacher, which speaks of his honest and truthful nature right from the childhood.

In the chapter, “Stealing – The atonement”, Gandhi has written about some heart rending lines which really only a prophetic soul only can do and a belief that is why he can control only and turn to the status of Mahatma. He writes,” I stole a bit of gold out of my meat eating brother’s armlet”. Later he wrote, I resolved never to steal again, I also make up my mind to confess it to my father. I was afraid of the pain I should cause him. I handed a letter of confession to my father…….. He read it through and pearl drops or tears trickled down his cheeks slowly, wetting the paper. He closed his eyes and then tore the note”. From a dismayed recounting, he quickly jumps to another humorous but true anecdote, in the lesson, IN a Tragedy (Contd…).He writes, he had a bad night after he had goat’s meat for the first time.

He writes, “As every time I dropped off to sleep it would seem as though a live goat were bleating inside me.” (p. 31). Here every line is a serious story about a man who no doubt started as a common man but surely was carrying charismatic genes with him, he steals but feels bad, he wants to reveal it but could not, not because of fear but not to hurt his father, he still confesses and is ready for punishment, his father understand the child’s pain from within he cries and Gandhi cries too. He realizes from this real experiment “the power of the Ahimsa is a tool of transformation very beautifully by citing the example of his act of stealing and then confessing before his father and the scene created and then he argues that when ahimsa becomes all embracing, it transforms every thing it touches and there is no limit to its power (page 39)”. It seems that Gandhi to the best of his writing capacity has tried to explain himself and also wishes readers to follow his footsteps. He goes serially in discussing his issues of life covering every area like even discussing his hatred for gymnastics, discussing religions, his company of friends, etc, which gives a elder message that while writing he does not want to employ artificiality of events and arrangements of words but writes things as they had happened, he hardly cares to be admired as a prolific writer but as an ardent propounder of truth which reflects from his every word.

Also he writes in such a style which transcends a certain time period, like he recounts his days in England when he used to miss his mother and family and his home, tears trickling down his cheeks, but hardly shows any concern for his wife. Also the book cannot be described solely as the lessons of truth only but also encompasses his effort for its search and also states truthfully what he found there.

The beauty of the book is, that despite being an autobiography, serially arranged, well connected and being composed of many chapters, each of the chapters can even be read and understood as an entity of their own, individually. He has amply thrown light upon religion, political involvement, education, languages, justice, law, etc, He though over emphasizes his marital relations and food habits; however he does not make any attempts to conceal his life events, even in the least bit. He does not care about the temperaments and understanding of his diverse readers but simply writes, whether one gives him a nod of yes or no.

He even discusses his lustful nature and lusty love for his wife, in the chapter the ‘Double Shame’, he openly discusses his lust as the reason for not being at his dying fathers bed what he calls his shame for which he can be criticized as such a language does not suit a Mahatma. But simultaneously see his quest for truth, he is ready to invite dishonor, shame and hatred of all but to him Truth is a must and what he calls as absolute as God and how he treats everything and argues that truth should prevail even if everything perishes. He remembers his going to England in 1887 and promises his mother that he will strictly abstain from women and meat He speaks of his travel to South Africa in 1893, the major portion of which he omits; perhaps he thinks readers are already aware of that entire episode, as his life later never remained his personal one. Moreover, his vision and concept of Satyagrah is enlightening and during the Boer war, he organized an ambience corps for the British unit and commanded a Red Cross Unit and then went for his campaign of Indian rights which speak of his philanthropy and activism. Returning to India and then back, he found that besides fighting British Colonialism, we need to fight against untouchability, poverty and class system, which speaks of his concern for oppressed people.

One of the most important features of the book is that it gives a good picture of India of those days. His recounts his meeting eminent personalities like Gokhale, Tilak, Nehru, Ray, and Vallabhbhai, to show us his credibility and how India was full of active leaders. He describes his life as a series of events performed on truth, non violence, Brahmacharya, Ahimsa, etc. Last but not the least, one gets the idea that he began with truth, lived with truth and acted through truth . The book is a worthwhile read and must be gone through by the students especially to broaden their somewhat limited horizons as it brings the inspiration and encouragement of Gandhi’s example to a still wider circle of his admirers. Overall the work is a master piece which introduces a different Gandhi to people and lets us know him as a child, as a youth, as an activist, his suffering for truth, principles for life like ahimsa and celibacy and finally as a legend though he bores with endless words on vegetarianism, marital life, etc.

Tail Piece

Swacchh Bharat Abhiyan formally launched on October 2, last year through was a good idea but has not laid any impact on the collective mindset for hygiene and concern for the environment. Even such a noble case was dramatized by the power elite. Further increasing hate crimes and polarization is not what Gandhi’s integrity teaches us. We should understand that Gandhi, besides being the ardent champion of purity and sanitation, was an advocate of the oppressed and lower classes as well. We should realize that Safai(sanitation is done by Sweepers but their working conditions are still not praiseworthy in India, even they have no rest rooms at their work place. Therefore, on this day we should recognize them, besides emphasizing on a clean and healthy India.

– Adfar Shah

(Author is a Sociologist and Columnist at some reputed media groups. Mail at adfer.syed@gmail.com).


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