What first strikes you about Gandhi's autobiography is the strange wording of the title. If it had been a mere political life story, the title would have read something like 'An Autobiography: How I Liberated India from British Rule'. But right from the beginning of the book, Gandhi is at pains to point out that it is not simply a description of events (although it does provide this), but the recording of his efforts to isolate 'truth' amid the chaos of normal existence.
What makes the book doubly interesting is that it was written before he became a famous world figure. He did not, after all, return to live in India until 1915, when he in his mid-40s, and he was not then the white-robed figure we think of today but a lawyer in a suit with a family. The salutary term 'Mahatama' (great soul) had yet to stick, and he was still able to travel around India without getting mobbed. Whereas biographical dictionaries devote most of their entries to Gandhi's political work in India, three quarters of the Autobiography is devoted to his youth and the 21 years of his adult life that he spent working for the rights of Indians in South Africa.
Wherever he was, though, the constants in Gandhi's life were his various experiments, the main ones being vegetarianism, celibacy, non-violence and simple living. Each of these were expressions of larger philosophical/spiritual concepts that he drew from Hinduism: brahmacharya; ahimsa; and aparigraha. No understanding of Gandhi is possible without at least having some awareness of these terms and what they meant to him.
Written originally in his native Gurjarati, the book did not appear in English until 1957. Though rather long, it is broken up into short, clearly titled chapters on the essential episodes in his life, and is one of the more gripping life stories you are likely to read.
Born in 1869 in Porbandar on the North-Eastern coast of India, Gandhi's father, Kaba, was a local politician who married four times due to each wife dying. Mohandas was the youngest child of his fourth wife, and the family belonged to the vegetarian Bania caste.
Clearly a bright student, in his teens Gandhi hatched the idea to go to London to study law. His caste elders forbid him to go on the grounds that he would be corrupted by Western living (he was literally pronounced 'out caste'), but his mother was willing to let him go on the condition that he vowed not to touch meat, women or alcohol.
Once in London, the author amusingly recalls his efforts to become an 'English gentleman', and although homesick and missing his wife and child, on the positive side he was able to cement his love and respect for English legal principles. His great difficulty was finding vegetarian meals, and he virtually starves for the sake of the vow. Luckily he stumbles on a couple of vegetarian restaurants and falls in with the Vegetarian Society, an organization which crucially provides the first opportunities for public speaking for a painfully shy young man.
Gandhi's vegetarianism goes from being a commitment to his family to a moral mission. He firms his belief that sexual and dietary restrictions are important for humans becoming free of animal drives and base concerns, and they parallel the emergence of his religious consciousness. 'Going without' provides a certain moral force that can put the universe on one's side. Though inconvenient, the practice of brahmacharya cut out the fluff from one's life and strengthened purpose.
Brahmacharya: 'control of the senses in thought, word and deed', particularly sexual; self-purifying conduct that leads a person to God.
A little-known fact of Gandhi's life is that he was married at 13. His wife Kasturbai was illiterate and uneducated. In the India he was brought up in, this arranged coupling was nothing out of the ordinary, and the two remained together and had several children.
Looking back, Gandhi was quite ashamed of having such an early marriage, a feeling compounded by his admitted lust for his wife. He came to believe that sexual union was not for the fulfillment of lust, but to beget children, and in his mid-30s, and with his wife's agreement, Gandhi took the vow of brahmacharya covering his sexual life. This vow of celibacy he believed to be the beginning of his flowering as a human being.
Though he found it very difficult at first, he notes that "Every day revealed a fresh beauty in it". There was a point where lust no longer had control over his thinking, and instead of being like hard penance, he could appreciate the vow's purpose to protect a person's body, mind and soul.
Ahimsa and satyagraha
The other concept to guide Gandhi's life was ahimsa. In Hindi, himsa means the perpetual destruction and pain of normal existence; the way of the world. We can, however, adopt an outlook of compassion - ahimsa - which requires us to do all we can to avoid the recurrence of suffering and aggression.
Gandhi believed ahimsa had to be central to a quest for truth, because any effort to achieve an aim would ultimately be self-defeating if it involved mental or physical injury to our fellow sentient beings. To attack another person, for instance, was like attacking our own selves, since we were all simply representations of the Creator.
But how exactly was this concept translated into Gandhi's famous political activism?
He discovered the principle of satyagraha - non cooperation or non-violent struggle - which represents the way of getting things done in the world within the understanding of ahimsa. Unlike normal conflict, in which we get inflamed by emotion, the action of satyagraha is based on a detached stubbornness that gains strength from the quality of its principles. Gandhi first practiced it in his various battles for the rights of Indians living in South Africa, and his success inspired a young African freedom-fighter by the name of Nelson Mandela. Later, the principle was used in the civil disobedience and non-cooperation campaigns against British rule of India, when military might gave way to unstoppable moral force.
Gandhi was passionate about the virtue of simple living, and despite being quite well-off in his barrister days, made a point of cutting his own hair and doing his own laundry. He could never get his head around the idea of servants, and when his ashram was established near Ahmadabad, caused considerable controversy by getting everyone involved in cleaning the latrines. This was a time when only 'untouchables' did this work.
When the family were leaving South Africa to return to India, they were showered with gifts of jewelry in thanks for Gandhi's legal and political efforts in the Indian community. Though his wife naturally wanted to wear the jewelry, such ostentation was against Gandhi's principles, and he instead put the pieces into a trust. Over the years the interest from this deposit was used to assist various community needs, and his wife later saw the value of the act.
This simple living philosophy was inspired by the principle of aparigraha, or non-possession. The principle incorporated the idea of trusteeship, or wisely utilizing goods for the benefit all. Though he had needed to set up two or three houses for his family, Gandhi came to believe that possessions only created the illusion of security and certainty, which in reality could not be provided by anything or anyone except God. He relates the time he was charmed by a life insurance salesman and took out a policy to protect his family in the event of his death. He later cancelled the policy, believing it to be a moral mistake.
Many of the early chapters in the book concern Gandhi's search for religious truth. In London and South Africa he flirted with Christianity, but could never bring himself to believe Jesus as the son of God. He is, however, much inspired by the New Testament, not surprisingly those parts which mention Jesus' not fighting back but preaching 'turning the other cheek'.
Gandhi also got involved in the Theosophical society, whose members were hungry for his personal experience of Hinduism. Realizing his ignorance of his own native religion, he read Patanjali and Vivekananda, and began his love affair with the Bhagavad-Gita, which he describes as a 'dictionary of conduct' that led him to most of his principles. He also made a point of reading the Koran, and among secular authors finds life-changing ideas in Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You and John Ruskin's Unto This Last.
Gandhi's spirituality was of the classic self-made variety, with each idea and faith carefully weighed in a search for Truth. It was clearly his belief that all religious traditions were expressions of the one God, and his last struggles in India revolved around the unifying of Muslim and Hindu points of view, an effort that would cost him his life.
Gandhi never liked the title Mahatma, as he did not think of himself as a great man. Far from being a trumpet-blowing exercise, his autobiography was designed to objectively detail his discoveries and his failures in relation to right principles and spiritual truth, and he never claims to have been perfect.
He was prepared to die for his cause, but such high principles did not always make for a neat reality. He was criticized for the discord and sometimes violence that came as a consequence of non-cooperation. Yet ultimately, Gandhi's satyagraha or non-violence policy was a triumphant success, and what began as a personal experiment has had enduring consequences for the whole peace movement. (In an age of terrorism, fighters for freedom or a particular cause would do well to remember just how effective Gandhi was without ever picking up a weapon.)
Whatever he thought of himself, it is clear that in a moral sense the man was way ahead of most of humanity. Our choice today is to look upon him as a singular individual whose like we may never see again - or to take the trail he blazed as our own. What Gandhi achieved in his experiments is now the spiritual heritage of us all.
50 Spiritual Classics, the book:
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