Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi

"The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers."

Encouraged by friends and colleagues to share the history of his movement, Gandhi began his autobiography as weekly installments which were published in his journal, Navjivan, and also, Young India.  Writing in jail, Gandhi wanted to communicate spiritual and moral truth that he has discovered through personal experiments and he shares the impetus for his search:

"But one thing took deep root in me --- the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.  Truth became my sole objective.  It began to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been ever widening."

As many other biographers have done, Gandhi begins his narrative with his childhood, sharing his many childish misdemeanors such as smoking, drinking, stealing, etc.  Married at the age of thirteen, Gandhi condemns this practice, characterizing his desire for his wife as lust, feeling in bondage to his passions, which he laters frees himself from:

" ...... (I) realized that the wife is not the husband's bondslave, but his companion and helpmate, and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows ---- as free as the husband to choose her own path ...."

Gandhi in South Africa
source Wikipedia
As a young man, Gandhi travelled to England to study to become a lawyer.  Upon returning to India, and being bored with his opportunities, he accepted the position of legal advisor on a large law suit in South Africa. With regard to his vocation, Gandhi had sharp insights, and with a moral bent, turned a perhaps mistrusted profession into a respected appointment:

"I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.  The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases.  I lost nothing thereby --- not even money, certainly not my soul."

"The symbol of a Court of justice is a pair of scales held evenly by an impartial and blind but sagacious woman.  Fate has purposely made her blind, in order that she may not judge a person from his exterior but from his intrinsic worth."

In spite of being an unimposing figure, Gandhi's greatness came not only from his desire for unity among people and serving the poor, but also his unique ability to see situations from a different perspective.  What the world would see as a weakness, Gandhi often saw as a strength:

"I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact, I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage.  My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure.  Its greatest truth has been that it has taught me the economy of words.  I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts ....... Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth ........  My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler.  It has allowed me to grow.  It has helped me in my discernment of truth."

With his Christian and Muslim friends, he noted the differences, but instead of attempting to erase those differences, he chose to celebrate them, focusing on the positive aspects that those differences brought to light:

"Yet even differences prove helpful, where there is tolerance, charity and truth."

His work in South Africa spanned decades, as he fought for the rights of the Indians there, after encountering race prejudice himself.  Many of his political views became entrenched with his South African experiences, and his religious views grew as well.  He became known for the employment of satyagraha, or non-violent protest and elucidates how it played out in his life.  The reader follows Gandhi through the Boer War and into World War I and his return to life in India.  He began to see the detriment of British colonial rule and worked hard to make his country ready for the independence that he foresaw.

His humility and his concern for his fellow-man resonate from the pages, his wisdom bringing unique insight.
"Man and his deed are two distinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked always deserves respect or pity as the case may be.  'Hate the sin and not the sinner' is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world ............. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.  For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite.  To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world."

His desire for truth through the restoration of broken relationships and systems resonated throughout his work and his life.

What really spoke to me in this biography is that Gandhi, in spite of claiming a natural affinity with all races, also worked hard to develop traits within himself that would foster unity, empathy, patience and love towards others.  While it was a conviction within himself to cultivate positive behaviour, it was done with great effort and sometimes at a cost.  It is a tragic irony that Gandhi's life came to and end with an act of violence, but perhaps the man himself would turn that perception on its head and simply say that it was further evidence of our need of the very thing which, at times, seems out of reach.  Yet as long as we are striving for peace, it is perhaps the striving that truly matters.

"I have found by experience that man makes his plans to be often upset by God, but, at the same time where the ultimate goal is the search of truth, no matter how a man's plans are frustrated, the issue is never injurious and often better than anticipated."


  1. Bravo! Very nice analysis.

    Thanks for reading this tome with me.

    1. Awk, this one was hard to compile. I kind of lost steam with the review but loved reading the book. However, I think the next biography is going to be an even harder review. Yikes!

  2. It's hard to comment on a (auto)biography that I've never read. We always learn something about the person that 'resonates' , be it positive or negative. Was the book easy to read...did it take little effort? Was the book balanced b/t the personal and philosophical? Great review....

    1. It was a very inspiring read, but, of course, there were certain cultural and religious differences that made it difficult sometimes to get your head around. Gandhi was so convicted about using his wife for sex, that he decided to become celibate; his diet and reasons for it were also very different. Yet he has such insightful wisdom and is so honest and forthright that you can't help but be enamoured with him. In spite of my lackluster review (I think), it was a wonderful biography.

  3. This sounds very interesting. I read some articles (I think some time in the autumn) suggesting Gandhi could be racist and sexist (eg Was Mahatma Gandhi Racist? from the BBC and What did Mahatma Gandhi think of black people? from the Washington Post) and I did want to learn a little more about the man. I'll look out for this autobiography and do a little wider reading one of these days! My TBR pile is mounting... :)

    1. Thanks for bringing this up, O. The articles made my blood boil a little, but I'll try to answer calmly. ;-)

      I read both articles and both, particularly the BBC one, seem to put a spin on certain things Gandhi said to convey what they wished to, and also looked at an historical situation through modern eyes. First of all, I'm willing to believe that Gandhi separated the Indians and the blacks in his mind in South Africa. He was very passionate about his country and his people, wherever they were. And yes, he campaigned for their rights. But just because there was a mental separation, doesn't mean that he disliked blacks. I felt that he saw how blacks were treated, related it to how Indians were treated, and felt both were wrong but, as an Indian, chose to address the Indian side of the problem.

      With regard to his description of the "indolence and nakedness" of blacks in the Washington post article, in the first case seems possible, in the second ludicrous. Gandhi would have condemned indolence from anyone (even his own countrymen, and he did) not only blacks. And as to nakedness, he, at times, was nearly naked, so the claim doesn't seem quite right. As for the "Satyagraha" or passive resistance, Gandhi mentions in his book that people questioned some of his decisions, feeling that they didn't fit with his philosophy and he explains his reasons. One thing with Gandhi, he didn't prescribe to a set religion or philosophy. If he felt something was wrong according to his conscience, he wanted to change it.

      Personally, I think there are a number of "authors" trying to cash in by dirtying up famous people's reputations with their "new findings". It's cheap, disrespectful and rather contemptible. I prefer to read an autobiography and then go from there to biographies that are close in time to when the person lived. Criticism from the person's lifetime is much more likely to contribute positive insight as their motivations are much more personal. New biographies with new information can sometimes tend to reek of ulterior motives that include dollar signs.

      Not to say that Gandhi was perfect. Like us all, he couldn't be. But I think he was a person who tried to better himself every day and through that, better life for his neighbours and countrymen. Really, how many people can claim to do that? And all that can be expected of a person is that he tries, otherwise we can all be condemned for a number of offenses. It's sad that we have so little understanding for people nowadays. That wasn't always the case.

    2. Interesting stuff, thanks for the detailed response :) Obviously I can't reply much in return as I haven't read the biography *or* the criticism beyond the news sites! But thanks for replying, and I shall endeavour to read this autobiography :)

      And I do agree with what you say about the trend of dirtying up reputations. Recently, it seems to me, the newspapers ADORE a dark spin on books / authors / political figures / celebrities. That said, in the UK, some political figures and celebrities do very much deserve the dark spin, I'm not making comments about Operation Yewtree and Operation Hydrant, that's a whole other issue. Yewtree and Hydrant aside though, there is that trend. I have in mind a gleefully headlined "The dark side of Kenneth Grahame" article which came out not that long ago...

    3. There are certainly some great biographers/historians out there. David McCullough, Christopher Hibbert, Barbara Tuchmann are a few who immediately come to mind. But there is also "the sensationalist" who often aren't invested in the person they're writing about but only see them as a vehicle to profit, and have no compunction about slurring their name by twisting their words, taking what they said out of context, and even sometimes inventing things that there is no reasonable evidence for.

      I didn't know anything about those two "Operations" but after looking them up, I was rather shocked. What a world we live in! I don't know enough about them to comment though. But your reference to Kenneth Grahame is closer to what I'm talking about. Why do we need to know these details about what happened in his life? From knowing, for me, it put a stain on my enjoyment of his fiction, which had brought an innocence and joy to my childhood. In essence, knowing took away a little of the pleasure of life for me, instead of adding to it. Which really shows how connected we can be with each other; what affects one can affect others. And that's why I think we have to be very careful how we handle this type of knowledge. Why do we deserve to know everything about everyone and is it really good for us? Certainly it was good for perhaps Grahame's relatives or friends to know about this aspect of his life, but not someone wholly unrelated to him as me. And if I have a desire to know such things, it really can only be seen as a sort of weird voyeurism. It doesn't help me to know, and it doesn't help him. So I just don't get it.

    4. I think one (of the many) interesting aspects that came out of Operation Yewtree and Hydrant was how gleeful some of the media were. It was no longer a disturbing investigation but entertainment. Like, the press would say "A man aged [whatever] has been arrested in connection with Yewtree" and everyone was excited to guess who it could be. The enjoyment of it, forgetting what it *actually* meant wasn't surprising though. There are real cases such as Saville and Harris - people's childhood idols destroyed (which is Saville and Harris' fault, obviously), but then it seems like some were saying "Right, what else can we destroy?" All that's not so new though, some take pleasure in digging up the dirt and bringing the darkness to light. There are legitimate targets, but then as you say there's the voyeuristic element of seeing others fall. So in relation to Gandhi, I suspect it was of the same mentality - "Hey, that guy you love? He was AWFUL! Hurrah!" :)

      By the way, I don't really remember the Kenneth Grahame article but it certainly was nothing sinister, it was to do with the death of his son.

    5. Oh yes, the press! They have such a poor reputation now, although I suppose there must be some good journalists. However the pressure is there to get "the story", right, and everyone is being fed sensationalism, is getting a taste for it, so a good journalist must struggle against this accustomed "diet". It's sad to see a profession that is important and could really do some good become morally bankrupt. I haven't checked it out but I'm sure they are some independent agencies doing a good job ...... I hope ....

      I was talking about Kenneth Grahame's son. We really don't need to know that as a public. It was very sad and I'm sure he paid for it. I thought there was no need to dredge it up. It was in bad taste.