Gandhi: An Autobiography

The Story of My Experiments With Truth

Author: M.K Gandhi

Publisher: Penguin

Date Published: 1927-1929

Pages: 454

Gandhi succeeded in uniting India in a national movement and did as much in the first half of the twentieth century as any other single individual to change the course of history. In this classic autobiography, first published under the title ‘The Story of My Experiments With Truth’, he recounts the story of his life from boyhood and child marriage, through the first stirrings of non-violent protest in South Africa to the early phase of his part in India’s fight for independence.

I came to this book in what I suspect is the most common way for westerners – I watched Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’. I am not a person who is generally moved by stories about ‘do-gooders’, as they are usually characterised by idolising the subject beyond the reality of their own humanity. But there was something about ‘Gandhi’ that interested me. His advocation of non-violence and his ability to inspire others to risk their life for this ideal was new to me.*

‘The Story of My Experiments With Truth’ is about Gandhi’s physical, social and personal experiments in cultivating purity and removing any falsehood from himself and those around him. This is the emotional journey that led him to be capable of the public brilliance he is renowned for.  These goals and experiments are described in great detail, particularly his self imposed dieting, fasting and abstinence. Though the book loosely follows chronological events Gandhi often side tracks to explain concepts about his spiritual quest for Truth in great detail (especially in the latter half), rather than focusing on events of historical precedence. Truth is the central theme and the elusive guiding force of this autobiography. ‘Satyagraha In South Africa’ would be better for readers who are interested in a chronological recount (Gandhi even notes this himself).

In the movie, Gandhi was presented as a jovial, humble and fiercely determined person. This side is in the autobiography, but the real Gandhi (or the way Gandhi sees himself) is different in many ways.

Firstly, I was surprised at how relatively normal Gandhi was when he was young – I was particularly shocked at his nervousness and inability to publicly speak (he failed miserably in many of his first attempts as a Lawyer). The most telling factor of his difference though was his dedication to his family and his extremely strong obsession with the idea of being truthful.

The aspect of this book that I didn’t expect was its unintentional exploration of absolutism. ‘The Story of My Experiments In Truth’ is the study of a brilliant mind; and it shows how brilliance comes hand in hand with an extreme character.

Gandhi has true belief in his actions, particularly his idea of God and Truth. Thankfully his obsession was directed in a way that benefitted mankind, yet it was sometimes scary to behold some of the thought processes and actions this conviction caused in private. He can be very obstinate, particularly in the face of modern medicine, and indulged in a great deal of experimentation that could have had deadly consequences based on his gut instincts and faith.

For instance, when they were traveling between India and South Africa his son broke his arm. A doctor bound it on the boat, but told Gandhi to seek proper medical advice once ashore. Instead Gandhi decided to use the ‘earth method’ (binding the affected area with mud inside the bandage) and didn’t see the doctor.

Another example of this is when his son catches typhoid. Gandhi doesn’t allow him to eat milk or eggs, despite recommendations from the doctor that he would likely die if he were not allowed (a similar situation occurs after his wife has an operation). Despite this Gandhi is adamant that they should not be allowed animal products. Gandhi also seems far more concerned with his reputation and his perception of God’s will than his son’s life. It brings into question the extremities of faith and whether personal honour can be inevitably selfish. Also, in an extremely perplexing turn of hypocrisy Gandhi is later put in the same position, but relents and accepts goat’s milk (apparently he had an important Lawyers case to see through. I’m sure that his wife and son didn’t have anything important to do though).

On the subject of his wife Gandhi is contradictory. At times he can write passages of stunning progressiveness:

‘…it was a time when I thought that the wife was the object of her husband’s lust, born to do her husband’s behest, rather than a helpmate, a comrade and partner…’

and then two paragraphs down can write this:

‘Kasturba herself does not perhaps know whether she has any ideals independently of me. It is likely that many of my doings have not her approval even today. We never discuss them, I see no good in discussing them. For she was educated neither by her parents nor by me at the time when I ought to have done it. But she is blessed with one great quality to a very considerable degree, a quality which most Hindu wives possess in some measure. And it is this: willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, she has considered herself blessed in following my footsteps, and has never stood in the way of my endeavour to lead a life of restraint.’

(As a side note, I would love to read an autobiography from Kasturba’s point of view).

The focus on his ideals sometimes causes neglect of his family in favour of the wider community. For instance, Gandhi would rather spend a couple of hours a day volunteering at the local hospital than educate his children and wife – though it is debatable which is the more moral action. This is a perplexing and interesting theme in the book – is it moral for a person to spend so much time fixated on their own family? Or is it selfish for Gandhi to seek the self gratification of community service when home life is left wanting?

It is because of these seeming contradictions that the autobiography is engaging. Sometimes Gandhi’s ability to make mistakes (indeed, to be human instead of Christ like) endears you, other times it makes you want to kneecap him, especially when he has such high demands of perfection in others. There was a particular scene where he physically punished a student during a class, which was quite amusing, because it left Gandhi, the uber pacifist, confused and irritated over his use of force to solve the problem.

The autobiography is also a book capable of breathtaking insight. It is in essence the road less travelled. Gandhi’s life is that of an excercise of the human will trying to control the darker side of our nature. He has a decency that disarms the tendency in man to be mean natured to other people, which he has grown through a diligent dedication to the principles of simplicity, honesty and charity. Despite my criticisms of his extremism, the results of his life practice are truly astounding – this is a man who would work without remuneration as a lawyer, fearlessly nurse people infected with the plague and would rather die than take a life. It is an invaluable in look at the evolution of human psyche – perhaps the next step for human consciousness. I have to admit, many of his demands repulse me because of my baseness. The idea of giving up sex, food and every sensual pleasure is not only beyond me physically, but also even imaginatively. It is debateable whether giving up these passions is the key to becoming more humane or whether it is one method amongst many.

I don’t know if I could really recommend this autobiography to other people as ‘a good read’. It has a lot of faults that will stop a normal reader, or even a fan of Gandhi, from eating it up. It is not as brilliantly or charismatically written as other autobiographies, such as Malcolm X. Gandhi has a relative ease with words, but his style is sometimes a little jarring. There is a sense of ‘I went here and then I went there’. Other people are somewhat faceless and apparently everyone tends to speak and behave in a manner exactly like Gandhi. Because of this, the long lists of names are confusing and its very easy to forget who people are.

Yet despite all this I feel that the book has a lot of value, not so much in its immediate content, but in the way it causes you to think afterwards. Ever since I read it, I often ponder many of his theories and questions, particularly on vegetarianism and the limiting of sensual fulfilment. I wonder if he is correct and whether I could be capable of fulfilling any of his demands – or whether I would want to.

 ♥♥♥ – 3/5

* I am aware that Gandhi is certainly not the first to espouse teachings of non-violence, Jesus being the most prominent example of this ideal in western consciousness. I refer to it being a ‘new’ concept in action. I don’t know of any person or group in recorded history who has used this ideal in reality, rather than it being an abstract gaol. Most Christians can’t even stand properly administering the golden rule, as evidenced by their treatment of homosexuals, let alone the ideal of turning the other cheek. The idea of a Christian allowing themselves and their family to be brutally murdered by the government rather than defend themselves physically seems fanciful.

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4 Responses to Gandhi: An Autobiography

  1. silverseason says:

    Thank you for your insightful review of the Gandhi autobiography. All those who make Gandhi into a sort of plastic saint should read it for the sense of a sometimes confused, usually compassionate and occasionally arrogant human being. I used the book extensively in a course I gave on Gandhi and the effects of his movement: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/courses-and-presentations/gandhi-and-the-indian-summer/.

    I detected in Gandhi a negativism about the human body and its pleasures that sometimes repelled me, I also found a desire for power over others, at least as exercised over his wife and family. When he, without consulting with his wife, embraced celibacy he did it for his own devotion and focus and seemed to think he was also doing her a favor.

    • goldnsilver says:

      Thanks for reading my review, I always value your opinions. I’ve read the post that you linked, but I’ll wait to comment once I’ve had time to watch the slide show. It’s really awesome that you presented a class at lifelearners; it takes guts to do that! Do you present many classes?

      I think it’s always important to read about the humanity of every great man or woman, because it is their achievements despite their failings that makes them awesome to behold.

      And yes, the whole ‘by the way, we won’t be having sex again’ thing Gandhi did to his wife was pretty shocking. However, this was before contraception and medicated birth, so perhaps she was breathing a sigh of relief too. Also, I get the impression from Kasturba that she was affectionate and loving of Gandhi, but pretty ‘meh’ about him sexually (which is as much as one should expect to someone who was forced to marry you). Something tells me that Gandhi wouldn’t have been especially hot in bed.

  2. Came here from Feministe. Hi!

    I did my undergrad work in South Asian Studies and… Oh dear. Oh dear. It does my heart good to see people questioning the hagiographies of history.

    I’m going to do something that used to get me into huge trouble back in the day and suggest looking at another set of myths and legends. M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, is always portrayed as the nasty anti-Gandhi who ripped the subcontinent apart out of either spite or communal hatred. (Or was he the true warrior of Islam who created the land of the pure to save us from the ravening Hindu hordes? I can never remember which archetype is which.) Have a look at his personal life and views, though, and things start to get a lot murkier. Check out Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity by Akbar S. Ahmad. There’s also a movie the same guy directed with Christopher Lee as Jinnah (which is kind of facepalm, but he plays the part nicely) that shows a lot of the weird politics and personalities of the day.

    Here’s a clip from the movie that kind of sums it up.

  3. goldnsilver says:

    I’ll add your recommendation to the ‘To Read List’ (I actually have an official one on this site. Sad, I know). Thanks for suggesting it, I’m always looking for interesting things to read.

    And ‘hagiographies’! That’s a new one, I had to look it up to find out what it meant. It is a good description of the depiction of most civil rights figures in history – they seem to be glorified, where as they the individual was all to aware of their frailties and humanity.

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