1996-11-14: Autobiography [Gandhi]


The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1948?)

by Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), 1869tr. by Mahadev Desai (1892-1942)

Gandhi’s autobiography is a peculiar book. It is not a life story. In fact, it assumes you already know about the events of his life. It is instead exactly what the subtitle says: it describes his experience with using truth to influence the outcome of various conflicts and confrontations.

In the early chapters, Gandhi describes some of the influences on the direction his life took. It is difficult to tell if these were unusual or typical for someone with his cultural background, but he seems to have been unusually sensitive to the demands imposed by family loyalty. This sensitivity was later extended to include the Indian people and all humankind.

In some ways, Gandhi seems to have been very naive. For instance, his experiments with diet seem to have been dictated by chance discovery of particular writings (aside from the vows he gave his mother on leaving for England). The state of nutritional understanding behind his dietary decisions seems superficial in some cases.

Apparent inconsistency also appears, though Gandhi might have denied it. For instance, during the Boer War in South Africa, and during World War I, he worked to support the British Empire (with an ambulance corps). In principle, this might appear inconsistent with his belief in non-violence, although he insisted on treated the wounded of both sides impartially, and in practice primarily served the rebels in the Boer war.

Nonetheless, the overriding picture that comes through is of a man dedicated to seeing justice done to his people by the government imposed on them, first in South Africa and later in India. The only possible justice in India was independence, but he was able to focus on smaller interim goals, and so accomplished a great deal.

This autobiography is very unsatisfactory for understanding how the people of India perceived and reacted to him. For that more conventional biographies must be used.

A few excerpts:

From chapter IX of part IV, A Tussle With Power:

In the Transvaal, official corruption was a severe drain on the Asians. Gandhi investigated and brought evidence against two officers. The police chief, though sympathetic warned Gandhi that getting a white jury to convict white men for offenses against colored men was very unlikely. In fact, they were acquitted. However, the result of the public presentation of evidence was that the government could no longer keep them. He goes on:

I must say that, though these officers were so bad, I had nothing against them personally. They were aware of this themselves, and when in their straits they approached me, I helped them too. They had a chance of getting employed by the Johannesburg Municipality in case I did not oppose the proposal. A friend of theirs saw me in this connection and I agreed not to thwart them and they succeeded.

This attitude of mine put the officials with whom I came in contact perfectly at ease, and though I had often to fight with their department and use strong language, they remained quite friendly with me. I was not then quite conscious that such behavior was part of my nature. I learnt later that it was an essential part of Satyagraha, and an attribute of ahimsa.

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 practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.

This ahimsa is the basis of the search for truth. I am realizing every day that the search is vain unless it is founded on ahimsa as the basis. 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 we are all children 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.

This selection has two hard words: ahimsa and Satyagraha, neither of which is explained in detail. Ahimsa is apparently the concept of doing no harm to any living thing. Satyagraha is a coined word (in Gujarati) for the tactic developed by Gandhi and his followers in South Africa, the passive resistance against wrong actions. One of the values of reading this book, and one of the frustrations, is learning more about the meaning of these words. The illustrations of their meaning is tantalizingly, perhaps maddeningly, vague.

From the Farewell:

…It is not without a wrench that I have to take leave of the reader. I set a high value on my experiments. I do not know whether I have been able to do justice to them. I can only say that I have spared no pains to give a faithful narrative. To describe truth, as it has appeared to me, and in the exact manner in which I have arrived at it, has been my ceaseless effort. The exercise has given me ineffable mental peace, because, it has been my fond hope that it might bring faith in Truth and Ahimsa to waverers.

My uniform experience has convinced me that there is no other God than Truth. And if every page of these chapters does not proclaim to the reader that the only means for the realization of Truth is Ahimsa, I shall deem all my labour in writing these chapters to have been in vain. And, even though my efforts in this behalf may prove fruitless, let the readers know that the vehicle, not the great principle, is at fault. After all, however sincere my strivings after Ahimsa may have been, they have still been imperfect and inadequate. The little fleeting glimpses, therefore, that I have been able to have of Truth can hardly convey an idea of the indescribable lustre of Truth, a million times more intense than that of the sun we daily see with our eyes. In fact, what I have caught is only the faintest glimmer of that mighty effulgence. But this much I can say with assurance, as a result of all my experiments, that a perfect vision of Truth can only follow a complete realization of Ahimsa.

To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.

Identification with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification; without self-purification the observance the observance of the law of Ahimsa must remain an empty dream; God can never be realized by one who is not pure of heart. Self-purification therefore must mean purification in all the walks of life. And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of one’s surroundings.

But the path of self-purification is hard and steep. To attain to perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion. I know that I have not in me as yet that triple purity, in spite of constant ceaseless striving for it. That is why the world’s praise fails to move me, indeed it very often stings me. To conquer the subtle passions seems to me to be harder far than the physical conquest of the world by force of arms. Ever since my return to India I have had the experiences of the dormant passions lying hidden within me. The knowledge of them has made me feel humiliated though not defeated. The experiences and experiments have sustained me and given me a great joy. But I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.

In bidding farewell to the reader, for the time being at any rate, I ask him to join with me in prayer to the God of Truth that He may grant me the boon of Ahimsa in mind, word and deed.

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