Review: Mohandas K. Gandhi Autobiography

Mohandas K. Gandhi Autobiography
Mohandas K. Gandhi Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth
Mohandas K. Gandhi
Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY, 1983

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — April 3, 1998, 11:00pm

Mohandas K. Gandhi subtitled his autobiography, "The Story of My Experiments with Truth," according to translator Mahadev Desai. In it, Gandhi relates, as best he can remember, events from his childhood to later struggles in India. Written in large part while jailed, Gandhi seems to set forth his experiences as objectively as he knows how, and in the process reveals a portrait of a man wise yet foolhardy, steadfast yet wavering. A portrait of a man striving to further humanity.

This autobiography was written in Gujarati, and translated into English by Mahadev Desai. It is an "unabridged republication of the edition published by Public Affairs Press" in Washington, D.C. There are two editions of the book, both with the exact same text by the same translator. The other edition, proclaiming to be the only official autobiography of Gandhi, is slightly more expensive.

Gandhi’s autobiography is about memories of "experiments," or Gandhi’s experiences of trying to better himself and others. It gives some historical information, but assumes in many places that the reader is familiar with the facts of the situation being described. Gandhi therefore refers the reader to his other works on Satyagraha in South Africa, for example. He also explicitly states, in one circumstance, that everyone knows so much about the facts that he is not going to repeat them.

Gandhi does not seem to be writing for the generations later that will be interested in him, but rather for the admirers of Mahatma who wish to know more about their hero. It would therefore be useful to use either a biography of Gandhi or a history book or both as supplements — I for one am still left unclear on how Gandhi’s work effected India as a whole, for example. This autobiography is more of an inward explanation, a picture of Gandhi as Gandhi seems himself, an appeal to others to learn from his mistakes and to partake in his discoveries.

Late 19th century India certainly does not have a reputation for protecting the rights of women, children, and lower castes. Tolerance of differences was not popular. Gandhi in many areas is clearly seen to be progressive, even revolutionary. He relates his arranged child marriage with honesty, and rebukes the practice. Throughout his life, he fought against the treatment of "untouchables." With Gandhi, tolerance to other religions and belief systems was the rule. At many places, one wants to cheer him on as he seems to press for equality for all.

But that is not the entire picture of Gandhi the man. Just as Washington owned slaves, just as other great leaders had problems, Gandhi is in some ways a product of his times, and some beliefs and attitudes, however painfully blemishing, are certainly inevitable. However Gandhi tried to raise himself to a holy level of truth, hindsight reveals his shortcomings.

Gandhi’s arranged marriage as a child certainly put Gandhi in a ripe situation for making mistakes, something Gandhi readily admits in his account. But some things which to me seem quite incorrect are recounted as if they were usual, as if they were the correct position to take. Although renouncing arranged child marriages, the fact that Gandhi treated his wife as less than his equal is never questioned. Gandhi constantly refers, for example, of various time when he attempted, or at least intended, to teach his illiterate, uneducated wife, Kasturbai. Somehow, he never got around to it.

We can also perhaps forgive Gandhi for the scientific limitations of the day. While in some places denouncing superstition, he nevertheless had no scientific data to instruct him on, for example, the benefits or detractions of milk, meat, and vegetables. Gandhi at a very early point claimed that his vegetarianism was not only because of religious beliefs but also because of health reasons. While his abstinence from milk and other foods ranged from religious beliefs, vows, the treatment of cows, "scientific" books, and various other reasons, the scientific aspect left much to be desired. His belief in earth treatments abounded, and one cringes at the thought of him binding up a wound in a bandage filled with dirt.

What pained me so much in the book was not Gandhi’s limited scientific knowledge — he readily admitted that many remedies and ideas had no proof and were simply his beliefs on faith — but his attitude toward others. Gandhi searched for truth, and when he at times determined that he had found it, or part of it, the rest of the world was treated as though it were an extension of Gandhi. If Gandhi thought that he should grind his own meal, the boys at the school at which he was teaching would grind their own meal, too.

Once, his admirers in South Africa gave him a large amount of gifts as a going-away present. He decided they were simply unneeded, so he put them in a fund for the help of the community. That’s fine, but some of those gifts were meant for his wife, who had never had much jewelry. In her words, as Gandhi remembers them:

You may not need them... Your children may not need them. Cajoled they will dance to your tune. I can understand your not permitting me to wear them. But what about my daughters-in-law? They will be sure to need them. And who knows what will happen tomorrow? I would be the last person to part with gifts so lovingly given... You deprived me of my ornaments, you would not leave me in peace with them. Fancy you offering to get ornaments for the daughters-in-law... No, the ornaments will not be returned. And pray what right have you to my necklaces? (193-194)

Needless to say, the ornaments were returned, because Gandhi was "definitely of the opinion that a public worker should accept no costly gifts" (194). As might be expected by reading this far, Gandhi "never since regretted the step," and his wife "also [saw] its wisdom" (194). It seems that, ultimately, Gandhi always got his way with Kastrubai, even when he got to the point where he felt it necessary to purge himself from lust, ultimately refusing to even sleep in the same room with her for fear it would tempt him sexually.

At one point Kasturbai was seriously ill. Her doctor recommended beef tea and asked permission from Gandhi, but on Gandhi’s arrival he found the doctor had already given her some. Gandhi was "deeply pained," and the doctor explained that "so long as you keep your wife under my treatment, I must have the option to give her anything I wish. If you don’t like this, I must regretfully ask to you remove her. I can’t see her die under my roof" (289).

Gandhi thought it was his "painful duty" to consult his wife. Even though she had for some reason complied with the doctor’s recommendation before Gandhi arrived, her story now was suddenly, "I will not take beef tea... I would far rather die in your arms than pollute my body with such abominations" (289). With six men carrying her in a hammock through the rain, Gandhi removed his nearly-dead wife from the doctor’s house so that she would not partake in something that was against his beliefs.

After getting well for a short while, she again started getting worse. Gandhi at the time had been deliberating giving up salt and a few other things that did nothing but give "mere satisfaction to the palate." He therefore "entreated her to give up salt and pulses. She would not agree, however much [Gandhi] pleaded with her," and she noted that he had not in fact given up these articles. He therefore "got an opportunity to shower [his] love on her," and declared that he would give up salts and pulses for a year, whether she did or not. She was shocked, asked for forgiveness, and asked him to take back his vow, but he would not. "‘You are too obstinate. You will listen to none,’ she said, and sought relief in tears" (291-292). A poor way, in my opinion, to shower someone in love.

These sections indicate that at times Gandhi’s obsession for his "truth" seemed to cloud his mind to the conditions and feelings of others. While feeling humble and unworthy of praise, Gandhi nevertheless seemed to have some innate egotistical tendencies that constantly made questioning his opinion unthinkable, almost hideous to him. During his "experiments with the truth," many times those around him seem to become his guinea pigs. Gandhi "did not hesitate," for example, to sacrifice his sons’ academic education for "service to the community" (276).

To further illustrate the atmosphere of "tread softly around Gandhi," as it were, which seemed to follow him, consider that, "We were all vegetarians on Tolstoy Farm, thanks, I must gratefully confess, to the readiness of all to respect my feelings. The Musalman youngsters must have missed their meat during ramzan, but none of them ever let me know that they did so" (296). Indeed, this seems to be quite a typical attitude: quietly obey the great Gandhi’s wishes and don’t let him know that you have a problem with it — it’s better that way for everyone involved.

Gandhi wrote an autobiography in his own words, so honest and objective that one can see his good points and bad points, his successes and failures, his triumphs and mistakes. Reading this book has its highs and lows, because at times you feel proud of the central character, and at times you feel ashamed. Gandhi does a good job of showing us, not so much what happened (although I assume the work is more or less historically accurate), but what and why Gandhi thought and did everything. This frankness allows us to see the good and bad, the internals of a very wise and successful man, but ultimately we see a Gandhi who was limited by the same thing that limits us all: our humanity.

April 4, 1998, 7:24 pm I realized today that, even in America, women did so much as gain the right to vote until the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920. Taking into consideration the conditions the position of women in India and the world in general in the early 20th century, Gandhi’s attitudes towards his wife as presented in his autobiography should be reconsidered. While certain of his actions leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, as it were, as I sit in the last years of the 20th century, I’m sure that an examination of other sources, both on the life of Gandhi and the common treatment of Indian women at the time could very well put Gandhi’s actions in this regard in a different light.