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Gandhi: An Autobiography – The Story of My Experiments in Truth

I have terrible recall memory. It allows me to enjoy movies and books again, as well as conversations. It’s questionable how enjoyable it is for others. Because of my memory, I don’t dare brave a review of Gandhi’s autobiography but I can’t help celebrate a few of the items that really had me thinking.

I read Louis Fischer’s The Life of Mahatma Gandhi about four years ago. Reading about Gandhi is an overwhelming task. Those who knew him and have written about him are absolutely exuberant in their praise. Being the constant comparer that I am, it gives me a great appreciation for just how small I am. I am okay with that. Don’t call the self-worth police. Gandhi was just an overwhelming sort of dude. What I find most amazing about him is his personal appeal: people showing up in droves to hear him speak; people actually changing their views on very entrenched ideas; people often disagreeing with him but loving him in a very personal way; and his ability to do it all with such love. That’s a kind of gracious, self-interested power that I can actually get excited about.

Then I read this autobiography. I thought it would iron out the kinks in Fischer’s work, the apparent inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies that I couldn’t grasp. It turns out that that’s Gandhi – inconsistent and idiosyncratic; hard to nail down; hard to understand; sometimes, hard to agree with. The man was an enigma. He evolved much throughout his life. He went from sex-starved maniac (in his own words) to someone who expected celibacy of many, and later lightened up on celibacy for others. He went so far as to say that he would have had time and energy to teach his wife to read if he wasn’t such a slave to his libido. Really!? The term “experiments in truth” is a very consciously chosen, and accurate, title.

Gandhi stunned me at every turn, as much because I didn’t always agree with him as for any other reason. However, his capacity for love, leadership and ideas were endless. But two things stood out for me. Two of his thousands of pearly thoughts stopped me, requiring me to read them time and again.

The first statement, I think, is a fantastic image of or own tendency to judge harshly. While often, we are our own worst enemies and critics, too often we are also far too quick to criticize others, whether we know anything of their burdens.  Gandhi gives us a way to deal with this imbalance:

Only when one sees one’s own mistakes with a convex lens, and does just the reverse in the case of others, that one is able to arrive at a just relative estimate of the two.

I’m struck by the conceptual tool but also by how true this statement is of two people in a dispute. If we looked at the other person’s perspective with the understanding and zeal with which we justify our own, it would be very difficult not to change our point of view. I think about those two lenses all the time now.

The second statement goes more to the substance of his life’s work. Not all of us are navigating the difficult moral maze of civil disobedience on a daily basis. Still Gandhi’s words about when a person can justifiably judge laws rang true:

A Satyagrahi[*] obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which unjust and iniquitous.

This quotation explained clearly to me that we can only judge laws’ value if we follow them faithfully. I also found it a spot on reminder that you shouldn’t piss on anything until you’ve taken the time to understand it deeply. His language here, at least as it is translated, reflects part of his charisma. The words he chooses don’t alienate. They are collective words. They speak of us as one, both in our beauty and our error. To me the choice of words like iniquitous, rings of poise and conscious decisions. In short, I like it.

* Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”, in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha” itself or some other equivalent English phrase. – M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1928, pp. 109-10.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | Books, Doing it the hard way, Politics | , | 4 Comments