Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Story of My Experiments with Truth

The Story of my Experiments with Truth
 © 1927 Mohandas K. Gandhi
480 pages

Dover Press cover

The Story of my Experiments with Truth is a piecemeal autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi,  who earned acclaim by leading India to independence from the British Empire through nonviolent means. It includes only the early portions of his life, ending in the 1920s long before the most famous incidents of the Indian movement.   Gandhi establishes early on that he chose to downplay much discussion of his political activism in this work on the grounds that he had already written a history of his early struggles in South Africa, and that his later battles were so widely known they needed no further coverage from his pen.  Despite that intention, politics peppers this story of his life, as he viewed public service as inseparable from any other portion of his being, and especially from his sense of spirituality, the pursuit of truth. Politics was simply a means of acting on the truth, of proclaiming it to the world.

If not politics, what then is this autobiography?  Released in sections through a newsletter, it has no central focus;  his search for truth is at best a recurring theme. There's politics here, interwoven with the accounts of legal cases and the epic quest to find his ashram a hand loom (this merited two chapters), but his reflections on religion, spirituality, and ethics give the work most of its substance. The work allows readers to see the legend of the Mahatma slowly emerge from the life of a passionate Indian lawyer who seems beset by scrupulosity, constantly ashamed of his wretched failings, recoiling in horror from the great sins of marriage and drinking goat's milk.  Gandhi is not a moderate: after encountering a concept and deciding it worthy of an effort, the effort given is mighty: he adopts practices whole cloth. After being introduced to the concept of economic self reliance, he arranges for his newspaper staff to join him at a communal farm. When he became convinced of the spiritual and medical effects of total abstinence, he became celibate and began sleeping in a separate bed from his wife. Period. His ability to make radical changes in his life increased with practice: as a young man, avoiding meat seemed a terrible burden, one difficult to take up -- but a decade later, with much experience, he could declare war against his libido by refusing to engage in so much as an amorous thought, and developing a diet that wouldn't lead to excess 'interest'. (Meat and milk lead to sexy thoughts. Fruit, not so much. )  At the same time, he records some of his religious explorations, his reading of other sacred texts and comparing them to his own.  This was only a minor portion of the content, however.

Those interested in the formative years and experience of Gandhi may find this book of interest; it is also marginally useful to those seeking information about his South African years, in which he fought to help Indians relegated to indentured servitude reclaim their dignity before the law and before themselves.  It is not a cohesive work, however, and doesn't contain any extensive, in-depth writing on any given subject: instead, one sees the big ideas slowly developed over the course of his early life,  coming together year by year, a worldview given life one practice and one belief at a time.  Gandhi is at once inspiring and unsettling in the extremes of his life, dedicated to truth.

Related:
Nehru: the Invention of India; Shashi Tharoor
The Confessions,  St. Augustine (who was also given to literary self-flagellation)


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