Here follows the review as was promised
Gandhi- A Spiritual Biography
Arvind Sharma’s biography of Gandhi is an attempt to look at the spiritual man behind the popular mahatma. When more than 400 biographies are already available in the market, one wonders at the emergence of another version. The concerns are soon relieved when we find that this book is not a hagiographic account of Gandhi’s life. Sharma has shied away and rightly so from depicting Gandhi as a saint or a mystic. Both during and after his lifetime, Gandhi has been judged for his beliefs on the concomitant nature of religion and politics, and this makes it vital to understand what exactly he intends. Gandhi’s firm belief in the Hindu doctrine of rebirth makes him a “spiritual being” though one involved in the karmic cycle and living a human life. Sharma believes that looking at Gandhi from this point of view makes it easy to understand him.
Sharma has divided the book into two parts. The first part traces Gandhi’s history in a chronological fashion, focusing only on those events which “strike a spiritual note.” The second part is largely a thematic narrative. Sharma’s efforts are to show that while Gandhi led India to its political moksha, he himself marched towards his own spiritual moksha. The justification is given when he quotes Gandhi as, “what I want to achieve, - what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha.” He has been successful in creating a distinct image of Gandhi as a spiritual being sincerely committed to God and Humanity.
Sharma starts by asking his audience an important question in the introduction, “What was the source of his (Gandhi) strength, even power?” This question is very significant and in an attempt to answer it, Sharma has laid down the underlying theme of the book. The answer in simple terms is “… the fact that he practiced what he preached.” How does this seemingly modest response qualify to form the theme of the book? Let’s first understand the import of the question fully. In Chapter 9, Sharma elucidates the experience of a Gandhian disciple – G. Ramachandran. In his account of Gandhi visiting to address a rally organized by revolutionary untouchables in the state of Travancore, Ramachandran said, “The crowd was chanting ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’ but soon as Bapu raised one finger they fell silent. He could control vast crowds, sometimes numbering millions, just by raising his finger. The magic of the man’s finger was what affected me.” Women courted mass arrests, men faced blows and kicks in their crotch, youth went unafraid to face lathis from policemen and still nobody retaliated in response. Such was the power and authority that Gandhi held through his dictates. Did these dictates carry an unseen higher power behind them, which made them command such staunch devotion from his disciples? Sharma answers that Gandhi’s “practice” of what he “preached” was but a part of his larger scheme of reality that had a vital spiritual angle attached to it. This larger spiritual reality - mainly consisting of his devotion to God, Atonement by self-sacrifice for the sins of others, and nishkam karma as is appropriate for a seeker - was responsible for the power that his personality held.
Gandhi’s understanding of religion was mainly moral and ethical in nature. He studied from several eclectic sources which strengthened his belief in an honest and righteous behaviour towards all beings. Over the period of time as his understanding of religion increased, Gandhi felt the need to submit completely to the Almighty. He held faith in divine interventions such as receiving unexpected monetary help for his Ashram in Sabarmati and in divine wrath as during the massive earthquake in Bihar during the untouchability campaign in 1934. He felt that it was vital to remove all distractions that clouded one’s vision and kept one away from God. It was important to live life as a humble offering to serve God and his creatures. Sharma explicates this in Chapter 11 and in relation to this, also provides Ramana Maharishi’s responses to the questions (related to Gandhi) that were submitted to him by Congress party members in 1938. Sharma quotes Ramana, “(Gandhi) has surrendered himself to the divine and works accordingly with no self-interest. He does not concern himself with the results but accept them as they turn up.” It could be seen that Gandhi lived in complete of awe of the Almighty. He realized that God was not an entity which could be perceived by our limited capacities. ‘God remains indefinable,’ mentions Sharma in regard to Gandhi’s understanding. Gandhi’s conception of God is also visible in his correspondence with Tagore when he agreed that nature indeed worked on the principles of universal laws, but God was the laws himself. For him, complete devotion to God meant living fearlessly and following the righteous path, remaining honest to oneself and straightforward to others. It meant humility towards all and an unyielding desire to undo the wrong, even if it demanded to walk alone.
Gandhi realized that for a seeker to find God, a life of full dedication towards him must be lived. This could be done by attending to the fellow men, even if it involved disobeying unjust laws. He was learning to harbour feelings of love and compassion for every creature. He developed the knack for differentiating a person from an act and said that it was the intention which was evil and not the man himself. At the end of Chapter 6, Sharma exposits further upon this feeling of humanism and mentions Gandhi as such:
“Men and his deeds 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 practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”
Caring for others and serving them also involved taking the burden of their sins upon oneself, atonement. In South Africa during his stay in the Phoenix Settlement, whenever Gandhi found out that a boy and girl had indulged in sexual activity, he would “sit in a weeklong fast to atone for their sins.” This is interesting as we see that Gandhi used the tool of fasting or self-suffering as much against his fellow ashramites and countrymen (in Noakhali during Bengal riots) as against the Government. Fasting was not only resisting the unjust, but also an atonement for the ills committed by his fellow beings. In regard to the British, his fasting was both a passive resistance and atonement for their sin of subjecting people to an unjust order. This shows his hatred toward wrongful intentions and deeds of all men alike but not men themselves and how he repented on behalf of them. In this whole process, Gandhi showed extraordinary fearlessness and detachment for his own life - qualities that he developed after practicing renunciation, severe diet control and a disciplined life. In Chapter 10, Sharma further elucidates this point by mentioning the words of Khuswant Singh, who many years after Gandhi died, recalled this in an interview from his memory: “At no stage did the man (Gandhi) give a damn about his life. He stacked it if he felt his cause was just. I don’t think the world has seen another person like that. We know nothing about our prophets: their lives are encrusted with myths and legends. But here was a man you saw doing what he preached.” Gandhi’s desire to self-suffer for the wrongs of other men infused his persona with the power to silence “crowds numbering in millions” just by raising one finger. Self-suffering gave him the means to appeal directly to the conscience of the oppressor. It legitimized his authority as the chosen and beloved leader of the masses.
It is as much unfair to blame Gandhi for inconsistencies in his views at different points of time as understanding him by enclosing him inside rigid moulds of a systemized theory. He was an ordinary barrister and not any philosopher, who happened to harbour a feeling of empathy for his fellow beings and over the period of time, as life taught him, gained a sense of justice. His lack of interest in theorising a model and more focus on leading through example is visible when he said, “My life is my message.” Sharma mentions in Chapter 17 that “The real difficulty in presenting the chief ingredients of the Gandhian philosophical worldview is not their development but rather the telescoping of his basic ideas into one another, probably because his theory was rooted in practice, and practice is multitextured and multilayered.” Gandhi paid special importance to certain terms like God, Truth and Non-Violence however he did not care to assign any fixed definition to them. Sharma mentions that ‘Gandhi’s ideas on God, truth and non-violence display signs of evolution.’ For Gandhi it was more important to be truthful to oneself in the present than to uphold an incorrect belief of the past.
Truth had a special significance in his scheme of things. Truth does not mean, as we understand in common parlance, as only telling the truth. Truth – Satya, on a much deeper level, means upholding a pledge. Sharma says, “One major way of upholding the truth is honouring one’s vows. Keeping promises is being truthful.” Gandhi’s understanding of truth had an element of ‘justice’. Steadfastness towards one’s words, vows, promises and responsibilities would stand for truth and their violation for the untruth, which we perceive as ‘unjust’. Gandhi training in his ethico-religious concepts taught him that “… morality is the basis of all things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.” He further mentions at a different place that “That is why my devotion to truth has drawn me into the field of politics.” In larger scheme of things, Gandhi’s religion was synonymous to a moral behaviour directed towards living a humble life and serving people by pursuing a path of righteous conduct. Throughout this process, his search for justice brought him at loggerheads with the political order of the time.
Let’s return to the most important factor which legitimized Gandhi’s leadership. Nishkam karma which was the main concept of Teach by example. Sharma mentions at one point, “Gandhi is one of those rare figures of modern times whose praxis gave rise to theory, rather than vice versa. In this respect, Gandhi presents a stark contrast to Lenin, who put Marxism into practice in a way dubbed Leninism.” There was an interesting incident, when a couple took their child to meet Gandhi for getting scolded for eating excess sugar but was asked by the latter to visit again after few weeks. Later when the parents revisited, Gandhi did nothing special but only asked the child to eat less sugar and explained that since he had reduced his own sugar consumption in past weeks, now he was right in asking the child to do so too. As Sharma rightly puts Albert Schweitzer’s thought, “Example is not the main thing. It is the only thing.” It is the element of action involved in his ‘teach by example’ which is unique to his person. He also gives ample scope of experimentation before holding fast to a conviction. His belief in vegetarianism grew slowly, only after he had reasoned with himself whether to exclude or not eggs and milk. However more importantly we observe that it was the action which preceded the conviction. Unlike reading scripture first and following their injunctions later, Gandhi was a creator who experimented first with his disciplines that later led to the formation of principles. Margaret Chatterjee rightly called him a saint of action.
Despite being a firm believer in Ahimsa, at times we find Gandhi’s behaviour contrary to this principle. One incident in South Africa when he reprimands Kasturba for her refusal to clean the chamber pot of an untouchable cheerfully can be taken into such consideration. Ahimsa is not only absence of physical force but also complete purging of metal ill will towards other beings. Gandhi’s behaviour in that incident can be rightly categorised as violent. But before justification, it should be seen that this incident throws light upon his convictions being rooted in his actions. Practice preceding theory. Gandhi understood that for a Satyagrahi to be able to serve the public with full devotion, family bonds and attachments were a big hurdle. He thus had to make his family hold up righteous action first before he could set up an example for the rest. His cold behaviour towards his sons and wife show the building up of a platonic love that he shared with all beings alike. His experiments in celibacy further corroborate these facts. While we fail to recognise similar tendencies in other mass leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, the uniqueness of such beliefs in Gandhi is courtesy to his exposure of spiritual thought, which is grounded in adopting the method of renunciation to achieve moksha.
Sharma has weaved an image of Gandhi as a spiritual man focused on living a disciplined life, detaching necessary material distractions and actively engaging himself into righteous conduct and just action for his self-upliftment and in the process, also guiding others for the same by setting an example. His experiments with the self, austere methods, love and compassion for all, even political enemies ascribe to him the necessary legitimacy as a beloved leader of the masses.