Sunday, April 05, 2009

Reflections on Gandhi's experiments with Truth

[My rambly attempt at an essay on Gandhi, from reading his book. I'm sure it can be further edited for brevity. And there are errors and inconsistency in tense. E.g. Should I say "Gandhi writes..." or "Gandhi wrote..."? Anyway, critiques are welcome.]

What makes a person do great things? And how are great things achieved?

Particularly, what motivated Gandhi? What did he think or do, that made him the respected figure that he is today?

I first learned about Gandhi from watching the 1982 movie starring Ben Kingsley. That was it. In the movie, Gandhi appeared Saint-like. An intellect. I thought his achievements were due to some special quality inherent in a genius.

But reading this book changed my perspective.

(Translated from the original in Gujarati)
Other title: Satyanā prayogo athavā ātmakathā
NLB Call No.: 954.035 GAN

I read the unabridged edition of a 1948 publication, translated from Gujarati.

Having read Gandhi's own words (albeit translated), it became clear Gandhi was an ordinary man. Who was painfully aware of his limitations and was socially inept for a long time. Who took a long time to find his self-confidence (in a seemingly serendipitous manner).

This book will show that Gandhi was just a man. A meek, naive and painfully shy young boy. Who learned and survived from his mistakes. Who in spite of his achievements still writes of his fear of being hero-worshipped.

What seems to have put him on the road to "greatness" was the cumulative effect of a series of unintended circumstances, where each time he merely tried to do his best. And not always successfully.

I'd sum up Gandhi's path to success like this:
  • He was painfully and utterly human in his wants and needs. Very much naive as a child and as a young man.
  • He learned his ways through trial and error, rather than though any innate talent or skill (in Gandhi's words, he didn't have any).
  • Main thing was he didn't give up. He had support from some friends and his family. But ultimately it was his own reflections on what was "truth" that he found and grew small measures of success and self-confidence.
  • These "successes" were ordinary and unspectacular by themselves, e.g. not freezing up in front of the judge when presenting his case; not having a court case thrown out.
  • Over time, though his consistent actions, he slowly build up a reputation and to a point where people trusted him and sought out his legal services.
  • That's when he gradually stumbled onto social causes and taking up cases for the ordinary man. And then finding himself in extraordinary situations.
  • When faced with those situations, he simply lead by example and achieved--again through the trust others had in him--to achieve extraordinary things.

Gandhi fought injustice with ideas. So much could have failed. He could've been just another person/ a crank, who went to jail. Reading the way he handled things - writing to station conductor for first class tickets - it was all so undramatic.

It was Gandhi's ability to make others trust and follow him that made the difference.

That trust was established and continued because of his steadfast principles and morals, and transparency in his conduct of life. He does what he preaches, and he remains humble in light of his achievements.

His work against the negative treatment of Indians in South Africa, and against the Apartheid regime, did not come about because he was smarter or had power. Or though his resolve alone.

I think the other key ingredient was the willingness of the powers-that-were to hear him out. That willingness was grounded in the momentum that gathered from the Gandhi's collective acts and responses.

Even before he took on Apartheid, he was already practicing the universal principle of Tolerance and openness towards other religions and beliefs (p. 295, he suggests a school for students regardless of religious beliefs and backgrounds).

The other thing that struck me was how little he wrote about the idea of Non-violent Non-cooperation in the book.

[One criticism of the book was that Gandhi assumed he was writing for readers of his day, rather than a text that long survives him. Then again, it could also be an example of his unassuming nature.]

Gandhi knew that individuals are for justice but may be forced to operate within unjust rules. And he submits himself to those rules.

He acted out of the box when violence was probably what people were used to.

Civil disobedience: a simple yet powerful idea. And a brave one, when you decide to disobey the authority in non-violence means, yet knowing that the other party may not show such restraint.

As I understand it, it's about consciously disobeying an unjust law without resorting to violence. And willingly submitting to the consequences of breaking that law (e.g. Fine or jail ).

In the Introduction, Gandhi explains why he agreed to write the book.
p X. "If anything that I write in these pages should touch the reader as touched with pride, then he must take it that there is something wrong with my quest, and that my glimpse are nothing more than mirage. Let hundreds like me perish, but let the truth prevail. Let us not reduce the standard of truth for even by a hair's breath from judging erring mere mortals like myself."

"I hope and pray that no one will regard the advice interspersed in the following chapters as authoritative. The experiments narrated should be regarded as illustrations, in the light of which everyone must carry on his own experiments in accordance to his own inclinations and capacity."

Gandhi writes that the title Mahatma (Great Soul) "has deeply pained" him.

Gandhi clarifies that it is a book documenting his observations of his seeking various Truths (i.e. his Life's experiments).

Much of what he wrote were on his reflections on matters like health, diet, and personal conduct.

I kept thinking about what Gandhi meant by his "experiments with Truth". About halfway through the book, it dawned on me that "Truth" is not just about facts. Truth is about thoughts and actions that lead to good, for oneself and others.

I thought the book is really about Gandhi's pursuit towards self- realisation. Oft times at the expense of his health, and also at times impacting on others (especially his wife and his children).

His philosophy about the conduct of life reminds me of Buddhist precepts like Compassion, Tolerance, Self-restraint (even Celibacy, as explained in the later chapters).

What is clear was how he never imposes his truth on others.

To the last, he was able to reflect how some of his experiments with Truths were inconclusive. Or that they turned out to be mistakes (e.g. his treatment of his wife, some aspects of bringing up his children).

In the concluding chapter, he wrote his pursuit of the truth is still on-going and he was not yet free of feelings of love, hatred, attachment and repulsion.

One reason for reading this book was to answer my own question of what makes a person do great things, and how great things were accomplished.

Gandhi epitomised three qualities:
  • Courage in pursuing one's personal beliefs
  • Non-violence
  • Constant review and questioning of own beliefs (also things like reflection on his duties as husband, his treatment of his wife, handling of gifts)
I think all three qualities must be present.

And introspection ensures truth, at least it may lead to it. For without genuine introspection, being blindly resolute in one's belief is merely ignorance.

The book is not a typical autobiography, as Gandhi clarified in the book. He downplayed much of his involvement. His sense of humility may even frustrate the researcher in search of the historical context of his life and times.

[There are certain aspects that he assumes the reader already knows. E.g. The callousness of apartheid, and the British rule --some would say "exploitation"-- of India, why the Satyagraha, i.e. non-violence movement].

It's arguable whether his is a life worth emulating.

Many aspects are, but I feel circumstances have changed. Some of ideas seem strange and contrary to our time (p. 230, his distrust of the concept of Insurance).

Gandhi's life and achievements is worth studying. But not to worship him as a hero. It's easy to do so (especially when one relies only on movies!) I think it's a human tendency to elevate people who have done seemingly great deeds to the Pantheon.

But his is definitely a life worth understanding.

The clear conclusion for me is that Gandhi was an ordinary human being. That it is humanly possible to achieve some semblance of what he has accomplished.

Extraordinary things are often achieved by consistently doing undramatic things.

That only increased my respect for Gandhi.

p.s. I've to thank my band-budddy, Adrian, for introducing me to this book. My RoughNotes, here.


  1. wah so long.... I thought you would at least believe in non-violence! HA AH A. Good post and I read it through to the last part.

  2. Oh yes, I do believe in it. The question (perhaps to over-read your statement) is whether I'd actually practice it, if faced with the same situation as Gandhi.

    In the context of Satyagraha, non-violence means "... vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself".

    Also, "... it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever".

    [That much was also clarified in the book].

    As I said, I BELIEVE in non-violence. Totally. [I think resorting to violence will only reinforce the vicious cycle of violence].

    What I'm less sure is whether I have the courage to practice it like Gandhi if I'm faced with the choices he had to make.

    Will I be able to exercise as much patience and compassion as what Gandhi defines the doctrine of Satyagraha to be?

    I probably won't 'turn violent' but I'm likely to turn apathetic. All the more, you gotta admire what Gandhi practiced from what he preached.

  3. I agree with what you said. I don't think his work can be practised in this day and age - mebbe in a different form.

  4. Hey nimbupani, actually in spite of what I wrote, I would remind myself to work towards true practice of Satyagraha.

    I reflected on your comment -- about how "it won't work in this day and age". I realised that could easily have been said in Gandhi's time. :)

    One must believe it can work, and work towards that. Otherwise, Satyagraha will never happen, I think :)

  5. No one today has a longing and desire so strong and deep rooted that he/she will be able to pull off something like Gandhi.

    He was a man of utmost perseverance and determination. What he did for our nation, we can just try and do it for our lives. Free ourselves from the slavery of work, stress and labour. Follow our dreams and at least make ourselves proud of ourselves.

  6. Anonymous9:41 pm

    Yes, i commend Ghandi for his dids, especially all he achieved through non-violent...the question still remains can i be as bold.


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