In India, Mohandas K. Gandhi’s autobiography is seen as a Western preoccupation because autobiography writing is done by those in the West, not in the East. However, the work is a candid and humble account that illuminates the moral and spiritual side of an extraordinary leader. Gandhi’s book is solidly rooted in a historical context that spans forty years of his life in the India of the 1870’s to the 1920’s, without, however, being bound by such specificity. This is because it is not a simple chronicle but a quest for ways of attaining Absolute Truth. Interweaving details of his life, historical and political incidents, and his personal philosophy of conduct, Gandhi is able to present different planes of experience. Gandhi exploits his eclectic reading—the Bhagavad Gita, the Qur’an, the Bible, works by Sir Edwin Arnold, John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, and the Theosophists—in order to develop his own approach to solving social, political, and moral problems, particularly those issuing from imperial colonialism, the Indian caste system, and humanity’s own disposition toward corruption. However, Gandhi’s tone is never pompous, aggressive, or rigid. The story of his life is narrated dispassionately, for he wants to appeal to youth as well as to adults.
In the introduction, Gandhi acknowledges that the true purpose of his autobiography is self-realization in order to attain moksha (freedom from birth and death), the Hindu version of salvation. Accordingly, although he chronicles his social and political ventures, he tends to view them in spiritual or moral terms that are subjective but absolutely correct, for, as he asserts, he would not base actions on his beliefs if these were not convincingly justified to himself.
The Search for Absolute Truth
His quest for Absolute Truth begins with personal truth, for even as a teenager, he submitted himself to an examination of conscience, a scrupulous self-critique that refused to sanction any frenzied novelty of custom or direction in life—such as the eating of meat or imitations of Western practices. The crux of part 1 is Gandhi’s attraction to ideas of brahmacharya (self-restraint) and ahimsa (nonviolence) as ways of eradicating the canker of Untruth.
Gandhi’s philosophy is essentially religious, not in a dogmatic sense but rather in that it is a system of thought based on the idea of self-realization or knowledge of the self. His reading of the Ramayana (the story of Rama) and the Bhagavad Gita evokes his religious fervor, but his early exposure to all branches of Hinduism and its sister religions (primarily Jainism and Buddhism) as well as to Christianity, Islam, and Zorastrianism (through his father’s Parsi friends) gives him a grounding in tolerance. He sees that all religions are paths to God or the Absolute Truth, but when he reads the Manusmriti (laws of Manu, a Hindu lawgiver), he is impressed by its view that morality is the basis of things and that truth is the substance of morality.
Self-Control and Early Influences
Gandhi’s early dietary habits, shyness, and vocal reticence are initial indications of his disposition toward general restraint in thought, feeling, and conduct. These forms of self-control became preliminary modes of the renunciation he later practiced, and they are consistent with the Theosophical philosophy with which he came into contact in England, especially through Annie Besant’s Why I Became a Theosophist (1890), Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), and Madame Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy (1889). Like the Bhagavad Gita (which Gandhi regarded as his supreme guide to conduct), Theosophy advocates a denial or at least a discipline of the senses so that immoderate desire may be curbed, and with it, reckless passion. Renunciation, then, became the highest form of religion for him, a view for which he found support even in Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), where the greatest hero is the prophet who, in addition to greatness and bravery, exemplifies austere living. Part 1 ends with an assertion of those acts—such as supplication, worship, and prayer—that are ways of cleansing the heart of passions.
In part 2, Gandhi acknowledges three modern figures who made a deep impression on his life. One is the poet Raychand, or Rajchandra, the son-in-law of a family friend and a man of great character who possesses wide knowledge of the scriptures and a burning passion for self-realization. Though Raychand’s moral earnestness appeals to Gandhi, who regards him as a refuge in times of spiritual crises, Gandhi declines to accept him as his guru. (Gandhi’s belief in a guru is an offshoot of Hindu philosophy, according to which spiritual realization is impossible without true knowledge, and true knowledge impossible without a guru.)
The second modern figure of import to Gandhi is Leo Tolstoy, whose books on religion and moral action prompt Gandhi to increasingly realize the infinite possibilities of universal love. The third figure is John Ruskin, but Gandhi holds back from explaining his significance until later in the Autobiography.
Service and Sacrifice
The aim of self-realization is given paramount importance as Gandhi undertakes a comparative study of religions. He comes to believe that God, like self-realization, can be reached only through service. In part 3, this deep-rooted yearning to be of service to his community, nation, and fellow humans inspires Gandhi upon his next return to South Africa, where he continues to perform humanitarian work. He sees a need to take the vow of brahmacharya once he is influenced by Raychand’s question: Which is more prized, the devotion of a servant or that of a wife to her husband? Plagued by guilt over his own immoderate sexual lust and weak will in marriage, Gandhi practices celibacy to diminish desire. Once desire is gone, it becomes clear that a vow of renunciation is the natural or inevitable fruit. Therefore, in 1906, Gandhi takes the vow—to which his wife has no objection—though he has trouble making the final resolve.
In brahmacharya lies the protection of the body, mind, and soul. It is not simply a process of hard penance but a matter of consolation and joy. Because brahmacharya means the control of the senses in thought, word, and deed, fasting is as necessary as proper diet, though fasting does not stop temptation.
Part 4 is imbued with a quickened spirit of sacrifice. He dedicates himself to struggling with Indian settlers for rights in the Transvaal, but the spirit of self-sacrifice is tempered by the desire to create...
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Tenets for a Way of Life
An Autobiography is generally considered to be a major work, not so much because it is by a world figure from the East but as it shows the genesis of Gandhi’s personal philosophical tenets for a way of life and conduct with social, political, and spiritual significance. Although the philosophy is rooted in Hinduism, it is not doctrinaire or authoritative. Its strands intertwine around the concept of self-realization.
Gandhi was, of course, no academic philosopher or priest, but an individual who, though brought up on traditional Hindu practices, chose to select whatever ideas were useful to him for his self-development and in public service. Every time he came across a new idea, he tested it, and if it was...
(The entire section is 298 words.)