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Editorial Articles


Issue no 27, 01-07 October 2022

Lessons from Gandhiji's Autobiography 'My Experiments with Truth' Prof Neelakanta Radhakrishnan I t was on 26th November 1925 Gandhiji wrote the introduction to his autobiography at the Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhiji titled his autobiography 'The Story of My Experiments with Truth.' Over the years, the autobiography has emerged as an unusual autobiography and one of the most read and translated books of India so far. It is also hailed as one of the '100 best spiritual books of the 20th century'. "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 may carry on his own experiments according to his own inclination and capacity…My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of Satyagraha, not to say how good I am," Gandhiji thus sums up the intent of his autobiography. 'My Experiments with Truth' - A handbook of self-empowerment This honest confession of Gandhiji also clearly reveals his readiness to subject his own life as the testing ground. His approach is that of a scientist who neither compromises truth nor forsakes his efforts to arrive at the truth he is searching for, whatever the other temptations be. He looked at the vast vicissitude of the philosophy of life not from the conventional angles of contemplation but on the hard realities and challenges of everyday life, with man at the centre and man and nature as the prime concern. 'My Experiments with Truth', is now a universally acclaimed classic noted for the honesty with which Gandhiji interprets his life until 1920. It has also attracted worldwide attention for the remarkable insights it offers, valuable lessons to each one of us looking for suitable anchors in our bid to survive in the present turbulent world. The personal experiences of Gandhiji have universal application and undoubtedly it emerges as the undiluted and honest record of one of the most sensitive humanists whose strivings for nonviolent alternatives continue to inspire generations of people who are convinced that Gandhiji cannot be ignored as a freak challenger. The Gandhian legacy has steadily emerged as part of not only humanity's discourses but also reminds humanity that the issues associated with Gandhiji are vital and we can ignore them only at our own peril. "What I want to achieve and what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end. But as I have all along believed that what is possible for one is possible for all, my experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open; and I do not think that this fact detracts from their spiritual value. There are some things which are known only to one self and one's Maker. These are clearly incommunicable. The experiments I am about to relate are not such. But they are spiritual, or rather moral; for the essence of religion is morality", Gandhiji stated in his autobiography. "While there is some substance in the argument that one has to be a Gandhi to understand Gandhi, it is an over-simplification of effort to miss the obvious", Gandhiji wrote in the preface of his autobiography. Over the years, this record of Gandhiji's perception of a part of his own life has become a masterpiece winning universal acclaim for the honesty with which the author interprets his life up to the first quarter of twentieth century. It has attracted worldwide attention as a classic of modern times for the remarkable insights it offers into the progression of human soul in its resolute march to relate itself to the ever-changing ethos in the course of life's journey. Surprisingly, Gandhiji did not conceive it to be an elaborate treatise. The autobiography deals with his life only until 1921. Many readers and admirers were unhappy that Gandhiji abruptly stopped his narration midway. Gandhiji in his own characteristic style explained in the last section "Farewel" as follows: "The time has now come to bring these chapters to a close. My life from this point onward has been so public that there is hardly anything about it that people do not know. Moreover, since 1921, I have worked in such close association with the Congress leaders that I can hardly describe any episode in my life since then without referring to my relations with them. For though Shraddhanandji, the Deshbandhu, Hakim Sahib and Lalaji are no more with us today, we have the good luck to have a host of other veteran Congress leaders still living and working in our midst. The history of the Congress, since the great changes in that I have described above, is still in the making. And my principal experiments during the past seven years have all been made through the Congress. A reference to my relations with the leaders would therefore be unavoidable. If I set about describing my experiments further. And this I may not do at any rate for the present. If only from a sense of propriety. Lastly, my conclusions from my current experiments can hardly as yet be regarded as decisive. It therefore seems to me to be my plain duty to close this narrative here. In fact my pen instinctively refuses to proceed further." Lessons for the present and future generations: The big question is: Do the 'experiments' conducted by Gandhiji hold out any message or lesson to the present generation or to the generations to come? Were they not personal, about him? Critics might ask. Is Gandhiji who tried to look at men and matters from an ethical, moral and spiritual angle, relevant in an age conditioned to a large extent by materialist and consumerist considerations and by a generation who is nurtured in the invincibility of the power of money? Or was he ahead of his time? If one looks at Gandhiji's autobiography from a nonstereotypical angle to identify the lessons Gandhiji's experiments offer to its readers, it unravels a veritable feast of new ideas, inputs and perspectives not only to each individual but to anyone who looks around for new tools and strategies for the moral reconstruction of our society. Gandhiji's approach is essentially that of a social scientist engaged in sharpening the moralfibre of every individual reminiscent of Swami Vivekananda's electrifying exhortation "arise awake and stop not till the goal is reached." The contemporary decay of vital human institutions and the callous indifference with which morality and ethics are viewed by the protagonists of unlimited growth are taking humanity to a cliff of what promise and consequence, nobody knows! The computer boys are promising humanity such wonders that would set even the most balanced brain on fire. In this jungle of madness and frenzied rush, which, in a different way, reminds us of the initial stages of colonialism, what is the relevance of Jesus, Buddha, Prophet Mohammad or for that matter any of the teachers of humanity? We measure all of them on the basis of our own needs, which are now by and large material and physical. Ethics, morality and spirituality all seem to have become things of the past. Still we gloat over such endearing concepts such as 'global human family', 'global village', 'warless world' and a 'world without boundaries'. Yes, physical boundaries we have been able to dismantle, but what about the mental and psychic boundaries which still prevent the rich nations from sharing their excess wealth with the less privileged humanity? It is estimated that with the diversion of one-third of what the rich nations spend on armaments, malnutrition could be wiped out in several AfroAsian countries and safe drinking water could be provided. But who listens? Gandhiji never took refuge in any scriptures or Shastras blindly and those who approach him with closed minds would see only their own visages and would miss the essential Gandhiji who was an uncompromising experimenter. Facing challenges and courting hazards in one's resolute determination: To experiment requires great courage, conviction, clear perception and a readiness to court inconvenience or even failure. The arm-chair critic does not have or require any of these attributes. Gandhiji described himself to be lost in the ivorytower of contemplation. Like an inspired experimenter he tested his ideas in the laboratory of his own life in order to gain insights and knowledge by living it and not repeating what others said or copying from others. The freshness of his ideas inspired millions and even those who came to scoff at him became lifelong associates and admirers. No major concept or practices of Gandhiji could be understood fully unless they are internalized in the crucible of human life. For instance, the concepts of 'Swaraj' as used by Gandhiji has many layers of meaning. Political independence could be described to be what it is only at a very superficial level. It means mastery over oneself, one's thought and action. There cannot be any type of freedom so long as a person or a society is unable to get rid of fear. The 'inner voice' Gandhiji often referred to as a guiding and regulatory power within propels and steers clear towards the right direction as a guardian angel throughout. It also opens a window upon the inherent spiritual power of every individual, which if awakened properly will have the amazing power to explode and propel one to unimaginable heights of positive action. Thus, one may find in the autobiography of Gandhiji an ocean of infinite wealth of ideas and inspiration in shaping one's life. The experiments conducted by Mahatma Gandhi offer crucial messages and lessons to the present generation and to the gene-rations yet to come. Gandhiji continues to be relevant in an age conditioned by materialistic and consumerist considerations. Professor Gene Sharp's evaluation of Gandhiji is very releveant to remember in this context: From the early 1920s till his death in 1948 the name 'Gandhiji' was often on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world as he challenged the then all-powerful British Empire. That empire stretched literally around the world - the sun never set on it, it was said. Millions of people of many cultures, languages, colors , and conditions were ruled from London. Mohandas K. Gandhi - often called Mahatma (great souled one) - held office in no government, and led no terrorist gang or rebel military army. Yet his intentions and actions aroused the millions of Indians, shook the Empire, and provoked both ridicule and admiration among people throughout the world. This strange man for nearly fifty years challenged, first, the European masters of South Africa, then, the British masters of India, and finally, even the basic tenets of orthodox politics. Gandhiji was the contemporary of Tsar Nicholas, Lenin and Stalin, of Kaiser Wihelm and Adolph Hitler, of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, of the last Emperor of China, Sun Yat Senm Chiang Kai Shek, and Mao Tse Tung. He bridged the span between the times when wars were fought by armies with rifles to the time when they were fought with atomic bombs. Philosophy for Gandhiji, as in the Indian tradition, is not a set of formulations, it is transformation of the spirit, soul and the whole life-style which will elevate humankind in order to live happily and shed rays and lights of happiness around. It surely does not mean anything to those who want to flourish in human misery and to whom individual contribution to better human life does not mean anything. Potential of human transformation: Gandhiji's autobiography as reference and inspirational source As pointed out by many, Gandhiji's autobiography in its own right has emerged as a book of all times. Perhaps what continues to endear this remarkable autobiography to common people and those who campaign for changes in life style in different parts of the world is the Gandhian stamp of honesty and truthfulness to every incident and development Gandhiji related in his narration. This Autobiography is thus a well-illustrated and inspiring journey of a common man who made a mark on the world through his actions and whose work and message continue to inspire present-day generation and those who are campaigning for changes in lifestyle all over the world in varying degrees. (The author is Chairman, Indian Council of Gandhian Studies (New Delhi), Founder, Gandhi Media Foundation, & General Convener: Gandhi Peace Mission 2015. He can be reached at drnradhakrishnan @gmail.com) Views expressed are personal.