The Story of My Experiments with Truth
Gandhi exercised a potent influence on our society through his own writing in English and Gujarati. His autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth is an imperishable classic. Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who loved English and felt more at home in it than any other language Gandhi wrote it in his mother tongue Gujarati but not in English. Mahadev Desai who was close to Gandhi and studied him at closer quarters translated his autobiography into English in such a way that one feels as if it was done by Gandhi himself, and it has a continuous influence on Indian writing in English. The translation, as it appeared serially in Young India, had the benefit of Gandhiji’s revision. It had the benefit of being revised later from the point of view of language by an eminent English Scholar.
An autobiography is by definition self-revelatory. It is the story of a person written by himself; and of all autobiographies, Gandhi’s is among the most frank and truthful. His autobiography is of great value to India, not only because it gives a measure of the greatness of the nation’s ‘Father’ but also because it affords some important lessons to India. Louis Fischer opines that throughout his life, Gandhi concentrated on the personal ‘one man’s day-to-day behaviour’. It is obvious that in his autobiography which bears the most significant second title of Experiments with Truth, he narrates for the education of his countrymen his life-long attempts to conquer and remake himself.
A God-fearing friend had his doubts when Gandhi expressed his idea to write his autobiography, and asked him, “What has set you on this adventure? Writing an autobiography is a practice peculiar to the West. I know of nobody in the East having written one, except amongst those who have come under Western influence. And what will you write? Supposing you reject tomorrow the things you hold as principles to-day, or supposing you revise in the future your plans of to-day, is it not likely that the men who shape their conduct on the authority of your word, spoken or written, may be misled? Don’t you think it would be better not to write anything like an autobiography, at any rate just yet?”
This argument had no doubt some effect on Gandhi, but he explained, “It is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography. I believe that a connected account of all these experiments will not be without benefit to the reader. My experiments in the political field are now known, not only to India, but to a certain extent to the civilized world. I should certainly like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field which are known only to myself, and from which I have derived such power as I possess for working in the political field. These will of course include experiments with non-violence, celibacy and other principles of conduct believed to be distinct from truth. But for me, truth is the sovereign principle, which includes numerous other principles. The truth is not only truthfulness in word, but truthfulness in thought also, and not only the relative truth of our conception, but the Absolute Truth, the Eternal principle that is God.”
He further explains, “My experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open. I have gone through and examined and analysed every psychological situation.” In doing so he refused to slur or pass over inconvenient incidents. “I am not going” he said, “either to conceal or underrate any ugly things that must be told. I hope to acquaint the reader fully with all my faults and errors. My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of Satyagraha not to say how good I am.”
Gandhi’s autobiography stands in contrast with that of the memoirs of George Santayana, the American philosopher. Louis Fischer finely sums up the contrast between the two memoirs in this way: “Santayana, the artist attempts to reconstruct a life and an era. Gandhi, the reformer, omits the cultural and historical background and dissects himself for the instruction of others.”
In his autobiographical record may be found, described in candid detail, the events and circumstances of his life from birth to the launching of the non-cooperation movement in India in 1920. In the last installment of the narrative, Gandhi writes, taking leave of his readers “To describe truth as it has appeared to me, and in the exact manner which I arrived at it has been my ceaseless effort. The experience has given me ineffable mental peace. I knew that I have not in me as yet that triple purity in spite of constant ceaseless striving for it. That is why the world fails to move me indeed it often stings me.”
Gandhi saw no point in continuing the story beyond 1920 because it was already known to the public, his life having been lived in the lime-light, in the continual blaze of controversy and political action. The later part of Gandhi’s life was in considerable measure the life of the nation as well. As he grew in stature, the nation grew in self-consciousness and strength and so he was verily the Father of the Nation. A chance reading of Ruskin’s Unto this last made a profound impression on Gandhi, as he had himself acknowledged in his autobiography,” Unto this Last made it clear as day-light for me that the second and third (right of earning) and (life of labour) were contained in the first (good of all). I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.”
The reader will be struck by the prophetic quality of Gandhi’s genius, his practical good sense and his love for humanity. His autobiography thus has inestimable value to Indians.
To quote the words of Nehru “Gandhi was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes, like a whirl-wind that upset many things but most of all the working of people’s minds.”
The most important lesson we owe to his autobiography is a lesson in truth. He preaches that we should pursue truth and maintain it in all its purity, both in private life and public work. He admits his own failings because of his utmost devotion to Truth. He confesses how in his childhood he had sometimes eaten meat and told lies to his mother, how a woman in Portsmouth moved him to lust and how he used to be a hard and tyrannical husband. In public life too he pursued Truth relentlessly. He would maintain the accounts scrupulously and he spared neither time nor pains to state truthfully.
The next lesson is the principle of Ahimsa. It was not just a political expedient, but a positive virtue fit to be practiced in daily intercourse. His autobiography preaches that ‘Ahimsa’ is an all embracing love for both friend and foe and that such love conquers more enemies than physical power. One should hate sin and not the sinner. He objected to individual English men and English women being killed by Indians.
Simple living is another of the lessons inculcated in Gandhi’s autobiography. His account of the way in which he became his own washer-man, barber and scavenger teaches us to simplify our lives. He had utmost faith in Thoreau’s principle of ‘simple living and high thinking’ and did put it in practice. He never possessed any costly ornaments. He created a trust of the costly articles given to him and brought up his wife and children to regard service as its own reward. He would admit the untouchables to his own Ashram. He rose above the meanness of discriminating between communities and castes. Besides lessons in humanity, his autobiography gives us lessons in social service. He puts forth the doctrine of Sarvodaya, or the common weal which is to be attained by social service and which goes to make for a kingdom of heaven on earth.
He was opposed to the tendency of irreligion and skepticism towards which the educated classes have been drifting, He affirms a living faith in God and he demonstrates how much faith can affect and transform life and lead to memorable consequences. Thus he was a humanitarian, a social reformer, a politician and a nationalist. He showed that soul-force is stronger than brute-force. He strove hard to kill the canker of communalism within the Hindu fold and also the canker of Hindu-Muslim disunity. He rightly foresaw that people of such grinding poverty and wretchedness as the Indians, could not improve themselves unless the more enlightened and affluent among them dedicated themselves to social service.
The key to Gandhi’s greatness perhaps lies in his being a practical mystic. He strengthened his character and wore himself away in service and sacrifice to please God, to obey His law. He gave in the twentieth century a remarkable demonstration of the power of religion and the enduring worth of spiritual values. He is indeed a saint among politicians and a politician among saints. He was often called a practical or political saint for the reason that he contrived to be at the same time a politician and a man of unquestionable integrity and saintliness of character.
His autobiography is however, very far from what may be called a spiritual treatise. Three-fourths of the work records ordinary happenings historical political and social, as also those on the personal plane. Bhabani Bhattacharya feels that “As a document of uninhibited revelation of his inner being, these memories must be considered as unique.
Bishop Frederick B. Fisher stated: “Here is an autobiography more captivating than fiction and a more revealing study of the human soul than I have ever read.” Another significant appraisal appeared in “Mahatma Gandhi” by Polak, Brailsford and Pethick Lawrence: “It ranks high among the world’s great books written in prison. In the frankness of its self-revelation, it recalls Rousseau’s Confessions. It would be hard to say which part of it makes the more fascinating reading-the early chapters which describe his school days, his adolescence, his marriage and his life as a student in London: or the absorbing narrative of his moral development and his struggle in South Africa. That story could not have been better told, and our only regret is that his account of his doings after his return to India is slighter. In this book Gandhi will live for posterity as the noblest and bravest character of our time.”
Reginald Reynold remarks:
“The Autobiography reveals a very ordinary man who became a saint by setting himself impossible standards and then spiritual power to live up to them.”
In recent years the book has been the focus of scholarly attention, especially in the United States. Erik H. Erikson comments on the “Passion, the poignancy and the humour in (Gandhi’s) use of English.”
A Gandhian scholar made a remark about Gandhi: “He was a man of action. He was much else besides. But he was no writer. His English was poor, his vocabulary inadequate. The Biblical simplicity attributed to his style is a plain myth.”
Bhabani Bhattacharya points out that “No one who has used the stuff of words on a massive scale has been as passionately purposive as Gandhi. No one has used words with such intense longing to be down-to-earth on the one hand and paradoxically to reach for the stars on the other.”
But Gandhi has plainly stated his objective “I write as the spirit moves me at the time of writing. I write to propagate my ideas. The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise …in the choice of topics and my vocabulary. It is a training for me. It enables me to peep into myself and to make discoveries of my weaknesses. Often my vanity dictates a smart expression or my anger a harsh adjective. It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds.”
Thus Gandhi set down in clear-cut lucid prose in English, besides Gujarati and Hindi it was inevitable that he wrote far more in English than in Indian language every shade, and every nuance of his thought.
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