Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Review: Autobiography by Mohandas K. Gandhi

An Autobiography
Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Most of my reading since 1893 has been done in jail." This is just the sort of strikingly understated observations Gandhi includes throughout his memoir. I recently traveled to India with my wife and took this book along for pleasure reading and was not disappointed.

Most fascinating to me was learning how one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century was painfully shy well into his 20's, until he arrived in South Africa to work as an attorney; he had previously failed as an attorney in India--including the one case in Bombay that he took to court but was so nervous he could not cross-examine the witness. Throughout his entire life he admits to disliking small-talk.

I was also surprised to find how large a role his being vegetarian would play in the book. Actually the first 100 pages are dominated by it. His three years in England studying law were actually much more defined by his involvement in various vegetarian organizations than by his studies.

Gandhi's reported conversations with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are quite enlightening. Learning of the books that influenced him is equally revealing. Two authors stand out.

Ironically, Gandhi was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita, not in India, but from two Theosophist brothers in England. He believed Sir Edwin Arnold's translation--"The Celestial Song"--to be the best English translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

Another surprising influence were Tolstoy's religious works, which moved Gandhi to "more and more realize the possibilities of universal love." Gandhi writes that Tolstoy's book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, "overwhelmed me."

At one point Gandhi alludes to conflict between him and his oldest son. Gandhi and his wife had been given an arranged marriage very young, and for many of his son's early years, Gandhi was living outside of India, first in England and then in South Africa. In fact a movie has been made about their relationship--Gandhi My Father.

(Of course, I must also mention Gandhi, the film, starring Ben Kingsley, directed by Richard Attenborough, and the winner of eight Oscars.)

One more fascinating incident involves an early meeting of the Indian Congress Party in Calcutta. Even in his political organizing work in South Africa, Gandhi was careful not to demonize the British, but made special effort to try to reform the Indian community to be more respectable, while seeking fair treatment under the law.

Gandhi frequently praises the way Indians in South Africa were able to put aside their religious and regional differences when working on political campaigns. At the Congress meeting, Gandhi was dismayed at the filth in the latrines, so he volunteered to clean them--something considered beneath his caste--again demonstrating that he believed everyone was equal.

Memoirs should always be read with some suspicion, yet Gandhi's honesty about his personal missteps and foibles definitely lends credibility to his perspective. He goes on to tell of a variety of incidents leading up to the better known story of his leadership of the non-violent protests resulting in Indian independence from Great Britain.

I highly recommend this book!

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