It is over 60 years since Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – the man referred to as Mahatma, Gandhiji or simply Gandhi – died, and it is over 80 years since the publication of his best-known book: ‘An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth’. I picked up a copy for just Rs 30 thanks to an India-wide subsidy from Navajivan Trust – the much more flowery English version, unfortunately, as I am unable to read Gandhi's more austere Gujarati – and having worked my way through it slowly, it’s clear to me that his thoughts and intentions are still very much relevant.
In covering his life from birth in 1869 until the year 1921, Gandhi opens the world up to all of his greatest neuroses and moments of impure thought. He shows that he has faults and insecurities just like the rest of us, and the book is largely focused on demonstrating the methods by which he solidifies his belief system (as evidenced by the title). In these times of 24-hour news television, violent guerrilla protests, racial/caste prejudice and widespread corruption, here are five lessons I think we can learn from Gandhi’s autobiography.
1. Introspect. Throughout the years covered in the book, Gandhi interrogates and investigates himself. He wonders why he dislikes bathing the sores on his father’s feet. He feels certain, for a while, that in order to become powerful one must eat meat. He questions whether his all-natural earth treatments are effective. On almost every page, he remains convinced that he hasn’t yet everything figured out. It is through this constant self-questioning that he attains a deeper understanding of himself and crystallises that understanding into a way of life. With so many distractions around us today, it is surely valuable to sometimes consider why we do what we do – especially the things we take for granted – and then consider whether we have good reason to keep doing them.
2. Have principles, but be open. Above all else, Gandhi pursues truth. This is his driving force, his principle – to strive for truth and honesty regardless of anything that stands in the way. As such, he demonstrates a strength of purpose that makes him both immediately trustworthy and a source of fascination for those around him. However, his most chastening realisations inevitably come about because of an overly concrete approach. When he sees another way by which truth could be attained, he humbles himself and resolves to remain open to possibilities outside his field of vision. And where his beliefs change, he chooses not to disown his former self; rather, he retains a sense of who he used to be and the roads taken to get where he is now. We might look back on embarrassing or depressing moments in our lives with an urge to erase them altogether, but perhaps it is better to open our minds to our pasts in order to be more open to a positive, evolving future.
3. Agitate. We all surely have learned from Gandhi that protest does not necessarily mean violence, but neither does his satyagraha method imply meekness. If he sees one person or group of people doing wrong by another, he agitates against the wrongdoer(s) where possible. All of us see insults and persecutions against other people – and against ourselves – every day, but what sets Gandhi apart is the fact that he feels insults against others as if they are against himself, whether in South Africa fighting extra taxation of 'coolies' or in India 'washing away the stain of indigo' from thousands of suffering agriculturists. In particular, if a powerful person abuses their power, he calls them to account – without resorting to desperate measures. We need healthy, positive agitation as much as ever.
4. Make fun of each other. At one point, Gandhi writes of his companions during the Champaran enquiry and their 'curious ways of living' – extra servants, separate kitchens and kitchen staff, meals at midnight. His response? Unceasing ridicule. There are other similar occasions in the book in which Gandhi simply mocks his friends and associates until they come around to his point of view. A little good-natured ribbing never hurt anyone: it keeps us humble, and we might all achieve our ends more happily and easily if we go about our business with a sense of humour.
5. Remember that we are all human. The overarching lesson that I get from ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ is that Gandhi was just a man, no better than the rest of us. The difference is that he devoted his time on Earth to improving himself and the lives of everyone he touched. He frequently notes his frustration at having to spend hours giving darshan to pilgrims, time he felt could have been invested in more valuable activities, and at the title ‘Mahatma’ that had been conferred upon him. In one chapter, he looks back on his experience visiting Kashi Vivanath Temple in Varanasi, long before he was so well-known that he could not mingle with a crowd. A sense of glee is palpable in his words as he recalls a priest angrily rejecting his offering, a pie, and telling him he will go straight to hell. Gandhi's truth shines in these moments: true to his principles, true to his ideas of respect, and true to his present and his past. He demonstrates no God-given gift that somehow escapes the rest of us, merely an iron will to get better; it is his hope that we might all recognise our own potential.