Thursday, September 30, 2010
The Story Of My Experiments With Truth - M K Gandhi
I am not a Gandhi fan. At all.
The only reason I decided to read the book was that, it is the autobiography of a famous man. That too an Indian.
And he was instrumental in deciding the fate of India, whether or not I like it.
Having read the book, I must say there is no change in my sentiment towards him.
One thing I have learnt from this book however is that, men, very great and famous can actually be unbelievably bad at writing.
This is a badly written autobiography. Not that I have read many autobiographies, but I do know this one is really bad.
Add to that, the fact that this a Navjivan Trust publication.
Even as I turned the leaves, I could see the book growing old - pages tearing at the spine and all.
I wonder if the pride and joy with which Gandhi fans proclaim his generous act of restricting by law, the price of the book to 30 rupees a copy, for several years to come, is worth the quality of the book that will not survive a second reading.
Fortunately (for the already dilapidated book) not many would want to read it a second time.
1. There were way too many mentions of people whom Gandhi met in South Africa and India and none of the names are popular, so, I simply read on without interest.
2. The absence of dates obscures the picture. It leaves you without perspective of chronology. Part of the story is told. Part kept for later chapters. Therefore dates become important.
3. Certain parts of his life are omitted from the autobiography as he has already covered them in another book or article. There are missing pieces.
4. Too much digressing, too much dietetics, fasting etc.
5. Why were the Ali brothers arrested? What was wrong with Rowlatt Act? Nothing is explained. You don’t understand.
6. Much is said about Khilafat movement - but what was Khilafat?
7. The problem of Indigo plantation in Champaran is not explained in detail and even after reading the last sentence of that episode, I did not understand what the actual cause was.
These episodes might not have needed introduction/explanation those days. But he was mistaken in assuming that people would remember all about freedom struggle even after 50 years of it.
For these reasons and many more this is not a well written book.
The first 200 pages did not interest me much and hence took a long time to read.
The setting of the story was South Africa (mostly) and not a part of popular history taught in India.
The book actually became interesting at a point when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa and started his work in India. Only the last 100 pages are dedicated to India’s freedom struggle.
Those were the facts and now, my opinions.
I found the man eccentric. And I am not sure if his experiments and advocacies have any relevance in today’s time.
Since most of the experiments dealt with dietetics - eating one thing, not eating another, fasting and starving… he might as well have called the book ‘experiments with food’ instead of ‘experiments with truth’.
Some of his experiments are noted below.
Having one meal a day
Fasting (just like that)
Fasting as a penance for delinquency by pupils
Taking no grains
Taking no salt for years
Taking no pulses
Giving up milk
Living on a fruit diet
Most experiments conducted were at the convenience of others surrounding him (as he admits it himself).
What with his diet of fruit and nuts, goat’s milk and a thousand restrictions, wherever he went, he caused inconvenience to people around him, with everybody having to wake up the whole night peeling nuts for him, pay attention to him, take special/extra care and all.
I found all this complication directly in conflict with his principle of simplicity.
He believed that most of the illnesses could be cured with Earth and Water treatment. He refused medicines not only for himself, but his wife and son too, and that too when their condition was critical.
He refused milk even when he had pleurisy though Gokhale advised him to take milk.
He refused to take medicine even after 30 motions of dysentery – causing panic to everyone.
He threw away Kallenbach’s binoculars into the sea as they were against the ideal of simplicity.
Another of his experiments was Brahmacharya – abstinence from sex. With the consent of his wife, he took to Brahmacharya when he was 36. Not only that, he induced one of his friends to take the oath of Brahmacharya too.
But he does admit that he was very lustful before that. In fact when his father was on his deathbed, he was preoccupied with thoughts of his wife. He entered a room with his wife and by the time he came out, his father was dead. He confesses that he is most ashamed of himself.
What purpose all his eccentricity served, is not clear to me yet.
He condemns very generously, Hindu hypocrisy and slovenliness, as if there is no hypocrisy elsewhere in other countries and among other people.
After I closed the book, there remained in my mind the question of the relevance of such abstinence in the present times, especially since religion and spiritualism are no longer the opium of people unlike in yesteryears.
One of my friends argued that they are still the opium of people. Look at how many of them go to cults and how much money these cults are making.
True. Cults (Art Of Living, ISKCON, Sai Baba…) are making money but the shopping malls, the movie theatres, the eating joints and boutiques are making more money in a day than a cult makes in a month.
The opium of today’s people is entertainment, recreation and indulgence.
I don’t deny the presence of an element of spirituality or religion in the lives of people but they occupy a different position in the lives of people today than they did during Gandhi’s times. Today, spirituality is merely an instrument and not a goal in itself. People don’t go to spirituality in order to realize the supreme self but because there are other incentives. They do pranayama because it increases lung capacity, prevents cancer, keeps them healthy. They meditate not to realize the supreme self but because it releases stress, improves concentration/memory and so on.
So spirituality is a convenient and handy instrument with which people may further their goals, all of which are well within the paradigm of the material world (not the spiritual world) –the instrument of spirituality to achieve material goals.
Abstention from indulgence is not the objective of people anymore – not even of an idealist of today’s times.
To this, friend said ‘we do abstain. From sex, for instance. We are well into twenties and have abstained from sex.’
I say - the kind of abstinence we practice (not smoking, not drinking, not eating meat, abstaining from sex) is no abstinence at all. It comes naturally as a consequence of the unconscious conditioning of the mind. It’s a way of life. It does not require humungous effort on the part of people.
Whereas the abstinence advocated and practiced by Gandhi was not a way of life even in those days. People those days, though they abstained from indulgence to a much greater extent than we do today, did not practice the kind of abstinence that Gandhi did. He went out of the way.
His abstention required humungous effort and it was severe - not eating salt for 8 years, only groundnuts and dry fruit, goat’s milk, Brahmacharya after marriage and all. And how such abstention helped and whom, I do not see at all.
An idealist living in today’s times will surely, be required to live by a set of principles, follow some discipline and make certain sacrifices but what kind of ideals and goals will call for severe abstention of this kind, I do not understand.
For all the audacity of the above opinions and impressions that I hold to now, I know my knowledge of the man is only partial.
I am, therefore, going to give myself another chance by reading his biography. I am sure there are many of them. You are welcome to recommend one to me.
Facts I noted as I read…
During his struggle in South Africa, he was loyal to the British empire and believed it existed for the good of the world.
He did not believe in formal education imparted in schools and colleges and deprived his own children of formal education. He believed that children should learn through parents.
Imparting education through education and not formal training was what he believed in.
As Ahmedabad was an ancient centre of handloom weaving, it was likely to be the most favourable field for the revival of the cottage industry of hand-spinning.
He recruited people for the war. To fight for the empire.
“As I grew up, several well meaning attempts were made both in India and South Africa to reinvest me with the sacred thread but with little success. If the shudras may not wear it, I argued, what right have the other varnas to do so? And I saw no adequate reason for adopting what was to me an unnecessary custom. I had no objection to the thread as such, but the reasons for wearing it were lacking.”
Certain lines from the book that I found to be of value.
The newspaper press is a great power. But just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. How many journals in the world would stand the test? But who could stop those that are useless? And who should be the judge? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice.
A poet is one who can call forth the good latent in the human breast. Poets do not influence all alike for everyone is not evolved in an equal measure.
A lawyer’s profession is a liar’s profession.
In trying to cure one old disease, we give rise to a hundred new ones; in trying to enjoy the pleasures of sense, we lose in the end even our capacity for enjoyment.
Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle. We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of himsa. The saying that life lives on life has a deep meaning in it. Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living - eating, drinking and moving about - necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa. He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion, but he can never become entirely free from outward himsa.
So long as there are different religions, every one of them may need some outward distinctive symbol. But when the symbol is made into a fetish and an instrument of proving the superiority of one’s religion over others, it is fit only to be discarded. (the holy thread)
I prevented the struggle from assuming a political aspect.
Even where the end might be political, but the cause was non-political, one damaged it by giving it a political aspect and helped it by keeping it within its non-political limit. The Champaran struggle was a proof of the fact that disinterested service of the people in any sphere ultimately helps the country politically.
The performance of a duty automatically confers a corresponding right.
You can wake man only if he I really asleep. No effort that you may make will produce any effect upon him if he is merely pretending sleep.
This characteristic difference in the popular attitude- partiality for exciting work, dislike for quiet constructive effort…
My last thought. People those days were prepared to sacrifice their all for public work. I don’t know if they were superior people or their circumstances made them that way.
That’s all. Until I read more about Gandhi.