May 15, 2009

Re-reading Gandhiji’s Experiments with Truth

The greatness of the man was his simplicity. I couldn’t help thinking of the advertisement in Dooradarshan promoting Gandhian values as I was reading the “My Experiments with Truth” the second time. Here was the man who gave India and the world at large, some of the potent non-violent tools of political struggle and a generation later, he seems to have vanished out our mind-space, except for some passing reference in school textbooks. I don’t even remember a lesson on Gandhiji in my school days though there was a lesson on a farmer going to meet Vladmir Lenin and extolling the simplicity of his life in our Malayalam reader. The left always had imaginative ways of using the school curriculum to inculcate their core values.

I did have a previous attempt at reading the book. Valipachi (Maternal grandfather) had a decent library at home. After school and hostel closed for summer vacations I would be at Najarakattu ( Maternal home) till my parents travel back from Vadakara or Tirur in north Kerala where Bapachi would be posted. One of the standard assignments that English public schools of yore had was to learn two English words daily during vacations. There wasn’t any active monitoring of this but Muvattupuzha being a place I didn’t have any friends and most of my cousins being much elder to me I started harking on Valipachi’s library.

My Experiments with Truth was a part of the attempt to learn new words . I didn’t traverse beyond the one-third of the book during that vacation –from eight to ninth standard. But an episode about Gandhiji’s childhood attempts at eating meat and how out of guilt, he confessed to his father remained in my memory for a long time. There was something sacred about that reading I remember. I would do it only after a bath in the morning and in the large cool drawing room of the house , it felt like I was touching a part of our history. Lolita from Valiapachi’s Presidency days did tempt me, but I don’t remember reading it until I was in pre-degree. Probably one of the few who has read a grandfather’s copy of the timeless classic that got sexuality into mainstream publishing.

In Gandhiji the private and public experiences came together in such beautiful combination that it was difficult to distinguish them. For him there was no political struggle without the personal. All the major political expressions that Gandhi founded came out of his personal quest to refine himself and find the true meaning of life. Satyagraha, Non-violence and Civil Disobedience owes it to a constant process of spiritual distillation that Gandhi practiced throughout his life that the essential moral timbre for these tools was built-in from his life experiences. In-fact for Gandhiji, Satayagrha – the quest for truth was a more a personal philosophy than a political tool. The origin and practice of it is captured vividly in the book Satyagraha about his period in South Africa and portrayed by Rajat Kapur in the film “ The Making of Mahatma” directed by Shyam Benegal.

Congress did have a tryst with Civil Disobedience that was not as effective and bordered on anarchy before Gandhi started to drive the national movement. For him the means was as important as the end and Gandhi would resort to a fast to reset it in the true course. A lesser soul would have winked at minor transgressions, but not Gandhi. He always looked at them as opportunities to strengthen the moral fabric.

Gandhiji approach to politics and religion was another facet that set him miles ahead of his time. Coming from a strong Vaishnaviate tradition , he believed that faith was an essential part of the political landscape of the sub-continent. Recognition of the cultural and sociological identities of Hinduism, Isalm and other religions was the primary to bringing the nation together. His personal view on religion was not very scriptural or traditional and tempered by a rational view of practices taking only the good ones. Though he strongly supported the revisionist causes, Gandhiji understood the religion was so ingrained in the Indian psyche that it was not possible to have a strong national foundation by ignoring them.

This view strongly contrasted with the Nehuru’s secular ideas that dominated the politics of the young nation. There was a sustained campaign to wipe religious symbols from all aspects of public life. Modern historians point to this persistent attempts at removing religiosity to be the prime reason for the strengthening of right wing parties from the late eighties. Religion is so elemental to the nation’s genetic make-up and it was foolhardy to think that it would go away if it didn’t find a legitimate expression. Rather it hoarded in national consciousness like virus that is subdued through induced medication and comes out with destructive force. In retrospect Indian’s early leaders should have co-opted religion into our constitution in more holistic ways as Gandhiji wanted it. This would have set the nation on totally different trajectory.


Mohan Kannanthodath said...


For me it was reading 'My experiments with Truth' for the first time. We never had this either in school or college. All our 'Nondy Tail' had western stuff, not a single story from this great life history.

After all these years , after reading so much western stuff, so many NRI authors writing about India....I finally felt ashamed that I had not read this book. I was looking through some new books one day and I found 'My Experiments with Truth (MEWT)' was being subsidized and sold at Rs 35 /-.....a bottle of mineral water costs Rs 15 in the same malll, and a cup of coffee inside the book shop was costing Rs 50.....and here was 'MEWT' being sold at Rs 35 /-. I was more ashamed that my cart already had a book 10 times that price. Finally bought the book at once, stopped reading all other stuff and started reading MEWT....I am happy that I read the book at this age of mine, since I am able to appreciate the book a lot. I talk about this experience in a lot of gatherings when we talk books.

I am glad to see that you too are re-reading MEWT.


Belt Mathai said...

It was nice to read another thought-provoking piece from you. I have read parts of the book but never really looked at it from the angle of Gandhiji's astute understanding of the presence of religion or religiosity (I personally think it is best described as spirituality) in the Indian psyche. It never ceases to amaze me as to how gutsy and brave he must have been to embark on that mission to drive out the british without knowing for sure the outcome of that mission. It should inspire us in this day and age to keep fighting the good fight and measure ourselves against uncompromising standards like he did when he reset the course of civil disobedience movement.

redwaterstew said...

@ Mohan:> there is never an age to read it. but this is essential reading for a youngster who wants to build a strong value foundation. indeed true.

as a culture we need validation from west before we identify our gems. i have stopped reading indian english wrttting and am following indian authors in vernacular languages more. malayalam literary scene is even more intresting.

@mathai indeed gandhiji is an institution. there is no area on which he didn't have some orginal ideas. the green economics that is resurrected after the recession is present in gandhi's idea of village as self sustaining unit.

@ Maneesha yes it indeed is each of those small situations that bring out the greatness in each of us