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Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography


The Spirit of The Mahatma
K S NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: March 2, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : The Spirit of The Mahatma | Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography |

Hundreds of biographies have been written on Mahatma Gandhi since his assassination in 1948. Leaders, writers and historians have poured millions of words dissecting his contribution to India’s freedom struggle and his weapons - satyagraha and  ahimsa. Undeniably, more books would be written in the coming years.

Nearly all of Gandhi biographies have focused on the national, political, social, economic, educational, ecological, or familial dimensions of his life. Very few, in recounting how Gandhi led his country to political freedom, have viewed his struggle primarily as a search for spiritual liberation.

This is what Arvind Sharma’s book, Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, tries to explore the understudied subject of Gandhi’s spiritual life. Sharma retells the story of Gandhi’s life through this prism. Illuminating unsuspected dimensions of Gandhi’s inner world and uncovering their surprising connections with his outward actions, Sharma explores the eclectic religious atmosphere in which Gandhi was raised, his belief in karma and rebirth, his conviction that morality and religion are synonymous, his attitudes toward tyranny and freedom, and, perhaps most important, the mysterious source of his power to establish new norms of human conduct.

This book significantly enlarges our understanding of one of history’s most profoundly influential figures, whose trust in the power of the spirit helped liberate millions.

Here it is pertinent to quote what the Mahatma himself said in his Autobiography. He wrote, “What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years—is self-realization, to see God face to face. . . . All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.”

Sharma has superb credentials that qualify him to write such a book. The Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, Sharma uses his specialization in Hinduism as a bridge to more general topics, including religion and feminism and religion and human rights. He authored One Religion Too Many (2011).

Though biographies are usually chronological in nature, it is also possible to probe certain dimensions of a person’s life thematically. And Mahatma’s life offers great opportunity for academics for such exploration.  But Sharma has blended both these two approaches.

“The first part of the book relates the story of Gandhi’s life, focussing on the points at which it strikes a spiritual note; the ensemble of these notes emerges in the second part, where the melodies and harmonies are teased out,” Sharma writes in the Introduction to the book.

“Roughly the first half of the book, up to chapter 10, is essentially narrative in character, then, with occasional thematic forays; the second half is essentially thematic though containing some narrative elements,” he adds.

The two approaches have been blended in the hope that the ensuing binocular vision provides the reader with a satisfying view of the range and depth of Gandhi’s spiritual life.

Sharma has included Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy too, that had snowballed into a controversy. Of course Sharma is not the first one to write about it. When Nirmal Kumar Bose wrote about these experiments after Gandhi’s death, it created a sensation even though Gandhi had himself acknowledged it publicly. But his experiments involved his 18 year-old-niece, Manubhen Gandhi. The question to ask is: what was Gandhi trying to achieve? The author quotes from Gandhi’s own writing and others on his celibacy and realisation of god.

Gandhi was criticised for his celibacy experiments that involved other women on the grounds of propriety as much as morality. The author quotes Mahatma’s close associate Kaka Kalelkar:: “I never agreed with him that sleeping with Manu in Noakhali was the ultimate test of his purity, because Manu was like a granddaughter to him. But then he didn’t really need to experiment, to test himself, because his relationships with women were, beginning to end, as pure as mother’s milk.”

Other equally interesting chapters are on Gandhi and Ramana Maharishi, Beefing up Vegetarianism, Spritual Warfare… Consider this: The Twin Towers were violently brought down on September 11, 2001. On the same day in 1906 Mahatma had launched his first satyagraha in South Africa. Sharma wonders if there a message for us in this startling coincidence?

Despite many drawbacks, Gandhi’s quest for spirituality through satyagraha and ahimsa no doubt is still valid for people in many modern states who are caught in the vicious cycle of violence, corruption and poverty.

Author: Arvind Sharma
Publisher: Hachette
Edition: Hardbound
ISBN: 978-93-5009-714-4
Pages: 252
Price: Rs 550

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017