Today in history (2nd October) is Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. I must say that my earlier memories of Gandhi are from watching Ben Kingsley play him in Gandhi, so much so that the thought of Gandhi would conjure up images of Ben Kingsley in my mind, rather than Gandhi himself. I never thought of him as more than a freedom fighter for his country, however, upon reading the Autobiography of a Yogi in my late teens, I realised that this seemingly frail man was nothing but, for he had nerves of steel and a will of iron, and he was more than just a freedom fighter.
When I went to India this year, I decided that visiting the Gandhi smriti was a must, as it would be such a surreal experience to step foot on a place where he lived the final days of his life and was assassinated. I am glad I did, as it rekindled the interest I had in him and I went on to buy his autobiography, ‘The Story of my Experiments with Truth’ which has given me further insights to the kind of person he was.
I had always thought of Gandhi to be this near-perfect man, and I had assumed that the virtues he displayed later in life were ingrained in him from young. This is partly true, but he was not a man without his faults. He gives a highly critical account of his own actions in his autobiography. Here are some of his past transgressions (or failures) which show quite a different side of this man.
When Gandhi was young, he regarded truth as the highest of all virtues. He vowed to always speak the truth, however, he had a friend who was a bad influence on him and got the better of him. Being a small-framed boy, Gandhi was always envious of other boys who were much taller and bigger than him. His ‘bad’ friend told him that they were all big because they ate meat whereas Gandhi was not because he was a vegetarian. This made a mark in Gandhi’s impressionable young mind, and after constant cajoling from his friend, Gandhi started eating meat without his family’s knowledge. Funny how we all twist the rules we judge others by when it comes to applying it ourselves, and Gandhi was no exception to this. He reasoned that by keeping his meat-eating a secret from his family, he was not being untruthful as he was not exactly telling a lie. This went on for quite some time until one day he could not bear to continue living a lie and confessed to his father.
Gandhi was betrothed at a very young age, as was the custom then, and left his wife and son behind when he went to England to further his studies. The Indian students in England who were all casualties of child marriages did not tell others that they were married, for they were embarrassed about it especially since all the English students were bachelors. Another reason was because by pretending to be bachelors, they could flirt with the young girls of the families they lived with. Gandhi also pretended to be a bachelor and as a result, his landlady used to invite him to many gatherings so he could get acquainted with young ladies. Finally one day, the burden of his lie became too much to bear and he confessed to his landlady that he was married. Even though he never cheated on his wife, he considered this untruth a serious transgression as he was not only misleading others, but because he allowed himself to be in a position where one moment of weakness could have been disastrous.
Gandhi was a barrister by profession but unfortunately he did not provide his sons with a similar level of mainstream education. One of his sons especially was extremely sore about this and even publicly criticised his father for his failure to educate him. In his autobiography, Gandhi reasons that he wanted his sons to be exposed to the public work that he was doing, and felt that that would expose them to an invaluable lesson about being of service to others. He provided them with some basic education by teaching them himself. I was quite surprised when I read this but realised that he had the best of intentions when he made this decision for his children.
So, it turns out Gandhi was not this perfect man I thought him to be after all. He made some mistakes along the way, but by being highly critical of himself and through self-introspection, he was able to learn from his mistakes and lead as much a virtuous life as humanly possible. To tell you the truth, I feel a lot better about myself after reading his book, because it gives me hope! I now realise that even though I am not perfect, I don’t have to give up trying to improve myself spiritually; that I can make mistakes and learn from them and my past mistakes would not necessarily doom me for births to come (from a Hindu perspective). I may have done a lot of things in the past I am not proud of, but at least I have realised my mistakes and repented. To me, and millions of other people, Gandhi was not just a freedom fighter but a saint. And what are saints but sinners who never give up.