Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography

by Arvind Sharma

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In his Autobiography, Gandhi 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.” While hundreds of biographies and


In his Autobiography, Gandhi 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.” While hundreds of biographies and histories have been written about Gandhi (1869–1948), nearly all of them 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.
Shifting the focus to the understudied subject of Gandhi’s spiritual life, Arvind Sharma retells the story of Gandhi’s life through this lens. 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 enlarges our understanding of one of history’s most profoundly influential figures, a man whose trust in the power of the spirit helped liberate millions.

Editorial Reviews

Huston Smith

“Magnificent and hard-hitting, this is the finest biography I have ever read of the man the entire world has come to revere.  Arvind Sharma has left the world a wonderful legacy.”—Huston Smith
Harvey Cox

“Clear and carefully researched, this is not just a book for scholars, but for anyone with a serious interest in the history of our era.”—Harvey Cox, author of The Future of Faith
Hindu American Foundation - Mahatma Gandhi Award

Arvind Sharma was awarded the 2013 Hindu American Foundation's Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Advancement of Religious Pluralism.
Hatchette India - Mark Tully

“A much-needed book . . . . It is only by understanding Gandhi’s spiritual struggle that we can really understand his great political legacy of non-violence, the necessity of love for genuine ahimsa, and love’s link to the avoidance of retaliation.”—Mark Tully, Hatchette India

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Yale University Press
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A Spiritual Biography

By Arvind Sharma


Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18596-6



Birth and Adolescence


Traditionally, the Chinese have counted age from the moment of conception; a baby is considered a year old at birth. The Hindus go back further, to a former life; a baby is several centuries old by the time it is born. This method of counting birthdays renders problematic the custom of commencing a biography by stating that its subject was born on a particular day. Perhaps in the case of a person like Gandhi, we should say that he was reborn. For Gandhi was a Hindu, and Hindus by and large believe in reincarnation. Gandhi certainly did.

However we might characterize his birth, the one we are concerned with occurred on October 2, 1869, in the city of Porbandar, on the western coast of India. The time and place of his birth were destined to have a crucial bearing on the trajectory of his life. For Gandhi was born when India was part of the British Empire—an empire then at its meridian. An Indian effort to dislodge the British had ended in a British victory in 1858, and it was not until after 1905 that British rule over India came under serious challenge again. As Louis Fischer points out, the year in which Gandhi was born, 1869, was also the year in which the "Suez Canal was opened, Thomas A. Edison patented his first invention, France celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Charles W. Eliot became president of Harvard University. Karl Marx had just published Capital, Bismarck was about to launch the Franco-Prussia war," and "Victoria ruled over England and India."

Gandhi's birthplace is a port city washed by the Sea of Oman. Porbandar looks like a flash of light to an approaching traveler on account of the color of the stone and limestone of which most of it was built, which gives it a marble-like appearance. It was in fact known as the White City. It was also known as the City of Sudama, an indication of its mythic origins: Sudama was a childhood friend of the Hindu divinity Krishna.

The city passed into British hands in the early nineteenth century but did not come under direct British control. It was indirectly governed through local rulers, who were overseen by British political agents. Gandhi's ancestors were the Diwans, or chief executive officers, of the state of Porbandar, its capital being the coastal harbor city itself. Gandhi's father, Karamchand Gandhi, had inherited the position. He was thrice widowed by the time he was forty, when he married Putlibai, who was eleven at the time. Karamchand had two daughters from his earlier marriages, and Putlibai bore him a daughter and four sons. The youngest was Mohandas, later Mahatma Gandhi.

The modest house in which Gandhi was born still stands, three stories high. It had belonged to the Gandhi family for five generations. He was born in a small room; a person has to crouch down while entering and leaving through the small door. Since Gandhi has been such an integral part of modern Indian history, it is difficult for Indians not to feel dazed, even a trifle overwhelmed, after setting foot in the room in which he was born.

Gandhi's mother belonged to the Pranami sect, founded by Prannath in the seventeenth century. Many positions that Gandhi assumed in later life, especially on the Hindu-Muslim question, are foreshadowed in this inheritance. The sect emerged after the decline of the Mughal Empire, whose last major emperor, Aurangzeb, ruled from 1658 to 1707. His harsh religious policies drove many Hindu rulers to rebel and ultimately to assert independence. One such ruler was King Chatrasal of Bundelkhand, who, though a Hindu, patronized the eclectic Prannath. Prannath insisted that his Hindu and Muslim followers dine together at initiation, and moved effortlessly between Hindu and Muslim sacred texts in his prayers and expositions. There was a Pranami temple in Porbandar, although Putlibai may have visited the Krishna temple with greater frequency on account of its proximity.

Putlibai was pious by nature. Gandhi records in his autobiography that she would frequently observe long fasts during the rainy season without allowing illness to interrupt her. During one rainy season, Gandhi wrote years later, "she vowed not to have food without seeing the sun. We children on those days would stand, staring at the sky, waiting to announce the appearance of the sun to our mother. Everyone knows that at the height of the rainy season the sun often does not condescend to show his face. And I remember days when, at his sudden appearance, we would rush and announce it to her. She would run out to see with her own eyes, but by that time the fugitive sun would be gone, thus depriving her of her meal. 'That does not matter,' she would say cheerfully. 'God did not want me to eat today.' And then she would return to her round of duties."

Hindu sacred texts sometimes provide genealogies of teachers, and some of the most ancient genealogies recount the names of the teachers by mentioning their mothers. Some scholars have suggested that this may be so because the names of the fathers were not known, hinting at a primitive promiscuity; but traditional commentators offer a very different explanation. According to them, the spiritual teachers are mentioned by referring to their mothers because the mother plays a decisive role in the spiritual development of the child. This was certainly true in the case of Mahatma Gandhi.


Gandhi himself acknowledges that two stories from Hindu lore left an indelible mark on him as a child, that of Shravana Kumar and that of King Harishchandra. Gandhi first became aware of Shravana Kumar by accidentally reading about his life of devotion to his parents in a book purchased by his own father. Later Gandhi also saw the story of Shravana Kumar's life enacted in a play by itinerant showmen, who carried placards depicting his life. One placard showed the son, Shravana Kumar, carrying his blind parents on a pilgrimage to holy places in two baskets attached to a pole slung on his shoulder. The depiction of filial piety impressed the child, who saw in it an example worthy of emulation. Gandhi first learned of the other story, that of Harishchandra, through its enactment by a dramatic company, which he was permitted to attend. Harishchandra was a king who made enormous, even tragic, sacrifices to keep his plighted word. His story, vaguely reminiscent of the testing of Job, also moved Gandhi. Harishchandra personified for him the ideal of devotion to truth.

Myths—morality tales by another name—mold our lives. A myth may not be literally true, but it may be fundamentally or morally true. Gandhi's life frequently demonstrates how myth intersects with biography. Such points of intersection are apparent in his later life.

It is only in the light of the story of Shravana Kumar, and the impact it had on Gandhi, that we can even begin to understand Gandhi's enduring regret that he was not with his father when his father died. Gandhi, who was with his wife at the time, writes: "The shame, to which I have referred in a foregoing chapter, was this shame of my carnal desire even at the critical hour of my father's death, which demanded wakeful service. It is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget, and I have always thought that, although my devotion to my parents knew no bounds and I would have given up anything for it, yet it was weighed and found unpardonably wanting because my mind was at the same moment in the grip of lust." He refers to this incident as a double shame because his wife was in an advanced stage of pregnancy.

The consequences of his devotion to his parents were not always depressing. In one particular case they were positively uplifting. Gandhi and a relative became addicted to smoking in early adolescence. At first they contented themselves with the stubs left by an uncle given to that indulgence, but soon they began pilfering pennies from the pocket money given to the servants. Having to do this on the sly rankled. Their despair even drove them to contemplate suicide. They chose a temple for the purpose and planned to consume poisonous weeds they had found in the jungle to bring about the desired end, but their courage failed them at the crucial moment, and they discovered that it was easier to contemplate suicide than to commit it. The ordeal cured them of the addiction, though not of the habit of stealing. These events happened when Gandhi was twelve or thirteen, but Gandhi stole again, when he was fifteen. He took some gold out of his brother's armlet to pay a debt the brother had incurred.

The later theft was more than Gandhi could bear, and he resolved never to steal again. But making a promise to himself was not enough. Gandhi also felt compelled to confess to what he had done. He chose to do so in writing and handed his confession to his father, who was confined to bed with an illness. As his father read the note, "pearl-drops trickled down" his father's cheeks, "wetting the paper" when they landed. It was an agonizing moment for Gandhi. Then his father closed his eyes in thought and tore up the note. This experience convinced Gandhi that a "clean confession, combined with the promise never to commit the sin again ... is the purest type of repentance."

Just as Shravana Kumar was Gandhi's exemplar, so was King Harishchandra, the upholder of truth. Gandhi's commitment to truth manifested itself when he was a student in the form of a refusal to cheat. The class was told to spell a number of words by the British education inspector, one of which was "kettle." Gandhi had misspelled it, but when his teacher prompted him to cheat, that is, to correct his spelling by looking at his neighbor's slate, Gandhi refused to take the cue. He thought that teachers were supposed to prevent the students from copying.


The combined moral synergy of devotion to parents, epitomized in the figure of Shravana Kumar, and devotion to truth, epitomized in the figure of Harishchandra, ultimately led Gandhi to give up his experiments in eating meat, a practice into which he had been lured by reformist zeal: "I wished to be strong and daring and wanted my countrymen to be such, so that they might defeat the English and make India free." He undertook this experiment at the urging of a friend and partly also under the influence of the doggerel then current among the schoolboys:

Behold the mighty Englishman. He rules the Indian small, Because being a meat-eater He is five cubits tall.

The first time he ate goat's meat, Gandhi had a horrible nightmare that the goat was bleating inside him, but he overcame his scruples, believing that if the whole country began eating meat, the English would be overcome.

This expression of reformist zeal required constant dissimulation, for his parents were devout worshippers of the god Vishnu and were therefore vegetarians. Gandhi finally concluded that although he might be introducing reform by eating meat, deceiving and lying to one's parents was much worse than not eating meat. Devotion to truth and to parents won out in a kind of moral double victory, paralleling his double shame.

When one nation suffers defeat at the hands of another, the defeated nation is filled with self-doubt, just as the victorious nation brims with confidence. The defeated people want to know what went wrong and how it might be rectified. In this case, a handful of Britons ruled over three hundred million Indians. To account for it, some Indians accepted the schoolboys' doggerel as true: the British were robust meat eaters, and the Indians were weak vegetarians. The explanation, however, was superficial. The real reason underlying their failure was lack of unity, and once the people of India rallied around Gandhi later in his life and gained some semblance of unity, they were able to dislodge the British.


Child Marriage


It will probably surprise many readers that Gandhi was married at the age of thirteen, and it might be an occasion for even greater surprise that Gandhi was betrothed thrice prior to his marriage. Two girls chosen for him died in turn, and he married the third. The name of his wife was Kasturbai.

Gandhi felt excited by the prospect of his marriage. He rebelled instinctively when exposed to the practice of untouchability as a child but had no such reaction to his "child marriage" and participated enthusiastically. His father had been injured in a road accident while traveling to Porbandar, where the marriage was solemnized, but he attended despite the injuries.

In describing the rites associated with his marriage, Gandhi mentions kansar and saptapadi. The first term need not detain us long. It refers to a sweet preparation the pair feed each other at the end of the ceremony, perhaps in the hope that the banquet of marriage will always provide them with the dessert of romance.

The second term is crucial. It refers to the seven steps—saptapadi—taken by the bride and the bridegroom around a fire, a circumambulation at the completion of which they are deemed to be husband and wife. The fire, which is ceremoniously lit, is supposed to be the celestial witness of the wedding, along with the numerous human beings present. This core ceremony is ancient, going back to at least the middle of the second millennium BCE.

The seven steps are laden with symbolism. Each step is sometimes taken to stand for a decade, so the marriage is supposed to unite the couple happily for seventy years, the biblical threescore and ten standing for married life rather than life itself. A more imaginative leap is involved in associating each step with a lifetime. Marriage is thus an alliance that is supposed to last seven lifetimes—a mutual commitment that might seem excessive. What the seven steps denote in either case is lifelong companionship. According to a common expression in Sanskrit, friendship between the virtuous is formed by merely taking seven steps together or by merely exchanging seven words. For marriage, which is undertaken in Hinduism with many ends in view, saptapadi highlights the key element of companionship.


Marriage is a major rite of passage, and so it was for Gandhi. If getting married is an event, leading a married life is perhaps best viewed as an ongoing event. Small wonder, then, that being married played a major role in the development of Gandhi's moral and spiritual life. This becomes evident when we compare Gandhi's views about marriage as a young teenager with his views after he had become an adult. Although Gandhi gleefully participated in his wedding, he later reproached his father for marrying him off at such a tender age. As an adult, Gandhi considered it his obligation, as a "worshipper of Truth," to record his marriage as a "painful duty." He not only pities himself for his lot but congratulates those who escaped an early wedding and criticizes a practice he had himself embraced.

Social reformers in India often found themselves in a moral predicament and deserve our sympathy, especially when they were acutely aware, as Gandhi was, that they should practice what they preach. It is not always possible to be precociously sensitive to the shortcomings of one's own tradition. And the force of Indian tradition was sometimes so strong that even elderly statesmen succumbed to it. M. G. Ranade (1842–1901) was a famous advocate of allowing widows to marry, but to his great chagrin, his father, to whom he was devoted, insisted that he marry a virgin after the death of his first wife, and he did so.

Not only did Gandhi get married enthusiastically, he also performed his conjugal duties enthusiastically, so much so that he describes himself as a lustful, if faithful, husband. How did he form his ideas regarding conjugal fidelity? Gandhi identifies two sources: popular pamphlets read during his youth, which discussed conjugal love and similar subjects, and his own passion for truth. An omission here is striking. Gandhi does not mention the name of Rama, the god he was so devoted to, in the context of conjugal fidelity. One of the reasons Rama is looked up to in the Hindu tradition is because he is seen as an upholder of family values. He was totally devoted to his wife, Sita, even through a long period of separation. Sita had complete control over his sexuality, even as Kasturbai had complete control over Gandhi's.

Gandhi's faithfulness was not achieved without struggle. He mentions four occasions when he almost slipped; three can be clearly identified in his autobiography. While still in India he was induced to visit a brothel but was "struck dumb in the den of vice" and retreated. Later, while in England, he had another close shave when he visited Portsmouth to attend a conference. And on his way to take up a job in South Africa, he was struck dumb again in a den of vice, this time in Zanzibar, where he ended up as the result of a favor from the captain, who had taken a liking to him.

Excerpted from gandhi by Arvind Sharma. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Arvind Sharma was awarded the 2013 Hindu American Foundation’s Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Advancement of Religious Pluralism. He is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University. He lives in Montreal.

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