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Jad Adams is a historian and television producer. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and is currently a Visiting Research Fellow of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.
A concise, critical look at the Indian leader, emphasizing his striving for spiritual perfection.
Unlike Joseph Lelyveld's recent exhaustive study of Gandhi and the evolution of his ideas,Great Soul (2011), this work by British historian Adams (Hideous Absinthe, 2003, etc.) goes right to the essential thought of the Mahatma, despite his confounding, albeit engaging inconsistencies. The author sticks to primary sources, such as accounts by Gandhi'ssecretaries, while remaining somewhat leery of Gandhi's own autobiography, because of his elusive relationship to truth ("I have grown from truth to truth"). In discrete, tidy chapters, Adams embarks on the main tenets of Gandhi's life: his pampered upbringing by a very devout Hindu mother; his marriage at age 13 to Kasturbai, also his age, which would arouse his later disgust for Hindu marriage rituals; his lifelong striving for chastity and the shaping of his brahmacharya vow; his obsession with his diet, a system of trial-and-error that would often leave him weak and ill; his early law education in England, a great sacrifice for his family, though later he would essentially sever ties to his relatives, refuse to educate his sons and support his family financially; his use of fasting as a political tool; and his gradual political engagement, from his time as a young barrister in South Africa to his return to India as a national leader for the rights of the indentured servants, miners, poor and untouchables. He sought emancipation by doing—living in self-sufficient simplicity within his ashrams, where he imposed the strictest discipline on himself and others, immersing himself in sacred texts of all religions. The concluding chapter on Gandhi's "Legacy" considers his assassin's criticism of Gandhi's sense of his own infallibility, as well as the terrible repercussions from the partition of Pakistan and Gandhi's invaluable catalyst to global movements of human rights.
A tight synthesis and good introduction to Gandhi's life and work.
Childhood and Marriage
'You are standing near the corner of a public road,' wrote Gandhi, remembering the India of his childhood at the time of the winter festival of Divali. He continued:
Mark the shepherd trotting in his milk-white suit, worn for the first time, with his long beard turned up beside his face and fastened under his turban, singing some broken verses. A herd of cows, with their horns painted red and green and mounted with silver, follows him. Soon after you see a crowd of little maids, with small earthen vessels resting on cushions placed on their heads ... Then observe that big man with white whiskers and a big white turban, with a long reed pen thrust into his turban. He has a long scarf wound round his waist with a silver inkstand adjusted in the scarf. He, you must know, is a great banker.
This was the world into which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in the harbour town of Porbandar. He was of the Vaishya caste of merchants, artisans and landowners, ranking third in the spiritual hierarchy of the four major divisions of Hindu society, after the Brahmin and Kshatriya but above the Sudra. Of this caste, he was from a subsection, the Bania, who were usually merchants—so many were that the British took to using the term Bania to mean 'merchant.' Within this group, with the usual complexity of Indian social organisation, Gandhi's family were of a further subdivision, the Modh.
Gandhi says his forebears had originally been grocers but by the time he was born they were settled into public service. Since the time of his grandfather Uttamchand Gandhi, the men in his family had been prime ministers in the princely states of Kathiawar, the peninsular part of Gujarat that juts out into the Arabian Sea. It was the same part of the province from which the merchant family of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Gandhi's great adversary, came.
Mohandas Gandhi was the youngest of three sons and one daughter born to Putlibai, the last wife of Karamchand Gandhi who was prime minister of Porbandar at the time of Gandhi's birth. He was later to be prime minister of Rajkot and of Vankaner. There were some two hundred princely states in Kathiawar, but only fourteen of them had what passed for an independent political system, allowed to function so long as they remained within limits set by the British political agent who acted as their 'adviser.'
The qualities that Gandhi admired in his father were that he was truthful, brave and generous. On the negative side, he remarked that his father was short-tempered and 'to a certain extent he might have been given to carnal pleasures.' Gandhi reflected these traits: he was certainly brave, the more so for having had to overcome shyness even up to adulthood; he was very generous with his skills, in helping those such as the South African Indian labourers; and he took a preoccupation with the truth to metaphysical levels. His definition was that the truth he aspired to was 'truthfulness in word, but truthfulness in thought also, and not only the relative truth of our conception, but the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle, that is God.'
On the other hand, of the traits he singled out as those he did not respect in his father, Gandhi was rarely short-tempered with members of the public, though he was often so with his wife and other members of his family. Perhaps partly from a desire to distance himself from his father's 'carnal' nature, Gandhi made a point of being abstemious about alcohol, tobacco and meat-eating; and he carried out exercises to control his sexual appetite. He was to take such sexual exercises, and public reports of them, to levels that many considered obscene.
His father was religious in a general sense, without training or regular ritual until the end of his life when he took to reading the great religious and philosophical poem the Bhagavad Gita daily. Gandhi's mother was a far more profound influence in this area. He remarked: 'If you notice any purity in me, I have inherited it from my mother, and not from my father.' She was exceedingly religious—Gandhi wrote of her 'saintliness.' This expressed itself in going to the temple daily, maintaining both spiritual and physical cleanliness via rituals in bathing and defecation; never eating without saying prayers; and keeping the fasting period over the four months of rains, the Chaturmas. Gandhi noted that 'to keep two or three consecutive fasts was nothing to her.' She contrived ingenious new fasts for herself; during one Chaturmas, instead of eating one meal a day she would eat only every alternate day; another time, she would not eat unless she had seen the sun. This was a test to the young Gandhi, who would stand staring at the sky while the sun was obscured by rain in order to rush in and tell his mother as soon as the sun had come out, so that she could eat that day. She would run out to see with her own eyes, but if the sun was no longer visible she would keep to her vow. 'That does not matter,' she would say, 'God does not want me to eat today,' and she would return to her duties. The effect on Gandhi was to instil in him the perception of a close connection between religious observance and everyday life, something he would always display as a mature man. He was introduced into the discipline of fasting, which is an integral part of the Hindu and Jain religions (as it is, with its variations of Lent and Ramadan, in the Christian and Muslim religions). Gandhi was to take fasting to a new level.
It was from Putlibai that Gandhi acquired his meticulous regard for cleanliness and neatness. There was also some universalist element in her influence, as her parents had been members of the Panami sect which aims at combining the best elements of Islam and Hinduism. Putlibai was, however, an orthodox Hindu in matters of caste. She told her children they were not to touch the 'untouchable' boy who cleaned the lavatories; if they had accidental contact with an untouchable, they had to take a ritual bath; if that were not practicable, touching a passing Muslim would pass on the uncleanness. As he grew older, he came to argue with Putlibai: 'I told my mother that she was entirely wrong in considering physical contact with Uka [the untouchable] as sinful,' he recalled. Gandhi considered that if God was everywhere, then God was in the untouchable too. His Hinduism was monotheistic: all the gods of the pantheon were aspects of a single divine entity.
Gujarat was one of the main homes of members of the ancient Jain religion for whom the principle of non-injury to living beings is sacrosanct, and who also stress spiritual independence and non-violence. The Jains are significant scholars, having founded some of the most ancient libraries in India. Gandhi did not take up the passion for learning in early life; he did not, for example, read the Bhagavad Gita until he was in his twenties, in 1890, and then he read it in an English translation. He showed an entirely natural tendency to take what he found attractive from his influences and discard the rest; in his case this was unusual in that what he wanted was the moral message, not the adventure that was also to be found in religious stories.
He was moved by improving tales from Hindu literature, feeling that they were not mere fancies, but moral examples to copy. He singled out the stories of Shravana, who was so devoted to his aged parents that he carried them on pilgrimage; and that of King Harishchandra, who never told a lie and always kept his word. Harishchandra's moral fortitude led him into situations in which he had to give away his kingdom, then to sell his wife and son and finally himself into servitude. This behaviour was praised by the gods, and his virtue rewarded. Gandhi remarked that he was haunted by the story and wished to go through the trials of Harishchandra for the sake of truth.
When Gandhi was about seven, his father moved the family to Rajkot where he had been appointed prime minister and a member of the Rajasthanik Court, which had been set up by the British to settle local disputes. Gandhi was therefore exposed to the operation of government, both of the British and of the princely states. Until the very end of Gandhi's lifetime two-fifths of the territory of India and one-fifth of the population were under the governance of local rulers. The rest was ruled by the British directly with the Viceroy, at the top of the administrative hierarchy, representing the Crown.
Gandhi later remarked that he was probably an indifferent pupil all he could remember about his first school was having difficulty with multiplication tables. Nor was there anything memorable about his studies at primary school. He remembers himself as being so shy that he would make sure to be at school as it opened and run home as soon as the school day finished in order that he did not have to talk to anyone, for he feared their ridicule. He was small and frail, afraid of ghosts, thieves and snakes, and could not go to bed without a light. His nurse told him in times of fear to repeat 'Ramanama—the name of God. He never forgot this lesson, and in later life described the practice as 'a sun that has brightened my darkest hour.' He was heard to repeat the name of God aloud at times of physical attack.
Gandhi had three siblings: an elder sister, Raliatbehn who was born in 1862, and two brothers, Laxmidas (1863) and Karsandas (1866). His early playmates were his family members, particularly Karsandas. Together they chafed at the restrictions put on their independence, nurturing their resentment that they had to ask permission for everything they did. They started smoking, first discarded ends thrown away by an uncle, then they took to stealing money from a servant (presumably accessible because of the expectation of honesty in the house) in order to buy cigarettes. Their puerile lack of judgement was demonstrated by their next exploit—they were so frustrated by their lack of freedom that they decided to kill themselves and obtained the seeds of a poisonous plant from the jungle. But they lost courage and did not take the seeds; Gandhi later said this exploit led him to think little of threats by others to commit suicide.
While he was still a child Gandhi's parents set about finding a wife for him, following the usual practice in Kathiawar (and other parts of India) of 'betrothal' to a suitable girl. He was betrothed three times, the death of the first two girls demonstrating why this custom prevailed: it was wise to 'reserve' a future spouse for fear there would be none left of appropriate caste and social standing when the time for marriage came.
Betrothal was an established practice in a place where marriages were arranged by parents. Gandhi had been betrothed for the third time when he was seven in 1876, but may not even have been told about it. Child marriage was not a necessary part of this procedure, though it was culturally acceptable. Gandhi's marriage at the age of thirteen was the subject of continuing disgust to him. He described it as one of the 'bitter draughts' he had to swallow in the course of setting down the truth about his life. 'I can see no moral argument in support of such a preposterously early marriage,' he wrote.
Indeed, Gandhi had utter contempt for Hindu marriage customs, which he related to waste, not seeing any pleasure or even apparently any point in it.
The parents of the bride and bridegroom often bring themselves to ruin ... they waste their substance, they waste their time. Months are taken up over the preparations—in making clothes and ornaments and in preparing budgets for dinner. Each tries to outdo the other in the number and variety of courses to be prepared. Women, whether they have a voice or not, sing themselves hoarse, even get ill, and disturb the peace of their neighbours. These, in their turn, quietly put up with all the turmoil and bustle, all the dirt, and filth, representing the remains of feasts, because they know that a time will come when they will also be behaving in the same manner.
This is not merely a criticism of child marriage but also seems to show intolerance of the attention given to marriages—part of Gandhi's general impatience with the things that ordinary people find important. He also shows here a trait that would develop in adult life: an intolerance of the marriage bond itself, suggesting the relative unimportance of the relationship with spouse and family compared with a more transcendental union with the deity, and a connection to humanity at large.
Gandhi's wedding in 1883 was particularly unfortunate for one not too impressed with the things of this world, as his family decided to marry him, his brother Karsandas and his cousin of similar age in a triple ceremony. In this way the cost would be shared between Gandhi's father and uncle, and the expenditure and trouble would be over all at once—a boon for the two men, who were advancing in age and wanted to dispatch the business of marrying off their last children as expeditiously as possible.
As the wedding approached, his father was kept at work by official business until, in the end, he had to make the five-day journey from Rajkot to Porbandar in three days. His coach toppled over and Karamchand was severely injured, but as all the plans were already made the wedding took place, in a hall hired for the purpose. His father's injury later gave Gandhi another reason to reflect on his wedding with distaste,but at the time it simply meant interesting clothes, music and ceremonies and 'a strange girl to play with.' He was taken out of school for his marriage, missing about a year of education in preparation for the event.
Kasturbai Kapadia was the same age as Gandhi. She was born in April 1869 so at the time of their marriage in May she was fourteen, he thirteen. Gandhi later saw fit to 'severely criticise my father for having married me as a child' (though the criticism was not made in his father's presence). At this time in Britain the age of consent was thirteen and the age of marriage was twelve for a girl and fourteen for a boy; a marriage such as Gandhi's could have taken place in Britain, though in fact custom precluded such early marriages. Gandhi's was far from being a child marriage by Kathiawar standards—most girls were married by the age of eight.
Kasturbai too (the form Kasturba was used after she assumed control of her own household) had been born in Porbandar, to a trader in cloth, grain and cotton and one-time mayor of Porbandar, Golkaldas Kapadia, and his wife Vraikunwerba. They also were of the Modh Bania sect (indeed, Gandhi and Kasturbai would not have been married by their parents if they had not been compatible in this way). Their home was close to that of the Gandhis, though they would not have played together as they grew up. When he was not at school Gandhi was free to go into the streets to follow a ceremonial parade or climb trees in the nearby courtyard temple, whereas Kasturbai was not sent to school or allowed to play outside but kept at home learning how to be a mother and housekeeper. The improving stories she would have been told were of good wives such as Anasuya who remained chaste when her virtue was tested, and Sita who was faithful to her husband Rama through many tribulations.
Kasturbai brought with her a cedar chest filled with new clothes and a teak box containing gold jewellery. Before the wedding the bodies of the bride and bridegroom were anointed with turmeric, almond, sandalwood and cream by family members of the same sex. In a Sanskrit ceremony held at a time that was propitious according to astrological predictions, the young couple took their first seven steps together, speaking lines on the significance of each until, on the final step, Gandhi proclaimedthat step signified 'that we may ever live as friends' and Kasturbai responded: 'It is the fruit of my good deeds that I have you as my husband. You are my best friend, my highest guru, and my sovereign lord.'
That night, he reported, they were too nervous to face each other, though his brother's wife had explained to him the basics of sex and he hints that someone must have coached Kasturbai. 'Oh, that first night,' he writes, 'two innocent children all unwittingly hurled themselves into the ocean of life.' Gandhi's later repudiation of his sexual nature makes him reluctant to describe any but a few details of his 'carnal desire'; he writes: I propose to draw the curtain over my shame.' In fact he seems to have had a normal healthy sexual appetite, the expression of which had, despite his youth, been sanctioned by local custom and by his family. The revulsion was something he brought to the affair himself, in later reflection.
Excerpted from Gandhi by Jad Adams. Copyright © 2011 Jad Adams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 15, 2014
I am a high school student and I read this book to help me out with a research project.
Jad Adams did a great job covering Gandhi's life. The chapters include topics like: when
Gandhi was in India, his marriage and birth, his time spend in London, South Africa,
and how he became a world icon and legacy. This was a great read but the only
reason i gave this four stars out of five was because there was an excessive amount
of characters in the book. I would recommend reading this and it is great
for anyone who has to write a report.
Posted October 18, 2013