By M.K. Gandhi (1926)
Pages: 454, Final verdict: Great-read
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the Earth in flesh and blood." (Albert Einstein about M.K. Gandhi)
An Autobiography: The Story Of My Experiments With Truth is the autobiographical work of Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, one of the most famous political and spiritual leaders of modern history.
It was originally published between 1925 and 1926 in a journal where each chapter was published weekly. It is quite different from the typical autobiography: it was written at the middle of the author's life and during a period of intense political action, rather than being a memoir by a retired old man (Gandhi lived 20 more years of very active political life, culminating with India's independence in 1947).
A prominent lawyer in South Africa
Mohandas Gandhi was born in 1869 to a middle class family with a history of public service in the local province of western India. The book soon leads us to Gandhi's intimacy, with the recount of his child marriage at 13 (which he regretted) and his candidness about the carnal desires of his teenage years. Not what you would expect from a spiritual leader, but a sign that in An Autobiography, Gandhi would reveal as much about his weaknesses as his successes.
After getting advice to go study Law in England, Mohandas makes a promise to his mother that he would not eat meat and sets sail for London where he would study and get accustomed to the British traditions. He soon gets back to India with degree in Law, suit and tie and tea drinking habits. For one year he works in Bombay where he gets a job to represent an Indian company in a business case in South African court, a short journey which would turn into two decades away from India.
"Inhibitions imposed from without rarely succeed, but when they are self-imposed, they have a decidedly salutary effect." - M.K. Gandhi
Gandhi quickly realizes that not all parts of the British empire are as tolerant as London as he sees how Indians are treated by the white elite of South Africa. Not taken aback by the dangers, he demands that his rights as citizen of the empire be respected. Whenever he found something which didn't work well, he wrote to the people in charge and gave suggestions to change for the better, or wrote to the press to raise awareness of the unfair situations.
Life in South Africa proceeds with Gandhi becoming a prominent lawyer among the Indian community. His interests in exploring his spiritual self, lead him to contacts with the Christian community as well, where his extraordinary intellect soon finds many followers. During this time, Gandhi continues his efforts to support the community, especially indentured workers, the poorest of Indians which were almost treated as slaves.
Gandhi develops a way of struggle aligned with his most valued spiritual value Ahimsa - avoidance of violence. Hence, the Satyagraha non-violent civil resistance is born. A movement where activists would seek to be jailed as a way of protest against unfair laws. Under Gandhi leadership, hundreds of thousands of Satyagraha activists would endure physical abuse from South African, and later British India, authorities without fighting back.
Back in India - the Mahatma
During the two decades spent in South Africa, Gandhi also continued the development of his spiritual life. He often ignored monetary interests and donated his income, and grew ever more simpler in his lifestyle.
This is where we hear about many of his experiments like fasting and sexual abstinence, always with the goal of personal spiritual development - growing his understanding of Truth. From today's perspective, it is a bit shocking to read how Gandhi would impose his way of life on his wife and kids, many times dragging his family around to India and then back to South Africa, or leaving them alone for many months.
Gandhi settled back in India in 1915, arriving under great fanfare due to his international fame as a civil rights activist, and soon joining the fight for an independent India. His Satyagraha non-cooperation movement led millions of people to fight, to stop fighting, and to unite, earning him the title of the Mahatma - the great soul.
An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth is a great way to learn about the growing up of one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. It is also a great way to learn about where his spiritual values come from.
As a biography, the book can leave the reader quite frustrated for its incompleteness. As an example, at some point Gandhi jumps all the years of most active struggle in South Africa ahead saying that he had already recounted that part of his life in the book Satyagraha in South Africa. Or when the book is terminated around the year 1920, because Gandhi believed his life between 1920 and 1925 was so public that everyone knew about it. It is a great book, but it clearly wasn't meant to be read by someone in Portugal 100 years later!
Moreover, writing autobiographies was (and is) more of a western thing, as Gandhi himself points out in the introduction. Rather than a comprehensive book to learn about the whole life of this important figure, this book should be read for the story of how Gandhi came to his beliefs: to story of his experiments with truth.