Formative Influences in Gandhi’s Life

by William J. Jackson

When I taught university courses in which students read and discussed Gandhi’s Autobiography, I always found it rewarding to consider the early formative influences in his life, which Gandhi discussed in the opening chapters. These influential experiences are interesting to consider, because as Wordsworth wrote, “The child is father to the man.”

Mohandas Gandhi’s father had “rich experience of practical affairs” though he was uneducated in fields like history and  geography. (Mohandas K. Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, New York: Dover Publications, 1983, p. 2) His mother made an impression of saintliness, with practices of daily prayer and fasting. One practice was vowing not to eat during the day until seeing the sun. Gandhi and his brother would run out on cloudy days and look at the sky when it seemed the sun was coming out, then run back in and tell her they saw the sun. And she would go out and look, and not seeing the sun, would continue fasting, cheerfully saying, “God did not want me to eat today.” She was a daily lesson in loyalty to a vow, self-control, and self-deprivation. (pp. 2-3)

Mohandas remembered himself as a mediocre student who disliked reading. An exception was his enjoyment in reading a play about Shravana, a legendary figure who sacrificed his own comforts to care for his aged parents. He carried them around on a kind of balancing contraption on his shoulders. Accepting the burden of filial piety with devotion and patience despite difficulties, Shravana was the image of an exemplary son. When Shravana died his parents mourned him with great feeling, and decades later this part of the story was still fresh in Gandhi’s memory—partly because it was set to a tune he played on a concertina his father gave him. (p. 5)

Another story from the Puranas, one popularly portrayed by travelling actors in India, was important too: Harischandra, the king who went through trials unscathed. (It is significant that “Raja Harischandra” was the first black and white silent movie made in India, over a century ago.) It is something like the story of Job. Instead of God and the Devil wagering to test Job, the gods argue over Harischandra’s character and test him to see if he will remain a righteous man if he suffers great misfortunes. Harischandra was renowned for always keeping his word and never lying. This story influenced Gandhi’s sense of sticking to dharma, his duty and his conscience, regardless of trials and tribulations. The story shows a good man remaining true to his vow of truth, and, after terrible losses, finding that everything works out well in the end because he is steadfast.

Gandhi said he received his father’s permission to see the Harischandra play and it captured his heart, and it was of enduring interest to him, and he acted it out within his own mind countless times. He wondered “Why should not all be truthful like Harischandra?” and observed, “To follow truth and to go through all the ordeals Harischandra went through was the one ideal it inspired in me.” Later he realized that Harischandra was not a historical person, but this legendary story and the tale of Shravana were nevertheless living realities for him. (p. 5) The power of archetypal dramas showing loyalty and adherence to a “vow of truth” were indeed powerful. They were “root paradigms” in Gandhi’s background.

Growing up in Gujarat, Gandhi also would have seen living examples of the ideal of yogic sublimation, such as Jain monks who visited his father, and often went out of their way to accept food from the family. Typically Jain monks are renunciants who strive to transcend the light-obscuring results of karma, and often they renounce earthly possessions and attachments. Jain monks known as digambara (“sky-clad” or “dressed in the directions of space”) are mendicants who renounce all possessions, including clothes. (p. 29) Jains are non-violent toward all forms of life.

While Gandhi observed that as a child he disliked gymnastics, he also noted that he had learned early about the benefits of walking in fresh air, a habit which he maintained throughout his life, and to which he attributed “a fairly hardy constitution.” (p. 13) The study of Euclid led to a realization of the importance of a pure and simple use of reasoning powers, and led to his ease with, and interest in, geometry. (p.14)

Another lesson which made an impact was the experiential and experimental one of eating meat. Though the Gandhis were vegetarians, and Vaishnava traditions as well as the Jain views against meat-eating were strong in Gujarat, a friend (whom Gandhi hoped to reform) told Gandhi that he should try eating meat. His friend argued that the British were strong because they were meat-eaters. Hoping to gain strength and make India free from English rule, Gandhi tried eating meat, despite inner conflicts. For a year he ate meat, about six times. (p. 19) He quit because he did not want to lie to his parents. Meat eating was incompatible with the ideal of non-violence. The ideals of ahimsa and brahmacharya (literally “conduct that leads toward God” self-restraint, especially in matters of sexual desire) were impressed on Gandhi early, through humbling experiences of realizing his own vulnerability to temptations.

Other lessons learned in childhood concerned stealing and smoking. To buy cigarettes, Gandhi and a relative stole coins from a servant’s pocket money. To satisfy their desire to smoke they tried lighting up the stalks of a porous plant. Unsatisfied, feeling lack of independence as a pain, disgusted and finding it unbearable that they needed parental permission to do anything, Gandhi and his friend became obsessed with feeling frustrated and decided to kill themselves. (p. 22) In this depressing nihilistic mood, which many modern youths know all too well, they swallowed datura seeds, thinking they were lethally poisonous. The blessing of incompetence—failure to use an effective method to end it all—prevented Mohandas from the tragic fate of adolescent suicide. If he had succeeded, perhaps India would still be a British colony. That experience of despair taught him that the habit of smoking and stealing coins from a servant was not worth pursuing. (p. 23)

But that experience did not bring an end to all youthful straying. When he stole a little gold from his brother’s armlet to pay a debt, he felt he needed to clear his conscience and confess to his father. He vowed to never steal again. His father wept when he read the confession, and Gandhi felt “those pearl-drops of love cleansed my heart and washed my sin away.” (p. 23) As the saying goes, “A stumble can prevent a fall”—having learned these lessons by straying in youth, Gandhi was not troubled with such issues later in life.

Gandhi remembered fondly that an old servant who worked for his family, his nurse named Rambha, taught him the power of repeating the sacred name, Rama. This prayerful recitation of a holy name is a practice found in the lives of many Hindu saints. Gandhi wrote about the practice as a panacea for many ills. He began repeating the name of Rama to overcome his fear of ghosts. As time went on he repeated the name for patience, serenity, strength in adversity and wellbeing. Also, he fondly remembered reading the Ramayana epic aloud to his ill father. He later called the Ramayana of the poet Tulsidas the greatest of all devotional literature. (p. 29) In his later life he began his days early, singing before dawn devotional songs with others. His favorite song, Raghupati Raghava, was a song to Rama.

Gandhi remembered that in Rajkot there was a reciter of the Bhagavata Purana (a Vaishnava scripture which includes stories of child Krishna) but he was uninspiring. Gandhi later wished he had heard a great reciter in childhood, and had known of other great books at that time. “Impressions formed at that age strike roots deep down.” (p. 29) Vaishnavism, with its images of Vishnu as protector and maintainer of the universe, and vegetarianism was deep background for Gandhi nevertheless.

While living in Rajkot as a young man, Gandhi developed an appreciation of variety in religions—he saw the value of tolerance of the various communities of Hindu traditions, and the traditions of Muslims and Parsis. (p. 29) The representatives of Christianity he met at this time did not make a good impression, because they insulted Hinduism, and it seemed that converts were supposed to drink alcohol, eat beef, wear European clothes, and such. Later, Gandhi would have Christian friends and helpers. Gandhi became very comfortable with the harmonious co-existence of religions while he was a youth. Later in life he would say he identified with all the world religions, “I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist.”

Gandhi observed that the Book of Manu (a Hindu book of laws and customs compiled from existing traditions between 200 BC and 200 AD) did not inspire him, because parts of it seemed so remote from daily practice. But “the conviction that morality and truth is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality” took deep root in him. “Truth became my sole objective.” (p. 30) In Hindu tradition the “sovereign principal” of truth, satya, is very deep. It does not just mean being honest. It is a great cosmic power, a deity in the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures. Truth means “eternal being,” that which is enduringly real.

Gandhi also found a popular poem of Gujarati verses inspiring. It was about returning good for evil, responding to the behavior of others with generosity. The verse says the wise are noble in the way they gladly give back good for every slight or hurt they receive. (p. 31) India has rich traditions of folk wisdom in regional languages, often composed in rhymes, which even illiterate people can learn.

Before Gandhi’s father died he had said he intended for Mohandas to become a lawyer. Therefore, Gandhi had to go against caste customs by crossing the ocean to study in England. Travelling afar was against the rules of orthodoxy. Gandhi went to his uncle to receive a blessing for this undertaking of studying law abroad, which in those days was rare for Hindus, and considered a major life-changing journey. His uncle was worried about the changes Gandhi might go through in England, encountering the daily life of people there. The diet, clothing, cigar smoking of lawyers, etc., were far different from the practices expected of members of the Bania community the Gandhis belonged to. To resolve his doubts, the uncle asked Becharji Swami, a member of the community who was a family advisor, and who had recently become a Jain monk, to administer an oath to young Mohandas. Gandhi solemnly vowed that he would not touch wine, women, or meat. With that oath, Gandhi persuaded his mother to give permission. The practice of taking a vow to protect and sustain one’s determination, and keep one’s discipline in place, was a deep commitment, something which affected Gandhi’s difficult undertakings in later life. (p. 35) As mentioned above, he already knew the power of vows in his mother’s life.

Despite the vow’s assurances, Mohandas was considered an outcaste by the representative leader of his caste, because it was not proper for a Bania to voyage abroad, or eat and drink with Europeans. Knowing he would be treated as an outcaste, Mohandas went to study in England anyway. In England, Gandhi met Dr. P. J. Mehta, who humorously taught him European etiquette. “Do not touch other people’s things. Do not ask questions… do not talk loudly. Never address people as sir . . .” (p. 39) It was a gradual adjustment. Gandhi experienced the tensions of being far from home, pressures to conform and finding acceptable adjustments to the modern world he experienced in London. Those who never leave their homeland cannot imagine the kinds of conflicts, tensions and confusions that arise far from home.

Gandhi’s flexible personality found a way to live in another culture without abandoning his Hindu integrity, and he also learned what his own personal preferences were. He liked to be economical in his expenditures, he found soulful satisfaction in simplicity, and he realized he felt happier when he was exercising self-control, and enjoyed the freedom of choosing for himself the right course. He carefully navigated a path that worked for him and could harmonize with others, in the legal profession and among British vegetarians, for example.

Gandhi was shy, but he made efforts to be outgoing, such as trying to learn to be a public speaker. He accepted his shyness, which made him weigh his words before speaking, and he valued silence. “My shyness has been my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.” (p. 55) Gandhi wanted his character to be the basis for being a gentleman, not artificial fashions and external appearances. (p. 46) He was conscious of his shyness, recognizing early that it could be a blessing. C. G. Jung has written about the two kinds of psyches, introvert and extrovert: “There is a whole class of men who at the moment of reaction to a given situation at first draw back a little as if with an unvoiced ‘no,’ and only after that are able to react; and there is another class who in the same situation come forward with an immediate reaction, apparently confident that their behavior is obviously right.” (C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, tr. W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933, p. 85). A healthy balance of functions of the psyche: perceptive sensation, thinking, feeling, and intuition—are all necessary in their proper proportions. As Jung also writes: “Lack of rationality is a vice where thinking and feeling are called for—rationality is a vice where sensation and intuition should be trusted.” (C.G, Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p. 92) This truism contains a useful reminder about a healthy balance of human abilities. Gandhi seemed agile and able to orient himself with the functions of his introverted psyche, being sharp in perceptions, able to think analytically, with a good leader’s emotional intelligence and intuition.  Gandhi’s central value of truth, like his innate shyness, helped him not stray too far from the path he deemed best. (pp. 57-58)

In England, two Theosophist brothers recommended Gandhi read the Bhagavad Gita, and invited him to join them in reading it. He found it very helpful, including an analysis of human desire—how desire causes passion, recklessness, forgetfulness, robbing one of mental power. (p. 59) Gandhi read the verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita, which Sir Edwin Arnold wrote in verse with the title The Song Celestial. This literary rendering of the teachings of Krishna includes the disciplines of bhakti yoga (devotion), jnana yoga (spiritual wisdom), and karma yoga (dedicated work as a form of worship).  And he also read Arnold’s Light of Asia, a poetic telling of the traditional life of the Buddha in verse. A Christian whom Gandhi met gave him a bible, and he found inspiration in the Sermon on the Mount, the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, which reminded him of the Bhagavad Gita. He was drawn to teachings of non-violence, such as resist not evil, turn the other cheek, and when someone takes your cloak give him your coat. These teachings reminded him of the Gujarati verses of returning good for evil. In writing about learning from these religious texts, Gandhi notes that he came to the conclusion that  “Renunciation is the highest form of religion,” a principal that would be a prime guidance in his later life, inspiring him to self-sacrifice beyond the average. (p. 60) He said that the different spiritual traditions seemed unified in their ideals of selflessness. He also found attractive ideals of bravery and austere living in Thomas Carlyle’s book On Heroes, Hero Worship, and The Heroic in History, published in 1841. During this time Gandhi was exposed to atheist thinking, but it had no effect on him. The idea that God is in the hearts of all seemed like a wise view to him. (p. 61)

Gandhi’s honesty throughout his Autobiography is touching. He does not paint himself as a hero but as very human at each step of the way, in England, in South Africa, and back in India. He speaks of his vulnerabilities, imperfections, mistakes, wavering, and uncertainties. In times of trial and tribulation, weakness and lapses, he felt he was helped by a higher power. “God saved me.” For example, when he started to make indecent jokes he affirmed that prayer and humility helped him. (p. 62-3) Later Gandhi would give a sense of his priorities: “If money is lost nothing is lost. If health is lost something is lost. If character is lost all is lost.”

In England he met a fascinating character—translator, bohemian, traveller Narayan Hemchandra—a small man with a smallpox-scarred face who wore odd clothes and had a long beard. Gandhi had read some of his writings. Gandhi helped him learn English. Hemchandra lived simply on minimal food, travelled third class, and had no pride, “except for his capacity as a writer.” He was eccentric, noble-purposed, filled with love for learning and literature and translation. (p. 65-7) Gandhi also inevitably imbibed some Victorian values and presuppositions of the time while in England.

These are some of the influences Gandhi writes about in the early years of his life. Of course he kept on learning his whole life, from others like Thoreau and Tolstoy, and from his own “experiments with truth.” But these early lessons help us understand how certain deep values worked to give him direction, and a strong perseverance in the face of daunting obstacles and odds. They provided a foundation of stability and inspiration when serious setbacks and sorrows harassed him.

Although Gandhi was an introvert, he was a man of action and the world was his stage. He learned from influential people, teachings and experiences as a youth. And he was a lifelong learner and experimenter. He delighted in finding his own path. He left India to study law despite his community’s disapproval. He chose for himself what he would eat, and figured out cures for his ailments—he had a sense of humor about it, calling himself a “quack.” He tried to find a different way of educating young people, and organized a community, Satyagraha Ashram, conveniently locating it near a jail because he knew his protests would lead to being jailed. He developed his own philosophy of activism in pursuit of justice, satyagraha. He decided for himself, and prized the swaraj principle for his people—the freedom of self-rule, which required self-control and being in the right. Many people talk about freedom, but Gandhi’s life is a unique embodiment of freedom in action — Gandhi invented himself. Reading his Autobiography we listen to his honest attempts to present his experience, his conscience at work. His gains were gains for society. Out of his striving to be true to his conscience, Gandhi spearheaded a social movement, which ultimately gained independence for India and inspired generations of others around the world.

EDITORS NOTE: William J. Jackson is our Literary Editor and a regular contributor. This essay is the latest in a series of reflections on reading Gandhi’s Autobiography. His previous essays and reviews are listed on this page.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi