The Telegraph
Friday , March 28 , 2014
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Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography By Arvind Sharma, Hachette, Rs 550

The spiritual aspect of Mahatma Gandhi’s life can be a fascinating subject to read about. The author, Arvind Sharma, has attempted to touch upon this aspect for the first time while writing the biography of the father of the nation. Almost everyone is familiar with the Mahatma’s name. He is also recognized in the West for his philosophy of non-violence and is respected by one and all. Numerous books have been written about Gandhi, but Sharma has tried to examine his life from a slightly different perspective.

The question that may arise in the mind of any reader is whether Gandhi ever had any spiritual life at all, given the tremendous pressure he was under during India’s freedom struggle against the British. It is also difficult to get today’s readers interested in the subject of spirituality. Anyone who is remotely acquainted with Gandhi’s life knows the importance of religion in the formation of his thoughts.

Sharma begins the book with a quotation from Gandhi’s autobiography: “What I want to achieve, what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years — is self realisation, to see God face to face....” He does so in order to point out to the readers probably how Gandhi himself wanted the world to see him. It also sets the tone of the book.

The author seems to have used Gandhi’s autobiography to a great extent as the basis to build his narrative. Documents, interviews and conversations with his nearest kin might have added a new dimension to the account. Sharma goes on to write the “spiritual” biography of Gandhi from two perspectives, the chronological and the thematic. However, he steers clear of political or critical analysis, which is a prerequisite for any good biographical writing. Sharma tries to avoid looking at Gandhi’s life critically.

The book is divided into two parts. He first traces the events of Gandhi’s life in a chronological manner and talks about his spiritual thoughts and leanings. He devotes the second half of the book to the discussions of religious writings that the Mahatma read, the celibate life he led as well as his thoughts on vegetarianism. Sharma tries to highlight that, whether it was communal riots, or the salt satyagraha, Gandhi was helped through out his journey because of his faith in god. There are a series of examples taken from Gandhi’s own book to show how much he believed in the existence of the almighty. The problem is that Sharma does not offer much of an evaluation of the Gandhi’s writings. His defence of the Gandhian idea that the earthquake in Bihar was divine chastisement because of untouchability, seems feeble and should have been ideally left aside.

Since laying down the biographical details of the Mahatma is not the motive, Sharma talks about the events of his life in a brief, sequential way. He tries to show how crucial the ideas of conscience, self-reliance and morality were to the leader and how it played an important part in the formation of his character.

Gandhi’s relationship with his wife and his vows of brahmacharya portray his struggle with his own self. His religious upbringing, his belief in reincarnation, his solace in the Hindu religious texts and his insistence on morality are the ways he got in touch with his spiritual side. Sharma also introduces the readers to some incidents of his childhood to show how the ideas of god and faith were integral to his thought process. For instance, as a child he was scared of ghosts so his nurse asked him to chant the name of Rama. He became so used to it, that it was the last word he uttered after he was shot.

Sharma talks about Gandhi’s dilemmas in England relating to food, dress and how he tried to resolve them. The interesting part in this section of the book is the reference to a person called Raychand and how he played a significant role in the development of Gandhi’s spiritual journey.

Like other biographers, Sharma also makes use of the Maritzburg incident of South Africa that left a deep impression on the leader’s psyche. It is in this part of the book that the author discusses the ideas such as non-violence or satyagraha. It is interesting to know how the word ‘satyagraha’ was introduced into Gandhi’s vocabulary.

The second part of the book is more of a discussion on spirituality. There are a series of discussions on topics ranging from religion and philosophy to the relevance of Gandhian ideas in the post 9/11 era. Sharma also compares Gandhi to other world leaders like Winston Churchill, Mao and Stalin that gives rise to a new train of thought. He begins this part of the book with Ramana Maharishi’s views on spirituality and compares it with that of Mahatma Gandhi’s.

The author has tried to examine the subject in a manner which may not appeal to the fastidious scholars. He does not resort to in- depth analysis of Gandhi’s ideas. However, the theme of the book will most likely open new areas of research on the leader.Whether Sharma has discussed Gandhi’s spiritual quest, spoken in general about philosophy and religion, his style is likely to appeal to the common readers. His lucid, matter of fact explanation of difficult philosophical thoughts will go a long way in understanding a man who is still held in high esteem. Sharma has indeed succeeded in throwing new light on Mahatma Gandhi and his times .