Destroyed by Truth

By Faisal DevjiNovember 7, 2018

Destroyed by Truth

An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth by M. K. Gandhi and Tridip Suhrud

OVER THE PAST DECADE, interest in Gandhi has grown among scholars as well as activists. But this time it has not been the Mahatma’s nonviolent struggle for his country’s freedom that has commanded attention. Instead, it is because imperialism has ceased to be a burning issue, and the post-colonial state seen as having betrayed its promise, that another aspect of Gandhi’s legacy has come to the fore. He is now a properly global rather than national figure, whose work allows us to think about the implications of modern life in a more general sense. This includes issues like environmental degradation, unequal social relations, and individual moral agency, all of which are informed by Gandhi’s ideas about the limitation of needs and desires, the everyday character of moral action, and the importance of willful sacrifice as a claim to sovereignty outside the state.

Tridip Suhrud’s work has been part of this new interest in Gandhi, and has made much of it possible. Like the Mahatma’s secretaries Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal Nayyar, who served as his archivists, diarists, and biographers, Suhrud, too, has annotated and translated in addition to analyzing Gandhi’s writing, and, in doing so, he has made it available for further research. His editorial work constitutes an act of intellectual generosity, offering the Mahatma’s life and words to the interpretation of others. Suhrud’s carefully annotated version of Gandhi’s Autobiography, which inquires into the circumstances of its writing, its key terms and ideas, and the differences between its Gujarati and English texts, constitutes one such act of generosity, demonstrating that he is indeed the true successor of Desai and Pyarelal.

Suhrud notes that the Autobiography is haunted by an authorial anxiety about its self-aggrandizing genre, one that some of Gandhi’s friends told him was peculiar to the West. More interestingly, they suggested it may mislead readers not by any mistake in the Mahatma’s telling, but because he might change his views in future. This means that the text was conceived not as the account of some uniquely individual life, but as an instruction to others in the form of a warning as well as model. Gandhi repeatedly emphasizes the generic quality of his experiments by arguing that they could be understood and even undertaken by a child, seeing as they were the efforts of a man as weak and fallible as any other. Because it consistently reduces its author’s individuality, the text can even be described as anti-biographical, and Gandhi himself impugns its biographical veracity:

I know that I do not set down in this story all that I remember. Who can say how much I must give and how much omit in the interests of truth? And what would be the value in a court of law of the inadequate ex parte evidence being tendered by me of certain events in my life? If some busybody were to cross-examine me on the chapters already written, he could probably shed much more light on them, and if it were a hostile critic’s cross-examination, he might even flatter himself for having shown up “the hollowness of many of my pretensions.”

Reading through Suhrud’s edition of the Autobiography, I was also struck by how anti-psychological it is. Gandhi does not appear to be very interested in motives or intentions, whether his own or of others, and in some sense his narrative can be read as the account of a purely external and even accidental causality. The confessional element in the text has deluded readers into mistaking it for a narrative of Gandhi’s inner life rather than an act of ritual exposure. Yet even its most famous instances argue the opposite. The story is often cited of how Gandhi left his father’s deathbed to sleep with his wife, during which time his parent died and inspired in his guilty son the first thought of rejecting sex. While the psychological motivation seems clear, it is far too obvious and, indeed, followed up by a quite different notion.

The child born from this illicit encounter, Gandhi tells us, died soon afterward as a punishment for its father’s guilt. We should not dismiss this idea as a superstition “unfair” to both the child and its mother. Coming from such a sophisticated thinker, we might understand it as a deliberate effort to externalize causality in such a way as to make it fundamentally unknowable. As part of his attempt to deindividualize the moral actor, Gandhi not only rejected an inner life for himself by refusing all privacy, he also sought to destroy the ego to have it replaced by the truth that for him was entirely external, objective, and divine. While some of this truth might be known, other parts of it could neither be concealed nor communicated: “There are some things which are known only to oneself and one’s Maker. These are clearly incommunicable. The experiments I am about to relate are not such.”

The ignorance, or rather incommunicability, at the heart of the Autobiography turns many of Gandhi’s biographical anecdotes into fortuitous ones, his escape from various moral dangers attributed to causes whose very externality makes them providential rather than intentional. Here, for instance, is his commentary on an awkward experience with a prostitute as a young man:

I sat near the woman on her bed, but I was tongue-tied. She naturally lost patience with me, and showed me the door, with abuses and insults. I then felt as though my manhood had been injured, and wished to sink into the ground for shame. But I have ever since given thanks to God for having saved me. I can recall four more similar incidents in my life, and in most of them my good fortune, rather than any effort on my part, saved me.

If Gandhi is so intent on the externality of truth, it is because he understands that we cannot be fully cognizant of all the factors that go into the making of any act. Sexual knowledge, for instance, he attributes to the incommunicable “memory” of a previous life, saying of his first experience of it that “[t]he impressions of the former birth are potent enough to make all coaching superfluous.” He also rejects knowledge as a criterion of moral action on egalitarian grounds, for this would turn the wealthy, powerful, and educated into the most moral of agents. The Autobiography is replete with instances of the unknowable in statements like: “We can also see that judging a man from his outward act is no more than a doubtful inference, inasmuch as it is not based on sufficient data.”

Because a man’s inner life was not apprehensible to the outside observer, he had to be dealt on the basis of what we might call “radical ignorance.” Gandhi is ignorant of his own wife’s inner life, saying that “Kasturba herself does not perhaps know whether she has any ideals independently of me. It is likely that many of my doings have not her approval even today. We never discuss them. I see no good in discussing them.” And he also expresses ignorance of his own motives, for example when reflecting upon his advice urging mill-workers on strike in Ahmedabad to honor the pledge they had given him:

The mill-hands had taken the pledge at my suggestion. They had repeated it before me day after day, and the very idea that they might now go back upon it was to me inconceivable. Was it pride or was it my love for the labourers and my passionate regard for truth that was at the back of this feeling — who can say?

Given the radical ignorance at the heart of all human endeavors, how might it be possible to act morally without depending upon knowledge? By committing oneself to a principle almost as a kind of wager and out of ignorance, something that for Gandhi took the shape of a vow. In his student days in London, the future Mahatma had been saved from drink and women by the vow he had made his mother, though it had not been based on any knowledge or proof about the virtue of abstinence. And in South Africa, Gandhi had justified wearing a charm put around his neck by his mother for no other reason than another such vow, which he describes in a conversation with a Quaker friend:

He saw, round my neck, the Vaishnava necklace of Tulasi-beads. He thought it to be superstition and was pained by it. “This superstition does not become you. Come, let me break the necklace.”

“No, you will not. It is a sacred gift from my mother.”

“But do you believe in it?”

“I do not know its mysterious significance. I do not think I should come to harm if I did not wear it. But I cannot, without sufficient reason, give up a necklace that she put round my neck out of love and in the conviction that it would be conducive to my welfare. When, with the passage of time, it wears away and breaks of its own accord, I shall have no desire to get a new one. But this necklace cannot be broken.”

The vow, then, was in some sense arbitrary, but saved from self-indulgence by its permanent and sacrificial character. It compelled moral action by a decision that might well produce its proof in subsequent experience but was initially baseless:

The importance of vows grew upon me more clearly than ever before. I realized that a vow, far from closing the door to real freedom, opened it. Up to this time I had not met with success because the will had been lacking, because I had had no faith in myself, no faith in the grace of God, and therefore, my mind had been tossed on the boisterous sea of doubt. […] “I believe in effort, I do not want to bind myself with vows,” is the mentality of weakness and betrays a subtle desire for the thing to be avoided. Or where can be the difficulty in making a final decision?

The “subtle desire” Gandhi refers to in the quotation above shows that he was not unaware of the complex motivations of inner life, but the point was to allay these by resort to the world outside. Having turned himself into a moral agent by the purely external means of a vow and in the absence of knowledge, Gandhi was bound to deal with other moral actors in the same way. And he did so by ignoring their inner lives and taking them at their word — or rather testing them by it and so forcing moral life to the surface in a kind of nominalism not unfamiliar to the lawyer in the Mahatma. This emptying out of the subject bewildered Gandhi’s enemies, whose chief accusation against him has always been hypocrisy, and the urge to find the inner motive or secret that informed his actions. Because he took words at face value, the Mahatma only asked his interlocutors to be true to them. This resulted in a competition where the one truest to himself might convert the rest by his integrity and without requiring any prior agreement as to aims and ideals.

This made all moral action a kind of wager, even if Gandhi thought that the true follower of nonviolence would always win. Yet it was not simply the inability to know as a kind of failure that defined Gandhi’s morals, which after all would give them an entirely negative character. Instead, he saw the truth as being external in nature and therefore divine, because it could never be fully known. And the individual’s task was to find this truth at the cost of his inner life because it constituted his only reality and at the same time tied him to a world beyond himself:

I think it is wrong to expect certainties in this world, where all else but God that is Truth is an uncertainty. All that appears and happens about and around us is uncertain, transient. But there is a Supreme Being hidden therein as a certainty, and one would be blessed if one could catch a glimpse of that Certainty and hitch one’s wagon to it.

It is typical of Gandhi that he defines God in such a way that He can be understood either theologically or epistemologically. In either case, the externality of His truth becomes evident in and through the moral subject, whose selfhood it in fact destroys or makes object-like. The “in-dweller” “spirit,” “conscience,” or “inner voice” that speaks through Gandhi is quite external to him. Suhrud provides the Gujarati equivalent of the Mahatma’s English phrasing to show how the most intimate portion of the self is in fact the most foreign:

I write as the Spirit [dweller within] moves me at the time of writing. I do not claim to know definitely that all conscious thought and action on my part is directed by the Spirit [dweller within]. But on an examination of the greatest steps that I have taken in my life, as also of those that may be regarded as the least, I think it will not be improper to say that all of them were directed by the Spirit [dweller within].

The inner life of the moral self, in other words, cannot fully recognize the foreign reality of which it is constituted. But rather than serving as an example of the self’s failure, the externality of this truth is in fact the only connection that the individual possesses with his neighbors as much as with God. A crude way of putting it would be to say that the Mahatma understands the subject as being determined by factors outside itself, and it is these that link it with other subjects and make social life possible. The possession of one’s truth therefore takes the form of a dispossession:

The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should be so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of the truth.

Whatever inspiration this way of thinking might have drawn from ancient or medieval ideas of the religious life, far more crucial is the modern context in which Gandhi articulated it. Rather than some kind of uninterrupted tradition, the Mahatma’s vision of moral selfhood was both produced by and deployed against the 19th-century individualism that made autobiographies possible. In its Gujarati original, the title of Gandhi’s book, rendered into English as “The Story of My Experiments with Truth,” reads something like “Truth’s Experiments” (satya-na prayogo), in which it is not the Mahatma who is the subject but instead truth. Rejecting the spiritualism that emerged as a reaction against what used to be called “bourgeois” individualism only to reinforce it, Gandhi’s autobiography audaciously seeks to tell the story of truth’s experiments with the self it both sustains and destroys.


Faisal Devji is professor of Indian History and fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

LARB Contributor

Faisal Devji is professor of Indian History and fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Harvard University Press, 2012) and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Harvard University Press, 2013).


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