Mahatma Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullet 60 years ago. It was gandhiji’s death anniversary yesterday (30 Jan 2008).

I’ve been thinking of the influence of books on his life since I posted ‘bibliotherapy‘ about self-help books and reading.

Gandhiji was not a voracious reader, yet books played a crucial role in the making of the Mahatma. The role of two of them was more radical than that of others. 

The two books were the Bhagavadgita, probably the most famous and influential of Hindu scriptures, and Unto This Last, four essays by John Ruskin.

The Bhagavadgita (the Gita)

Gandhiji read the Gita in England during his years there as a law student. He was reading the Gita for the first time and in English.

He felt the Gita was a book of “priceless worth” and years later he called it “the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth.” A few years later the Bhagavadgita became a book of daily reading and “an infallible guide of conduct” for Gandhiji. He said:

“Just as I turned to the English dictionary for the meanings of English words that I did not understand, I turned to this dictionary of conduct for a ready solution of all my troubles and trials.” (Link)

He went on to write his own translation of the Gita in response to the earnest requests of his followers. He called it ‘Anasaktiyoga (the Yoga of Detachment/Desireless Action)’.

The Bhagavadgita was like a mother to Gandhiji, because he would turn to it whenever despair and confusion assailed him and like a mother the scripture never failed to give him solace and guidance.

Until his last day Gandhiji strived to attain the perfection of the man of god realization that the Gita speaks of. He would often tell that he was far from his goal!

But it is interesting to know how he learned the Bhagavadgita. He had found his calling and become a hugely popular leader in South Africa. Public work occupied all his time. Gandhiji would never allow even the study of the Gita interrupt the work to which he was devoted, so he devised a curious method for the study of the scripture:

“I employed the time of my morning ablutions. The operation took me thirty-five minutes, fifteen minutes for the tooth brush and twenty for the bath. The first I used to do standing in western fashion. So on the wall opposite I stuck slip of paper on which were written the Gita verses and referred to them now and then to help my memory. This time was found sufficient for memorizing the daily portion and recalling the verses already learnt.” (Link)

Unto This Last

Gandhiji read Ruskin’s essays in South Africa in 1904. It brought “instantaneous and practical transformation” in him. Gandhiji describes his encounter with the book in his autobiography. The chapter is titled ‘The Magic Spell of a Book‘ and it is very famous.

Gandhiji read the work in 1904 during the course of a 24 hour train journey from Johannesburg to Durban. He was deeply stirred by the three principles he discovered in it and decided to change his life in accordance with them. By the time he got off the train he was a changed man!

The three principles as he understood them were:

  1. That the good of the individual is contained the good of all.
  2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
  3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living.

He founded The Phoenix Settlement on the ideals of Unto This Last. It was the first Gandhian Ashram.

Later Gandhiji paraphrased Unto This Last into Gujarati and published it as ‘Sarvodaya (Welfare for All)’.

‘Many years after, stressing what he owed to Great Britain, Gandhi wrote: “Great Britain gave me Ruskin, whose Unto This Last transformed me overnight from a lawyer and city-dweller into a rustic living away from Durban on a farm, three miles from the nearest railway station.”‘ (Link)

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