Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Revisiting Two Masterpieces of the Mahatma

by Sachi Sri Kantha

October 2nd marked the 136th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.  As homage to the Great Soul, on this day I spent a few hours with his two literary masterpieces; namely his autobiography entitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927), and his political manifesto Hind Swaraj [The Hindu Self Government, 1909]. 

I had a reason.  My previous essay entitled ‘Democracy Dance in Diapers’ touched a vein from my readers and I received more than a quantum of e-mails for this piece.  In that essay, I presented Bernard Shaw’s expose on democracy.  Thus, I wanted to re-check what Mahatma, who is closer to our hearts and roots than Bernard Shaw, had to say on democracy.  Here is my report.

Democracy in Gandhi’s Autobiography

I will first report the result.  The word ‘democracy’ or its variant ‘democrat’ does not appear even once in Gandhi’s autobiography.  Strange, but true. But in one chapter, he mentions humorously about the dancing lessons he took (while in Britain as a student in his twenties).  One could even postulate that this discussion can be taken as Gandhi’s metaphorical prick on the alien concept of democracy to his Indian society. 

First, I will provide some background information about Gandhi’s book.  This may be helpful to comprehend, why Gandhi ‘insulted’ democracy as an alien concept.

I have two different editions of Gandhi’s autobiography on my bookshelf.  One is the Navajivan Publishing House’s Indian edition (2nd edition, 1959 reprint), of 392 pages.  The second one is the American Dover Publications edition (1983), of 468 pages.  I have reason to mention this, since the front pages of these two editions vary in minor details. 

The American Dover Publication edition mentions as follows: "This was an unabridged republication of the edition, published by Public Affairs Press, Washington DC, 1948, under the title, Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth."  But it specifically omits the copyright information.  Here is reverse copyright piracy by the American publishing industry of a famous book.  In addition, the 'Introduction' by Gandhi, which carried the date "26th November 1925" [70 years ago, this year] of the original Indian edition had been subtly omitted.  For what reason, I cannot fathom now.

In addition, the important preface by Mahadev Desai (the translator of the work, from Gujarathi original to English) has also been omitted in the American Dover Publications edition.  I believe that this preface by Mahadev Desai is also essential to understanding Gandhi’s view on democracy.

Mahadev Desai’s Preface to the Second Edition (1940)

Mahadev Desai (1892-1942) was the translator of Gandhi’s autobiography.  The original title of the autobiography in Gujarathi was, Satyanaa Prayogo athavaa Aatmakatha.  In Desai's preface he wrote as follows:

"The first edition of Gandhiji’s Autobiography was published in two volumes, vol.I in 1927 and vol.II in 1929.  The original in Gujarati which was priced at Re.1/- has run through five editions, nearly 50,000 copies have been sold.  The price of the English translation (only issued in library edition) was prohibitive for the Indian reader, and a cheap edition has long been needed.  It is now being issued in one volume.  The translation, as it appeared serially in Young India, had, it may be noted, the benefit of Gandhiji’s revision. It has now undergone careful revision, and from the point of view of language, it has had the benefit of careful revision by a revered friend, who, among many other things, has the reputation of being an eminent English scholar.  Before understanding the task, he made it a condition that his name should on no account be given out.  I accept the condition.  It is needless to say heightens my sense of gratitude to him.  Chapters XXIX-XLIII of Part V were translated by my friend and colleague Pyarelal during my absence in Bardoli at the time of the Bardoli Agrarian Inquiry by the Broomfield Committee in 1928-29."

The most vital sentence in this preface by Mahadev Desai written for the second edition of 1940, is "The translation, as it appeared serially in Young India, had, it may be noted, the benefit of Gandhiji’s revision."  The first two sentences of the Introduction to the Autobiography, written by Mahatma on 26th November 1925, mention as follows:

"Four or five years ago, at the instance of some of my nearest co-workers, I agreed to write my autobiography.  I made the start, but scarcely had I turned over the first sheet when riots broke out in Bombay and the work remained at a standstill."

Numerical details on Mahatma’s Autobiography

Now let us study the dates and numbers.  Mahatma’s autobiography closes with the events of year 1921.  At that time, Gandhi was 52 years old.  Gandhi began to write his life story in 1925, and it appeared first in 1927 and 1929.

The book consists of five parts, each consisting of quite a number of short chapters.  Part 1 – 25 chapters; Part 2 – 29 chapters; Part 3 – 23 chapters; Part 4 – 47 chapters and Part 5 – 43 chapters.  Altogether, five parts contained 167 chapters.  When he began to write his life story, Gandhi had reached 56 years.  And that he did not write a single sentence on democracy tells something about Gandhi’s disbelief on the prevailing democratic practices.

Then, the 2nd edition of the book appeared in 1940, and Mahadev Desai has observed that the English translation had the benefit of Gandhiji’s revision.  By 1940, Gandhi had reached 71 years.  Even in such a revision, that Gandhi did not make any amends [in his autobiography] to correct his disbelief on the prevailing democratic practices is something of note. 

This does not mean that Gandhi refrained completely from mentioning democracy in his writings.  In the 1930s, occasionally he had expressed his opinions on democracy, most probably as responses to questions from reporters and acquaintances.  These opinions deserve a separate essay.  My point here is that in his own autobiography [the most intimate published document of his thoughts and deeds consisting of 167 chapters], Gandhi did not bother to mention anything of worth about democracy.

The Navajivan Publishing House edition carries also the details on the print run of the book’s English translation.  1927 First edition – 6,000 copies; 1940 Second edition – 5,000 copies; 1945 reprint – 10,000 copies; 1948 reprint – 15,000 copies; 1956 reprint – 10,000 copies; 1958 reprint – 29,000 copies; 1959 reprint – 45, 000 copies.  It seems that the print run exceeded 10,000 copies only after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948.

Gandhi’s Dancing Lessons

Chapter 15 of Part 1 of the autobiography was entitled, ‘Playing the English Gentleman.’  In this chapter, Gandhi has humorously described his adventures in Britain, at the age of 25, to become an English gentleman.  I may not be wrong to think that this was a metaphorical allusion on the folly of blind adoption of democratic practices.  Gandhi was a skilled exponent on such word play, as noted by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1901-1994), in his Pulitzer Prize winning study Gandhi’s Truth (1969).  Excerpts from Gandhi’s original description on his dancing lessons are as follows:

"…I directed my attention to other details that were supposed to go towards the making of an English gentleman.  I was told it was necessary for me to take lessons in dancing, French and elocution.  French was not only the language of neighbouring France, but it was the lingua franca of the Continent over which I had a desire to travel.  I decided to take dancing lessons at a class and paid 3 pounds as fees for a term.  I must have taken about six lessons in three weeks.  But it was beyond me to achieve anything like rhythmic motion.  I could not follow the piano and hence found it impossible to keep time.  What then was I to do?

The recluse in the fable kept a cat to keep off the rats, and then a cow to feed the cat with milk, and a man to keep the cow and so on.  My ambitions also grew like the family of the recluse.  I thought I should learn to play the violin in order to cultivate an ear for Western music.  So I invested 3 pounds in a violin and something more in fees.  I sought a third teacher to give me lessons in elocution and paid him a preliminary fee of a guinea.  He recommended Bell’s Standard Elocutionist, as the text book, which I purchased.  And I began with a speech of Pitt’s.

But Mr. Bell rang the bell of alarm in my ear and I awoke.  I had not to spend a lifetime in England, I said to myself.  What then was the use of learning elocution?  And how could dancing make a gentleman of me?  The violin I could learn even in India…"

Gandhi’s specific mention of trying to learn elocution from William Pitt’s speech offers a clue.  William Pitt the younger (1759-1806) became the youngest British prime minister in 1783, after American Independence, and held the post during the French and Napoleonic Wars.  Pitt has been elevated as a statesman in the 19th century since he helped to strengthen the office of the prime minister from the tantrums of King George III. 

More proof for Gandhi’s derision on democracy follows further below in the notes on Gandhi’s political manifesto Hind Swaraj (1909).

That Gandhi could describe quite a number of his down-to-earth personal experiences (including dancing, food habits, prostitution, sexual abstinence, sleep and dream, vegetarianism) and serious political and social issues of his times in his autobiography, but not mention a sentence on democracy in 167 chapters shows something about his lack of faith on democratic practices.

Democracy in Gandhi’s political manifesto Hind Swaraj (1909)

For Gandhi’s stinging criticism on the democratic practices of parliament, we should read his political manifesto, penned when he was 40.  In the preface, carrying the dateline 22 November 1909, Gandhi asserted his viewpoint as follows:

"I have written some chapters on the subject of Indian Home Rule which I venture to place before the readers of Indian Opinion.  I have written because I could not restrain myself.  I have read much,  I have pondered much, during the stay, for four months in London, of the Transvaal Indian deputation.  I discussed things with as many of my countrymen as I could.  I met, too, as many Englishmen as it was possible for me to meet.  I consider it my duty now to place before the readers of Indian Opinion the conclusions, which appear to me to be final…"

Gandhi concluded his preface with the comments,

"The only motive is to serve my country, to find out the Truth, and to follow it.  If, therefore, my views are proved to be wrong, I shall have no hesitation in rejecting them.  If they are proved to be right, I would naturally wish, for the sake of the motherland, that others should adopt them.  To make it easy reading, the chapters are written in the form of a dialogue between the reader and the editor."

Gandhi exposed the hypocrisy of parliamentary democracy prevailing in Britain in 1909.  Now 96 years later, the democratic situation all over the world has not changed in substance, though colorful styles are projected as worthy of imitation.  Parliaments all over the world, led by the likes of Tony Blair (UK), Manmohan Singh (India), Paul Martin (Canada), John Howard (Australia), Junichiro Koizumi (Japan), Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore) and Mahinda Rajapakse (Sri Lanka), attest to the truth of Gandhi’s derision.  Here follows the 739 words of stinging indictment of parliamentary democracy by Gandhi. [source: The Penguin Gandhi Reader, edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Penguin Books, India, 1993, pp.13-15]

Chapter V: The Condition of England

"Reader: Then from your statement I deduce that the Government of England is not desirable and not worth copying by us.

Editor: Your deduction is justified.  The condition of England at present is pitiable.  I pray to God that India may never be in that plight.  That which you consider to be the Mother of Parliaments is like a sterile woman and a prostitute.  Both these are harsh terms, but exactly fit the case.  That Parliament has not yet, of its own accord, done a single good thing.  Hence I have compared it to a sterile woman.  The natural condition of the Parliament is such that, without outside pressure, it can do nothing.  It is like a prostitute because it is under the control of ministers who change from time to time.  Today it is under Mr Asquith, tomorrow it may be under Mr Balfour.

Reader: You have said this sarcastically.  The term ‘sterile woman’ is not applicable.  The Parliament, being elected by the people, must work under public pressure.  This is its quality.

Editor: You are mistaken.  Let us examine it a little more closely.  The best men are supposed to be elected by the people.  The members serve without pay and therefore, it must be assumed, only for the public weal.  The electors are considered to be educated and therefore we should assume that they would not generally make mistakes in their choice.  Such a Parliament should not need the spur of petitions or any other pressure.  Its work should be so smooth that its effects would be more apparent day by day.  But, as a matter of fact, it is generally acknowledged that the members are hypocritical and selfish.  Each thinks of his own little interest.  It is fear that is the guiding motive.  What is done today may be undone tomorrow.  It is not possible to recall a single instance in which finality can be predicted for its work.  When the greatest questions are debated, its members have been seen to stretch themselves and to doze.  Sometimes the members talk away until the listeners are disgusted.  Carlyle has called it the ‘talking shop of the world’.  Members vote for their party without a thought.  Their so-called discipline binds them to it.  If any member, by way of exception, gives an independent vote, he is considered a renegade.  If the money and the time wasted by Parliament were entrusted to a few good men, the English nation would be occupying today a much higher platform.  Parliament is simply a costly toy of the nation.  These views are by no means peculiar to me.  Some great English thinkers have expressed them.  One of the members of that Parliament recently said that a true Christian could not become a member of it.  Another said that it was a baby.  And if it has remained a baby after an existence of seven hundred years, when will it outgrow its babyhood?

Reader: You have set me thinking; you do not expect me to accept at once all you say.  You give me entirely novel views.  I shall have to digest them.  Will you now explain the epithet ‘prostitute’?

Editor: That you cannot accept my views at once is only right.  If you will read the literature on this subject, you will have some idea of it.  Parliament is without a real master.  Under the Prime Minister, its movement is not steady but it is buffeted about like a prostitute.  The Prime Minister is more concerned about his power than about the welfare of Parliament.  His energy is concentrated upon securing the success of his party.  His care is not always that Parliament shall do right.  Prime Ministers are known to have made Parliament do things merely for party advantage.  All this is worth thinking over.

Reader: Then you are really attacking the very men whom we have hitherto considered to be patriotic and honest?

Editor: Yes, that is true; I can have nothing against Prime Ministers, but what I have seen leads me to think that they cannot be considered really patriotic.  If they are to be considered honest because they do not take what are generally known as bribes, let them be so considered, but they are open to subtler influence.  In order to gain their ends, they certainly bribe people with honours.  I do not hesitate to say that they have neither real honesty nor a living conscience."

And, it is a delight to read Gandhi’s analogy of parliament as a baby, and his biting sarcasm, "If it has remained a baby after an existence of seven hundred years, when will it outgrow its babyhood?"  Does not the connection that I made about democracy as a 'set of diapers' in my previous essay [‘Democracy Dance in Diapers’] chime well with Gandhi’s 1909 rebuff of parliament as a 'baby?'

###

Posted October 6, 2005