Skip to main content


The Essential Gandhi

Gandhi, Mahatma, ed. Louis Fischer. The Essential Gandhi (Vintage; 2nd edition, 2002).

Excerpt from The Essential Gandhi


Part One, The Man, [ 1 ] beginnings of a great man


[To the end of his days, Gandhi attempted to master and remake himself. He called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, an "experiment" being an operation within and upon oneself. The following excerpts are taken from the book.]

. . . [It] is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography. But I shall not mind if every page of it speaks only of my experiments. I believe, or at any rate flatter myself with the belief, that a connected account of all these experiments will not be without benefit to the reader. My experiments in the political field are now known, not only in India but to a certain extent to the "civilized" world. For me, they have not much value and the title of Mahatma [Great Soul] that they have won for me, has, therefore, even less. Often the title has deeply pained me and there is not a moment I can recall when it may be said to have tickled me. But I should certainly like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field which are known only to myself and from which I have derived such power as I possess for working in the political field. If the experiments are really spiritual, then there can be no room for self-praise. They can only add to my humility. The more I reflect and look back on the past, the more vividly do I feel my limitations.

What I want to achieve--what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years--is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha [Salvation--oneness with God and freedom from later incarnations]. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field are directed to this same end. . . . .

To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics and I can say without the slightest hesitation and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.

. . . In the march towards Truth, anger, selfishness, hatred, etc., naturally give way, for otherwise Truth would be impossible to attain. . . . A successful search for Truth means complete deliverance from the dual throng, such as of love and hate, happiness and misery. . . . .

[As] I have all along believed that what is possible for one is possible for all, my experiments have not been conducted in the closet but in the open. . . . .

The Gandhis belong to the Bania [Businessman] caste and seem to have been originally grocers. ["Gandhi" means grocer.] But for three generations, from my grandfather, they have been Prime Ministers in several Kathiawad [Western India] States. Uttamchand Gandhi, alias Ota Gandhi, my grandfather, must have been a man of principle. State intrigues compelled him to leave Porbandar, where he was Diwan [Prime Minister] and to seek refuge in Junagadh [the nearby little state]. There he saluted the Nawab [Ruler] with his left hand. Someone noticing the apparent discourtesy asked for an explanation, which was thus given: "The right hand is already pledged to Porbandar."

Ota Gandhi married a second time, having lost his first wife. He had four sons by his first wife and two by his second wife. I do not think that in my childhood I ever felt or knew that these sons . . . were not all of the same mother. The fifth of these six brothers was Karamchand Gandhi, alias Kaba Gandhi, and the sixth was Tulsidas Gandhi. Both these brothers were Prime Ministers in Porbandar, one after the other. Kaba Gandhi was my father. He was a member of the Rajasthanik Court. It is now extinct but in those days it was a very influential body for settling disputes between the chiefs and their fellow clansmen. He was for some time Prime Minister in Rajkot and then in Vankaner. He was a pensioner of the Rajkot State when he died.

Kaba Gandhi married four times in succession, having lost his wife each time by death. He had two daughters by his first and second marriages. His last wife, Putlibai, bore him a daughter and three sons, I being the youngest.


My father was a lover of his clan, truthful, brave and generous but short-tempered. To a certain extent he might have been given even to carnal pleasures. For he married for the fourth time when he was over forty. But he was incorruptible and had earned a name for strict impartiality in his family as well as outside. His loyalty to the state was well-known. [A British] Assistant Political Agent [once] spoke insultingly of the Rajkot Thakore Saheb, his chief, and he stood up to the insult. The agent was angry and asked Kaba Gandhi to apologize. This he refused to do and was therefore kept under detention for a few hours. But when the Agent saw that Kaba Gandhi was adamant he ordered him to be released.

My father never had any ambition to accumulate riches and left us very little property.

The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness. She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meals without her daily prayers. Going to Haveli--the Vaishnava [Orthodox Hindu] temple--was one of her daily duties. As far as my memory can go back I do not remember her having ever missed the Chaturmas [a fasting period similar to Lent]. She would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching. Illness was no excuse for relaxing them. . . . To keep two or three consecutive fasts was nothing to her. Living on one meal a day during Chaturmas was a habit with her. Not content with that she fasted every alternate day during one Chaturmas. During another Chaturmas she vowed not to have food without seeing the sun. We children on those days would stand, staring at the sky, waiting to announce the appearance of the sun to our mother. Everyone knows that at the height of the rainy season the sun often does not condescend to show his face. And I remember days when, at his sudden appearance, we would rush and announce it to her. She would run out to see with her own eyes, but by that time the fugitive sun would be gone, thus depriving her of her meal. "That does not matter," she would say cheerfully, "God did not want me to eat today." And she would return to her round of duties.

Of these parents I was born at Porbandar, otherwise known as Sudamapuri, on the second October, 1869. I passed my childhood in Porbandar. I recollect having been put to school. It was with some difficulty that I got through the multiplication tables. The fact that I recollect nothing more of those days than having learnt, in company with other boys, to call our teacher all kinds of names would strongly suggest that my intellect must have been sluggish and my memory raw.

I must have been about seven when my father left Porbandar for Rajkot to become a member of the Rajasthanik Court. There I was put into a primary school . . . I could have been only a mediocre student. From this school I went to the suburban school and thence to the high school, having already reached my twelfth year. I do not remember having ever told a lie during this short period either to my teachers or to my schoolmates. I used to be very shy and avoided all company. My books and my lessons were my sole companions. To be at school at the stroke of the hour and to run back home as soon as the school closed--that was my daily habit. I literally ran back because I could not bear to talk to anybody. I was afraid even lest anyone should poke fun at me.

[When he grew older, however, he found some congenial mates and played in the streets. He also played by the sea.]

[An] incident which occurred at the examination during my first year at the high school . . . is worth recording. Mr. Giles, the [British] Education Inspector, had come on a visit of inspection. He had set us five words to write as a spelling exercise. One of the words was "kettle." I had misspelt it. The teacher tried to prompt me with the point of his boot but I would not be prompted. It was beyond me to see that he wanted me to copy the spelling from my neighbor's slate for I had thought the teacher was there to supervise us against copying. The result was that all the boys except myself were found to have spelt every word correctly. Only I had been stupid. The teacher tried later to bring this stupidity home to me but without effect. I never could learn the art of "copying."

Yet the incident did not in the least diminish my respect for my teacher. I was by nature blind to the faults of elders. Later I came to know many other failings of this teacher but my regard for him remained the same. For I had learnt to carry out the orders of elders, not to scan their actions.6

[But compliance at school did not preclude revolt outside it.]

A [young] relative and I became fond of smoking . . . we began to steal pennies from the servant's pocket money . . . to purchase Indian cigarettes. . . .

But we were far from satisfied. . . . Our want of independence began to smart. It was unbearable that we should be unable to do anything without the elders' permission. At last, in sheer disgust, we decided to commit suicide!

. . . But our courage failed us. Supposing we were not instantly killed? And what was the good of killing ourselves? . . .

I realized it was not as easy to commit suicide as to contemplate it. And since then, whenever I have heard of someone threatening to commit suicide it has little or no effect on me.

The thought of suicide ultimately resulted in both of us bidding goodbye to the habit of smoking . . . and of stealing the servant's pennies. . . . .



←  Go back                                                  Next page