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A Usual And Unusual Gandhi

Priya Naik

Edited by Eva Pfostl
Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 184, Rs. 595.00

By Arvind Sharma
Hachette, India, 2013, pp. 252, Rs. 550.00


In his foreword to Between Politics and Eth- ics, Akeel Bilgrami rightly notes that to understand Gandhi, ‘takes a lot of interpretative patience and imagination’ and it is not required for everyone to strain their patience and imagination (p. x). This volume, true to the Gandhian spirit, raises more questions than it answers. Sharma’s Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, on the other hand, shines and smoothens Gandhi’s position as the Mahatma of modern India, adding more gloss to Gandhi’s spiritual escapades, by glossing over contentious political questions. Sharma excavates carefully the deep and invisible spiritual pools Gandhi dipped into, which led Nehru to enquire, ‘has he drunk somewhere from the sacred spring of life that has given strength to India through the ages’ (p. 5). The two books cast both a light and a shadow on Gandhi, inviting questions on the legacy of spiritualism, politics and nationalism which Gandhi fathered.   In Pfostl’s volume the brave essay by Ugo Caruso encapsulates Gandhi’s rich, eventful and recorded life and methods in a few pages. Caruso is excellent in pinning down the details most easily forgotten in our claims to a certain version of Gandhi. He reminds us that in South Africa, Gandhi ‘surprised everybody’ by organizing an Ambulance Corps during the Boer War and that he till 1918 was ‘colonial’, accepting the authority of British rule. Describing him as a ‘superior example of human achievement’ (p. 40), Caruso outlines his ability to reach out to the people, position himself as a saint and relate to the masses in an unprecedented manner. This superiority of Gandhi, the belief that he was of a different mettle, leads Giuliano Pontara to note that ‘he was a very unusual person’ (p. 47), or at least one who strove for moksha and spiritual attainment while completely absorbed in politics. It is this aspect, the ‘Mahatma side of Gandhi’s personality’ (p. 3) that Sharma, in his ‘spiritual biography of Gandhi’ aims at addressing, comparing him to Jesus and Buddha. In such a biography, Sharma views Gandhi’s life as a series of spiritual encounters, episodes and experiments, such as when Gandhi ‘was brought by the fear of goblins to God’ (p. 23), Gandhi’s ‘conversion experience’ when he was thrown off the train from Durban to Pretoria and his experiments in South Africa.   All this is very fine but Gandhi’s spirituality must be coupled with his assertion that ‘...

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