An American’s Journey Through the Life of Gandhi: Part 1

Family, Food, and Faith

I have to admit that I am often hesitant to read the autobiographical works of great men, for I find it off-putting to see their awareness of their own greatness (e.g. Caesar). Gandhi starts his work by vowing to be humble. No disrespect to him, but I was a bit skeptical of what this meant. But, he was absolutely genuine. I can only compare it to Augustine’s “Confessions:” a humble inventory of one’s flaws and pursuit of being better. Other than humility, I was profoundly struck by his sense of duty. Perhaps I’m westernizing that term, but I saw a man humbly grappling with his duty around three things: family, food, and faith. The rest of this blog will break down each.

“Morality is the base of things. And truth is the substance of all morality. Truth was my sole objective. It began to grow in magnitude everyday. And my definition of it has been forever widening.” – Gandhi

Family: As an American, the most shocking part of his family dynamic was his childhood marriage. I have friends who are 25 and still feel too young to get married to their longtime partners. For that reason, I fully understand his reluctance to be open about this while in England. Nonetheless, what stood out to me is his humility and self-criticism in that childhood marriage. Honest and open about mistreating his wife, I could not help but feel he was too hard on himself. At that age, developmentally, we know for fact that he could not have properly regulated his emotions and actions. Perhaps biased, I see no way in which a child should be thrust into such a situation. Any injustice, in my opinion, to follow would be created by the environment not the child. 

Lust and hunger in his marriage were not the only significant times in which I believe he held himself to too high a standard. His touching admission to his father about his theft left a mark on me. My first reaction, again, was that these “sins” are the act of a guiltless child. Just kids being kids stuff. But what I realized, or at least took away as, his message to be was not some Puritan judgement demanding penance before a vengeful God that I am more used to in the West, especially Massachusetts (I’ll explain more later). But, rather, through these errors, he came to discover and live out the virtues of truth and temperance, not out of fear of punishment, but out of justice for its own sake.

Let me explain what I mean by the Puritan judgement. You see, it is often fabled that America was founded by the Pilgrims and Puritans seeking freedom of religion. That’s true, but also misleading. They wanted freedom of religion for themselves, not religious tolerance. In fact, tolerance would be the last thing they would preach. Obsessed with Protestant good works, there was no room for error without punishment. Even celebrating Christmas was banned in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony because it was too ostentatious. So, in that context, Gandhi’s overly self critical view of his childhood would be certainty expected, but only in the context of deserving absolute punishment. Often in the West, the idea of taking it easy on children is rooted in correcting this Puritan judgement that you are accountable for all your sins and must be punished. But, Gandhi’s approach seemed very different to me. It seemed much more loving, kind, and in pursuit of justice, not retribution.

Food: His relationship with food was a journey for me. I, like most Americans, eat a ton of meat. I relate almost no morality with what I eat. So, I started confused as to why he made such a big deal about eating meat in secret, then admitting he had done wrong, then vowing to his mother never to do it again. I would’ve been his friend reading Benthem to him trying to persuade him that it was in his utilitarian interest to eat meat while in England, that his vow didn’t really mean anything if broken. To me, the vow is so hard to relate to- to be so devoted to something that feels so inconsequential is nothing I’ve done before. Setting aside the content of the vow, though, I came to appreciate it in the context of duty. It’s hard not to see nobility in someone making a promise and keeping it to his mom even though she would never know if he broke it. I think this again speaks to the Puritan idea of punishment, that things are wrong if you can be punished for them. But, even more than that, I think I’m starting to get why the food is so important in itself. It is a measure of self control and devotion. It is a way to make manifest the type of dutiful person you want to be.

Faith: I feel like I’ve already touched a good bit on the difference between my experience with faith being from the city of Puritan founding. But, Gandhi’s relationship with faith has been interesting to me even beyond that. First, I was shocked to learn he was an atheist early on. But, more so, I was impressed by how open minded he was about his faith as a whole. He seemed to view his religious studies as rungs on the ladder of truth, as opposed to a destination. Personally, I was struck by the way he was struck by the Sermon on the Mount. To those of you unfamiliar, the gist is blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the poor, and turn the other cheek. Knowing how his life turned out, this doesn’t surprise me.

Miscellaneous: Other than the three things listed above, what struck me most about his story was his effort to assimilate. From trying to balance his home culture to starting to dress English, trying to navigate a whole new landscape, all the while trying to be his best self. Obviously, this is something I cannot relate to having lived my life in Boston.

I’m looking forward to part 2! 

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