- Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography by Arvind Sharma
As is evident from the title of his new book, Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography, Arvind Sharma aims at tracing Gandhi’s life from the perspective of spirituality. The introduction begins by suggesting that some aspects of Gandhi’s life find explanation when viewed through prisms that qualify human beings as “spiritual beings having a human experience” (p. 4). It is then argued that the thesis that the source of Gandhi’s strength and leadership was spiritual is a strong one and worth investigating. The context for such a project is well-prompted in the face of many understandings of Gandhi as an individual accessing Hinduism in unique and intuitive ways as well as evolving spiritual principles in a specifically religion-neutral manner.
Structurally, the book is divided into two parts. The first part describes and discusses all that could be considered spiritual in Gandhi’s life in his own words, mostly through his autobiography. This part acts as a typical biography, providing details of the significant events in Gandhi’s life. The second part is analytical and, through various sources, picks specific themes that prompt understandings of Gandhi as a spiritual person and the kind of spirituality he could be seen as upholding.
The first part uses questions at pertinent points, enriching the content and defying what could otherwise have been a monotonous narrative. Most of these questions have to do with Gandhi’s ideas, the nature of their formation, and his influences. In his autobiography, Gandhi views his actions in retrospect and interjects his storytelling with thoughts such as “God in his infinite mercy protected me from myself,” which Sharma, as the spiritual biographer, duly notes and contextualizes (p. 19). Here, the analysis could have explored the nature of spirituality as something that gains greater relevance in later life—in keeping with similar insights from the Indian spiritual traditions. But Sharma draws on other ideas from, say, the Islamic tradition to suggest that “God turning his face toward us” could be a significant occurrence (p. 20). Though such analyses are a matter of authorial choice, a theory of the uniqueness of the Indian spiritual traditions from times prior to Gandhi, if proposed right at the beginning of the book, might have offered a richer view.
Sharma does offer many small clarifications in a general manner that shed light on Hinduism and at times locate its uniqueness in contrast to both practical wisdom and also the enlightenment logic that re-defined the ideal place of God and man. Some comparisons and contrasts with other religious and spiritual traditions help cull [End Page 643] out aspects of Hinduism well. For instance, Sharma notes that “even hostility toward God can lead to salvation” (p. 23). Concepts of dharma and satya are explained through their unique usage by Gandhi, and these help the non-Indian reader in navigating the book. The only drawback of the first part of the book is its excessive reliance on Gandhi’s autobiography. Other perspectives from archival documents could have been used to avoid this. However, the occasional reliance on other biographies helps in alleviating this to some extent.
Gandhi’s travel abroad and his subsequent realization of Hinduism’s place in the context of world religions are described interestingly through the prism of a contemporary traveler’s experiences. This contemporizing approach works well to cull out the issues involved. Gandhi’s Christian and other influences are duly recorded here. Sharma’s understanding that different movements from elsewhere “led him [Gandhi] to further explore his own Hindu background” lends greater credibility to the general experience of Indians traveling Westward (p. 38). That theosophy’s influence on Gandhi “re-introduced … a major text of his own tradition, the Bhagavad Gita” and “disabused him of the notion, fostered by the missionaries, that Hinduism is rife with superstition” is convincing and compatible with the cross-cultural experiences of the well traveled (p. 39). Again, Gandhi’s shame at not having read the Gītā in...