Mahatma Gandhi (An Essay in Political Biography)

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Item Code: NAJ395
Author: Dietmar Rothermund
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788173042621
Pages: 148
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 200 gm
Book Description
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About the Book


Dietmar Rothermund was attracted by Gandhi’s life and thought ever since he heard about him. A historian trained in the tradition of critical analysis, Rothermund initially distrusted the biographical approach in his writings on India. However, he ultimately returned to Gandhi, read all the volumes of his Collected Works and wrote a comprehensive boigraphy in German in 1989.


He planned to publish an English version too. With the recent publication of books by Judith Brown and B.R. Nanda, another comprehensive biography in English, however, appeared a superfluous exercise. But after a study of these books, the author feels that his interpretation of Gandhi’s thought and action differs from theirs in many respects. He has, therefore, restricted himself to An Essay in Political Biography in which he highlights points considered to be essential by him. In doing so he also aims at offering a biography which would stand on its own. Gandhi said, ‘My life is my message’. This should encourage everybody to study that life. In fact the greatness of Gandhi can only be appreciated if one sees him in the context of his times, on the horns of dilemmas, in the usual human quandary of having to make decisions based on limited information.


This book is an attempt to understand Gandhi in the above perspective.


About the Author


Dietmar Rothermund retired as Professor of the Department of History at the Sudasien Institut, Heidelberg.




Ever since I heard about Gandhi I was attracted by his life and thought. I still vividly remember how I was shocked by the news of his assassination which I read in the papers as a boy of 15 years in my German hometown. The idea of writing his biography had been at the back of my mind for a long time. But when I wrote my book on the Indian freedom movement which was published in German in 1965 I consciously avoided the biographical approach. As a historian trained in the tradition of critical analysis I distrusted the biographical narrative which substitutes the unity of an individual life for the unifying principle of a historical process. In trying to understand the process which led to the emergence of a free Indian nation I turned to a detailed analysis of Indian political history in the 19th and 20th centuries. In due course this approach took me farther afield to a study of agrarian relations and of India’s economic history under British rule. But finally I returned to Gandhi, read all the 90 volumes of his Collected Works and wrote a comprehensive biography which was published in German in 1989. Of course, I planned to publish an English version of it, too. But in the meantime Judith Brown’s (“Gandhi, Prisoner of Hope”) and B. R. Nanda’s recent books (“Gandhi, Pan-Islamism, Imperialism and Nationalism” and “In Gandhi’s Footsteps, The Life and Times of Jamnalal Bajaj”) appeared and this made another comprehensive biography in English a superfluous exercise. However, after reading those books I noticed that my interpretation of Gandhi’s thought and actions differed in many respects from those of Brown and Nanda. I had particularly tried to provide precise accounts of the political and legal contexts of his various campaigns and of his crucial decisions. Therefore I felt that instead of giving up my plan of writing an English biography of Gandhi altogether I should restrict my plans to “An Essay in Political Biography” in which I would highlight those points which I considered to be essential. But in doing this I have also aimed at offering a biography which could stand on its own. Thus the reader does not need to turn to other accounts at every step in order to be able to follow my text. But I would certainly encourage the reader to turn to the other authors after taking note of my arguments, because our texts supplement each other.




In jail Gandhi became a voracious reader. In 1922 he devoted four months to reading the “Mahabharata” which he had never touched before. Be admitted that he had been prejudiced against it, thinking that it was a hym of war and bloodshed. It was only now that the deeper meaning of the text dawned upon him. He also devoted some time to the classic works of European historiography and read Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and Motley’s book on William of Orange and the freedom struggle of the Netherlands. But the vision of the author of the “Mahabharata” was closer to his own than that of the European historians. When reporting about his reading in “Young India” he wrote:


“I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history. It is my pet theory that our Hindu ancestors solved the question for us by ignoring history as it is understood today and by building on slight events their philosophical structure. Such is the Mahabharata. And I look upon Gibbon and Motley as inferior editions of the Mahabharata. The immortal but unknown author of the Mahabharata weaves into his story sufficient of the supernatural to warn you against taking him literally. Gibbon and Motley are unnecessarily at pains to tell you they are giving you facts and nothing but facts .... Names and forms matter little, they come and go. That which is permanent and therefore necessary eludes the historian of events. Truth transcends history.”


Gandhi’s statement that “Truth transcends history” has a deeper and wider meaning than that which it has in the context of this article where it seems to refer only to the futility of supposedly objective historiography. The quest for truth was central to Gandhi’s life, but this was not the kind of truth which can be ascertained by verification according to the methods of critical scholarship. For him verification depended on deliberate action controlled by a vow. He stated that “Truth is the Essence of the Vow” and thus reflected the ancient Indian practice of “satyakriya” which he never mentioned as he had not read about it. But having absorbed Indian tradition he was familiar with the context of this principle and if he had known the word, he would probably have adopted it instead of creating the neologism “satyagraha”. Satyakriya means “to make something true” and in the ancient texts it usually refers to a kind of ordeal whereby the person concerned takes an oath based on a secret truth, known only to himself. The verification of this kind of truth then does not depend on its acceptability as a true statement by others but on the person concerned acting upon it so as to be judged by God. The Vedic god Varuna was known to punish those who perjured themselves and he knew everybody’s secret truth and let him perish if his oath was spurious.


Gandhi was not very much interested in history as such, but only to the extent of influencing the course of contemporary history by “truthful” action. If truth transcends history it could provide a point of reference outside history from which one could influence the course of events like passing through a stormy sea by keeping one’s eyes fixed on a loads tar. The nautical instrument in this case is the vow which keeps the one who has taken it on a strait path. In emphasizing this approach to truth, Gandhi could think in terms of individual experience only and if there was to be mass action, it could only be understood as a sum of individual experiences. This is why Gandhi was fundamentally opposed to any theories which interpreted human destiny in terms of impersonal collective forces. Historical materialism as well as the “invisible hand” of political economy were equally alien to his thought. Those who believe in such theories have usually two options, they can act on them trusting that “history “is on their side, or sit back and relax until “history” comes their way anyhow. For Gandhi both these options were irrelevant as he believed in deliberate individual action for which one had to assume personal responsibility. Paradoxically it was for this reason that Gandhi with his indifference to “history” was able to “make history”. Of course, this also implied a single mindedness which often upset those who had to deal with him or confused those who had to interpret his actions later on and had recourse to theories which did not fit his case. Those who saw in him a traitor to a revolutionary cause, a supporter of vested interests, a man who pretended to fight against imperialist domination but really helped to prolong it, failed to judge him on his own terms and tried to fit him in to their conceptual framework.


But with all his single mindedness and his rigid ethics of conviction Gandhi was not impervious to the world around him. He wanted to influence people and therefore he had to try to understand them, he worked in a political context and therefore he had to take account of it. He did all this, but not along the lines of social and political theorists. Instead he kept in touch with innumerable people and took a lively interest in their personal concerns. In this way he got a constant feedback, not only in terms of information but also in the field of political action. Ever so often contacts which he had made and cultivated without ulterior motives later on yielded surprising dividends.


All these contacts and encounters belonged to the confusing welter of contingencies out of which history is made up. But Gandhi, like a magnet, made them fall into a pattern. If truth transcends history there is also truth in history, and Gandhi tried to live it. Even a clairvoyant man does not always act as such and may commit mistakes in everyday life. Similarly Gandhi who was wedded to the truth made mistakes, even Himalayan ones, as he himself admitted. Politicians usually do not admit their mistakes and try to forget them hoping that others would do so, too. To them Gandhi’s admissions were embarrassing. The biographer, of course, is grateful for so much self-criticism as it makes his task much easier. But this can be deceptive, because Gandhi also made mistakes which he did not see as such and therefore did not admit. One of these was his plunge into the Khilafat movement about which he knew so little, another one was that he consistently underestimated Jinnah and thereby forced him to pursue a path which he himself initially did not want to follow. He could also be blamed for giving up the training of satyagrahis in the last decades of his life and relying too much on the efficacy of his fasts which only created a momentary impression and tended to make his followers mere spectators instead of political actors who could fend for themselves.


Gandhi said: “My life is my message.” This should encourage everybody to study that life, but not only its highlights. In fact, the greatness of Gandhi can only be appreciated if one sees him in the context of his times, on the horns of dilemmas, in the usual human quandary of having to make decisions based on limited information. The way in which he coped with that was truly remarkable.








Introduction: “Truth transcends history”



Childhood in Gujarat



The Importance of Being a Gentleman



A Coolie Lawyer



The Birth of Satyagraha



Encounters with Indian Peasants



The Problems of Non-cooperation



The Message of the Spinning Wheel



The Significance of Bardoli



A Symbolic Revolution



The Pact with the Viceroy



Frustrations at the Round Table



Fasting for the Untouchables



The Mahatma and his Party



Overthrowing a Rival



The Second World War



Do or Die



The Spectre of Pakistan



The Challenge of the Atom Bomb



Partition and Death



Rejected Heritage









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