Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s introductory remark in his autobiography, The story of My Experiments with Truth, shows his quest to explore spiritual aspects of life, rather than what people perceive him and his contributions. These spiritual aspects are the source of inspiration from where Gandhi “derived power to work in political field.” The autobiography narrates the story of his experiments in the spiritual field as he claimed, “known only to myself.” Moreover, Gandhi argues that his purpose is “to describe experiments in the science of Satyagraha” rather than writing “real autobiography”. At the beginning, he makes the reader clear that there is “no room for self praise” in his writing.
This paper will explore Gandhi’s spiritual quest with the help of Joseph Campbell’s theory of hero’s journey. Through The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explores that various myths from different times and places share certain fundamental stages and patterns. They are the broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. He describes, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Campbell’s theory divides the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies into a schema of 17 distinct steps. These steps are commonly organized into three classic states of rites of passage: Separation, Initiation and Return. The first stage of the journey is about the separation of departure of the hero from the normal world. During this primary part of the journey, the hero is initiated into true heroic stature and cleansed by various trails, tribulations, and rites. Persevering courageously through inner battles, the hero’s true character emerges, and the hero receives the ultimate fruit of his quest: self-mastery. After the rite of initiation, the hero returns home in triumph to share with his fellow travelers the knowledge and gifts acquired during the journey, although this stage may have its own challenges. The life stories of Prometheus, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha etc. follow this sequence of a soul’s journey quite closely. These three stages fit into Gandhi’s story as well in terms of his years in England (1888-1891), South Africa (1893-1914), and India (1915-1948). However, Gandhi’s journey of spiritual quest starts from his childhood starts from his childhood throughout his lifespan. Thus, applying Campbell’s theory of hero’s journey in Gandhi’s life has a basic limitation: Gandhi’s life is reality, not a myth. Gandhi’s achievements are not magical and coincidental.
Gandhi left for London to study law at the age of 18, and shortly before his return to India from England in 1891, his mother passed away. This formative period, which laid phase of departure or separation in his journey. It was in England that Gandhi discovered, for the first time, vegetarianism, the Bhagavad Gita, the Sermon on the Mount, and the teaching of Buddha. However, before his initiation, his childhood shaped him very much. Two incidents influenced Gandhi very much towards his quest for truth from his childhood. Gandhi narrates two work of arts that have lasting effect on him: Shravana Pitribhakti Nataka (in book) and Harishchandra (performance). These left “an indelible impression on my mind” and “captured my heart”, recalls Gandhi. Shravana, a mythological character representing a dutiful son and Harishchandra, a legendary king who followed the way of truth inspired him a lot, as he argues, “both Shravana and Harischandra are living realities for me.” Second, once his headmaster at school fined Gandhi because of his absence in gymnastics. Even though he told what had happened (in fact, he was serving his father) but the headmaster refused to believe him. It “deeply pained” him. As a result, he learnt that “a man of truth must also be man of care.” This was, according to Gandhi, “the first and last instance of my carelessness in school.” Moreover, Bhagavad Gita remained Gandhi’s spiritual dictionary. It was in England that Gandhi was first introduced by two theosophists to Edwin Arnold’s English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, a text that was to become his spiritual dictionary. Similarly, on October 1, 1904, Gandhi took a 24-hour train journey from Johannesburg to Durban. His friend, Hanry Polak come to see him off at the railway station and gave him a book that he said Gandhi “was sure to like”. The book was Unto This Last. In a chapter titled “the Magic Spell of a Book” in his autobiography, Gandhi tells us that he found the book compelling readable and “impossible to lay aside.” He did not get any sleep that night and decided to change his life “in accordance with the ideals of the book.”
The 21 years that Gandhi spent in South Africa represent the vital phase of his initiation, where he was fashioned into true heroic stature. It was in South Africa that Gandhi had what can be called a spiritual conversion experience. Though it seems idealistic today, Gandhi experimented the principle of truth throughout his lifespan from India to England, from Africa to India. He believes that God laid the foundations of his life on South Africa and sowed the seed of the light for national self-respect. “Though this path is strait and narrow and sharp as the razor’s edge, for me it has been the quickest and easiest.” However, Gandhi’s journey is not free form spiritual dilemma, which he mentions in the chapter ‘A Spiritual Dilemma’. As a core spiritual belief, ahimsa or non-violence connotes honoring all life, appreciating the oneness of all things, and practicing non-violence. Conversely, the notion of “himsa” connotes violence, divisiveness, and destruction. With an understanding of these two principles, Gandhi recognizes that people are social beings who are constantly struggling between these two forces. Since the principle of ahimsa condemns war, Gandhi acknowledges his own inner struggles when his country was at war. He expresses the difficulty of not supporting a war when your own country is involved: “the very same line of argument that persuaded me to take part in the Boer War had weighed on me. It was quite clear to me that participation in war could never be consistent with ahimsa. But, it is not always given to one to be equally clear about one’s duty.” Gandhi felt a duty to his country when he participated in the Boer War and did not apologize for his actions. However, in later years, he understood the intuitive wrongness of war and became opposed to killing for any reason. Gandhi’s guiding spiritual principles formed the foundations of his religious, social, and political experience. Gandhi’s contribution to understanding the role of religious thought in society was his ability to move his religious beliefs into social action and to inspire others to practice ahimsa.
The final phase, the 33 years Gandhi spent in India, until he was assassinated, marks the hero’s return to his homeland to share the knowledge acquired during the transformative phase of the journey. Gandhi’s spiritual journey seems easy on the surface but at the deeper level, if we understood and followed it properly, it will lead us to the Moksha. In fact, Gandhi’s dream was to attain Moksha as he clearly indicates in the introduction of his biography, “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.” This reference clearly shows that, for Gandhi, to attain Moksha is synonymous with seeing God face to face. Than what does he mean by seeing god face to face? What does he mean by God? For him, “God is Truth” as he argues, “For me, truth is the sovereign principle, which includes numerous other principles. This truth is not only truthfulness in word, but truthfulness in thought also, and not only the relative truth of our conception, but the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle that is God.” However, Gandhi’s quest to define his philosophy did not rely on any form of God. He argued, “There are innumerable definitions of God, because His manifestations are innumerable. They overwhelm him with wonder and awe but he worship God as Truth only. “I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him”, he admits. Thus, the principle of Gandhi’s life remains truth. Gandhi held that the spiritual life, as well as political and social work, requires a fearless pursuit of truth. He is even ready to sacrifice the things dearest to him in pursuit of his quest. If he had to choose between his quest and his own life, he would have chosen his dream as he expresses his conviction, “Even if the sacrifice demanded be my very life, I hope I may be prepared to give it.”
In conclusion, Gandhi’s spiritual quest follows the three stages of a hero’s journey- Separation, Initiation, and Return- as Campbell described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces but not sequentially. The Gita provided solid ground of Moksha through self-realization; Raychand provided the role model of a life free from attachment and solely devoted to self-realization; the life examples of Shravana Kumar, Harishchandra, and Prahlada provided the call to unconditional adherence to the truth; Toltoy, Ruskin, and Thoreu contributed the necessary impetus for Satyagraha and non-violence; and the Ramayana provided the inspiration to live a life of virtue and fidelity to one’s vows. Gandhi had embarked upon a hero’s journey in England, conquered his demons in South Africa, and returned to India in a state transformed, to bestow his gifts on his brothers and sisters. Gandhi was beset with challenges through all three phases, but he preserved courageously every day in his quest for truth and self-realization. “The autobiography is not a literary masterpiece”, as George Orwell, argues, “But his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant.”
Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. The Story of My Experiments with Truth: An Autobiography. Noida: Om International, 2010. Print.
Orwell, George. “Reflections on Gandhi.” George Orwell. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <http://www.orwell.ru/library/reviews/gandhi/english/e_gandhi>