Who Wrote Gandhi’s Autobiography of Errors?

A voice wrote Gandhi’s autobiography. Others, like Mahadev Desai, translated it, and still others, like Tridip Suhrud, retranslated that voice, to prolong its debt to hearing.

Note: This article was originally published on August 05, 2018, and was republished on October 2, 2020.

The error became for me a beacon-light of warning.
~ M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography

Reintroducing the English translation of Gandhi’s autobiography to readers, Tridip Suhrud informs us in the new, critical edition of Gandhi’s An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (January 2018), published originally by Penguin (India) and later by Yale University Press (US), that the title of the English translation reverses Gandhi’s intention, and along with it, the precise nature of the book. Suhrud writes, “In the original Gujarati, Gandhi introduced this difference through two forms, jivan vrutant (autobiography or the chronicle of life) and atmakatha (the story of a soul). What Gandhi wanted to write was an atmakatha and not a jivan vrutant. This distinction gets blurred in the English rendering, ‘autobiography’.”

Suhrud clarifies a further twist in translation, that “the title Satya Na Prayogo athva Atmakatha foregrounds the experiments with Truth. The order is reversed in the English translation, where ‘An Autobiography’ has primacy.” The mode of autobiographical writing with its roots in early Christianity that influenced its practitioners in India since the nineteenth century, took precedence in the book’s English title over Gandhi’s foregrounding his narrative as a story-telling of truth. Is there any special significance that underlies this privileging?

The autobiography is traced back to Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Commentators see it as a narrative form where the immanent temporal form of the autobiography is displaced by the scheme of allegory. But it is agreed that even when the autobiography took its modern, secularised form, the idea of the “self” always seemed to draw out, under autonomous garbs, certain religious and normative ideas, thus never really abandoning the allegorical influence. The autobiography was always an anxious enterprise to describe a journey of the self to be recovered, examined, vindicated, defended or simply guided in time through certain idealised visions. Gandhi, however, clarified about his project, that “it is not a real autobiography”. It is not about his life as such, but his “experiments with truth”, which as we shall see, is about documenting a life of errors.

The spirit that Gandhi borrows from his Christian/Western predecessors is that truth is very much the higher-order or master narrative that orders the narrative of the self/soul. The English translation, by privileging the experimenting with truth over the story of the self/soul, merely reverses the reversible. In keeping with Gandhi’s own project of privileging truth over self, the translation of the title does not do any violence to Gandhi’s writing project. Yet, this privileging, in a way, does alter the central motive or purpose behind Gandhi writing his autobiography. What is it?

M.K. Gandhi Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai Introduced with notes by Tridip Suhrud Foreword by Ashis Nandy An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Critical Edition) Penguin, 2018

M.K. Gandhi
An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Critical Edition)
Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai
Introduced with notes by Tridip Suhrud
Foreword by Ashis Nandy
Penguin, 2018

Gandhi’s main purpose of writing an autobiography, I would argue, beneath the declared intention of writing his experiments with truth, is in every respect, most fundamentally, a recording of (his) errors. Gandhi’s search for truth reveals at every step, his obsession about (not) committing errors.

Suhrud writes in his introduction:

“An experiment in Truth is an experiment in brahmacharya. An experiment with Truth cannot have any possibility of secrecy. As an experiment, it was important and imperative, Gandhi felt, to record the unusual, uncontrolled occurrences. It was essential to speak of the darkness within.”

For Gandhi, experimenting with truth opens up a necessary task of recording his errors. Errors are the “unusual, uncontrolled occurrences” that have to get faithfully, truthfully, without any temptation for “secrecy”, written on paper. The act of truth-seeking demands, there is no hiding place for errors. Gandhi’s autobiographical task is the confession of errors. Writing on his errors is the only possible (and demanding) means to his experimenting with truth. It defines the discursive field of Gandhi’s autobiographical narrative.

The search for truth requires the constant (and minute) vigilance towards errors.

In Gandhi’s own introduction to the original translation of the autobiography, which he signed on November 26, 1925 from Sabarmati Ashram, he wrote:

“I hope to acquaint the reader fully with all my faults and errors. My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of satyagraha, not to say how good I am. In judging myself I shall try to be as harsh as truth, as I want others also to be. Measuring myself by that standard.”

What is the harshness of truth? It can be nothing else but the most rigorous ordeal to harshly judge one’s errors. Truth-telling can thus also be read as error-telling, and the science of satyagraha, the technique of revealing your errors to yourself and to the world. Gandhi’s purpose is obviously not to say good things about him, but risk the judgement of others in publicly recording his errors. Error-telling is not an attractive job. What is the “standard” for measuring truthfulness? It is measured by the ability to boldly record one’s errors.

To tell the truth is to tell one’s errors.

Suhrud’s retranslation from Mahadev Desai, of a crucial passage from the autobiography, takes us closer to my argument on Gandhi’s self-experimental project:

“I have always believed that we must reduce to a dust particle the elephantine errors of others and view our own errors, small as a mustard seed, as large as mountains; only then do we get a relative estimation of others’ and our own errors.”

The ethical subject of truth, in Gandhi’s conception, will lower the degree of error if committed by another, but enlarge the error if committed by the self. There is an unequal measure (and measuring) of error between the self and another, for there is a certain economy of intentionality involved. Those who are prone to enlarging small errors committed by others, are inclined to pass off their own, major errors as miniscule. It causes a double ethical imbalance, both within the self, and also between one self and another.

The Gandhian subject of ethics treats oneself more critically and rigorously than it treats others. What is the relation of truth to this unequal economy of error-finding, between self and another? The answer to this question will perhaps best illuminate what Gandhi understood as truth and truth-seeking. And the answer is an ethical one, where the other is always at a greater height than the self, such that his errors are less noticeable, less under scrutiny than one’s own. It is this imbalance between self-scrutiny and finding fault with others that allows Gandhi’s ethical relationship with the world. There is no ethics without this primary imbalance, where the other is always less in question than you, your self/soul. You are more responsible than others is the first principle of ethics, whose roots are Judeo-Christian.

Gandhi adds an ontological twist to it: You will be held more responsible, you are more accountable, for your errors than others. We are error-prone beings.

Mahatma Gandhi taking his last meal before the start of his fast, Rajkot, 1939. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Apart from writing, as an act of confessing one’s errors in public, Gandhi also uses the technique of fasting as a mode of truth-telling, or its other component, self-purification. Fasting, like writing, is a sovereign act, where the subject wields full power over himself. In Gandhi, it is a declaration of the power of self-control. Suhrud explains the connection:

“If the Autobiography required him to dwell within himself, fasting was upvas, to dwell closer to Him, to be closer to Truth. Both the autobiographical act and the upvas were modes by which Gandhi dwelled closer to Truth.”

Dwelling, in this sense, appears to be an act. It is an act that presents oneself to the world. This act of presenting opens up the meaning of dwelling as a possibility of life. Dwelling, for Gandhi, is the material basis of experimenting with truth, where the body enforces concrete acts (of writing and fasting) upon itself. Suhrud expands the meaning of dwelling in Gandhi’s life, beyond the acts of writing and fasting, to the place where Gandhi performed these acts: the ashram.

Suhrud writes: “This in-dwelling had a physicality, not grossly in his body but within the Ashram and with the Ashram community.” The place of dwelling, embodied in the ashram, meant a larger body, that of the community. Suhrud lays out the further context of this in-dwelling: “This in-dwelling was not only with the language of experiences and memory, but for Gandhi it was also about the very form that he wished to give to his autobiography.” As a presence (and place) of the community, the ashram was a body of experience and memory. Gandhi inhabited the responsibility of this body where experience and memory could be summoned to narrate its story. Gandhi’s act of dwelling in writing his autobiography took place within the larger body of the community. In this sense, Gandhi’s life and autobiography were both dedicated to this larger body. The ashram became the concrete embodiment of all these debts and practices put together. No wonder, different intensities were at work in Gandhi’s daily life at the ashram, where he also wrote his autobiography.

We come next to an interesting question: who is writing Gandhi’s error-prone autobiography of the self/soul? It was, we learn, a voice. Suhrud writes, “Gandhi’s notion of in-dwelling is the antaryami who spoke to him in a “small, still voice” and whose exhortations Gandhi submitted to.” There is a dramatic narration by Gandhi on how the voice came upon him:

“‘In the night when I retired I had no idea that something was coming up today. But after eleven I woke up, I watched the stars, repeated Ramanama but the same thought would persistently come to my mind: “If you have grown so restless, why don’t you undertake the fast? Do it?” The inner dialogue went on for quite some time. At half past twelve came the clear, unmistakable voice. “You must undertake the fast.” That was all.’”

This is a clear sign of a heteronomous force at work on Gandhi. The voice is the invisible but definitive author behind Gandhi’s decisions to act (upon himself). Listening to such a voice enables the Gandhian subject to negotiate its sovereignty with something other than itself. It breaks the monopoly of what, following Kant, is rather sacrosanct to liberal, Marxist and dominant strands of feminist thought: autonomy. The idea of heteronomy is critiqued by these various schools, as an allegiance to a power outside the self, and seen as working to the detriment of the self’s (moral and political) agency and freedom. Autonomy is regarded as the legitimate, ethical (and universally applicable) source or ground of a rational subject. The rational cult of autonomy treats the idea of heteronomy, the act of listening to (and acting upon) a force outside yourself, as succumbing to unfree laws and temptations that compromise self-sovereignty.

In contrast, philosophers like Emanuel Levinas, challenge this idea of autonomy by insisting on the value of heteronomy, where the subject is posed (and willing) to lose her autonomy for an unnamable and invisible force that confronts her attention. If rationality is supposed to singularly define the freedom of the subject and enable it to make choices, these choices are conditioned and limited not by the law of freedom but rationality, which isn’t the same thing. The faculty of reason (and its claims over a moral and free subject) primarily based on thinking, is found inadequate to address the deeper questions and connections that the self-seeks in its relationship with the other, a relation that predates and presupposes the demands of rational knowledge. Levinas invites us to imagine another origin (and horizon), where the self is defined only in relation to the other and the (moral) scope between them is more speculative and less categorical.

If thinking is the ground on which the Kantian self-establishes its realm of knowledge and power, and defines its autonomy, Levinas opens up other affective (/sensuous) conditions (of desire) like seeing and hearing as modes of opening up to the other. Knowledge (of the other), with its history of slavery and colonialism, its orientalism, has served more as new, modern forms of prejudice than possibilities of liberation. How does knowledge serve communities at war, subjugated people facing the colonial state and occupation, violence of caste and race, beleaguered refugees looking for a country? It is the rationalist (and by extension, nationalist) language of the state that put this violence in place. People don’t enough listen to others and there is a lack of shelter and care. Political ideologies claiming superior knowledge of history have done their bit of massacres.

It is not a logical but ethical extension of Gandhi listening to his ‘small, still voice’, and opening his ears to the peasants of Kheda, to the Hindu victims of Noakhali riots and the Muslim victims of Bihar riots. It is surrender to a commandment that can happen in any name, but occurs as an event that forces the self into a question, unanswerable by reason: “I was not dreaming at the time when I heard the voice. The hearing of the voice was preceded by a terrific struggle within me. Suddenly the voice came upon me. I listened, made certain that it was the voice, and the struggle ceased. I was calm.” The authorial voice from within appears from a source that comes from an intense state of “hearing”. It has no resemblance with the voice of reason, whose source is the singularity of the self. The voice appears as a double, where the self is the listener, and the voice, the commandment. The idea of divinity, of prophecy and revelation, exists in the abiding mystery of such a voice.

Gandhi adds a preparatory note for this moment of hearing. He calls it “a conscious practice of self-restraint and ever-increasing effort implicitly to obey the will of God speaking within and then known as the inner voice.” The voice can be heard only when the self is under restraint, when it doesn’t hear itself too much, and enables enough silence for the other voice, the “small, still voice”, to speak.

The act of listening to a voice is not a rational act, for reason demands justifications for an act, whereas hearing is its own justification, its own desire. To listen requires obedience to an authority, described by Gandhi as “the power which is beyond our ego”. The authority/power of the voice does not reduce the subject’s ego to submission, for it is precisely the prior effacement of the ego that makes hearing the voice possible. Listening to others is in no way different from a commandment, where Gandhi’s seeking to “see God face to face” describes in exact terms Levinas’ ethical encounter. And the other commands you to listen, not by reason, but by her voice alone. But even in religious terms, Gandhi steers away from ascribing to god any specific religious sign. He simply calls god as another name for truth. The truth lies in the hearing, and not thinking. Gandhi assigns his own god, his own master/maker, which in political and material terms, he finds in others.

Gandhi wrote his autobiography of errors, commanded by a voice that urged him to speak the truth. That voice wasn’t Gandhi’s in ontological terms. It suggests a complex sphere of hearing the transcendence within, where Gandhi grappled with the idea of an author submitting to a force who wrote in his name. A voice wrote Gandhi’s autobiography. Others, like Mahadev Desai, translated it, and still others, like Suhrud, retranslated that voice, to prolong its debt to hearing.

M a nash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).