Short Book Review: Gandhi — A Life

I knew very little about Gandhi before reading this book, which I picked up on a whim at the library one day.

Here are some things that stood out to me. 

Gandhi apparently made a suicide pact with a friend when he was 9 years old

At the last moment they lost their nerve.

Gandhi got married at age 13

He instantly fell into the role of domineering husband. Funny to imagine a little 13 year old bossing around a wife. Also, super sad. If Gandhi treated his bride like this, imagine what other people were doing.

“take beef tea or die”

That’s what a doctor told Gandhi, a vegetarian, when he got sick while visiting England as a young man. Gandhi would rather die.

Beef tea is what passed for medicine in the early 1900’s

Gandhi was charmed by the Eiffel Tower

He was pretty good at saving money but was so enthralled at the Eiffel Tower he dropped big money (seven shillings) “for the satisfaction of being able to say that I had my lunch at a great height.”

Gandhi exuded cult leader vibes at certain points

He lived way out on a commune for a while with a bunch of followers. He was notorious for punishing those who did not live up to his standards of perfect moral purity. Usually this mean being mean to young women.

He even did that annoying thing where he would punish himself for their misdeeds, making them feel even worse. He admits he was cruel in this regard.

Later, he started making woman who were “sinners” shave their heads.

Not a good look for a leader many assume is the ultimate exemplar of peace and tolerance.

Gandhi was anti-money until he really needed some

As he grew up, he became increasingly anti-material goods, and anti money in general. Then he found himself needing money so that he could quit his job, buy an Ashram, and focus entirely on furthering his political ambitions.

A benefactor with money stepped in and bought him a whole damn farm where he could live and work with many of his followers.

One of the most famous movements in history might have fizzled out had a friend with money not stepped in at the right time. His social capital and ability to make rich friends was as key to his success as his determination and his religious conviction that what he was doing was right. 

Gandhi denounced the caste system and embraced “untouchables”

I’ve been pretty harsh on Gandhi so far, so I want to note that he could be pretty badass when it came to defying the social constructs of the time. He even adopted a daughter from the lowest caste in Indian society, the “untouchables.”

This controversial move threatened the stability of his movement, and boycotts were threatened, but he held strong. When people told him he might be boycotted, he doubled down:

Gandhi was unperturbed and told the ashramites that if the situation warranted the would all move to the Untouchable quarter of Ahmedabad and live on whatever the could earn by manual labor.

That’s hardcore. The boycott never happened and the Ashram continued on.

Gandhi’s work ethic and stamina were impressive

He would often get up at 2 AM, walk 20+ miles to his law office, work all day and then walk home at night. No one on the farm/commune was supposed to take a train and spend money unless it was really important. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, literally.

When Gandhi did ride trains, he usually rode in 3rd class rail cars amidst utter filth

He’d arrive places and the welcoming committee would have trouble finding him because they’d look for him the first and second class cars.

I respect his commitment to experiencing the lifestyle of those he wanted to help.

His schedule when visiting England for a conference was insane.

He only slept 1.45 hours sleep per night! That’s a lot to ask of a 60 year old whose diet at the time consisted entirely of nuts and dates.

He lived the lived the #loinclothlife to the fullest

Dude was marching into high level government meetings in England rocking a loin cloth and a toothless smile while preaching his brand of Bhagavad Gita-Thoreau-Tolstoyian ethics. What an unlikely character to have the most powerful nation in the world wanting to please him. When not in a loincloth, he stuck to wearing incredibly simple shirts and shawls.

He talked a big game about wanting Muslim and Hindu unity but wouldn’t let his son marry a Muslim girl

He essentially disowned him over it. Pretty wack, in my opinion.

He advocated for non-violence against the Nazi regime

This is not surprising. Gandhi got a lot done through preaching non-violence. It’s just always a bit startling to read how bad some people’s Hitler takes look in hindsight. It’s another example of “when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, one of the founders of Pakistan, was a fascinating guy

I can’t come close to covering all the details here, so I’ll just highlight that Jinnah has one of the most baller quotes from a political leader ever.

He worked hard to bring Pakistan into being as an independent nation. Once this was complete, a lot of people came out of the woodwork to take credit for things they didn’t do. They said they were owed something for their part in creating the country.

Jinnah’s reply:

“You helped to create Pakistan? My dear man, I got you Pakistan with a typist and a typewriter.

The author of the book follows up that quote by saying “this was more or less a statement of fact.”

The great ones are human too

I came into this expecting to be absolutely blown away by what a saint Gandhi was. And he did do some remarkably saintly things. But he was mostly just a committed person fighting for what he believed in while exhibiting some pretty profound character flaws. Just like the rest of us. I find this motivating. Maybe I too can refuse the beef tea, do things my way, and make a difference in the world.

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