Among the hundreds of biographies that have been written on Mahatma Gandhi, Arvind Sharma's Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography is one of the most insightful and useful approaches to the study of a man who is both phenomenon and inspiration.
Gandhi remains not only a universal icon, but in many ways an icon of universalism as well. He is admired by people from various communities around the world for a multitude of reasons ranging from the spiritual to the political, but he also stands as a philosopher for a universal idea of truth, justice and love -- a real world religious figure if there was one.
In his biography, Sharma shows us how Gandhi became Gandhi, so to speak, in a spiritual sense. Unlike traditional academic studies of religion, Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography weaves together a scholar's insightfulness with a writer's ability to humanize Gandhi; the son, the student, the immigrant, and then, of course, the Mahatma.
What is most interesting about Gandhi's life is that if we were to look at it as a series of steps in spiritual-intellectual evolution, at each stage we find a specific struggle with a specific human limitation. As a child, Gandhi was scared of snakes, thieves and ghosts, and turned to the name of Rama like a "crutch." As a young lawyer, Gandhi struggled to even rise and speak, in a quandary not unlike Arjuna's in the Bhagavad Gita. As a constant innovator, Gandhi never stopped growing, and reflecting, on what it meant to be a spiritual and a human being.
Sharma's work is insightful in emphasizing the different sources of Gandhi's spiritual inspiration, especially in bringing out the role of the mother as guru. Equally, what is inspiring for us is the fact that much of Gandhi's early spiritual and moral growth took place not in some grand theater of politics and history, but in the rather mundane world of daily and family life.
Gandhi struggled as a young adult with seemingly simple moral choices and issues, such as living up to the promises he made to his mother before his journey to London. It was not blind obedience (Gandhi reasons out for himself, for example, whether eating an egg would be the same thing as eating meat, or not), , but just a sense of reverence for truth. As Sharma notes, Gandhi's philosophical focus on the idea of Satya or Truth elevated it from a simple understanding of "telling" the truth to a richer Hindu sense of "upholding" it, an insight that would form the foundation of his life and work.
Towards the end of his life, Gandhi went on a fast to force the new Indian government to carry out a promise of sharing funds with the new Pakistani government--a difficult choice since the two countries were at war. This fast would be the action that would ultimately anger Hindus, and the assassin who would take his life. In a touching insight, Sharma compares this to the actions of the beloved Hindu god Rama; both Gandhi and Rama suffered to uphold promises that were not even made by them, just truth for truth's sake.
Gandhi has a complicated image in the Indian imagination today. Almost every community seems to have some kind of a political grievance about him. Still, there is something about Gandhi that is entwined with the soul of India, and indeed the soul of nature itself. The challenge of the present moment is whether even a glimpse of the spiritual journey that Gandhi made in his life can come to us in our modern, consumer and media culture-saturated culture in which slogans drown out insights easily.
We live in an age when there is much posturing about religious, national and civilizational pride, but not enough reflection about what it means to be human, simply. The most useful lesson from Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography is relevant here: "that while spirituality may be more than morality, it cannot be less."
Whatever the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in nature and the world, however powerful we think our religious doctrines or rituals are for controlling and commanding things, we must remember that in the end the power of religion cannot be separated from the power of something like goodness, kindness, and love. Gandhi lived that, and we remember him, and honor him, still.