Gandhi’s Autobiography

A Self-Problematising Narrative of Postcolonial Subjectivation*


By Rajesh Kumar Sharma


Gandhi ends his autobiographical narrative The Story of My Experiments with Truth about four years before its actual completion. He gives two reasons for his choice of the time.  The first is that since his association with the Congress his life has become completely “public” and so he has nothing more to tell. The second is that the instrument of his experiments with truth has changed; it is no longer the self, but the Congress (382).

Conventionally, an autobiography presupposes a transparently apprehended self that the writer reflexively treats as an object in its passage though time. In Gandhi’s case, however, it is a problematised narrative of a problematised self insofar as both the narrative and the self constituted in it are forged in the dialectics of disparate rationalities and cultural discourses. It would be appropriate therefore, and de-appropriative also, to read Gandhi’s Story as a self-problematising narrative of postcolonial subjectivation. The present essay explores the possibility of such a reading.

In a mundane remark in the course of his narrative, Gandhi cites the scriptures: “The face of truth is hidden behind the golden veil of maya, says the Upanishad” (289). The context is his conniving at the impropriety of his wife’s using the second-class bathroom while travelling in a third-class railway compartment. This ostensibly incidental remark is revealing of the structure of the narrative insofar as it is a typical instance of the discursive double-coding, the cut-and-paste postcolonial operation, which characterizes the narrative. It also forces the question: Has Gandhi described the truth or only woven the golden veil? He claims that his effort has been “[t]o describe the truth”, but there are also the contradicting metaphorics:

“The little fleeting glimpses, therefore, that I have been able to have of Truth can hardly convey an idea of the indescribable lustre of Truth, a million times more intense than that of the sun we daily see with our eyes. In fact what I have caught is only the faintest glimmer of that mighty effulgence” (382).

What precisely is his project then? Would he describe the truth? Would he sketch his idea of the truth? Would he explore, truthfully or otherwise, the nature of truth? Would he subject truth to experimentation and study its constitution, exposing thereby the metaphysical foundations of the concept to a hermeneutics of suspicion?

To see the enigmatic ambiguity of Gandhi’s narrative project in a clearer light, we may go to chapter XI of Part IV. It is titled Intimate European Contacts. The chapter does not, however, deal principally with the matter indicated in the title. That matter, for all practical purposes, is postponed and displaced, and the displacement is so comprehensive as to affect the entire discourse of the narrative. Gandhi is facing an aporia and he stops in his tracks to muse on writing, truth and the autobiography.

“Writing it [the autobiography] is itself one of the experiments with truth,” he observes. It involves omitting and editing “in the interests of truth”, though it is admittedly not possible to determine definitively how those interests would be best served. He wonders how he should know what to include on the criterion of relevancy when the very relevancy of his autobiography is open to question. Moreover, he has not arrived at his faith in the Spirit through any experimentation but has adopted it ready-made in the popular way: “I have made the world’s faith in God my own.” On top of it, he has consciously given to his faith the status of experience, contrary to following the usual way in which faith would be derived from experience. The reason he gives is that his faith, even though popular in its conception, is “ineffaceable”. But he also half concedes that his approach may amount to “tampering with truth”.

It is significant that Gandhi does not work out the implications of this introspection but passes them over because the autobiography has no place for “academic principles” (Introduction, xi). Consequently, the foundational questions of his autobiographical narrative are left untouched, whether these pertain to the nature of truth or the meaning of experimentation. In fact, he is conscious of the moral hazard, political as well as cultural, involved in writing an autobiography which is “a practice peculiar to the West” (ix). He would not write “a real autobiography” – something that they do there in the West – but a “story”, albeit of “truth” as the object of his experiments. In thus reappropriating the idea of truth via an understanding of fiction (story) as truthful and fruitful accounting (ethically instructive history), Gandhi not only distances himself culturally from a so-called Western form of narrative but also foregrounds the discursive character of historical truth, including the colonial, and thus rewrites the terms of the autobiographical narrative. The result is a peculiar hybrid narrative genetically engineered through the dissemination of the Western discourse with the pre-modern Indian historiography in which myth and history grow profusely into each other. And the Mahatma’s autobiographical tale aspires to join the canon of the Puranas.

Accordingly, his serialized reflection on the past casts a retrospectively homogenizing light on the events and binds them in a narrativisable teleological sequence, prompting him to suggest legalistically that “it will not be improper to say” that at least in its important events his life has been “directed by the Spirit”. In writing the autobiography too, he claims to have been likewise moved by the Spirit.

And yet his autobiography is purportedly the story of his experiments with truth, like a scientist’s journal. The intended or unintended similarity, embedded in the alternative title, inaugurates the dialectic, framed in the traditional Indian and modern Western rationalities, of the two contradictory discourses of the popular moral-mystical faith on the one hand and the scientific reason on the other.  The entire narrative is in effect this dialectic-in-process and hence a schizophrenic theatre of postcolonial subjectivation. Consequently, it never closes; Gandhi merely puts an arbitrary end to it.

But then he never intended his narrative to be “a real autobiography”. He wanted it to be both an instruction manual for his co-workers and an account of his experiments with truth (ix). An experimental autobiography that combines a self-help manual, a personalized history and a scientist’s journal.

A few questions, hence, appear. Where precisely –or not so precisely– in the narrative is the truth located? What does Gandhi signify by truth? Is truth subjective, if it is conceded that an autobiographical narrative can disclose truth? Conversely, is subjectivity truth? What does experimenting with truth mean? Is truth like a guinea pig? Can it be proved, disproved and improved by mean of experimentation? Is truthfulness identical with truth? Is truth Truth, the absolute value, and as such identical with God and Ahimsa? Whatever Gandhi’s truth is or is not, it remains the central transcendental signifier in the discourse of his Story, tying up with its immanent absent presence all other signifiers into a sensible narrative. In this solemn game of truth, another deft move (quite postmodern and classical1) is played when the readers are advised to conduct their own experiments and not treat the experiments narrated as authoritative (xii). It is a deft move because, among other things, it preempts an evaluation of the universalist morality suggested in a narrative garnished seductively with the discourse of science. The question is: What are the implications of this move?

Auto-bio-graphy. The body scripting itself. Apparently, Gandhi’s narrative is an accounting for the body. But this is paradoxically attempted by means of the disciplinary technologies that aim at transforming it into the spirit, albeit in that event problematising the signified of the spiritual. “There are some things which are known only to oneself and one’s Maker. These are clearly incommunicable,” he writes. He would not vainly try to communicate the incommunicable. Nevertheless, the experiments he would narrate “are spiritual, or rather moral; for the essence of religion is morality” (x).

It would be difficult to swallow the collapse of spirituality and religion into morality if the narrative did not problematise morality itself. Notwithstanding the universalist morality lurking beneath the surface of the narrative and giving an impression of somehow framing it, the Gandhian morality is not the rationalization of what Nietzsche calls the herd instinct. It is, rather, an eclectic and personal formation, even to the point of eccentricity. Constituted in the interspace of the corporeal and the spiritual, it abides elusively between the technologies of the body and the arts of silence. In the consequent aura, the self-disciplinary technologies transform into the technologies of political discipline powerful enough to disrupt the disciplining imposed by the colonial discourse. (The tentative counter-narrative of the Gandhian morality would eventually afflict the colonial disciplinary regime with an incurable infection and drive it to a terminal crisis. Subsequently, in its postcolonial mutation, it would fester as the interminable crisis of the Indian nation). Since the last battle against colonialism must be fought in the field of subjectivity, morality occupies a privileged crucial position. What Gandhi’s narrative does is that even as it takes recourse to the normal moral discourse, it also radically redefines morality and effects what Nietzsche calls a revaluation of values. The substance of morality is truth, Gandhi remarks (25). That this is no mere platitude but signifies a deliberated freeing of morality from the mores is supported elsewhere in the narrative at many critical points. One such point is his unambiguous rejection of outside authority, including that of the Shastra, in favour of direct personal testimony:

For me the question of diet was not one to be determined on the authority of the Shastras. It was one interwoven with my course of life which is guided by principles no longer depending upon outside authority. (342)

If Gandhi describes morality as the essence of religion and if he sees morality as based on direct personal testimony, he also understands by religion “self-realization or knowledge of self” (22). And the self as conceived is not static and closed but open to transformation. Achieving self-realization, accordingly, does not signify discovering and experiencing a certain perfect, transcendental self. Indeed, that would preclude the need to “reduce [oneself] to zero” (383). The pursuit of truth requires one to experiment with oneself. It is a perpetual process of demolition and tentative construction, for “[i]nfinite striving after perfection is one’s right” (65). Hence, the Guru remains a transcendental signifier for Gandhi: “The throne has remained vacant and my search still continues” (65). The pursuit of truth is the pursuit of progressive self-impoverishment, symbolized in the desire to radically simplify (39-41). Simple living means arriving as close as possible to absolute poverty, to utter austerity, and becoming vacuum so that truth may dawn. Truth is the pursuit of the self to zero. Absolute absence, not absolute presence. Not Omnipresence, not the Absolute Sign. And then the perpetual tentative construction, unconstruction, deconstruction. Gandhi’s clumsy attempts to become an English gentleman, too, are events en route this pursuit, of subjectivation as experimentation with truth, some authentic attempts at inauthenticity though, which would peel off a few more layers of the self (378). The critique of institutional education implicit in the description of schools and colleges as “citadels of slavery” – anticipating Foucault – illumines the obscure territory of institutionalized subjectivities to clear the ground to recover the self as open space and free energy.

In Gandhi’s modestly and succinctly worded claim that his political power is derived from his spiritual experiments, one could read his justification of the narrative (x). If the Story reads almost like a treatise on biopolitics, it is because the body is the most immediate and frangible object for political work. Indeed, the artefact2 of Gandhian subjectivity arises out of the political body and the body politics. Dietetics, constitutionals, fasting as penance, celibacy, good handwriting, restraint in speech, austerity, the tickle of passions, the unconditional surrender to Providence and the faith in the efficacy of prayer, all these practices interlock in a unified command network in which the body and the mind, the ethics and the aesthetics, the personal and the political, the moral and the biological interfuse. The interfusion shatters the ultimate limits when Gandhi produces compromise in the defence of truth. Significantly, this is done with a muted allusion to aesthetics in “the beauty of compromise” (110), which quietly erases the difference between ethics and aesthetics. Since the locus of the compromise is the intersection between cultural specificity, personal and racial dignity and the impersonal supremacy of the institution of justice, one could describe it – using Silo’s terminology – as a tactical retreat in the politics of rights that may be made in order to gather greater force for a more opportune later advance (Silo, 83). But more than that it is a symptomatic event in the narrative as it discloses, howsoever inconspicuously, the effect of aesthetics in the production (in the sense of making as well as presentation) of ethics. The self-evident transparency and austere simplicity of the linguistic structure of the narrative conduce to – and to that extent help produce – the effects of truthfulness (as candour) and simplicity in substance (Karl Popper, 21).

To the extent that the problematisation of discourse may advance the maneuverability and freedom to subjectivation, perhaps the greatest move in the discourse of the Story is made when the algorithm of a loop of infinite reversal is coded into it towards its narrative ending. The event, significantly, is recorded in the representationalist, sequential mode. It is about the signified following a signifier. Gandhi is looking for a political strategy to fight the colonial regime, and he happens to coin a word. The word is “non-co-operation”. The entire political strategy of non-co-operation, Gandhi testifies, grew subsequently out of the word coined by chance (366). A grim, self-ironic parody of this truthful reversal/reverse truth/reversal of truth is reported a few pages later: “I do not remember to have seen a handloom or a spinning wheel when in 1908 I described it in Hind Swaraj as the panacea for the growing pauperism of India” (371). Together the two events dismantle the ultimate foundation of their discourse by infinitely posing the question: Does the autobiography, that is The Story, record, or does it create?



1“Be a lamp to yourself,” the Buddha is reported to have told the anguished Ananda before passing away.

2(a) A product of human art or workmanship; Archaeol. a product or by-product of prehistoric or aboriginal workmanship, as opposed to a natural object. (b) Something observed in a scientific investigation, experiment, etc., that is not naturally present but originates in the preparative or investigative procedure or extraneously.


Works Cited

Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth.   Trans. Mahadev Desai. 1927; Amhedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1976.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. 1967; New York: Vintage, 1989.


Popper, Karl. Unended Quest: An Intellectual Biography. London and New York:   Routledge, 1992.


Silo. Letters to My Friends on the Social and Personal Crisis in the Present Time. Mumbai: Foundation for Humanization, 1994.


January 2003

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002


*This paper was published in The Journal of Religious Studies (Patiala: Punjabi University) , Vol. XXXV, Nos. 1 & 2, Spring-Autumn 2004, Pp. 116-121 .