Human beings are humans and will remain humans - notwithstanding their love of a social life and their acquired sense of sharing, sympathy and pity; they will remain essentially a bundle of selfish emotions seeking to satisfy natural instincts. There is a natural and essential contradiction between the demands of innate senses and those of acquired behavior, because the former want to reserve the entire pleasure-giving space for itself while the latter demand equitable distribution of that space among the entire humanity. All human beings strive to create necessary balance between the two contradictory demands, but not many succeed satisfactorily. Those who are sensitive to and watchful of their surroundings and are compassionate by nature are more likely to strike a reasonable balance between the two types of demands. Such persons keep on learning from the events which they encounter and evolving their persona. Gandhi was such an ever-learning and ever-evolving personality.
Mohandas was far from falling in the category of a superhuman or a genius or even a gifted person from birth. He was a mediocre and introvert in the school. He was not even born in a normal family. He was the third son of the fourth wife of his father- first three wives having died prematurely. He had two half-brothers from earlier marriages of his father. Obviously, in such family circumstances he could not have been a properly loved, looked after and cared for child. B. R. Nanda in his book 'Mahatma Gandhi' has written about his childhood,
"He shone neither in the classroom nor in the playground. Quiet, shy and retiring, he was tongue-tied in company."
What B. R. Nanda adds gives ample indication of how the child-Gandhi's personality would have evolved,
"He did not mind being rated as a mediocre student, but he was jealous of his reputation. He was proud of the fact that he had never told a lie to his teachers or classmates; the slightest aspersion on his character drew his tears."
An anecdote given in Nanda's book is highly revealing of Gandhi's internal reactions to unsavory situations and the type of lessons he tried to learn from them:
"Why were you absent from the gymnastics class on Saturday?' asked the head master, as he looked severely from the attendance register to the fourteen year old boy who had been brought before him.’ I was nursing my father', replied the boy, 'I had no watch and the clouds deceived me. When I arrived all the boys had gone.' 'You are lying.' said the headmaster curtly.
The boy was Mohandas Gandhi. That he should have been convicted of lying was more than he could bear. He cried helplessly. He knew that he was right but he did not know how to convince the headmaster. He brooded on the incident until he came to the conclusion that 'a man of truth must also be a man of care'."
Mohandas as a child was deficient in self-esteem - possibly because of his position in the family and also because of his performance in the class. He was so shy that even if he got a medal, he would hide it in his inner pocket lest somebody see it. But voluntarily or involuntarily he turned this lack of self-esteem in obedience to elders and superiors. This made him a very devoted son to his father and, it seems, that even after he returned to India from South Africa and entered the nationalist movement, for some years his desire for loyalty to British continued due to his conviction for deference to the elders and superiors.
Mohandas was further handicapped in his personality's development due to his marriage at the immature age of thirteen. Soon he fell headlong in love with his wife, but this was a manifestation of adolescent awakening of carnal desires rather than a love of mutual respect and of give and take. He has written in his book 'My Experiments with Truth' that he has never been able to pardon himself for the fact that while his father was dying he was indulging with his wife. It is quite possible that this incident might have contributed along with others to his becoming a devout celibate at the young age of 36. This may also have been the cause of his rather bizarre views and experiments on self-control. Due to family traditions Mohandas expected complete obedience and subservience from Kasturba and due to immaturity and male-chauvinism he insisted on jealously guarding her in and outside the house, which greatly annoyed Kasturba and became a cause of friction between the two. However, later Gandhi made those days of suspicion a way of useful education. He told J. S. Hoyland some years later, “I learnt the lesson of non-violence from my wife when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will on the one hand, and her quite submission to the suffering my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her."
Mohandas's companions in the school were no doyens of virtue. He was encouraged and successfully enticed to eat meat (which was a sacrilege in the Vaishnavite family), to smoke and even to pilfer. But Gandhi made a virtue out of a bad bargain by confessing his guilt and vowing to indulge no more. And Gandhi's vows were like those of Bhishm Pitmah, to be adhered to till death.
Mohandas passed matriculation in 1887 and was admitted to the nearest college in Bhavnagar for pursuing a degree course. He abandoned the pursuit soon as he was not able to cope with the instructions in English. His all other brothers had already discontinued their studies and, ordinarily, this should have been the fate of Mohandas's studies too. But in his case this very fact became the cause of Mohandas proceeding to England and his subsequent transformation into Mahatma. A friend of the family Mavji Dave suggested that Mohandas should go to England for a barrister's degree which was much easier to pursue and more valuable in the job market. Since Mohandas was the only one in the family on whom some hope for advancement could be placed, the family agreed despite initial hesitation.
However, before departing for England he was made to take vows of vegetarianism and abstinence from wine and women. During his early days in England, sticking to vegetarianism not only kept him half-starved but occasionally also made him a subject of ridicule. One day he stumbled upon a vegetarian restaurant in Farrington Street where he also got a book titled 'A Plea for Vegetarianism' by Salt. He read this book and discovered that the seat of taste lay not in the tongue but in the mind. B. R. Nanda has aptly described the effect of vegetarianism on evolution of Gandhi in the following words,
"The control of the palate was one of the first steps in that discipline which was to culminate many years later in total sublimation............. The immediate effect of vegetarianism was to give a new poise to him in England, and to draw him out of his shell. He made his first venture into journalism by contributing nine articles to the Vegetarian. ......In the vegetarian restaurants and boarding houses of London, he met not only food faddists but also a few men of religion. He owed his introduction to Bible to one such contact."
Through vegetarian acquaintances Gandhi met Edvin Arnold- the translator of 'Bhagvat Gita' and author of 'Light of Asia', who introduced him to the Theosophical Society. These contacts had lot of influence in forming Gandhi's religious and philosophical views.
Gandhi passed Bar-at-Law examination and returned to India to practice in courts and provide for the family. He failed as a lawyer both in Kathiawar and in Bombay. He was neither an eloquent lawyer, nor shrewd enough to employ sufficient touts to bring many clients or camouflage his inadequacies before the client. Had he been a good lawyer, most likely he would have ended up as a judge or as a lawyer cum activist. But the humiliation that he encountered as an England-returned briefless lawyer, made him grab the first offer of not-so-important employment in South Africa. And as we know he felt far more at ease in employing his out of the norm tactics in an alien land than in India. Thus South Africa became his training ground as a politician and statesman.
During his return to India as Gandhi's ship sailed through English Channel the First World War broke out. In London Gandhi offered his services along with those of his companions to the British authorities unconditionally. Although any support to war effort was against his principle of Ahimsa, but his offer seems to be motivated by hopes of improving Indian position with British, as stated by himself in his autobiography. Gandhi's hopes were belied soon because the British accepted the offer only to recruit Indians as paramedics, and then appointed British students as their leaders. This humiliation was probably the beginning of Gandhi's distancing himself from the position of humoring the British for India's advantage to that of open confrontation. Although his confrontation was non-violent and through Satyagrah, yet it resulted in galvanizing the whole nation under the leadership of their revered Mahatma.
Indians nurture a basic belief that those who are vegetarians, celibates and believers in ahimsa are good by their heart and soul. And those whose adherence is very high in these principles are Mahatmas (Great Souls). Gandhi believed in these principles and practiced them - although many of his practices were bizarre and open to question. His experiments in testing his celibacy by making young women sleep with him were bizarre, and his suggestion to Jews to face torture and death by Nazis bravely without violent retaliation, was open to question. Yet these very beliefs and practices made him rise very high in the eyes of Indians who reverently started calling him Mahatma.
And to top it all his death by bullets, which was a result of his failure to stop division of the nation and consequent loot, rape and bloodshed, made him a martyr beyond compare and Mahatma for centuries.
Yet Gandhi had such an unflinching will to learn from failures and inexhaustible capacity to suffer himself for changing the heart of the wrongdoer that there is little doubt that 'coming generations would hardly believe that such a man with flesh and blood ever traversed this earth.'
1. My Experiments with Truth- M. K. Gandhi
2. Mahatma Gandhi- B. R. Nanda
3. Gandhi, A political and Spiritual Life- Kathryn Tidrick