Gandhi by Arnold David Book Review Essay

Gandhi, by David Arnold is a well-written book covering the different aspects of Gandhi’s life in a rather neutral and at the same time critical manner. The author gives the reader an understanding of the actions of Gandhi, his impact, and how the events of his time and upbringing influenced him. Arnold does this without putting Gandhi on a pedestal or presenting him as flawless. The book is more of a study of Gandhi’s life rather than the typical biography.

Arnold analyses and gives an overview of the most common titles given to Gandhi such as a “saint in politics”, “father or maker of India” and a “traditionalist or revolutionary” (5-8) in the introduction and throughout the remainder of the book. The second chapter gives a background of the town or city Gandhi grew up in, and notes that he was born in an area that was “most politically fragmented in India” between British India and Indian princely states (15). He was born in Porbandar a town in Gujarat or Kathiawar apart from the rest of India on October 21, 1869 (15).

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Gandhi grew up “in an atmosphere of politics”, for his family served the rulers of his town as diwans, or held other political positions. Growing up in such an environment, he learned to embrace the idea of Indians, ruling “their own states” and lands, even though they were slightly under British supervision. He had an arranged marriage at the age of 13, and both of his parents died while he was young. Many other factors influenced his childhood such as growing up in “the middle caste or middle class” (21), only having 14% Muslims in Kathiawar and majority Hindu, his religious mother, and father’s death during sexual activity.

These factors would help shape his ideas on celibacy, fasting and views on Hindu-Muslim differences. He drew concepts from various religions and beliefs (Jainism, bhakti Hinduism, Pranamis, Christianity, to form “his own Hinduism base on non violence, duty and truth” (33). Furthermore, Gandhi spent years in London as a student of law, where he further explored vegetarianism and began his “intellectual awakening, his moral maturation and the opening of his mind to spiritual questions” (34) and concerned himself with politics. Gandhi then went on to South Africa from 1893 to 1914 where many Indians were residing.

Arnold recounts his various anti-racism strategies, and reveals how Gandhi acquired his title as the mahatma or “great soul”. South Africa is also where he began his non-violent methods of dealing with racial discrimination laws and Hind Swaraj, which is “Indian self rule”, against the British. He fought for the rights of Indians in Africa, especially against General Smuts’ plans “of stopping their immigration to South Africa”(60) using satyagraha, “truth force or struggle for truth”, campaigns. But these campaigns did not work to the full degree, as there was still “anti-Indian prejudice” (60).

From then on Gandhi spent the rest of his life in India (1915-48) bringing with him principles of satyagraha. Gandhi identified with the Indian villages and peasants, as they were less likely to be “tainted by luxury, self indulgence, and material possessions” (76). There he had influence and appealed to peasants during the political movements of 1917-22, who viewed him as a saint to rescue them from their misery. In 1917, Gandhi saw the economic exploitation and oppression in Champaran, India. Soon after he led the kheda, a small peasants town in Gujarat, satyagraha as an appeal to the government to suspend revenue demand on the land.

The non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements soon followed but were not focused solely on peasant issues, rather on “bringing all classes together in a united struggle against colonial rule” (95). Gandhi was then arrested, for the British government feared the loss of their authority. Furthermore he campaigned for national solidarity in an effort to unite all classes and communities in the pursuit of Swaraj. One of Gandhi’s’ most spectacular and effective campaigns of all was the salt satyagraha movement against the salt tax in March 1930. As Gandhi began to age he still had a voice in politics but younger eaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas. C Bose emerged, who often questioned Gandhi’s ideas. In addition to the fact that they were socialist, Bose believed that Gandhi’s non-violence methods were not sufficient enough, therefore promoted violence and Nehru was “unhappy about the way Gandhi” mixed religion with “Indian politics” (197). Towards the end of his life, Gandhi used his final influences and power to “restore peace and sanity” following the turmoil from the 1947 Partition and independence (223). He believed that although there was “political freedom”, India was still in need of “economic, social and moral freedom“ (224).

But his voice and opinions were declining especially among some in the Hindu community. Gandhi’s efforts to “restore Hindu-Muslim harmony” put his life at risk and he suffered death threats. The ends with Gandhi’s death on January 30, 1948 and notes it as the most important event that stopped the communal violence in India (227). On Gandhi’s way to prayer, Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist, shot him three times, for he believed Gandhi was compromising Hindu interest to help the Muslim community and caused the bloodshed during the partition of India.

The author gives a clear understanding in the preface of his goals and the reader is not unaware of what is being presented. The book sought to tell us what was Gandhi’s role in relation to current events of his time, his political views, their consequences and the extent of his influence and power. Arnold clearly did his research and examines the different written works about Gandhi to help construct his own. For instance (example 70). He cites both from primary and secondary documentary sources. Gandhi’s autobiography is his primary source and other biographies as secondary.

Furthermore it is noted in the preface that Arnold made visited with “old Gandhians”, followers of Gandhi, in India to obtain a better understanding of his life. The author presents the book as a study of Gandhi in a critical way without being bias. He shows the reader the flattering, unflattering, and contradictory sides of Gandhi. One example is Gandhi’s reputation as “the father of India”. Gandhi indeed was involved in the Indian nationalist movement and set the stage for India to develop socially and economically in the years to come to merit him such title.

However, “not all his ideas sought to promote national unity or to advance the cause of national independence” (7). Therefore Arnold praises the actions of Gandhi while shedding light on his weaknesses. Arnold’s aim “to situate Gandhi in the context of his own times, assess his place in the history of India and the modern world” and also look at his “often unconventional and controversial power” is carried out well in the book (ix) . This biography of Gandhi is great for one looking for more than just recounts or dry facts of his life, as it offers in depth view of the complexity of Gandhi’s life without too much infatuation with him.


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