Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Review of Arvind Sharma's Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography

Here is a question worth pondering. Has a biographer really done his subject justice when God appears in a life’s story as an actual actor, and not just as a literary device, inspirational thought, or private conceit?  At stake in the question’s answer is truth. Not THE TRUTH, mind you. Not what truth is; but much more importantly how truth is told.  Has a biographer told the truth of his subject if the divine majesty is allowed to skulk between every line of every page?

The truth is, or ought to be, it seems, much more mundane.  In truth’s unvarnished form, readers confront the cold, hard stuff of the real world. Right?

The question’s answer cannot be so simple, however, when a biographer sets out to write a spiritual biography.  The Yale University Press has just published Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography (2013) by Arvind Sharma of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. With the opening lines, Sharma warns, ‘History is more than the biography of those who make it’, and immediately counters, ‘Nevertheless, some people leave their mark on history in such an elusive way that historiography perpetually fails to capture it.’

Gandhi was such a person, Sharma suggests, along with Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha, and a small number of others. Most biographies on Gandhi are written about Mohandas Gandhi. They refer to Mohandas with the honorific Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’, but are concerned with events and people, politics and social processes. A spiritual biography of the man takes Mahatma Gandhi as its subject, and looks what it means to be a mahatma.

Sharma’s credentials certainly qualify him to write such a book. The Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, Sharma uses his specialization in Hinduism as a bridge to much more general topics, including religion and feminism and religion and human rights. He is the author of One Religion Too Many: The Religiously Comparative Reflections of a Comparatively Religious Hindu (2011). The book is Sharma’s spiritual autobiography, a chalk full of wry observations about growing up a Hindu and encountering other religious traditions along life’s way. After the Gandhian fashion of marrying faith to social activism, Sharma has also convened two international conferences looking at religion and human rights: World’s Religion after September 11 in 2006 and the Second Global Conference on World’s Religion after September 11 in 2011. A third and final conference is now in the works for the second half of 2016.

Every one of Gandhi’s biographers must confront the question about the source of his power to inspire. The ends of spiritual biography, Sharma’s argument runs, are much more appropriate to Gandhi’s fundamental motivations than are other sorts of biography. It goes to the heart of the matter, so to speak, to the place where word intersects with deed. ‘Gandhi’s claim was made upon our conscience; he demonstrated that spirituality is to be found at the core of our humanity.’

Sharma’s discussion is lively. At points, even if a little dialectical and didactic, the prose dances off the page into the reader’s imagination. Spiritual biographers risk falling into hagiography, but Sharma demythologizes Gandhi in order to preserve his saintliness. Gandhi demythologized himself, Sharma points out, by attributing his larger-than-life accomplishments to God. If he was a saint, his saintliness was in part due to his willingness to own the flaws of his character. Sharma examines a number of them in the course of the book.

Which God did Gandhi serve precisely? Good Aristotelians the lot of us, we may argue over the specific nature and attributes of the divine majesty—or whether it makes sense to speak of God existing or as existent. Whether, in our intensely analytic moments, we master our language or it masters us remains to be seen. We also stand to miss the point, was the point I took away from the Sharma’s book. Gandhi died with three bullets in his chest and the name Rama on his lips. He identified Rama with Truth, wherever it may be found, but especially through introspection and selfless service.

God as Rama as Truth could never be a mere propositional statement. The reality of God must be lived in order to be known. The insistence on identifying word and deed, Sharma points out, led Gandhi to his death. He was assassinated because he insisted India fulfill promises of a third payment to Pakistan because India had given its word. The fact the two countries were then at war could not change his mind. Gandhi took it upon himself to see the promise fulfilled; the name Rama on his lips, his final gesture was one of forgiveness to his executioner.

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography divides neatly in half. The first half treats significant episodes in Gandhi’s life. The second looks at significant themes in his thought. The book does not propose to be an exhaustive study, though it most certainly qualifies as an illuminating and instructive one. The author may be forgiven, therefore, if readers find themselves wondering how Gandhi got from a point A to a point B, or what motivated him to make the move. The scarcity of this sort of information is easily compensated by the depth of Sharma’s treatment of Gandhi’s psyche: his thoughts on sex and celibacy, British imperialism, his own spiritual heritage, and the caste system are just a few of the topics he covers.

The book draws me to one conclusion: other modes of biographical writing aside, a spiritual biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi cannot fail to testify to God. Absent the divine majesty, Gandhi’s intentions no purpose, his actions had no end, his thoughts and no object. Absent God there could be no Mahatma.

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