Last month, I brought myself a birthday present: An autobiography of Indian Civil Rights Leader, M.K.Gandhi, titled: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Growing up, I was aware of this book but never once considered reading it fully. I study leadership for a living and truth is one of the values I strive to live by. It seemed only appropriate to venture into this journey, now.
From his humility and austere life to his incomparable devotion and the relentless pursuit of his vision of truth, his book surprised, moved, and inspired me. When 1.3 billion Indians call him “Mahatma” or the “Great Soul”, it is an onerous task to write about an iconic leader who is larger than life. Therefore, I will only attempt to write what I discovered while journeying through his story
The more I reflect and look back on the past, the more vividly do I feel my limitations. – Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi
Gandhi calls himself an “erring mortal” and even a “coward” in some parts of the book. This seemed rather extreme for me because: Here was a man who literally carved the path for Indian independence from British rule! But on closer study, his humility seems rooted in how he saw himself as a disciplined scientist. Every task he undertook was an experiment in truth. He pursued the journey relentlessly and transparently. He compares himself to a scientist who “…conducts his experiments with the utmost accuracy, forethought, and minuteness…” but “…never claims any finality about his conclusions and keeps an open mind regarding them…” Such humility could possibly emerge only from detachment to conclusions and openness to the possibility of change and evolution. How progressive for a pre-independent India in the 1920s and timeless even today!
On page 68, Gandhi writes at length about his shyness and how he was ridiculed on occasions because of that. His struggle with public speaking is a moving account of an introverted leader. In important meetings and social gatherings, he took too long to muster the courage to speak. And by the time he was somewhat ready, the discussion changed to a different topic. During an informal, vegetarian dinner at the Holborn Restaurant in England, he was to deliver a speech as the host. He had planned to use humor but forgot his lines and simply thanked the gentlemen for accepting his dinner invitation and sat down. He writes, “…in attempting a humorous speech, I made myself ridiculous…”. Reading this reminded me of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech and Prince Albert’s painful struggle with public speaking. While that was a result of a speech impediment, Gandhi’s struggle was with his painful shyness.
Later, he acknowledges that it actually turned out to be a blessing. He became much more careful and restrained in his speech and writing. In fact, it became his shield and helped him in his discernment of truth. In an era of fake news, divisive thought, and reckless writing on social media, Gandhi’s practice of measured speech and writing is a great reminder.
The Search for Truth
Gandhi saw his entire life as a means to study and realize his vision of truth. In his autobiography, he comes across as an accidental political figure and more as a spiritual seeker. On page 229, he writes about another personal incident. A physician recommends eggs and chicken broth as remedy for his son’s high fever. But it was unthinkable for Gandhi to consider this proposal. Even if his 10-year old son’s life was at stake. Torn and conflicted, he agonized over his duty as a parent and his own principle of remaining vegetarian, under all circumstances. For several days, he persisted with his own remedy. And eventually, the little boy responded to the treatment and recovered from the delirious fever.
What was astonishing for me was that he would go that far to stand by the truth of a principle he believed in. Towards the end of the book, he writes: “…there is no God other than truth and the only means of realization of truth is through “Ahimsa” or Non-Violence…”
Today, the world observes Oct 2nd (Gandhi’s birthday) as International Day of Non-Violence. For a man who practiced and preached non-violence, his end was tragic and came violently when he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse in January, 1948.
Gandhi is considered one of the most influential figures of the 20th century and yet, he was not even the head of a state. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he was directly influenced by Gandhi’s approach. Former U.S. President Barack Obama has invoked Gandhi’s messages on several occasions. Gandhi was truly a leader without title except for Mahatma or the Great Soul (which deeply pained him).
Then and Now
69 years after Gandhi’s death, his life continues to stand testimony to 4 lessons we can practice even today:
- Humility opens the doors – of learning, infinite possibilities, and outcomes.
- Restraint and deliberation could become our biggest friends in a digital world that sees 500 million tweets per day. (Twitter Usage Statistics)
- Gandhi’s search for the absolute, indivisible, truth is a process to discover our own, authentic selves.
- Non-violence as ‘strategic empathy’. “Research demonstrates that when we’re angry at others, we aim for retaliation or revenge. But when we’re angry for others, we seek out justice and a better system. We don’t want to punish; we want to help.” (Read. Think. Act. – Commentary on Adam Grant‘s “Originals“)
These lessons are not a naive dream of an idealist. If Gandhi could lead the effort to free 390 million people of un-divided India from colonialism, we can take the first step of practicing compassion towards ourselves and others and be accountable for who we are and what we do.
Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams.
THIS IS A PERSONAL BLOG AND VIEWS DON’T REPRESENT CISCO’S STRATEGIES OR OPINIONS.