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An observation on how Gandhi studied

📅 2012-Feb-26 ⬩ ✍️ Ashwin Nanjappa ⬩ 📚 Archive

My better half is reading The Story of My Experiments with Truth, the autobiography of Gandhi right now. Inevitably, I find this book lying in the living room many times and end up flipping randomly through some pages.

Gandhi was a polyglot and learned in many histories, cultures and philosophies of the world. But, like any of us, he was not born with this knowledge, but acquired it by studying himself all through his life. Here are two excerpts I came across in the book which demonstrate how he studied:

(From chapter 49 titled Homeward)

About the middle of 1896 I sailed for home in the S. S. Pongola which was bound for Calcutta. [...] The ship's doctor gave me a Tamil Self-Teacher which I began to study. [...] At the request of the English friend, who read Urdu with me, I found out a good Urdu Munshi from amongst the deck passengers, and we made excellent progress in our studies. [...] With Tamil I made fair progress. There was no help available, but the Tamil Self-Teacher was a well-written book, and I did not feel in need of much outside help. I had hoped to continue these studies even after reaching India, but it was impossible. Most of my reading since 1893 has been done in jail. I did make some progress in Tamil and Urdu, in jails - Tamil in South African jails, and Urdu in Yeravda jail.

(From the Introduction, which was written in 1925)

Then followed a series of events which culminated in my imprisonment at Yeravda. Sjt. Jeramdas, who was one of my fellow-prisoners there, asked me to put everything else on one side and finish writing the autobiography. I replied that I had already framed a programme of study for myself, and that I could not think of doing anything else until this course was complete.

At the age of 27, Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa. On a trip home to India that year, he tries to learn Tamil and Urdu on the ship journey of 24 days. We can see that he takes any help that is available, like studying Urdu along with a co-passenger and getting taught by another co-passenger. But, he is also autodidatic, able to learn Tamil and Urdu by himself during his prison stays at South Africa and Yeravda.

It is comforting to see that even Gandhi can find learning something new quite hard and needs repeated attempts to acquire knowledge. He is motivated enough to re-attempt learning Tamil in South Africa later and learning Urdu almost 24 years later during his imprisonment at Yeravda jail.

It looks like he prepares a detailed schedule or plan, his programme of study, and tries to stick to it while learning something. Since it is well-known that he acquired lots of knowledge during his life, this kind of organized study must have worked well for him.

We can also see that he studies in distraction-free environments. In a world before electronic communications, a 24-day ship journey is equivalent to a retreat to a monastery. By 1920, Gandhi must have been a very busy man in India leading the freedom struggle. At such a time, Gandhi could not have asked for a better environment than a year-long solitary confinement in prison to further his study.

Finally, one can also notice that Gandhi would prefer to focus on one study at a time. When asked to write his autobiography, he does not do it since he is in the middle of a well-planned study program of learning Urdu (I guess) at that time.

I had read Gandhi's autobiography almost 16 years ago while being a member of the Gandhi Club in high school. It is clearly time I hunkered down to read it again sometime 😊