Today is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s (1869-1948) 150th birth anniversary. In his autobiography, “My Experiments With Truth“, published in the late-1920s, Gandhi devoted a section under the sub-title “The Magic Spell of a Book” to John Ruskin (1819-1900) and his book, “Unto this Last”, published in 1860.
Henry Polak, Gandhi’s friend, gave him the book to keep him company on a train journey in South Africa, in the early-1900s. To take the story forward in Gandhi’s words:
“The book was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it. It gripped me. Johannesburg to Durban was a twenty-four hours’ journey. The train reached there in the evening. I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.
This was the first book of Ruskin I had ever read. During the days of my education I had read practically nothing outside text-books, and after I launched into active life I had very little time for reading. I cannot therefore claim much book knowledge. However, I believe I have not lost much because of this enforced restraint. On the contrary, the limited reading may be said to have enabled me thoroughly to digest what I did read. Of these books, the one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last. I translated it later into Gujarati, entitling it Sarvodaya (the welfare of all).
I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life. A poet is one who can call forth the good latent in the human breast. Poets do not influence all alike, for everyone is not evolved in an equal measure. The teachings of Unto This Last I understood to be:
1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.
The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occurred to me. Unto This Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and the third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.
Photos: John Ruskin lived the last decades and more of his life at Brantwood, Coniston (Lake District).