Gandhi: An Autobiography is a book that reveals the inner makings of a formidable leader, spurred by idealism, and driven by the quests for truth, celibacy, vegetarianism, independence, and nonviolence.
Although the book ends prior to Gandhi's declaration of India's independence from British rule, the book provides insight into the shaping of Gandhi's personal, political, and spiritual values, which are often interwoven. The book reveals that Gandhi was, first and foremost, a principled man.
For instance, Gandhi made a promise to his mother not to eat meat, whereby he followed her directive to the point of reading books on the topic of vegetarianism and participating in, if not leading, organizations dedicated to the advocacy of a vegetarian lifestyle. In order to pursue his vegetarian ideals, Gandhi followed a strict diet of fruit and nuts, even foregoing milk, eggs--and especially beef tea, which was normally prescribed during times of illness.
Ghandi's vegetarianism also included regular fasting, particularly in times of illness. Later in Ghandi's political career, his fasting became a fundamental component of his political activism in accordance to the principles of Satyagraha (non-violent resistance).
Gandhi also delivered himself from lustful tendencies by adopting a lifestyle of celibacy, thereby respecting his wife more as a friend and partner than as an object of desire. I believe it was in part through his spirituality that he came to the conclusion that abstinence was necessary for personal maturity.
With all that said, it was when Gandhi witnessed first-hand the ostracizing of and abuses against Indians in South Africa that he put his law education to use in defending the rights of the Indians, a move which embarked him on his well-known political career. Essentially intertwined with his advocacy--almost intuitively from the start-- was his deeply held view of Satyagraha.
Satyagraha involved non-cooperation with and civil disobedience toward unjust British laws as a means of resistance, but done so with "civility". To expand on this, Gandhi says, "experience has taught me that civility is the most difficult part of Satyagraha. Civility does not mean here the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good" (p. 449). The civil disobedience was done according to such laws that could invoke mass resistance; therefore, resisting unpopular British laws, such as the salt tax, afforded the implementation of Satyagraha (p. 475).
Gandhi also wished for India to regain its independence from British rule. In order to lay the groundwork for such a vision, Gandhi boycotted foreign, and especially British, goods (in addition to boycotting the British educational system). Most notably, Gandhi relied on the craft of weaving cloth from a loom as a means to create Indian made clothing. This reliance on the loom, which went against the industrialization of the time, enabled impoverished Indian craftswomen to earn a living that otherwise would not be available to them. Through this and similar actions, Gandhi established himself as a sort of feminist--well ahead of the times.
Although the book ends prior to India's declaration of independence and prior to Gandhi's imprisonment (although written from prison), the book is rich with insight into how an individual's idealism, talent, and nationalism could give rise to such an unprecedented visionary. While Satyagraha (active non-violent resistance) is articulated enough to provide context, it is the book Satyagraha in South Africa to which Gandhi refers the reader in order to gain greater insight into the actual movement.
After reading Gandhi's autobiography, I plan to study his spiritual views by reading both his commentary on the Gita and his book Satyagraha in South Africa.