Broadly speaking, most people assume that Gandhiji did not read books. When he was in a jocular mood he would agree with this observation. The fact is that he was a voracious reader. From 1922 to 1924, he was in jail. During these years he read nearly 200 books. The list of books is given in volume one of Raghavan Iyer’s, “The Moral and Political writings of Mahatma Gandhi.” After reading Das Kapital by Marx, the Mahatma said, “I could write it better.”
Let me quote Gandhi on his book reading and his startling views on the Mahabharata.
“Let the reader however not imagine that I read all these books by choice. Some of them were useless and outside the jail would not have read them. Some of them were sent by friends known and unknown and I felt I was bound for their sakes at least to go through them. The Yeravda Jail has what may be called not a bad collection of English books. Some of them were really good books.
“Many Christian friends were most attentive to me. I received books from them from America, England and India. I must confess that whilst I recognized their kind motive, I could not appreciate the majority of books they sent. I wish I could say something of their gifts that would please them. But that would not be fair or truthful if I could not mean it. The orthodox books on Christianity do not give me any satisfaction. My regard for the life of Jesus is indeed very great. His ethical teaching, his common sense, his sacrifice command my reverence. But I do not accept the orthodox teaching that Jesus was or is God incarnate in the accepted sense or that he was or is the only son of God. I do not believe in the doctrine of appropriation of another’s merit. His sacrifice is a type and an example for us. Every one of us has to be ‘crucified’ for salvation. I do not take the words ‘Son’ ‘Father’ and ‘the Holy Ghost’ literally. They are all figurative expressions. Nor do I accept the limitations that are sought to be put upon the teaching of The Sermon on the Mount. I can discover no justification in the New Testament for wars. I regard Jesus as one among the most illustrious teachers and prophets the world has seen. Needless to say, I do not regard the Bible as an infallible record of the life and teachings of Jesus. Nor do I consider every word in the New Testament as God’s own word. Between the Old and the New there is a fundamental difference. Whilst the Old contains some very deep truths, I am unable to pay it the same honours I pay the New Testament. I regard the latter as an extension of the teaching of the Old and in some matters rejection of the Old. Nor do I regard the New as the last word of God. Only God is changeless and as His message is received through the imperfect human medium, it is always liable to suffer distortion in proportion as the medium is pure or otherwise. I would therefore respectfully urge my Christian friends and well-wishers to take me as I am. I respect and appreciate their wish that I should think and be as they are even I respect and appreciate a similar wish on the part of my Mussalman friends. I regard both the religions as equally true with my own. But my own gives me full satisfaction. It contains all that I need for my growth. It teaches me to pray not that others may believe as I believe but that they may grow to their full height in their own religion. My constant prayer therefore is for a Christian or a Mussalman to be a better Christian and a better Mahomedan. With Him deed is everything, belief without deed is nothing. With Him doing is believing. The reader will pardon me for this digression. But it was necessary for me to deliver my soul over the Christian literature with which the Christian friends flooded me in the jail, if only to show my appreciation of their interest in my spiritual welfare.
“The Mahabharata is not to me a historical record. It is hopeless as a history. But it deals with eternal verities in an allegorical fashion. It takes up historical personage and events and transform them into angels and devils as it suits the purpose of the poet whose theme is the eternal duel between good and evil, spirit and matter, God and Satan. It is like a mighty river which in its progress absorbs many streams, some even muddy. It is the conception of one brain. But it has undergone ravages and received accretions in process of time till it has become difficult always to say which is the original and which is apocryphal. The ending of it is magnificent. It demonstrates the utter nothingness of earthly power. The great scarifies of the heart by a Brahmin who gave his little all, the last morsel, to a needy beggar. What is left to the virtuous Pandavas is poignant grief. The mighty Krishna dies helplessly. The numerous and powerful Yadavas because of their corruption die an inglorious death fighting amongst one another. Arjuna the unconquerable is conquered by a band of robbers, his Gandiv notwithstanding. The Pandavas retire leaving the throne to an infant. All but one die on the journey to heaven. And even Yudhishthira, the very embodiment of dharma, has to taste the foetid smell of hell for the lie he permitted himself to utter under stress.”