The Concept of Personality
Decoding the Concept of Personality from the Life of Mahatma Gandhi
As a student of psychology, it hurts me when I see the misinterpretation of the word personality at mass scale. You go to any town and you find the personality development classes all over. When you ask what they mean by personality development, you are most likely to get an absurd answer that the way you speak, present and behave is personality and we develop your personality by making you fluent in English or grooming you.
To understand what personality is, let us observe a few incidents of Mahatma Gandhi’s life.
After a week of his arrival in South Africa, Gandhi had to spend one night in a big city in connection with his legal work. He hired a cab and asked the coachman to take him to the leading hotel. Gandhi saw a manager of the hotel and asked for a room.
The white manager eyed him from top to toe and said; "Sorry, we are full.”
Later, when he related the incident to his friend, the friend asked; “How did you ever expect to get admission in a hotel?"
“Why not?” Gandhi asked in surprise.
“Well you will come to know everything in time," the friend said.
And Gandhi did come to know a lot about the insults borne by the Indians in South Africa. He was slapped, boxed and kicked, was pushed out from a train and footpath, because he was a colored Indian. Still he failed to understand why the whites hated and ill-treated the “blackies". After all, all men were sons of the same God and Christianity was a religion of love.
One day he went to hair- cut. The white barber asked: "What do you want?"
"I want a hair-cut,” said Gandhi.
"Sorry, I can't cut your hair. If I attend a coloured man, I shall lose my customers."
This insult sank deep in Gandhi's mind. He felt it would not do too smart in pain or to make written appeals in newspapers. He must be self-reliant, be able to manage his own affairs.
Immediately he bought a pair of clippers and went home. He started clipping his hair before a mirror. He could shave himself but to cut one's own hair was an odd job. And it surely was not a barrister's job! He somehow managed it but spoiled. He went to the court the next day. His clownish hair-cut made his friends shake with laughter.
One asked in jest; "Gandhi, what's wrong with your hair? Rats have nibbled at it last night?"
Gandhi replied in earnest; "No. The white barber refused to touch the black hair of black man, so I decided to cut it myself, no matter how badly."
This was Gandhi's first attempt in hair-cutting at the age of 28. Afterwards he often used the scissors and the clippers. In his ashrams, a hired barber's service was taboo. The ashramites cut the hair of one another by turn. Gandhi waned the students of ashram to lead a simple Spartan life. No fashion, no fine dress or tasty dishes were allowed there. One Sunday morning, the boys were going for a bath. Gandhi called them one by one and cropped their hair. They were very unhappy to get their hair trimmed to the scalp. Gandhi once cut the long hair of two ashrams girls.
No combs were given in South African prisons and every prisoner convicted for two months or more had his hair cropped close and his mustaches shaved. Gandhi and his party were exempted from this practice. But Gandhi wanted to go through all the jail experiences. When he said in writing that he wanted to get his hair cropped, the chief warder gave him clippers and a pair of scissors. Gandhi and one or two co-prisoners each day spent two hours in doing the barber's job.
When he was imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace, with him was a lady ashramite. Dandruff was troubling her. In an unguarded moment, she asked; 'Bapu, shall I cut my hair and put some medicine to kill the dandruff? “Quick came Gandhi's reply; “Yes, do it right now. Bring the scissors." Scissors were brought and off fell the locks of the lady. Mahatma, the barber, was then 75.
Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, writes:
“I was coming back from school and I had this little notebook, writing pad and a pencil. And I was about 13 years old at the time, quite an irresponsible 13 year old. Walking home absentmindedly I looked at the pencil. It was about 3 inches long, and I said I deserve a better pencil. This is too small for me to use. And I was so confident that grandfather would give me a new pencil that without a second thought, I threw that pencil away.
And that evening when I went and asked grandfather for a new pencil, instead of giving me one he subjected me to a lot of questions. He wanted to know what happened to the pencil I had in the morning, how did it become small, where did I throw it away, and on and on and on. And I couldn’t understand why he was making such a fuss over a little pencil until he told me to go out and look for it. And I said, “You must be joking! You don’t expect me to go out and look for a pencil in the dark?” He said, “Oh yes I do, and here’s a flashlight.” And he sent me out with the flashlight to look for this pencil and I must have spent two or three hours searching for it.
And when I finally found it and brought it to him he said, “Now I want you to sit here and learn two very important lessons… The first lesson is that even in the making of a simple thing like a pencil we use a lot of the world’s natural resources and when we throw them away we are throwing away the world’s natural resources and that is violence against nature. Lesson number two is that because in an affluent country we can afford to buy all these things in bulk, we over-consume the resources of the world. And because we over-consume them, we are depriving people elsewhere of these resources and they have to live in poverty. And that is violence against humanity.”
Needless to mention that he used to write on the used envelops and would utilize every inch of space available on the paper.
In the Phoenix Asharam in South Africa, all the members used to clean the toilet on rotation basis. There comes a day when the turn was of Kasturba Gandhi, his wife. Mahatma Gandhi asks her to clean it. Her wife refuses by calling it the work of untouchables. He ultimately convinces her and makes her rake and cover the latrine.
Around 30 years later after the Phoenix incidence, once Srimanarayan, a young educated youth from London School of Economics, had come to seek an audience with Gandhiji in the Sewagram Ashram. He had come with big dreams of changing the Nation; eagerly awaiting his turn to tell his ideas to Gandhiji. On the appointed day of his meeting, even before he could utter a word, Gandhiji with a smiling face and soft voice instructed him to join the collective sanitation for which he was ready to leave.
In the light of the thoughts, feelings, and actions of Mahatma Gandhi as reflected by the above incidents, we can trace the trait of self-reliance in his life from the age 28 to 75. The incident of pencil and his writing on the used envelop sheds light on his economic nature and concern for nature and humanity. We can also figure out his concern for cleanliness and equality right in South Africa and in India during a span of 30 years.
Psychologists attempt to explain the concept of personality in terms of individuality. Commenting upon the concept of individuality it is said that all men are alike in certain respects; some men are alike in certain respects; and no man is like any other man in certain respects.
Psychologists also try to explain personality in terms of consistency which means a person seems to behave somewhat consistently in different situations over different times.
All men may have more or less intense traits of self-reliance. All leaders may vouch for equality more or less often. All torch bearers act economically seldom or always. All Homo Sapiens may have the same drive for cleanliness as Gandhi had. But, the behavior of self-reliance, economy, equality and cleanliness, in the same ratio and intensity exhibited in different environments and at different times is impossible to have in any one other than Mahatma Gandhi. This is what makes the personality of Gandhi. Never before was born a personality of Gandhi nor will ever be.
This individuality exhibited by a person in different environments and times consistently is personality.
If you wish to contemplate on your personality, try answering the following questions:
1. In what respects I am like all other men?
2. In what respects I am like some other men?
3. In what respects I am like no other men? (Call them your individual traits)
4. What are the individual traits that are visible in most of the environments and times? (Call them individual consistent traits)
Hence, personality could be defined as the sum total of personal thoughts, feelings and behaviors exhibited consistently over different environments and times.