Gandhi exhibited a keen sense of realism in his daily dealings with the men and women around him. He did not generally formulate long-range ideas. Except on fundamentals, his ideas formulated themselves in response to events and conditions. Even when he had theories, he continually tested them on the touchstone of daily experience. If a theory did not stand the test of experience, he pondered over it again, readily changing his mind when reason demanded it. For him theory and experience must proceed together. They are the two sides of the same coin.
Suicide is generally considered a terrible sin, and rightly so. Human life is a priceless gift, and no one has the right to throw it away, even if it be one's own. But Gandhi had said that some times there might arise occasions when suicide becomes an inescapable moral duty. This saying of Gandhi once led to a tragi-comedy in the Ashram.
A certain member of the Ashram suddenly seemed to have discovered that he was a great sinner. Once the discovery had been made, his self-condemnation mounted steadily until it reached fever-heat. He was of a somewhat hysterical nature, though normally he was a quiet, timid sort of fellow. Overwhelmed by the thought that he, an inmate of Gandhi's Ashram, be such a sinner, he convinced himself he was unworthy to live in the Ashram, or even to live at all. He decided to commit suicide to inflict upon himself the final punishment. He wrote a parting letter to his wife, with whom he was constantly quarrelling, left it where it would certainly catch her eye and went to bed. As chance he would have it, the unhappy woman saw the letter that very night. She had long known that her 'lord and master' was some what a fool, though like a good Indian wife she had kept this 'disloyal' thought to herself. But now she took fright. She ran to Gandhiji. Gandhi sent for the man at once. He obeyed the summons and appeared before Gandhi, a little hysterical and brimming over with repentance. He poured out to Gandhi, who knew the man well, his utter weakness and timidity, listened to him with infinite patience and agreed that he had sinned.
'But, why kill yourself?' he asked. 'Live, perform atonement, purify yourself and grow into a better man.'
'No, no,' the wretched man cried out. 'I must punish myself. I have deceived you and many others. There is no hope for me. I must die.'
One or two friends joined in. One of them said Gandhi should put an end to this folly and ban the suicide. At this, the 'sinner' became inconsolable.
Gandhi seemed to reflect a moment and then remarked; 'All right. Now go home. Think it over again. I am sure you should not take your life. I can give you an alternative programme of active atonement and correction. But if after deep thought, you should come to me tomorrow and still hold fast to your intention, then I will reconsider the matter.'
'Oh, let me die, allow me to die,' wailed the the penitent.
Gandhi cut him short. 'Well, go now. You know my mind. You are absolutely free to choose for yourself.'
The party broke up. The man walked away in great agitation.
Gandhi turned to the trembling wife and soothed her fears. There is no need for you to worry. He will not kill himself. You had better sleep somewhere here tonight, so that there will be none to fuss over him at home.'
The night passed. Late next morning, the helpless man was ushered into Gandhi's presence. Gandhi raised a mild laugh by saying 'So you are still with us. Good. Come in and sit down'.
Later, this person submitted to the course of hard work and discipline prescribed by Gandhi to wash away his sins. He then prospered and did excellent work.
Gandhi was sure the man was too timid to kill himself and much too excited to be persuaded against suicide. To have prohibited it straight away would be only have sharpened his hysterical determination to kill himself. Of course, Gandhi took a risk, but he knew his man.