*The Sexuality of a Celibate Life

A celibate for the greater part of his life, Mohandas Gandhi continues to attract nearly unrivaled attention – often for the sex that did not take place. Even his friends and admirers, who revered him for bringing ethics to the political life, or for never demanding of others what he did not first demand of himself, were quite certain that Gandhi was unable to comprehend that a woman and a man might enjoy a perfectly healthy sexual relationship with each other. Nehru, seldom critical of the personal life of his political mentor, was convinced that Gandhi harboured an “unnatural” suspicion of the sexual life; and he deplored, as did many others, Gandhi’s strongly held view that sexual intercourse, other than for purposes of procreation, had no place in civilised life – not even among married couples.  The Marxists have long subscribed to the view that Gandhi was a “romantic”, a hopeless idealist and even hypocrite; to this a chorus of voices added the thought that Gandhi was an insufferable “puritan”.

Gandhi’s discomfort with the sexual life, according to one widely accepted strand of thought, commenced when his father passed away shortly after his marriage to Kasturba.  Though the young Gandhi liked to nurse his ailing father, one evening he was unable to contain his urge to share a night of ribaldry with his young wife. He had just withdrawn to the bedroom when a knock on the door announced that his father had passed away. Gandhi was, it has been argued, never able to forgive himself his transgression, and became determined to master his sexual drive. A more complex narrative links his renunciation of sex to his firm conviction, first developed during the heat of a campaign of nonviolent resistance to oppression in South Africa, that it compromised his ability to be a perfect satyagrahi.  Many commentators have pointed to his failure to consult with Kasturba before he took a vow of celibacy at the age of 37 as a sign of his cruelty and tendency to be self-serving.

One British reviewer of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of the Mahatma, however, had much more than this in mind when he characterised Gandhi as a “sexual weirdo”.  In his 70s, in the sunset of his life, Gandhi embarked on a new set of sexual experiments in which several women partook, among them Manu and Abha, his “two walking sticks”, and Sushila Nayar, his personal physician and sister of his secretary Pyarelal.  In the midst of raging communal violence, which Gandhi characteristically attributed to his own personal shortcomings, he decided to test his resolve – by going to bed naked with one or the other of the women. His detractors have ever since had a field day: though no one has ever suggested that Gandhi made improper advances, or that the encounter was in the remotest manner sexual, the mask is supposed to have come off the “dirty old man”.  Few of his critics are aware that after such experiments came to a halt, Manu penned a remarkable little book titled, Bapu, My Mother; or that Sushila Nayar, furnishing an account several years after Gandhi’s death of these experiments in brahmacharya, stated that, far from experiencing any sexual desire, she felt as though she was sharing the bed with her mother.

The celibate Gandhi is as much a conundrum as any other Gandhi we have known. Though the principal architect of the Indian Independence struggle, he had much less invested in the idea of the nation-state than any other nationalist. He was a radical democrat but one detects a streak of authoritarianism in his political conduct; and, similarly, while declaring himself a bhakta of Tulsidas, he never doubted that passages in the Ramacharitmanas that were repugnant to one’s moral conscience were to be rejected. The vow of brahmacharya did not preclude, as it has for reformers and saints in Indian religious traditions, the company of women; indeed, Gandhi adored their presence and reveled in their touch. He was constantly surrounded by women, and for decades Mirabehn, the daughter of an English admiral who was mesmerised by the Mahatma, was privy to his innermost thoughts to such an extent as to arouse jealousy within Kasturba. Their correspondence has a touch of the erotic; and, Mirabehn, in particular, would write of her longing for the Mahatma when he was away. She was by no means the only woman with whom Gandhi enjoyed a platonic relationship:  there was an intense exchange of “love letters” over many years between him and Esther Faering, a Danish missionary, and Saraladevi Chowdharani was cast as his “spiritual wife”.  Many of his male friendships are equally interesting:  for example, he may also have been attracted to Hermann Kallenbach, a wealthy Jewish architect who would become one of Gandhi’s earliest patrons and closest friends. Kallenbach, a body-builder and athlete, may have been the embodiment of masculinity, but Gandhi saw his soft side and his gift for nonviolence.

We are not likely to understand these friendships, which should also make us aware of Gandhi’s singular disinterest in the traditional concept of the family, if we fail to make a distinction between sex and sexuality and see through to the core of his thoughts on masculinity and femininity. Though Gandhi repudiated sex, which he saw as a finite game, finite in that its end seemed to be mere physical consummation, he was a consummate player of sexuality who delighted in the infinite pleasures of touch, companionship, and the eroticism of longing and withdrawal. More so than any other Indian political figure of his time, Gandhi made very little distinction between men and women. This will appear to be a brazen statement to those who have read his unequivocally clear pronouncements on the distinct duties of women and men and the spheres they ought ideally to occupy in life.  In practice, however, he fundamentally treated them as alike, endeavouring also to bring out something of the feminine in men and something of the masculine in women. It is wholly characteristic of the Mahatma, a relentless advocate of experiments with truth, that even if he appeared to work with a crude conception of what it means to be male or female, his entire life can be read as an attempt to bring us to a new threshold of understanding the notions of masculinity and femininity.

(originally published in “The Asian Age”, 1 May 2011)

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8 thoughts on “*The Sexuality of a Celibate Life

    • Thank you for your kind remarks. I will endeavor to think of images to accompany this piece.
      Meanwhile, a much lengthier version of my argument, first articulated by me over ten years ago,
      can be found in a research article that I published in the “Journal of the History of Sexuality.”
      It can be located at http://www.vinaylal.com

  1. It is fortunate for all of us that Gandhi did not live through the age of the Internet. The poor guy was simply attempting to make amends for his excesses in the area of sex in early life. May be he did not do it the right way – that is by renunciation and seclusion – the common path. The reason for this was his dedication to the cause of India’s freedom. He was so engrossed and entangled in this national struggle that he had to step aside or delve deeper into himself to project his true self. It is a pity that driven by his personal history, he chose the ideal of celibacy to demonstrate his urge for morality. To think otherwise or to impute motives to his conduct seemingly unsavoury, is to misinterpret an honest attempt at self-purification. We have not yet seen Manu’s diary in full. A lot more may have been revealed. The question I have is: Why was there such intense rivalry among the women in his entourage for being part of his experimentation in celibacy? Was there ever a note of discomfort or disapproval struck by any of them?

    • Hello Pragji,
      I have explored many of the issues you mention at greater length in a very long paper published in the “Journal of the History of Sexuality”,
      which you can access at vinaylal.com. I shall, therefore, abstain from a lengthy commentary at this juncture, except to say that it is critical
      to understand the relationship, in Gandhi’s own mind, between his renunciation of sex (which is not the same thing as sexuality, since Gandhi
      continued to adore the company and touch of women, and which he did not see as congruent with sexual intercourse) and his firm belief in the power of
      ahimsa (nonviolence). To my mind, if we fail to see this connection, Gandhi’s views on sex will appear to be an aberration, or as a sign (as
      Nehru saw it) of a prurient mind. But you raise some interesting questions, such as how one is to understand the intense rivalry among some
      women for his affections. Of course, in some respects this may not be very different from the intense rivalry among women for men who are seen
      as extremely sexually attractive, especially if their (alleged or imagined) sexual prowess is attached to wealth as well.

  2. I believe your focus on sexuality narrows the perspective on Gandhi and does a grave injustice to him. The West will never understand the metaphor of “two walking sticks” – that Manu and Abha were to Gandhi. One has to be born “Indian” to fully grasp the niceties of Indian culture.

    I am taking a more realistic view.
    It is fortunate for all of us that Gandhi did not live through the age of the Internet. I address these remarks to the media in general and to reputable news-magazines like INDIA TODAY and its subsidiaries in particular. This great fighter for human rights, was simply attempting to make amends for his own excesses in the area of sex in early life; – as may be the case with most young couples with little or no knowledge of the science of sex. May be he did not do it the right way that is: by renunciation and seclusion – the familiar path. The reason for this was his dedication to the cause of India’s freedom. He was so engrossed and entangled in this national struggle that he had to step aside or delve deeper into himself to project his true self. It is a pity that driven by his personal history, he chose the ideal of celibacy to demonstrate his urge for morality. To think otherwise or to impute motives to his conduct seemingly unsavoury, is to misinterpret an honest attempt at self-realization. We have not yet seen Manu’s diary in full. A lot more may have been revealed. The question I have is: Why was there such intense rivalry among the women in his entourage for being part of his experimentation in celibacy? Was there ever a note of discomfort or disapproval struck by any of them?
    Gandhi named the story of his life: “Experiments in Truth”. He did not hide anything. We have to judge the state of his mind in the same context in the last few years of his life when Manu and Abha stayed with him to care for him and to help out in his daily routine. Gandhi was obsessed with the concept of Truth. To him, Truth had to be obvious, clear-cut and quite open. Experimentation was his preferred way to bring out the truth. What we have is Manu’s diary and Abha’s book on Gandhi. Nehru is said to have used the word “prurient” to describe his state of mind although he did not lebel it as such. So what? He was experimenting with it so as to rise above its compulsion.
    What we think we know, stems from our experience of modern society. Gandhi worked and succeeded in this society when it was not so modern. His weapons of Truth and Non-violence in India and South Africa brought him unprecedented success and his achievements in the realm of political and social reform became the envy of the world. The intelligentia in the lower strata of society especially in the West launched a campaign of hatred and belittlement against Gandhi and his India. Heaven knows on what basis he was deprived of the Nobel Prize. His leadership quality was unique. Millions of Indians and others across the world came under the spell of his magic and the political map began to change all around. Parsis, Muslims, Christains, the white and black – all joined his band-vagon. The fact that he was assassinated by the member of a Hindu fundamentalist organization speaks volumes of his love for all sectors of human society. We simply can’t bring him down for the sake of a glimpse of human frailty that he attempted to overcome in an open manner. We have to have faith in both Manu and Abha who felt lonely and forsaken on his parting. Whatever we say, Einstein’s tribute namely, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one , ever in flesh and blood, walked on this earth”, will survive and with it, the name GANDHI.

    • I can agree with some of what has been expressed by Mr Naik and yet there are also areas of disagreement. I do not, however, propose to enter into a full-fledged discussion at this point, except to say the following: (1) The focus in my short article (written initially for a newspaper) was on Gandhi’s notion of sexuality, but this is scarcely to say that I would view Gandhi only through this lens. I have elsewhere written about Gandhi and ahimsa, his ecological worldview, and a host of other matters; and so I find the objection that the article focuses on sexuality and therefore does Gandhi disservice strange. (2) It is not particularly helpful to say that the West can “never” understand Gandhi, or that one has to be genuinely Indian, whatever that might mean, to appreciate him. There are plenty of people in India alone who don’t understand him, and don’t have the slightest interest in his thought, so let’s not worry too much about the West. (3) I have a far more elaborate piece on Gandhi’s notion of sexuality–and the distinction, which in my view is critical, between ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’–published in my book, OF CRICKET, GUINNESS AND GANDHI (Seagull, 2002; paperback ed., Penguin, 2005) and also in the “Journal of the History of Sexuality”; this article can be accessed by going to http://www.vinaylal.com/essays-Gandhi2.html (and clicking on the link for “Nakedness, Nonviolence and Brahmacharya”). I invite the Mr. Naik to read this piece. Lastly, (4) Why should we worry at all that Gandhi did not get the Nobel Prize? Why do we always crave for recognition from the West? Is Mr. Naik aware that though there are many extremely worthy recipients of the prize, such as the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, there are also some criminals who received the prize, for example Henry Kissinger? I would urge Mr Naik to jettison the idea that Gandhi would somehow become more worthy or legitimate if he been conferred the Nobel Prize.

  3. Dear Shri Lal, …… I would like you to know that I admire your critical approach and your in-depth observations on many a topic.
    I believe you left Gandhi half-exposed very much like Churchill’s “half-naked fakir”. Secondly, one has to have Indian upbringing and Indian blood flowing through one’s veins to be able to appreciate the niceties of Indian culture. Lastly, regarding the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Institution would have added an eminent name to their list of recipients by honouring Gandhi.
    I thank you for your response. Please be assured that I have great regard for your analytical approach.

    Sincerely, ___ Parag Naik

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