Why read Gandhi between his sheets?

Illustration: Samia Singh

THE ONGOING controversy about the recent biography of Mahatma Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld, wherein it is alleged that the author has called Gandhi ‘racist’ and suggested ‘bisexual tendencies’, is symptomatic of a deeper malaise that plagues our culture of book reviews and continuing fascination with Gandhi’s sexuality and our inability to either comprehend it or to allow a serious discussion of the issue.

In a predictable response, the governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat have imposed a ban on the book that is yet to be released in India. The decision to ban any book, however flawed, suggests a growing intolerance with the culture of discussion and debate. Every book has a right to exist and be judged on its scholarly or imaginative merit.

To set the record straight, Lelyveld does not describe Gandhi either as ‘racist’ or ‘bisexual’. In fact, he argues against such readings. He shows the journey of Gandhi as a person who seriously grapples with the question of race and apartheid in South Africa, which enabled him to take a cultural leap and say “My heart was with the Zulus”. Lelyveld makes one of the most serious attempts in recent times to understand the fascinating and complex relationship between Hermann Kallenbach and Gandhi — by sensitively reading the large cache of letters of Gandhi to Kallenbach. A few years ago, Thomas Weber in his work Gandhi as a Mentor and Disciple provided a detailed account of this relationship, which led to the creation of Tolstoy Farm. Any reconstruction of this relationship is hampered by the fact that we have only half the archive, Gandhi did not preserve Kallenbach’s letters, while Gandhi’s letters to him are part of the public domain.

Gandhi’s sexuality was a matter of salacious gossip even during his lifetime. For him, however, it was a part of his sadhana, his spiritual and political experiments on himself and to the extent that it was possible and given to him to speak of the spiritual experiments, he placed his experiments with brahmacharya in the public domain for scrutiny. Gandhi began with a limited and restricted notion of brahmacharya as celibacy and chastity in South Africa. He saw this as an imperative for anyone wishing to dedicate life to public service. But he was soon to expand this idea and take it beyond celibacy, including chastity within marriage. Gandhi began to see the relationship between food and sexuality, between control of the palate and control of the impulses of the body and the mind. It would take him several decades, but through his observances, his experiments, Gandhi developed insights into the interrelatedness of Truth, Ahimsa and Brahmacharya.

He came to regard the pursuit of perfect brahmacharya — in thought, word and deed, in moments of wakefulness as also of sleep — as essential to the attainment of truth and non-violence. Truth and non-violence were also means to Satyagraha and Swaraj. Thus, his practice of brahmacharya moves between two planes of private and public, between spirituality and politics. Satyagraha for Gandhi required selfpurification, and one of the means of attaining this purification was the practice of brahmacharya. The other two were prayer and fasting. As Gandhi began to experience the interconnected nature of brahmacharyawith other practices, he expanded the idea itself. The root meaning of the term as conduct that leads one to truth became apparent to him.

Thus, one could argue that an experiment in Truth is an experiment in brahmacharya.

If brahmacharya is an experiment and an experiment in Truth, it cannot have any possibility of secrecy. As an experiment, it was important to record the unusual, uncontrolled occurrences. It was essential to speak of the failures.

Practice of truth required admission of failures, however insignificant or unconscious. This can be attained only when one acquires the capacity for detachment from one’s own actions. Detachment does not mean abjuring responsibility or accountability but the capacity to view oneself from a distance. Gandhi tried to cultivate this distance and detachment about his own conduct and thought.

That Gandhi experimented with brahmacharya was known to India. He often wrote about it, much to the displeasure and misunderstanding of some of his closest associates, including Swami Anand and Kishorelal Mashruwala.

MODERN SCHOLARSHIP has tried to grapple with this need of Gandhi to experiment on his body and soul. The most serious and sympathetic account is given by Nirmal Kumar Bose in My Days With Gandhi wherein he provides what the anthropologists call “thick description” of Gandhi’s experiments during the Noakhali march. Sudhir Kakar tried to grapple with this question through psychoanalytic mode. Bhikhu Parekh saw the relationship between controls of sexuality with availability of spiritual powers, which could be employed within the domain of politics. Despite these three very serious academic studies, we have not been able to cultivate the distance and the equanimity necessary to ask the questions of Gandhi’s sexuality, neither do we have patience to await Gandhi’s answers. This has given rise to a plethora of books that seek to see these experiments as ‘salacious gossip’. The most recent of the lot has been Jad Adams’ Naked Ambition. In 2006, we had the book Brahmacharya: Gandhi and His Women Associates by Girja Kumar, which stirred some passions then but is now almost forgotten.

We have not been able to cultivate the distance and the equanimity necessary to ask the questions of Gandhi’s sexuality

We continue to show markedly contradictory tendencies regarding Gandhi’s sexuality. It fascinates us, maybe even titillates us and yet we remain unable to have any serious discussion about it. Each attempt, including that of Bose’s, was met with opprobrium and some form of censor, governmental or societal. We would continue to explore this aspect of Gandhi in the years to come as it is an integral aspect of Gandhi’s selfpractices. What sense we make of it would depend upon what each individual researcher brings to the endeavour, those seeking gossip would find that and those seeking an age-old spiritual practice would find that light.

The fact remains that for Gandhi, experiments with brahmacharya were part of his larger quest to attain moksha, to see god face to face and attain Swaraj. The vow of brahmacharya was one of the 11 vows through which he sought to understand himself and govern his inner life. Hence, it is imperative that we understand these experiments in their relationship with truth, non-violence, non-possession and control of palate. We also need to recognise that Gandhi was not the only one engaged in experiments with his body and soul. His experiments were part of a much larger cultural rubric, which gave legitimacy to them. Psychoanalytic mode does not exhaust all possibilities of understanding these and similar such experiments. Perhaps, a key to understanding lies in following Gandhi’s own journey and the interlacing of spiritual experiments and bodily practices with the political that he provides.



  1. nice read….i guess its a little like a chemistry experiment, isn’t it? One guy says take chemical A and put it in solution B, it will change its colour to violet. Heat it and it will change its color to green.

    Only way to verify this is to actually take A, put it in B, note the color and heat it and then…..bla bla bla….

    My weird point being that unless I take up the same gigantic objective of Purna swaraj for India and push myself like Gandhi did, perform the same experiments that he did, I won’t be able to decide on whether Gandhi was a pervert or not….. Something like what Ramakrishna Paramhansa did….he converted to all the various religions and experimented to see whether he met the Parmatma following the practices of those various religions…..he succeded….so he concluded that everyone will finally end up in the same divinity.

    Sexuality and sexual urges are tough things to handle. It takes guts and a crazy desire to overcome all obstacles in order to write a book detailing how instead of taking care of his ailing relation, Gandhi went and satisfied his sexual urges. Guess, what Mr. G was trying to do was by exposing his guilt he cast off that very guilt’s weight.

    Mr. G. is a complicated fellow. Unless i walk in his shoes, I wouldn’t know how hard they pinched. Here’s to experimenting with truth!


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