While Mahatma Gandhi was alive, he openly talked about sex – often in a detailed, provocative manner. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, who was his close friend and associate during the freedom struggle, described Gandhi’s advice to newlyweds regarding celibacy in his autobiography as “abnormal and unnatural.” Coming from someone like Nehru, who himself was known to have a penchant for erotic indulgences, it speaks volumes.
It wasn’t until years after Mahatma Gandhi’s death that this part of his life was strategically and carefully erased from public view and it became a taboo to talk about it.
Gandhi’s censorious attitude towards sex developed while he was in his thirties. To best serve the nation, he decided to embrace his poverty and chastity. In 1906, he took an oath of celibacy (brahmacharya), which, according to Hinduism, is the way of living a spiritual life while maintaining abstinence, i.e. not indulging in sex.
While poverty was no problem for Gandhi, he struggled with chastity. While technically, he didn’t break the rules, he bent and twisted them to serve his purpose. Gandhi had his own definition of abstinence. According to him, a chaste person is, “One who is capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually excited.”
This, effectively meant that he could do whatsoever he wanted as long as there was no apparent “lustful intention.” Thus, he set up ashrams, where he began his sex experiments. Men and women were to bathe and sleep together chastely, but they were punished for any sexual talk. Gandhi himself would sleep naked and bathe with his secretary’s sister, Sushila Nayar, who was also his personal physician. On being confronted about violating decency, he justified himself by saying, “While she is bathing I keep my eyes tightly shut,” he said, “I do not know … whether she bathes naked or with her underwear on. I can tell from the sound that she uses soap.”
Gandhi had an almost magical belief in the power of semen: “One who conserves their vital fluid acquires unfailing power” he said. So naturally, when times got harder, more attractive women were required to challenge his restraint. During the time of communal violence in Bengal, he called for his 18-year-old niece, Manu, to join him. Even his grandnephew’s wife, Abha, joined the entourage during the run-up to independence. His ‘chaste’ relationship with the two girls continued until his assassination in 1948.
Gandhi’s typist and personal secretary in the later years, Parshuram, gave detailed accounts of what went down in the ashrams. He even wrote a 16-page letter to Gandhi, pleading him to stop his practices, but Gandhi declined, following which, Parasuram tendered his resignation. But, he wasn’t the only one who opposed Mahatama’s experiments. There were friends and members of his family who tried to dissuade him, but as it was with other aspects of his life, he kept going down that same path with rejuvenated determination.
In the 1970s, Sushila Nayar revealed the truth about the brahmacharya experiments, saying, “Later on, when people started asking questions about his physical contact with women – with Manu, with Abha, with me – the idea of brahmacharya experiments was developed … in the early days, there was no question of calling this a brahmacharya experiment.” It appears, like all great men of power, Gandhi made the rules as he went along.
All that being said, this is not an attempt at undermining Gandhi’s role in the struggle in India’s independence struggle. It is to show that he was a human after all, and as great as he was, he was prone to follies. Knowing the hidden side of someone doesn’t necessarily taint their character. Instead, it enriches it and helps us understand their motivations. Like Gandhi himself said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”