While Mahatma Gandhi is known world-wide for his non-violence movement for independent of India, his simple lifestyle and other such aspects that make him a ‘Mahatma’, there are several other aspects in his that raise curiosity in the minds of people. Apart from the extreme pacifism that Gandhi practised which was questioned by many of his contemporaries, the one weird aspect, widely known but little discussed in public discourse, is his experiments with his celibacy.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had strong views on sex, and he often gave detailed instructions to his followers on this subject. His views on sex were not very popular, which was described as “abnormal and unnatural” by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Gandhi was married with Kasturba at the age of 13, not unusual for his time. They led a normal married life, who had four sons. Later in life, Gandhi had written how he had lustful feelings for his wife. “Even at school I used to think of her, and the thought of nightfall and our subsequent meeting was ever haunting me,” he wrote in his autobiography. He had written that he always wanted to teach his illiterate wife, but he could not find time due to his lustful love. His thoughts on sex had completely changed later in his life, and he felt ashamed of his life with his wife before he started his public life.
Gandhi has also written about the time of his father’s death as his double shame. When his father was ill, Gandhi had regularly taken care of him, like dressing the wound, and massaging his legs at the night. His wife became pregnant at that time, which Gandhi later felt was a matter of double shame, as his father was ill, and he was still in school. “Every night whilst my hands were busy massaging my father’s legs, my mind was hovering about the bed-room – and that too at a time when religion, medical science and commonsense alike forbade sexual intercourse,” he wrote. Gandhi also recalled how he could not be with his father during his last moments as he went to his bedroom to have sex with his wife, a decision he regretted later.
Gandhi’s attitude towards sex changed in his late 30s, when he was in South Africa. He deliberated on how he can give his best service to humanity, and decided that it must be done by embracing poverty and chastity. At the age of 38, in the year 1906, he embraced Brahmacharya, which includes complete abstinence from sexual relationships. He talked about his decision to his wife, and he writes that she had no objection. He had already discussed with his cousins whether he should stop having sex with his wife, and he was deliberating on in since 1900. Brahmacharya meant a complete change in his lifestyle, not just celibacy, it also included strict control on diet and other aspects of daily life.
Very soon, Gandhi become a completely changed man on his opinion on sex. In 1907, he wrote in the Indian Opinion, “It is the duty of every thoughtful Indian not to marry. In case he is helpless in regard to marriage, he should abstain from sexual intercourse with his wife.” According to him, sexual intercourse was justified only to have children, and should be avoided in all other times.
Gandhi’s Brahmacharya didn’t end in mere abstinence, it became weird when he started to challenge his resolve to test himself. And thus began a series of experiments that would not be acceptable in today’s era. He had set up ashrams where he conducted his experiments, where boys and girls were to bath together, sleep together. But they were to maintain chastity, they would be punished if there were any sexual talks. The rules of ashram had forbidden married couples living in the ashram to sleep together, and Gandhi had advised that the husbands should not be alone with their wives. When they felt passion, they should take a cold bath, he had further advised.
Rules were different for Gandhi himself, who had started to surround himself with women to challenge his resolve. In the 1920s, Gandhi had started resting his hand on the shoulders of young women during his morning and evening walks, whom he had jokingly referred to as his walking sticks. His grandnieces Abha and Manu were his regular ‘walking sticks’. After this started elaborate daily massage performed by young women in the ashram. The massage was followed by taking bath, helped and accompanied by his female attendants.
Sushila Nayar, sister of Gandhi’s personal secretary Pyarelal Nayyar, was his personal doctor, who took care of Gandhi since her teenage years. She was his regular companion in taking baths. He had claimed that he didn’t look at Sushila while taking bath together, saying he used to keep his eyes tightly shut.
As time progressed, Gandhi’s experiments also had progressed, which now involved young women sleeping with Gandhi, naked. Initially it was merely a sleeping arrangement, but soon became a part of his experiments. This was his method of attaining the nirvana state of perfect Brahamacharya, to maintain abstinence while sleeping next to attractive young women without cloths. Apart from Sushila, his grandnieces Abha and Manu were his regular sleeping companion, along with other women in his Ashram.
As Gandhi grew older, the number of women surrounding him in Ashram had increased, particularly after the death of his wife Kasturba, after Gandhi denied her treatment by western medicine. More number of women were obliged to sleep with him to test his control over libido, the women who were not allowed to sleep with their own husband in the Ashram.
Gandhi had never hidden his unusual experiments with women, he had disclosed the same to his close associates, many times through letters.
In a letter written to his Ashram manager Munnalal Shah, Gandhi had written, “Abha slept with me for hardly three nights. Kanchan slept one night only. Vinas sleeping with me might be called an accident. All that can be said is that she slept close to me.” It may be noted that Kanchan was Munnalal’s wife, while Abha was the wife of Gandhi’s grandnephew Kanu Gandhi.
He went on to write, “what Abha and Kanchan told me was this; that she had no intention whatever of observing brahmacharya, but wished to enjoy the pleasure of sex. She, therefore, stayed very reluctantly and undressed only for fear of hurting me. If I remembered rightly, she was not with me for even an hour. I then stopped both the women from sleeping with me, for I realised that Kanu and you were upset.” Gandhi than added that these three women were excluded from the experiment.
He then added, “I have deliberately included Pra. in the experiment. Maybe I should not. She often used to sleep with me to keep me warm even before I was conscious that I was making an experiment. I used to draw her to me when she lay on the floor, shivering, for my sake.”
While a large number of women slept naked with Gandhi, and some women were willing partner of his experiments, most of them did so at the insistence of Gandhi, and not out of free will. He had a strong personality, and it was very difficult to say no to him. It was revealed by Gandhi himself. In a letter to Krishnachandra he had wrote, “What I mean is that I have done naturally. Almost all of them would strip reluctantly. I have written— haven’t I?—that they did so at my prompting. If I wish to be a brahmachari under all circumstances and want the women also to be such, this is the one way. Now leave this matter alone and watch what happens.”
From the writings of Gandhi, especially letters, it can be seen he faced great criticism for his practice. But he remained adamant, claiming that it was necessary to maintain his Brahmacharya. He had written in once such letter to Krishnachandra, “If I stop sleeping together for all time it will mean that I have been mistaken. Otherwise why should I stop it? There is a limit to abstaining from it for the sake of friends. Sleeping together came with my taking up of brahmacharya or even before that.”
Therefore, Gandhi led a very unusual life which will not be acceptable in today’s era, and legal action will follow if someone tries such ‘experiments’ today. Actually, it was not acceptable in that era also, from his personal assistants to senior leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, everyone had criticised it. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had called it a “terrible blunder”, and had asked him to stop it. But he was Bapuji, with a halo around him, so he was allowed to continue with the experiments.