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Gandhi and Sex
A review of Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles by Ved Mehta (Yale University Press; July 1, 1993; pp. 260).


The Canadian India Times, Feb. 2, 1978

Photo: Gandhi, with Abha (left) and Manu

Ved Mehta became totally blind at the age of three. His father sent him to best schools in the world - Oxford and Harvard - so that his son might not end up a cane maker or a basket weaver.

Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles is Ved Mehta's ninth book, which promises to be both more popular and controversial than his previous.

Gandhi was a great political figure of the twentieth century. With his fasts and scripture reading, his dedication to non-violence, simplicity and celibacy, he captured the imagination of millions in India. Myths began to develop during his life time and when he died a martyrs' death there were those who compared him to Christ. His human weaknesses have been obscured by mythologizers fearful of debasing and sensationalizing their martyred hero.

In Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, Mehta has sought to separate facts from myths without denying the Mahatma his greatness. Mehta interviewed many of Gandhi's disciples and relatives and studied his biographies, speeches and writings to discover the real man.

The book offers descriptions of Gandhi's childhood, his student days in England, his struggle for Indian rights in South Africa and his leadership of the national movement in India. More importantly, the book describes aspects not known to the average reader. Mehta is at pains to reveal Gandhi's attitude toward sex, a topic that has previously been handled by Nirmal Kumar Bose in My Days with Gandhi, Erik H. Erikson in Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in Freedom at Midnight and Gandhi himself in occasional public utterances.

Gandhi became a brahamachari (celibate) when he was thirty-six. As a brahamachari, he would normally have been expected to eschew all contact with women, but instead he took naked women to bed with him. Amongst those who slept with him were Sushila Nayar, Sucheta Kriplani, Abha and Manu. Gandhi viewed the practice as an experiment in brahamacharya. For him this was a sure way to test his mastery of celibacy. He believed that if he could succeed in his brahamacharya experiment, he would be able to vanquish Muhammad Ali Jinnah with his spiritual power and foil his plan for India's partition.

During his Noakhali tour of 1946, Gandhi used to sleep with the nineteen-year-old Manu. When Nirmal Bose, his Bengali interpreter, saw this he protested, asserting that the experiments must be having bad psychological effects on the girl. In his Book My Days with Gandhi, published in 1953 with great difficulty and at his own expense, he offers a Freudian interpretation to Gandhi's experiments.

It is generally believed that Gandhi started sleeping with women toward the close of his life. According to Sushila Nayar, he started much earlier. However, at the time he called it 'nature cure.' She told Mehta, 'long before Manu came into the picture I used to sleep with him just as I would with my mother. He might say my back aches. Put some pressure on it. So I might put some pressure on it or lie down on his back and he might just go to sleep. In the early days there was no question of calling this a brahamacharya experiment. It was just part of nature cure. Later on, when people started asking questions about his physical contact with women, the idea of brahamacharya experiments was developed. Don't ask me any more questions about brahamacharya experiments. There is nothing to say, unless you have a dirty mind like Bose.'

No doubt Gandhi's interest in women, whether he called it 'experiments in brahamacharya' or 'nature cure,' was directed at a conscious suppression of his own sexual feelings. The same is confirmed by his close political associate C. Rajagopalachari who told Mehta, 'it is now said that he was born so holy that he had a natural bent for brahamacharya, but actually he was highly sexed.'

Like many, Gandhi was convinced that sex diffuses human energy, which should be conserved and sublimated. He imposed celibacy on all those who lived in his ashram (retreat). J.B. Kriplani and Sucheta Kriplani married against his wishes, but they remained brahamacharyas after their marriage. The imposition of celibacy did not work in all cases. According to Raihana Tyabji, a devout disciple of Gandhi, 'the more they tried to restrain themselves and repress their sexual impulses . . . the more oversexed and sex-conscious they became.'

Gandhi's ideas on sex are certainly outdated. He believed that a woman's interest in sex is submissive and self-sacrificing. He assumed that women derived no pleasure from such activity. When his son failed to live what he considered a moral life, Gandhi felt guilty for what he viewed as the sexual excesses of his married life. When his first child died soon after birth, he felt he was justly punished for his sexual sins. These sins were twofold - he had intercourse with his pregnant wife and he had withdrawn from his ailing father's side to sleep with his wife (his father had died a few minutes later). The guilt haunted Gandhi in his later years until he vowed to lead a brahamacharya life.

Though Gandhi did not lack moral education, he certainly lacked sex education.

There is, however, no reason interpret his relationship with women beyond what Mehta has done. Gandhi never concealed the true reasons for his actions. He did everything publicly and spoke uninhibitedly. Even Bose admitted that there was no question of impropriety in the relationships and 'there was something saintly and almost supernatural about him.'

All great men have weaknesses. Gandhi had his. He was no doubt a Mahatma whose greatness must not be minimized. He created a political awakening among the masses of India and led them through the doors of freedom. He became one with the poor by living a simple and austere life. He identified with the Untouchables by doing their work with his own hands. He practiced what he preached. He sacrificed the career of his children to his concept of moral education by denying them an academic education, which in his view 'perpetuated slavery.' His eldest son, Hira Lal, never forgave him for that and did exactly the opposite of what his noble father preached. He became a meat eater, an alcoholic, a gambler and a philanderer, but this did not deter Gandhi from the moral path he had chosen. Albert Einstein once said of him, 'Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.'

Ved Mehta laments the fact that with Gandhi's death his disciples have withdrawn from the great tasks he had undertaken. According to Mehta, only three genuine Gandhians are left in the field to do battle for his ideas and ideals. They are Vinoba Bhave, Satish Chandra Das Gupta and Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

It is, however, surprising that Mehta did not interview two other devout Gandhians: Jaya Prakash (J.P.) Narayan and Morarji Desai. J.P.'s name does not figure at all in the book though his wife Prabhavati Devi spent seven years in Gandhi's ashram when J.P. was in the United States. When J.P. returned to India, the poor fellow found his wife vowed to celibacy. There is only one line in the whole book about Morarji Desai, who, with his rigid faith in prohibition and urine therapy, is at times more Gandhian than Gandhi himself.

Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles is an extremely well-written book. Mehta has made it highly readable with his subtle expression and suave sarcasm, particularly when he reproduces his conversations with Gandhians. He has shown courage in unraveling some of the myths woven around Gandhi by his blind followers. The latter will certainly be dismayed by Mehta's forthrightness.

The book has created a tumult in the Indian Parliament. It will be a great pity if it is banned.