Was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's popularity with women partly due to his practice of 'brahmacharya' (voluntary celibacy)? Did women perceive him as non-threatening? Did his renunciation of sexuality help build up relationships of trust? These interesting ideas came up at the recent book release function of the book, " 'Brahmacharya' Gandhi and His Women Associates" published by Vitasta, in New Delhi.
According to author Girja Kumar, Gandhi was "irresistibly attractive" to many women. In the wider ethos of male aggression and abuse, the practice of 'brahmacharya', which involves restraint in thought, speech and action, might make a man, paradoxically, more attractive to women. Uma Vasudeva, a well- nown writer, noted, "Gandhi was absolutely frank about his sexual experiments. He wrote about them meticulously. He saw his experiments as important for history."
Gandhi took a vow of lifelong celibacy in 1906, after 23 years of what he described as "marital bliss". Kasturba, his lifelong companion, was willy-nilly party to this vow. Gandhi saw celibacy as a restoration of autonomy not only for himself, but also for his partner. Yet, he never quite consulted her on this important issue, though she was undoubtedly a strong woman with a will of her own.
Renunciation of sexuality was part of Gandhi's spiritual discipline. It was extremely difficult and challenging, becoming no easier with age. He tried to institutionalize his ideal of marital celibacy by persuading couples at the Sabarmati (Gujarat) and Sewagram (Maharashtra) Ashrams to adopt it, with varied results. Whereas Prabhavati, for instance, adopted 'brahmacharya' much to the dismay of her socialist husband, Jaya Prakash Narain, Kanchan Shah objected, and eventually rebelled against the injunction, with the passive cooperation of her husband, Munnalal Shah, a staunch Gandhian.
Gandhi's 'brahmacharya' was not the old Indian ascetic ideal that abjured all interactions with women. Quite the opposite: Gandhi had countless close women associates, many of whom he characterized as daughter, sister, mother, and so on. Even his 'romantic' relationship with Sarladevi Chowdhrani, whom Gandhi once acknowledged as his 'spiritual wife', was reframed as follows: "So far as I can see our relationship is that of brother and sister... I must plead gently like a brother ever taking care to use the right word even as I do to my oldest sister. I must not be father, husband, friend or teacher all rolled into one." (July 21, 1920, 'Young India')
Kumar has explored the lives and thinking of some of Gandhi's closest women associates. These include his Jewish secretary, Sonja Schlesin, who was a matchless manager, well-known for her whole-hearted commitment to 'satyagraha' (nonviolent resistance) movements in South Africa. She exchanged hundreds of letters with Gandhi after his return to India, right up to November 1947. There others like Millie Polak and Jayakunwar Doctor in South Africa; Esther Faering, a Danish missionary in India; Mirabehn, who spent years serving Gandhi at Sewagram; Sushila Nayyar, Gandhi's personal physician and masseur; and Manu Gandhi, a grand-niece who was his companion in the last years of his life. Each relationship involved intense engagement, with a great deal of feeling, many ups and downs, challenges and mutual learning.
Gandhi was drawn not only to women, but also to womanhood as such. Kumar writes, "Gandhi had a great desire to be a woman..." (p 17). His experiments with sexual self-restraint involved the ideal of becoming less masculine - what we might describe as 'non-macho'. It meant developing qualities of femininity within his self, in line with the traditional ideal of 'Ardhanarishwara' - a composite being who is half-man and half-woman. He developed feminine qualities in himself, wiping out the exclusively masculine persona - thus trying to become the 'ideal eunuch' or 'unisex' (Kumar, p 10). Manu Gandhi later wrote a book entitled 'Bapu, My Mother', confirming that he did succeed in awakening feminine, even maternal, qualities within himself.
During his later years, Gandhi's experiments extended to sleeping with younger women, to test and affirm his own sexual self-control. This was highly unconventional and became the subject of gossip as well as serious disapproval. He explained the ideal he was trying to reach: "One who never has any lustful intention, who by constant attendance upon God has become proof against conscious or unconscious emissions, who is capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful they may be, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually excited. Such a person should be incapable of lying, incapable of intending or doing harm to a single man or woman in the whole world, is free from anger and malice and detached... Such a person is a full 'brahmachari'." (In a letter to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, on March 17, 1947)
Varsha Das, Director of Gandhi Museum, noted that 'brahmacharya' provided Gandhi with a sense of great freedom. As a human being, he felt freer to interact with others, irrespective of gender. As a political leader, he was able to avoid the kind of problems several male leaders have confronted due to fraught sexual proclivities - well-known examples include Leo Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln, Jawaharlal Nehru and John F. Kennedy. Real affairs as well as imagined scandals rendered life problematic for these political figures.
While everybody will not be able to emulate the Gandhian paradigm, it is useful to look at. It emphasizes - not only for men but also for women - a different kind of approach: to judiciously deal with one's desires rather than simply give in to them. It asks for a different kind of effort in order to handle the self and relationships better.
Gandhi's 'brahmacharya' - interpreted as a conscious effort to transcend the limitations of fixed gender identity - is of interest to contemporary feminists, psychologists and social scientists. In his deliberate molding of the 'brahmacharya' ideal to merge with wider public goals, Gandhi worked with sexual desire, as a universal human trait that can be dealt with in diverse ways.
In his worldview, the personal realm was intimately connected to the political. He wanted to be able to have close relations with human beings, including women, without any interference of sexual feeling. This did allow him to have deep relationships with women, who trusted him with personal confidences and rewarded him with lifelong loyalty. At the same time, several questions remain. For instance - why cannot sexuality be accepted as just another dimension of life, which could be satisfied without necessarily threatening any other human being? The search for answers continues.
Tara Bhattacharya, Gandhi's granddaughter and Vice Chairperson, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Smriti, New Delhi, noted, "People keep researching Gandhi and discovering new things, which are relevant even today. I find more people interested in Gandhi than, say, 30 years ago. We, his family, lay no claim to him. He belongs to everybody. Or, in fact, he is beyond belonging to anybody!"