On his 150th birth anniversary, as we pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi for uniting the people and spearheading the freedom movement, we also look at the controversies and the statements that have had the world confused and perturbed.

His experiments with celibacy

In the year 1946, Gandhiji asked his 19-year-old great-niece Manu to sleep in his bed in order to test his sexual desire and vows of celibacy. He was in his 70s then. To quote his biographer and historian Ramchandra Guha, “He had come round to the view that the violence around him was in part a product or consequence of the imperfections within him.” In today’s post #MeToo era, and earlier too, this would definitely seem problematic. Manu had lost her mother, and was brought up by Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. Kasturba had passed away when these experiments began. Manu, despite the unequal power equation between her and her great-uncle did not seem to be upset over these experiments. Later, Gandhiji included Abha, his great-nephew’s wife in these experiments. At the time, many did express disapproval over this behaviour. His stenographer R. P. Parasuram, left his ashram when Gandhi refused to stop these “experiments.” Two editors of his newspaper refused to print parts of his sermons on these unusual sleeping arrangements and subsequently resigned.

His doctor, Sushila Nayar, was also reported to take baths with him, something which was also looked at askance by those around him at the time.

The women though, did write about these ‘experiments’ too and were unperturbed by the censure these experiments faced. Her personal dairy has Manu write, “Bapu is a mother to me. He is initiating me to a higher human plane through the Brahmacharya experiments, part of his Mahayagna of character-building. Any loose talk about the experiment is most condemnable.” Sushila Nayar too is reported to have written, that during these ‘experiments’ she felt she was in bed with her mother.

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To quote his biographer, historian Ramchandra Guha and author of the two-volume biography Gandhi Before India and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 from an interview in NPR.org, “Gandhi was also obsessed with his own sexuality and celibacy, which is hugely problematic. He was doing these experiments to test his celibacy. He wanted to make sure he was not a sexual predator. Those experiments cannot be defended. They were an imposition on young people and an exercise in power, because he is the great Mahatma and she’s just a young follower.”

Gandhi’s views on women’s place in society

He was a staunch believer that women and men were equal and appointed women to senior posts in the Congress party and asked women to participate in the freedom protests and marches. He was a supporter of women’s education and was a champion for women working outside the home, but nonetheless he did believe that homemaking and child-rearing were a woman’s duties.

To quote Guha from NPR.org, “Like many men of his time, he felt women must bear the primary burden of (household chores and child-rearing). Gandhi’s views on women’s rights certainly fall short of what a contemporary, 21st century sensibility would expect. At the same time, in the 1920s and ’30s, to bring women into public life — to encourage them to become ministers, parliamentarians (as Gandhi did) — was certainly, I think, quite revolutionary.”

His views on women and contraception

The renowned birth control activist Margaret Sanger visited Mahatma Gandhi in 1935, as part of her tour of India. In their conversation, Gandhi told Sanger that sex should only be part of procreation and women should resist their husbands. Sanger told Gandhi that women had as strong feelings about “physical union” as men did and contraception helped in avoiding unwanted pregnancies. Gandhi did not agree, and stated all sex was lust, and though he had fathered four children with his wife Kasturba, he had now become celibate and spiritual after taking a vow of celibacy at the age of 38. He said, “But I know from my own experience that, as long as I looked upon my wife carnally, we had no real understanding. Our love did not reach a high plane. There was affection, of course, between us. Affection there has always been between us but we came closer and closer the more we, or rather I, became restrained. There was never want of restraint on the part of my wife. Very often she would show restraint, but she rarely resisted me although she showed her disinclination often. All the time I wanted carnal pleasure, I could not serve her. She would be a fairly learned woman today if I had not let this lust interfere with her education. She is not dull-witted, but it takes all one’s resources to drive home a lesson. I had plenty of time at my disposal to teach her before I became involved in public affairs but I didn’t take advantage of it.”

By the end of the conversation, Gandhi was more amenable towards voluntary sterilisation for men and suggested couples have sex during the safe period of a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Earlier in 1934, when asked whether contraceptives were the best option after self control, he had replied, “Do you think that the freedom of the body is obtained by resorting to contraceptives? Women should learn to resist their husbands. If contraceptives were resorted to as in the West, frightful results will follow. Men and women will be living for sex alone. They will become soft-brained, unhinged, in fact mental and moral wrecks.”

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In her book Sex and Power, author Rita Banerji, writes that Gandhi, “believed menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman’s soul by her sexuality.”

Gandhi also held strong views on women and rape. He wrote, “I have always held that it is physically impossible to violate a woman against her will. The outrage takes place only when she gives way to fear or does not realize her moral strength. If she cannot meet the assailant’s physical might, her purity will give her the strength to die before he succeeds in violating her… It is my firm conviction that a fearless woman, who knows that her purity is her best shield can never be dishonored. However beastly the man, he will bow in shame before the flame of her dazzling purity.”

Gandhi’s views on women dressing up

Gandhiji was not in favour of women dressing up. He wrote to Manu Gandhi, “What a pity that the modern girl attaches greater importance to following the code of fashion than to the protection of her health and strength.”

According to reports, when he was still in South Africa he found that a man had been harassing his female followers. He reportedly personally cut the girls’ hair off to ‘sterilise’ the sinner’s eye. He wrote about the incident as well.

Gandhi’s opinion of the hijab

He is quoted as saying, “it harms women’s health, they can’t get sufficient air and light and they remain disease-ridden.”

On Gandhi’s Spiritual Wife

In his biography, Guha speaks about Gandhi’s ‘spiritual’ wife, the singer Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, back in 1919-20. Both were married to other people, but their letters were openly expressive. He wrote to her, “You still continue to haunt me even in my sleep.” He called her his “spiritual wife.” His letters to her were signed as “Law Giver” and he was eventually convinced to not make this “spiritual marriage” public, and he would distance himself from her. At this time, Gandhi was 50 and she was 47, both mature adults.

This was a mature relationship. In his letter to his friend, Hermann Kallenbach dated August 10, 1920, Gandhi states that he considers Sarla Devi his “Spiritual wife” as theirs’ was a “wedding based on knowledge.” In a letter dated December 1920, to Sarla Chaudharani, Gandhi writes, “…I have reached a definition of a spiritual marriage. It is the partnership between two people of the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent. It is, therefore, possible between brother and sister, father and daughter. It is possible only between two brahmacharis in thought, word and deed.”

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