Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a compulsive letter writer. The most exciting portions of his writings (and responses to those) concern his women associates. Mahatma Gandhi's Letters on Brahmacharya, Sexuality and Love deals with his cardinal principles of brahmacharya on par with satyagraha.
A definitive work on human relations, celibacy, sexuality and love, the book reads like a confessional on the scale of St Augustin and Rousseau. It deals with controversial experiments in brahmacharya.
There were more than a dozen women who came to be closely associated with Gandhi at one time or the other; that included Millie Polak, Nilla Cram Cook, Mirabehn, Sushila Nayyar and Manu Gandhi. This is his biography as well as the life-stories of all his associates. Not to be mixed are the chapters relating to Sarla Devi, whom he claimed to be his "spiritual wife" and the failed romance of Mirabehn and Prithvi Singh Azad. Also to be found in the Appendix is the exciting story of his association with 'soul-mate' Hermann Kalenbach, breaking entirely new grounds. Finally, Gandhi comes out as a contemporary as well as the timeless mahapurush.
Born in 1925 at Dera Ghazi Khan (Pakistan), Girja Kumar is a veteran research scholar. Founder of the Sapru House library, he held many important positions including chairman of the Delhi Library Board (1985-86) and president of the Indian Library Association (1983-85). He retired as chief librarian of the Jawaharlal Nehru University library in 1985. His world has been one of books. While his book Brahmacharya, Gandhi and His Women Associates remained AP and Yahoo bestsellers for several months, his books Censorship and Education, Arrogance of Intellectual Power, and The Book on Trial, Fundamentalism and Censorship in India were also received well. He was also associated with several national publications and wrote regularly for The Indian Express (1975-79) and The Week (1984-87) as a book critic.
The inspiration for this book and its companion volume, Brahmacharya Gandhi and His Women Associates (Vitasta, New Delhi, 2006) lay in Bose, Nirmal Kumar, My Days with Gandhi (Nishana, Calcutta, 1953). Professor Bose accompanied Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on his Noakhali brahmacharya mahayajna adventure as one of his closest associates. But soon he found himself in disagreement with the Mahatma and resigned. The result was his sensational recollections of the Noakhali days published in his memoirs.
The book struck a chord in my mind and I decided to delve into the subject further. The result was two detailed chapters on the Noahkhali adventure in my book The Book on Trial: Fundamentalism and Censorship in India (Har Anand, New Delhi, 1997) "Who knows his deviations and neurotic responses are a mirror to his creativity over a sustained period of time?," the chapters concluded. "His enunciation of the doctrine of satyagraha was a high point of departure in his life. His correlation of satyagraha, ahimsa, truth and brahmacharya is to be viewed meaningfully than done hitherto. There is more to his Noahkhali sojourn than what emerges on the surface"
Gandhiji's brabmacbarya was a larger concept than mere celibacy or continence. It constituted an entire philosophy and a moral imperative to be observed in word, thought and deed. His persistence in advocating brahmacharya in the same class as satyagraha cost him dearly. Practically every one of his high-raking associates was raged against him. Jawaharlal Nehru pontificated, "Even Bapu, he can think only in extremes-either extreme eroticism or asceticism." Vallabhai Patel openly spoke about him indulging in adharma by his practice of brahamcharya. Acharya JB Kulkarni, Jayaprakash Narayan , Jivraj Mehra and Nirmal Kumar Bose had recorded new dissent. Vinoba Bhave, Kaka Kalelkar, Kishorilal Mashruwala and Narahare Parekh resigned from the editorial board of the Harijan.
He found himself like the hapless boy on the burning deck of Casablanca ship waving the national flag in total defiance of odds confronting him. In the end, he compared himself with a 'broken reed', 'surrounded by exaggeration and untruth' and 'darkness', and with God's grace alone sustaining him.
Sex life of great thinkers is too grave a subject to be handled delicately. It is no less challenging. The result was Brahamcharya Gandhi and His Women Associates (Vitasta, New Delhi, 2006). This was a dialogue in continuation of the writings of Professor Nirmal Bose on the same subject as the pioneer work. The book was largely welcomed, but rather hesitantly for the very nature of the subject. The Gandhians maintained a Sphinx-like silence either approving or disapproving the book.
The raison d'etre was obvious. The book was entirely based on the words of Gandhi. I acted only as the sutradhara by putting in a word or two for emphasis. There were voices of sanity looking beyond the nose. Arnarb Bhattacharya in his review published in The Telegraph, Kolkata on July 1, 2006 commented, "Had Kumar published the book in the early eighties, it might have interested Michel Foucault (well-known French anthropologist), who was then working on histories of sexuality."
The most perceptive comment came from Prof Nicholas F Gier in his 21-page paper, 'Was Gandhi a Tantric?,' presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy at Monteray, California and again at Rice University during summer of2006.
Gandhian worldview of brahmacharya with tantra inter alia, 'Gandhi's embrace of Shakta Philosophy and his 'sacred' experiments (mahayajna) with young Indian women (calling one of them the 'spiritual wife') qualify him as some type of a tantric, but let us see how his practice matches the criteria traditionally used to identify tantrics. If tantra is 'psycho-experimental interpretation of non-tantric love' (50) then Gandhi's experiments with young women as a means to become a brahmachari certainly qualifies as tantra.
Gier quotes Rehana Tyabji, a close associate of Gandhiji, in support of his thesis. She thought Gandhi's position straggling right-handed tantra and left-handed tantra was untenable on account of his seeming timidity in reaching the logical conclusion of his lifelong brahmacharya mission. Whether Gandhiji was a tantric or not is not forthcoming from his own writings; it has merely been deduced from tantrics like Nicholas Gier and Rehana Tyabji.
Gandhiji hesitated to speak on his philosophy of brahmacharya. He thought the time was not ripe for his true confessions. He has to be reborn to write a supplement to his monumental My Experiments with Truth to clear all doubts.
Prof Gier is all praise for Brahmacharya Gandhi and His Women Associates in his paper and compares the book with Nirmal Kumar Bose's My Days with Gandhi. In contrast to Bose, who encountered resistance everywhere he tried to publish his memoirs 50 years ago, Brahmacharya Gandhi and His Women Associates, which is more explicit, judgmental and comprehensive, has been warmly received signalling that most Indians are now ready to accept Gandhi as fully human. The word sex (kama) is no longer a bugbear to be shunned, more so in the Indian tradition which recognizes kama as one of the landmarks to achieve moksha or nirvana. Gandhiji is to be commended for placing brahmacharya in the frontline confronting human existence.
A word of caution needs to be issued at this stage. This is not a treatise on brahmacharya alone. It is a book about Gandhiji and women.
The concept of brahmacharya is the secondary theme. Gandhiji was a ladies' man. He was formal and stiff with his male associates. He was another person in the presence of women. There was a public Gandhi and a private Gandhi. The private Gandhi downed his shutters in the presence of women. The only exceptions were his mother Putlibai and his wife Kasturba.
Despite his love for women Gandhiji had decided to banish physical love from his life late in the day. C Rajgopalachari has provided a rationale for his allergy to physical or conjugal love. He told Ved Mahta, 'It is now said that he was born so holy that he had a natural bent for brahmacharya but actually he was highly sexed .. '"
Evidently, he had denounced it for the sake of argument to score a point. This comes out so clearly in his verbal dual with Margaret Sanger in 1935. Apparently, he had no answer to her argument, 'that a sex love is relationship which makes for oneness, for completeness between the husband and wife and contributes to a final understanding and a greater spiritual harmony.'
Gandhiji was indeed a votary of platonic love in one form or another. To him, Sarladevi Chowdharani was his spiritual wife. In a tribute to their deep love, I was unable to resist the temptation to quote extensively from Brahmacharya Gandhi and His Women Associates on this subject.
Sarladevi was an abstract concept for him. She was ideal of the unattainable women of his dreams. If one were to close one's eyes for a moment and grow over the exchange of letters between Gandhi and Sarladevi, one would find it hard to believe that such a development did come to pass in the life of ascetic Gandhi. In realty, it is a great tribute to the vitality of Gandhiji who avowed to practice brabmacharya in 1906 against his normal instincts, which were not only alive and kicking but continued to torture him constantly.
Shiverings and Tremblings
Apparently Gandhiji was a victim of his own physiological conditioning (Your stars are planted in your genes'). You also become its willing victim. Physiological causes and psychological after effects get entangled in your life and play havoc with it. Here was Gandhi haunted by ghosts, goblins, jinn's, thieves and serpents, with darkness playing havoc with him, and the truant Kasturba adding to his discomfort.
His secretary Pyarelal went on record on this. He termed the phenomenon as 'an old symptom', which repeated itself whenever he was 'confronted with a frontal assault' (Harijan, 22 April 1939, .73, 475), or, in other words, whenever he was faced with a crisis in his public or public life.
This shivering and trembling were accompanied 'by a sudden at- tack of sharp pain near the waist'. The pain got relieved only when there was body contact by one of his woman associates like Sushila Nayyar. Pyarelal substituted occasionally in the absence of his little sister. This practice was standardised as normal ritual during the thirties.
His grandson Rajmohan Gandhi believes that his loving grand- father rationalised the practice to his advantage 'as an experiment in chastity and a means for enhancing it' (Mohandas, 430). He is also frank enough to admit, 'Perhaps that had become his compulsive, urgent and irresistible need'. As an afterthought he terms the practice 'lust-free'.
Volume 96 of Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi comprises several hundred letters by Gandhiji to Kallenbach and according to editors of the volume, 'for Kallenbach, Gandhiji was a friend and companion, mother and mentor - all rolled into one.' And indeed both 'shared a Gandhiji had destroyed what he called Kallenbach 'logical and charming love notes to him. Both of them were also considered rare soul partners or soul mates. They had entered a solemn agreement between Upper House and Lower House as they were fond of addressing each other, inter alia committing themselves to yet more love between the two houses -such love as, they hoped, the world has not seen (29 July 1911). In an earlier letter dated 13 May 1914, Gandhiji sings a lullaby, or, better still a rhapsody in praise of love, 'Love is mute, it does not complain. Love is blind, it sees no fault. Love is deaf it hears no false. Love ever gives never demands. Love is constant, never varies whether in adversity or prosperity. Love is never hurt. Love never tires. How has your's fared of late !' All this tempted me to include a selection of Gandhiji's letters to Kallenbach in the present book. The topic certainly deserves a separate book on Kallenbach and his relations with Gandhiji.
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