Gandhi be­lieved that his in­tima


Ma­hatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Ex­per­i­ments with Truth, as his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy was called, in­cluded var­i­ous ex­per­i­ments with his diet, per­sonal health­care, and re­la­tion­ships with women that at times seemed ec­cen­tric, even to some of his clos­est fol­low­ers and ad­mir­ers. Once he re­solved to do some­thing, Gand­hiji rarely aban­doned its prac­tice, pur­su­ing ev­ery “ex­per­i­ment” un­til his “in­ner voice”, his con­science, dic­tated oth­er­wise. “Great Soul” and mighty Yogi that he was, Gandhi fo­cused his men­tal pow­ers with laser- like pre­ci­sion on ev­ery­thing he tack­led, try­ing to mas­ter it with all his men­tal and spir­i­tual strength. Satya and Ahimsa were the pre­mier val­ues he ap­plied to his life’s most im­por­tant work, fight­ing non- vi­o­lently against the tyranny of Bri­tish rule and its ar­ro­gantly prej­u­diced agents.

He also em­ployed other yogic pow­ers, how­ever, in­clud­ing Apari­graha, his vow of poverty, and Brah­macharya, the tra­di­tional Hindu vow of celibacy, solemnly taken by Gandhi af­ter his fourth son was born in South Africa in 1906 when he was 37, af­ter which he never again slept with his wife, Kas­turba. “I must re­lin­quish the de­sire for chil­dren and wealth and live the life of one re­tired from house­hold cares,” he re­solved. “I vow to flee from the ser­pent which I know will bite me.” Ini­tially, Gandhi found it easy to ab­stain from sex and pro­cre­ation, not­ing that “where... de­sire is gone, a vow of re­nun­ci­a­tion is the nat­u­ral... fruit.” But af­ter launch­ing his first na­tion­wide Satya­graha fif­teen years later, Gandhi con­fessed that “the dan­ger is great­est when vic­tory seems the near­est... God’s last test is ever the most dif­fi­cult. Satan’s last temp­ta­tion is ever the most se­duc­tive”.

Madeleine Slade learnt about Gandhi from Ro­main Rol­land, who called him “an­other Christ”, soon af­ter

which she moved to join Gandhi’s ashram in In­dia, and was re­named by him Mirabehn (“Sis­ter Mira”). Nor was she the only de­voted Western woman to be­come one of Gand­hiji’s re­mark­able dis­ci­ples. Ear­lier in South Africa, 17- year- old Miss Sch­lesin be­came his “most de­voted, fear­less” sec­re­tary in his law of­fice in Jo­han­nes­burg.

Prayers to Lord Rama re­mained Gandhi’s first line of de­fence in ward­ing off evil thoughts, deeds, or dis­eases of any kind, but he also re­lied heav­ily on a very strict di­etary code, as he told G. D. Birla: “If you give up salt and ghee... it will cer­tainly help you in cool­ing down your pas­sions. It is es­sen­tial to give up spices as well as pan and the like. One can­not sub­due one’s sex and al­lied pas­sions merely with re­stricted diet.”

Mirabehn be­came so de­pen­dent on Gandhi that when­ever he was obliged to leave their ashram she grew de­pressed, at times writ­ing him daily of how she felt. “If the sep­a­ra­tion be­comes un­bear­able, you must come,” he re­sponded, warn­ing her not to “break down... You must de­velop iron nerves. It is nec­es­sary for our work.”

Ad­mir­ers, try­ing to fol­low their Ma­hatma’s ex­am­ple in aban­don­ing sex, wrote to ask for his help. “When the mind is dis­turbed by im­pure thought... one should oc­cupy it in some work. Never let the eyes fol­low their in­cli­na­tion. If they fall on woman, with­draw them im­me­di­ately. De­sire for sex- plea­sure is equally im­pure, whether its ob­ject is one’s wife or some other woman.”

Gandhi was 69 when Ra­jku­mari Amrit Kaur, princess of Ka­purthala state, took Mira’s place in his ashram as his “sis­ter”, to whom he con­fessed: “The sex­ual sense is the hard­est to over­come in my case... It has been an in­ces­sant strug­gle.” To “test” and “strengthen” his Brah­macharya, Gandhi started to sleep naked with sev­eral of his young ashramites.

He had hoped, through the yogic pow­ers of his celibacy, to help restore Hindu- Mus­lim unity and the “heart- peace” of Ahimsa to burn­ing vil­lages of East Ben­gal and Bi­har, and ul­ti­mately to all of Mother In­dia. Af­ter search­ing his own con­science, how­ever, Gandhi de­cided that the “mother’s love” he felt in in­ti­mate prox­im­ity to young women was some­how mys­ti­cally strength­en­ing his own Ahimsa, as well as his Brah­macharya. “I may nei­ther tempt God nor the Devil,” he cryp­ti­cally noted. He re­garded his sec­re­tary Pyare­lal’s sis­ter, Dr Sushila Na­yar, much the same way as he did his wife Kas­turba, also call­ing her his ‘ sis­ter’.”

Gandhi and his ail­ing wife spent their last two years to­gether im­pris­oned by the Bri­tish in the Aga Khan’s old palace in Pune. Af­ter Kas­turba died on Fe­bru­ary 22, 1944, Gandhi was com­forted by his adopted “grand­daugh­ter” Manu, con­sid­er­ing him­self her “mother”.

In the last year of his life, Gand­hiji un­der­took his fi­nal pa­day­a­tra in try­ing to restore peace be­tween Hin­dus and Mus­lims in East Ben­gal, ini­tially walk­ing alone from vil­lage to vil­lage, but then joined by Manu, who re­mained his last “walk­ing stick”. Gandhi’s Ben­gali sec­re­tary, Nir­mal Bose, re­ported that he heard Gandhi “slap” him­self, and later say, “I am not a Ma­hatma... I am an or­di­nary mor­tal like you all and I am stren­u­ously try­ing to prac­tise Ahimsa.” Sushila Na­yar also came to join him and Manu, but soon left. His typ­ist and short­hand sec­re­tary also left him when he saw them sleep­ing naked, and Pyare­lal re­ported he heard Gandhi mut­ter to him­self: “There must be a se­ri­ous flaw deep down in me which I am un­able to dis­cover... could I have missed my way?”

When Mira heard the re­ports of Manu’s sleep­ing alone with Gandhi she ex­pressed grave alarm. “Do not ever worry how I am far­ing or what I am do­ing here,” Gandhi replied. “If I suc­ceed in emp­ty­ing my­self ut­terly, God will pos­sess me. Then I know that ev­ery­thing will come true.” Yet he con­tin­ued to worry about a “deep flaw” within him­self. “God’s grace alone is sus­tain­ing me,” he con­fided to his diary. “I can see there is some grave de­fect in me... All around me is ut­ter dark­ness.” Stan­ley Wolpert is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of In­dian His­tory, Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les All the quotes are from Wolpert’s Gandhi’s Pas­sion: The Life and Legacy of Ma­hatma Gandhi ( Ox­ford UP, 2001)

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