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)