Monday, February 11, 2008

He wore few clothes and urged his disciples, male and female, to do likewise

Title : The Mahatma and his 'girls' Author: Arvind Kala Publication : Free Press Journal Date : January 12, 1997
Bal Thackeray's sarcasm about Mahatma Gandhi being in the company of young girls in the twilight of his life has created a mini political storm, but his comment is based on history. In fact, Gandhi's life-long quest to eliminate all sexual desire from his being prompted him to try experiments which even troubled his followers. For instance, while touring Noakhali to calm Hindu-Muslim communal passions, Gandhi shared his bed every night with his 19-year-old great-niece and constant companion, Manu.
This greatly shocked his followers and one of them, Nirmal Kumar Bose, who worked closely with Gandhi during the months of 1946-47, mentioned this in a letter he wrote to another troubled associate. Bose wrote:
"When I first learnt in detail about Gandhi's prayog or experiment, I felt genuinely surprised. I was informed that he sometimes asked women to share his bed and even the cover which he used, and tried to ascertain if even the least trace of sensual feeling had been evoked in himself or his companion.
"Personally, I would never tempt myself like that; nor would my respect for a woman's personality permit me to treat her as an instrument of an experiment undertaken only for my own sake. But when I learnt about this technique of self-examination employed by Gandhiji, I felt that I had discovered the reason why some regarded Gandhiji as their private possession, this feeling often leading them to a kind of emotional imbalance. The behaviour of A, B, or C, for instance, is no proof of a healthy psychological relationship.
"Whatever may be the value of the prayog on Gandhiji's own case, it does leave a mark of injury on the personality of others who are not of the same moral stature as he himself is, and for whom sharing in Gandhiji's experiment is no spiritual necessity."
These paragraphs come from a book. My days with Gandhi, that Bose wrote in 1953. But before mailing this letter, Bose showed it to Gandhi and Gandhi replied that his self-examination was part of his dharma. It lid not imply any assumption of a woman's authority. Gandhi replied to Bose thus: "I believed in a woman's perfect equality with man. My wife was 'inferior' when she was the instrument of my lust. She ceased to be that when she lay with me naked as my sister. If she and I were not lustfully agitated in our minds and bodies, the contact raised both of us ...
"I do hope you will acquit me of having any lustful designs upon women or girls who have been naked with me. .
A campaign of calumny began against him and news of his sleeping with Manu spread intense shock among Congress leaders in Delhi waiting to begin their critical talks with India's new Viceroy. Gandhi remained untroubled. He calmed his immediate followers in Noakhali, but when he sent his views to his newspaper, Harijan, about why Manu shared his bed, the storm broke out again. Two of Harijan's editors quit in protest. Its trustees, fearful of a scandal, did something they had never dreamed of doing before. They refused to publish the text written by the Mahatma.
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre record in Freedom at Midnight that a series of emissaries discreetly asked Gandhi to abandon his relationship with Manu. But he refused. He had to leave for Bihar and he said he would take Manu along with him. Finally, Manu herself suggested to Gandhi that they suspend the practice.
In a sense, Bal Thackeray has done a great service to India by re-opening a part of Gandhi's life that Indians never discuss out of misplaced loyalty to the Mahatma. The irony is that if Gandhi had been alive, he would have welcomed Thackeray's criticism to have another look at himself. In fact, Gandhi has already passed into history as one of the greatest men of all times and his greatness cannot be diminished by his sexual experiments.
Gandhi's association with young women in his last years has been documented by several writers. One of them was Margaret Bourke-White, a photographer of Life magazine, who spent several months in India in the tumultuous months before Independence. In her book, Halfway to Freedom, Bourke-White wrote that in 1946, Gandhi used to receive daily two-hour massages from Sushila or one of his other women in his ashram. A few decades later, American writer Ronald Segal wrote in is book, Criss of India, that Gandhi's close association with women was frequently harmful to them. Many of them became neurotic, few of them married or even led normal or apparently contented lives. One of them, according to Bourke-White, was Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur, India's first health minister, who left her home at a young age to spend the next 30 years around the Mahatma. A woman friend of Raj Kumari told Bourke-White that Raj Kumari's first meeting with Gandhi "almost made a slave of her".
About Gandhi and his sexuality, we have to consult history. At 37, he took a vow of sexual abstinence because 21 years earlier, his father passed away in his house while Gandhi was making love to his wife in another room. That memory always tormented Gandhi. The fact that a bout of lust had kept him away from his father in his dying moments. So he spent his life trying to conquer his sexual urge. The perfect Brahmachari in Gandhi's mind was a man who could 'lie by the side even of a Venus in all her naked beauty without being physically or mentally disturbed'.
For years after taking his vow, Gandhi experimented with different diets, looking for one which would have the slightest possible impact on his sexual organs. "While thousands of Indians sought out exotic foods to stimulate their desire, Gandhi spurned in turn, spices, green vegetables, certain fruits, in his efforts to stifle his," wrote Lapierre and Collins in Freedom at Midnight.
But at the age of 67, Gandhi got a shock one night when he woke up sexually aroused. He was so anguished by 'this frightful experience' that he swore a vow of total silence for six weeks. To master his desires, he gradually extended the range of physical contact he allowed himself with women. He nursed them when they were ill and allowed them to nurse him. He took his bath in full view of his fellow ashramites, male and female. He had his daily massage virtually naked, with young girls most frequently serving as his masseuses. He often gave interviews or consulted the leaders of the Congress Party while the girls massaged him. He wore few clothes and urged his disciples, male and female, to do likewise because clothes, he said, only encouraged a false sense of modesty.

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