In the hagiography of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi is a near-divine superstar. The year of his 150th birthday is being celebrated with great pomp starting this week with a tribute to his ‘swachhata’ philosophy. But how clean was Bharat’s greatest moral force really?
Gandhi’s driving obsession after satyagraha was sex. The man who became a father at 16, and went on to have four more children ranted vehemently against sex in marriage, advising his followers not to marry and if they did, to live separately from their wives. Like all mass leaders, Gandhi’s monumental arrogance was both a weapon and a flaw. In the contradictory terrain of his spiritual imagination, desire and denial nourished each other. He was so convinced about his own charisma that he expected riots to stop when he went on fast—and they did. However, his dark side tormented him to perverse excess.
That he slept naked with his nieces and other women and got massages in the nude are well-documented. Gandhi’s quest for “purity” mesmerised his victims who felt they were part of something greater than themselves: his grand niece Manu, who he caressed in bed in the buff, died a sick, 40-year-old spinster. His personal physician Dr Sushila Nayar was made to sleep and bathe with him naked: reasons why his close aide P Parasuram left Sabarmati Ashram. On January 1, 1947, he berated Gandhi’s experiments with brahmacharya: “How many are the days when she (Dr Nayar) has not wept? She is a doctor and yet she is always a patient, always is ill.” Vallabhbhai Patel accused Gandhi of ‘adharma’, which the Mahatma dismissed, claiming it was his ‘moral duty’ to sleep naked with girls.
Was Gandhi a dirty old man? In today’s age, his sexual experiments seem lecherously similar to Asaram Bapu’s (no pun intended) or Ram Rahim’s; men who claimed divine sanction to sexually exploit women who trusted them. Gandhi’s affair with the married Sarla Devi, when he was himself married to Kasturba, was nothing short of infidelity for such an extreme moralist: a ‘spiritual marriage’ he had to end on the insistence of C Rajagopalachari.
Sex is a historical force that has toppled many reputations. Two foreign Gandhians, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, were no paragons of virtue: recently declassified FBI documents revealed King hired prostitutes and was a sexual deviant. Mandela married thrice, and many women later claimed he had fathered their love children.
When revolutions overturn the established order, their leaders are invested with superhuman virtue, which discounts the frailty of human character. Newborn India and the Congress party needed a patron saint in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi was it. But let it not be forgotten that the pedestal was built with sacrifice, all of which was not his.