Name some of the great figures in world history and one can remember a Tolstoy, a Romain Rolland, a Ramakrishna Paramahansa and, yes, a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. One can think of many others like Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore but for many reasons Gandhi stands out in any company. He was no poet or philosopher; certainly he would be no match to, say, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Yet, more than anyone else, the Mahatma remains an Indian icon and figures prominently on our currency notes. For all that he remains, for the oddest of reasons, the most controversial leader of our times.
The world knows him as the champion of non-violence in India'sstruggle for freedom. It was that, more than anything else, that raised him to Mahatma-hood in the eyes of his beholders. But that was only one side of him. There was the other side, namely, his struggle with himself that he was to carry on almost till death took him away. This struggle concerned brahmacharya (celibacy).
As was common in his times?and we are speaking of the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century?Mohandas Gandhi married early; his wife was Kasturbai Kapadia and both were married when they were 14 years old. Kasturba (as she came to be known) was illiterate?par for her times. The story is that her husband was making love to her when Mohandas? father was dying. Gandhi could possibly have not known that his father was dying. Apparently that left a deep mark on his psyche.
Time passed, the Mahatma beget four sons. But some time in 1906, when he was hardly 37 years old and at the peak of his manhood, he took a vow to practice celibacy. What exactly drove him to take this unusual vow remains a mystery. Perhaps he felt he could not relate to his illiterate wife any longer. After all he had become a barrister-at-law and had a roaring practice in South Africa. He was almost in daily contact with a lot of sophisticated women and probably found their intellectual company more rewarding. He could not possibly give up his devoted?and strong-willed?wife. Nor could he resist the intellectual comfort other women gave him. Perhaps his decision to practice celibacy arose out of this dilemma.
Mohandas Gandhi surely is not the first or only human being who has had to confront such a dilemma. Hundreds have faced it in the past; some have taken mistresses, with or without the consent of their wives. Many have taken it in their stride, realising their limitations and concentrated more on their jobs. Such a dilemma is not uncommon. And Mohandas Gandhi was only human.
Sex is part of human nature and is nothing to be ashamed of. Different people handle it in different ways. Shri Aurobindo had the Mother as his companion and no doubt he had sublimated sex. There was not a whiff or scandal about Ramana Maharshi who wore the minimal of dress. But Mohandas Gandhi was in public life and was attracting people by the dozens. His ashram at Sabarmati was, as someone plaintively said, more like a dharamshala with people living with him. Gandhi would have been wiser not to accept single women to live in the ashram; indeed he would have probably been of greater service to the country if he had stayed alone with his wife and a stenographer to attend to his vast correspondence.
He was a compulsive letter-writer who would write ten to fifteen letters or more a day. Only God knows what he would have done if he had a mobile. But Mohandas Gandhi loved the company of women and he thought that he could treat them as ?daughter, sisters and mothers? which was deluding oneself. In the circumstances he had more than a dozen women he became close to in various degrees of familiarity. Five of them were of foreign origin and one of them a Non Resident Indian. Three of them, Millie Graham Polak, Nilla Cram Cook and Mirabehn were an intellectual match for any women of their times. Then there was Saraladevi Chowdhurani whose mother Swarnakumari Devi was an elder sister of Rabindranath Tagore. Of Gandhi'sassociation with her, the author says: ?Saraladevi Chowdhurani came very close to Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi. Their whirlwind romance lasted for barely two years but it upset the balance of the Gandhian establishment and shook its very roots. She is now a part of history and a footnote in contemporary Gandhian literature. She, however, left scars in the minds of Gandhiji for the rest of his life.?
There was no need for Gandhi to ?experiment? with brahmacharya. As Vinobha Bhave, a true brahmachari put it correctly, ?In case Gandhi was perfect brahmachari, he did not require his brahmacharya to be tested; and if he was an imperfect brahmachari, he should have avoided the experiments on principle.?
Gandhiji would not listen to wise advice. He brought misery to every around one, including his wife Kasturba, his secretaries Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal, his medical attendant and secretary Sushila Nayar. He insisted that those living with him must also practice celibacy and that led to at one least one, Prabhavati Devi (wife of Jayaprakash Narayan) often getting hysterical.
Of her the author writes: ?Prabhavati became so obssessed with Gandhi that she would not tolerate separation from him even for a day…Her hysteria was highest manifestation of her desperation. She would remain unconscious for hours together…? In his own way, without, obviously meaning it, the Mahatma ruined many lives. It was only when he was jailed at the Agha Khan Palace that he came to be reconciled with Kasturba. And it was only after Gandhi died that Prabhavati came to live a normal life with her husband, until she died a premature death. Many detested Gandhi'sso-called ?experiments? with celibacy.
Mirabehn spread gossip about his ?special relation? with Sushila Nayar. Sardar Vallabbhai Patel was furious and called Gandhi'spractices as ?adharma?. His own son Devadas wrote a strong letter of protest to his father. Gandhi was boycotted by Kishorelal Mashruwala who, along with Narahari Parekh, Swami Anand and Kedarnath Kulkarni, all his closest associates and disciples. It is a pathetic story.
Girja Kumar took eight years to work on this book which is thoroughly researched. The author does not take sides and deals respectfully with the subject of his study, and that is to his credit. It is now almost six decades since Gandhiji passed away. He will always remain a Mahatma. But he will make an excellent case for a psychiatric study. Many Gandhians may object to this work. Some of the passages are revolting indeed. The truth, however, must be faced. As Gandhiji once said: ?Truth is God?.
(Vitasta Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 2/15, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi-110 002.)