How Do You See Gandhi’s Secret Obsession With Celibacy?

The little known practice that Gandhi believed to be a key to success

“Nonviolence; Truth; Non-Stealing; Celibacy; Non-Possession; Body-Labor; Control of the Palate; Fearlessness; Equal Respect for all Religions; Swadeshi (use of home manufactures); Freedom from Untouchability. These eleven should be observed as vows in a spirit of humility.” — Source

These are the vows taken by Mahatma Gandhi and all his strict followers.

Gandhi was a saint. In fact, Paramahansa Yogananda called him the tiny 100-pound political saint. And his behaviors reflect so.

He took the vow of non-possession early in his married life. By gladly letting aside a $20,000/year legal practice, he sets an example of true renunciation. He donated all that wealth to the poor.

He was also married in his youth (at 13) and took a vow of celibacy after bearing four children with his wife Kasturabai. And though many wives may not understand the spiritual inclinations of their husbands, Kasturabai thanked Gandhi in one of her tributes:

“I thank you for the most perfect marriage in the world, based on brahmacharya (self-control) and not on sex.”

She considered Gandhi not as her husband but as her guru, one who has the right to discipline her for even insignificant errors.

One night she tells her husband that she is in great pain, and says “these are my last breaths”. “Go. But go with peace, won’t you?” Gandhi tells her.

Even though his wife passed away, he was constantly accompanied by his grand-nieces Manu and Abha.

At just 14, Manu had become one of the youngest prisoners of India’s struggle for independence. She joined Gandhi, who had been jailed after his demand to end British rule, and ended up spending nearly a year — between 1943 and 1944 — in prison.

She also began writing a diary. For the next four years, the teenage prisoner turned into a prolific writer.

And after exploring more of what she’d written I was amazed by her candidness of even the most controversial and unfathomable experiment of Gandhi.

He asked Manu in December 1946 to join him in bed as he slept “to test, or further test, his conquest of sexual desire”, in the words of biographer Ramachandra Guha

These episodes of Gandhi’s life weren’t known for long after his death. Popular accounts of Gandhi’s life, including Richard Attenborough’s biopic, never mentioned it.

But Guha had mentioned it in his biography of Gandhi.

After his wife died, Gandhi began the habit of sharing his bed with naked young women: his personal doctor, Sushila Nayar, and his grandnieces Abha and Manu, who were then in their late teens and about 60 years younger than him.

His doctor, Sushila Nayar, was also reported to take baths with him, something which was also looked at askance by those around him at the time.

Many would think that Gandhi hasn’t had a sexual relationship in 40 years and so he might’ve begun one now. But to think that would be completely wrong. For paradoxically, the reason Gandhi invited them was to test his own self-control — to not have sex with them.

They were present beside Gandhi as a temptation. If he wasn’t aroused by their presence, he could be reassured he’d achieved brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya literally means “flowing with Brahma” — a manifestation of God as the Creator. But since a large part (and arguably the one people struggle with) is sexual self-control, brahmacharya is equated with celibacy.

According to Gandhi, a person who had such control was “one who never has any lustful intention, who by constant attendance upon God has become proof against conscious or unconscious emissions, who is capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful they may be, without being in any manner sexually excited”.

Such a person, Gandhi wrote, would be incapable of lying or harming anyone.

Why Was Gandhi So Obsessed With This Ideal?

Gandhi always ensured that he was on top of his desires, especially sexual. He also took great care of his diet and that of his followers to help them live up to that ideal.

He even closely monitored the diets of all satyagrahis and would constantly educate himself through many books on the subject.

“Because I advocate complete continence for satyagrahis, I am always trying to find out the best diet for the celibate. One must conquer the palate before he can control the procreative instinct. Semi-starvation or unbalanced diets are not the answer. After overcoming the inward greed for food, a satyagrahi must continue to follow a rational vegetarian diet with all necessary vitamins, minerals, calories, and so forth. By inward and outward wisdom in regard to eating, the satyagrahi’s sexual fluid is easily turned into vital energy for the whole body.” — Source

For Gandhi, lust was the enemy. As simple as that.

And he’d learned this lesson the hard way. As a married 16-year-old, he had left his father’s sick bedside to be with his wife. And while they made love, his father died.

Perhaps, this makes it a bit easier to see where he’s coming from.

There’s another reason why he took the practice of celibacy seriously.

He believed that the Hindu-Muslim violence then sweeping India had some connection to his own failings. He had come round to the view, as Guha writes, “that the violence around him was in part a product or consequence of the imperfections within him”

These ‘imperfections’ included “nocturnal emissions” (wet dreams) that had occurred in the years 1924, 1936, and 1938 to spoil a record of celibate living that began in South Africa in 1906, and which led each time to bouts of self-disgust. He’d even scrupulously recorded and publicized these imperfections.

Thus, when Gandhi decided to conduct his experiments to test his limits, many were shocked. The Indian press though remained silent.

It’s understandable. What would people think when they hear such stories about their national hero? At this point I was confused.

But let’s look at it from the perspective of his grand-nieces.

Gandhi’s common name was Bapu — revered father. But in her personal diary, Manu wrote “Bapu is a mother to me.** He is initiating me to a higher human plane through the Brahmacharya experiments, part of his Mahayagna of character-building**. Any loose talk about the experiment is most condemnable.”

Sushila Nayar too is reported to have written, that during these ‘experiments’ she felt she was in bed with her mother.

Manu’s mother had died when she was a child. Gandhi’s wife had adopted her and, when she died in turn, Gandhi assumed the maternal role. He cooked and cared for her, and Manu noted in her diary that his conversation “was filled with affection greater than any mother could feel”.

“Resist sex for pleasure”

The renowned birth control activist Margaret Sanger visited Mahatma Gandhi in 1935, as part of her tour of India.

In their conversation, Gandhi told Sanger that sex should only be part of procreation and women should resist their husbands.

Sanger, had a less absolutist, and moderate approach. She told Gandhi that women had strong feelings about ‘physical union’ as men did and contraception helped in avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

Gandhi did not agree. For him, sex was all about lust. He said, “But I know from my own experience that, as long as I looked upon my wife carnally, we had no real understanding. Our love did not reach a high plane. There was affection, of course, between us.

At the end of the conversation, Gandhi did become more amenable to Sanger’s ideas.

Earlier in 1934 also, he was asked if contraceptives were the best option after self-control. To that, he said,

“Do you think that the freedom of the body is obtained by resorting to contraceptives? Women should learn to resist their husbands. If contraceptives were resorted to as in the West, frightful results will follow. Men and women will be living for sex alone. They will become soft-brained, unhinged, in fact, mental and moral wrecks.”

Guha also confirms the same in his account of the Mahatma:

“For Gandhi, all sex was lust; sex was necessary for procreation. Modern methods of birth control legitimised lust. Far better that women resist men, and men control and tame their animal passions,”

Final Thought

To most people, in today’s age, this episode would just seem one of the pitfalls in the life of every ‘politician’.

Gandhi would surely have been widely reviled, and his faults distorted and oversimplified in the rush to judge him.

I, on the other hand, understand where he’s coming from. Gandhi’s fight was both external and internal.

He was inspired by different philosophies, and reportedly by Leo Tolstoy who also took the vow of celibacy late in life.

Many would agree that celibacy is not even possible. They’d say that it leads to repression or scandals.

But that isn’t true. It’s about learning to love in a certain way that is higher than our physical temptations and animal natures. It thus enables a person (whether male or female) to have more meaningful relationships.

Gandhi had to love the whole nation. To fight the battles he fought, you need inner strength deeper than any one of us could fathom. And I believe his practice of brahmacharya and strict devotion to test himself helped.

In any case, I’ve presented the facts in front of you. It’s for you to see what you make out of it!

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Written on January 19, 2021