//Gandhi and his women

Gandhi and his women

   By: A Sunday Mid Day Correspondent
   March 5, 2006


The Mahatma started practising brahmacharya since 1901. For him, brahmacharya was wider concept than mere celibacy or continence. It constituted an entire philosophy and a moral imperative to be observed in thought, word and deed — indeed his sure road to nirvana.

Sexuality in his world view was to be banished to the nether regions for eternity. He took a vow of lifelong celibacy in 1906. Since then till his death, his personal life was a mission its goal: To become the perfect brahmachari. All through, he sought to explain his quest.

To his friend and benefactor GD Birla, Gandhiji said: “Today I am a better brahmachari than I was in 1901. What my experiment has done is to make me firm in my brahmacharya. The experiment was designed to make myself a perfect brahmachari and if God so wills it will lead to perfection.”
Everyone should abjure passion, Gandhiji thought.

The thesis of passionless society was explained in a letter to his devoted follower Krishnachandra: “The idea is that a man, by becoming passionless, transforms himself into a woman, that is, he includes the woman into himself. The same is true of a passionless woman. If you visualise the state of passionlessness in your mind, you will understand what I say. It is a different story that we do not come across such men and women.” The primary discordant note in this abstinence-dictated harmony is, of course, that not even Gandhiji claimed to have reached that state.

Parade of women

Observers of his life would be struck by a singular fact: for a man who abhorred bodily temptations, women constituted his entire world at one level. They walked in and out of his life. From his days in South Africa to the end of his life he maintained the closest relations with them.

Millie Graham Polak was the first. She was a lady in every sense of the term. Gandhiji established complete rapport with her soon after she arrived in South Africa. Her husband Henry was also one of his closest friends.

Sonja Schlesin was the other woman from his South African days. She was the best secretary he ever had. She led from the front and was the only woman Gandhiji was afraid of. She was domineering, aggressive and opinionated, but she delivered.

Two women entered his life after his return to India — Saraladevi Chowdharani and Madeline Slade from England. The former was a cultured and cultivated bradramahila of Tagore lineage. She was Gandhiji’s only true infatuation. In a rare confession recorded in his diary, he talked of “one exemption” to physical passion in his entire life. The tall Slade was a British Admiral’s daughter whom Gandhiji rechristened Mirabehn.

She was, as the irreverent modern expression would have it, obsessed with Gandhiji. Her whole life may be described as a pilgrimage in the cause of the Mahatma. He teased her and played little games with her. In the end, she forsook him for Baba Prithvi Singh Azad, and finally, Beethoven, her first love.

There were three other Western women who came in close  contact with him but quickly left. The American Nilla Cram Cook was Mahatma’s most vivacious woman associate. He was fond of calling her the Fallen Daughter. She appeared and disappeared whirlwind-like.

The German Jewish Margarete Spiegel was dull, boring and slow-witted but totally in awe of Gandhiji (and Tagore). Gandhiji was being gallant when he told her, “I shall love you in spite of your faults.” The Danish missionary Esther Faering had an intense personal relationship with Gandhiji who treated her like his favoured daughter.

Gandhiji had high respects for Premabehn Kantak, Prabhavati and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. Prema was known as the field marshal of the Gandhian army and true defender of faith. She often debated brahmacharya with Gandhiji.

Prabhavati, the wife of distinguished socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan, was a married brahmacharini all her life. She was the subject of discord between Gandhiji and JP. She was torn between two loyalties but preferred Gandhiji over her husband. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Kapurthala princess, had established a remarkable degree of rapport with her mentor.

There were several minor characters who survived a long association with Gandhiji. The “crazy daughter”, Bibi Amutussalaam of Patiala, was asked to bring peace to riot-torn Sind. She was commissioned by her mentor to go to riot-ridden region to bring about the normalcy.

She was, however, given to frequent bouts of depression. Gandhiji’s ashram companion, Lilavati Asar, termed “a limpet” by him, divided time between her studies and keeping her mentor’s company. Kanchan Shah, the Mahatma’s role model for practicing
brahmacharya, was as defiant as her husband Munnalal was submissive.

Among the younger of the Mahatma’s women associated were Sushila Nayyar and Manubehn Gandhi. Sushila was his personal physician, and in constant attendance. Sushila, her brother Pyarelal and Gandhiji constituted an “unstable triangle” with years of association dotted with prolonged periods of quarrels, recriminations, and reconciliations as reflected in their correspondence.

Manu Gandhi, the granddaughter of the Mahatma’s brother, was the youngest and most lovable of his woman associates. She was ready for the hard grind of tapasya throughout Gandhiji’s sojourn in Noakhali. She was his closest associate during his last few years.

Above all was the towering figure of Kasturba Gandhi, the Mother Courage. Popularly known as ‘Ba’, she was the stabilising factor throughout Gandhji’s life. She was overwhelmed by his personality in the first years of their relationship, but gradually came into her own.

She exercised subtle control over him at the critical moments of his life. While the other women were sisters and daughters, Ba was his dharmic wife who subsequently substituted for his mother. The Mahatma’s most difficult years were after her death in 1944.

Women in brahmacharya experiment

In the 1920s, Gandhiji had started resting his hands on the shoulders of young women during his morning and evening walks. He affectionately called Manu Gandhi and other girls his “walking sticks”. The next step on the same road was his elaborate daily massage, performed by young women.

The massage was followed by bath with presence of a woman attendant almost essential. Sushila Nayyar was the usual fixture on such occasions. She would take her bath at the same time. On such occasions Gandhiji would keep his eyes closed to save him embarrassment. Gandhiji has given a graphic description of the bathing ritual in his own words after it gave rise to “bathing gossip” among the ashramites.

The further step on the road was the ritual of young women sleeping next to him, close to him, or with him. What started as a mere sleeping arrangement became, over time, an exercise to obtain the nirvana state of perfect brahmacharya. Gandhiji was brutally truthful about his “experiment”.

He shared information with his closest associates, knowing the world would come to know about it.

Joint family incorporated

Gandhiji had no daughter of his own. He had adopted a young Harijan girl, Laxmi, as his daughter. She was, however, marginal to his existence and forgotten immediately after she was married off. The other women were far more important. They flattered him, laughed with him, cajoled him and endorsed every word he spoke. They were totally besotted with him.

They sought his attention all the time. He was definitely a father-figure to them. Possibly a few of them viewed him as a mystical lover. He was very informal and carried on voluminous correspondence with many of them.

With a rare exception or two they volunteered to live as spinsters and those who were married chose the path of physical brahmacharya, denying conjugal rights to their spouses.

Charismatic Gandhi

The renowned feminist Margaret Sanger interviewed Gandhiji in 1936 and she had to say the following: “He has an unusual light that shines in his face, that circles around his head and neck like a mist with white sails of a ship coming through. It lasted only a few seconds but it is there.”

It is interesting to note that his charisma was widely diffused. It rested not only in his eyes, but it was also in his ramrod body, his artful gait, his perpetual toothless smile and his gentle and meandering style of conversation.


— Excerpted from Brahmacharya Gandhi & His Women Associates by Girja Kumar, published by Vitasta Publishing, Rs 695