The Reverend Joseph Doke, a Baptist minister, wrote the first adulatory biography of Gandhi in 1909 when his subject was forty.
Fifteen years later, in 1924, Romain Rolland called his biography Mahatma Gandhi: The Man Who Became One With The Universal Being. Jad Adams’s biography is far more critical and irreverent, exploring, among other things, the great man’s various experiments with celibacy, chastity, brahmacharya, and sexuality. Predictably, Gandhi admirers are not happy.
Adams, an independent historian and broadcaster, has written biographies of a number of world figures, particularly political radicals and nationalists. He claims that while his biography does deal with Gandhi’s sexuality, this is only a part of a larger attempt to understand his entire personality and his political, spiritual, and personal life.
As both a spiritual and political radical, Gandhi embraced different causes at various stages of his life. As a student in London, he was deeply interested in dietary matters and vegetarianism (not sex or politics). As a lawyer in South Africa, he was more interested in attempts to curb his sexuality and set up utopian communities than in his professional work helping Indian merchants and labourers.
As a leader in India in the 1920s and 1930s, he immersed himself in the nationalist movement while continuing to live a disciplined and ascetic life in his ashram along with his followers. Towards the end of his life, he was preoccupied with his sexual innovations and brahmacharya experiments.
As Adams notes, Gandhi’s multifaceted life is the ultimate challenge for a biographer. Not only was Gandhi a complex man, there is also a ‘superabundance’ of surviving contemporary information on him. Gandhi’s collected works run to 100 volumes of books, articles, letters, speeches, and written answers to questioners when he was observing silent days. “My writings should be cremated with my body. What I have done will endure, not what I have said or written,” he said. But no one paid heed to his request, for which subsequent historians are no doubt grateful.
In addition to the practical problems of dealing with this enormous mass of primary material, biographers must also contend with further difficulties. Could a man who subtitled his autobiography ‘The Story Of My Experiments With Truth’ be completely reliable?
As Gandhi explained, “My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth, as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth.” Hence the biographer’s dilemma in interpreting Gandhi’s writings about his own life.
The problem of historical interpretation extends to the accounts of first-person witnesses and contemporaries, especially those who were particularly close to Gandhi and who had their own stories to tell, or perhaps to conceal.
Pyarelal, one of Gandhi’s secretaries, and his sister Dr Sushila Nayar (who was Gandhi’s personal physician) knew many details that do not appear in Gandhi’s autobiographies. Pyarelal wrote about Gandhi’s sexual experiments with young women, including with his 19-year-old grandniece Manu, but he glossed over Gandhi’s naked bathing, naked massages, and sleeping with Sushila.
Gandhi’s unusual sex behaviour and idiosyncratic views on celibacy were evidently discussed as damaging his reputation by both those close to him and by other observers. Nehru described Gandhi’s advice to newlyweds to stay celibate for the sake of their souls as “abnormal and unnatural”.
The prime minister of Travancore called Gandhi “a most dangerous, semi-repressed sex maniac”. While much of this was known during his lifetime, it was distorted, suppressed, or ignored for a long time after his death, argues Adams. It is only now that we can arrive at a better understanding of “Gandhi’s excessive self-belief in the power of his own sexuality”.
In reappraising his role in the nationalist movement, Adams writes that “Gandhi had been a declining influence at least since the blunder of the Quit India campaign.” Nevertheless, many of Gandhi’s ideas have stood the test of time. In the first decade of the 21st century, many of his ideas that seemed eccentric a hundred years ago now appear mainstream.
His intolerance of smoking (which he considered worse than drinking alcohol), his attention to diet, his fasting, and his habits of thrift and self-reliance are now regarded as eco-friendly qualities that can save the planet. His resistance to racism, his respect for all religions, his non-violence, his striving for moral excellence and spiritual attainment all strike a modern note. “He was ultimately heroic, the metaphysical warrior,” concludes Adams.
Malini Sood is an editor and writer