Mohandas Gandhi

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 06/10/2020

Last modified: 06/10/2020

A figure of Indian independence against British rule, Gandhi was a revered Hindu activist.

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Introduction

A figure of Indian independence against British rule, Gandhi was a revered Hindu activist.

Controversial Practices

There are several elements of Mohandas Gandhi’s life that have led to disagreement and controversy, both during his life and after; of particular interest are the conflicted perceptions of his Hinduism and Hindu identity.

Gandhi’s particular expression of spirituality was rooted in the Hindu traditions of his family, but he also gained exposure to a variety of other religious systems, and his attitudes towards Muslims and other minority groups (for example widows, and those in the Dalit caste) did not align with many in his society (Beckerlegge, 2013, pp.109-110, 143).

Gandhi’s affirmed identity as a Hindu was contrasted with his attitudes to ‘popular’ Hindu practices – such as the strong social divisions between castes, and in particular the tensions between Hindu and Muslim citizens – as Beckerlegge observes, Gandhi’s behaviour seemed to be aimed at ‘…undermining traditional, underlying notions of dharma’ and rejecting the established power of the majority Hindu population in an effort to build a unified nation (2013, p.143).

One of the points on which some controversy developed was Gandhi’s experiments with sexual renunciation, which developed after he took a vow of celibacy in 1906, and deepened after his wife’s passing. He revealed in 1946 that he had been sharing his bed, sometimes naked, with young women (including his grandnieces) in order to test his commitment to sexual restraint, and to offer his sexuality as a sacrifice to God.

The controversy developed when this activity was voluntarily revealed to both his followers and members of the press; it was difficult for some to appreciate Gandhi’s justification for the behaviour, which on the surface appeared to be sexually motivated. The public reaction was sufficiently turbulent that Gandhi and Manu, one of his female carers who had been engaged in the practice, ceased to continue shortly after (Beckerlegge, 2013, pp.135-6).

Yet the practice may have equally been controversial for the fluid boundaries it implied for Gandhi’s gender, and perhaps for gender in general. Since Gandhi viewed himself as a soul, independent from the body and its conditioned aspects, it stands to reason that by sacrificing his sexuality he was freeing himself from identification with his previous ideas about the nature of himself and the scope of his relationships with women – a process that Majeed (2007, in Beckerlegge, 2013, p.139) calls Gandhi’s ‘self feminisation’.

Yet the process was not simply feminisation for its own sake, but as part of Gandhi’s spiritual practice it was simultaneously an act of austerity, an expression of identity with women (and by extension those oppressed in Indian society), and a deepening of his religious perspective on the nature of self. As mentioned above, Gandhi’s rejection of the division between social groups was problematic for those who preferred the traditional structure of society; religion, caste, and gender were key methods of maintaining power and authority for the ruling class – public displays of gender non-conformity, even clothed in spiritual language, were subversive and hence controversial.

This is a good example of the way in which controversy develops as a dual-aspect social event, an action/reception that has roots in the behaviour and motives of the individual, but can only blossom through the perspective and interpretation of others. Gandhi’s brahmacharya with Manu was private, spiritual, and served – at least from Gandhi’s perspective – honourable motives. Gandhi’s brahmacharya with the Indian public was dangerous, provocative, and morally questionable – so much so that his aides attempted to elide its mention when recording and translating a speech he made on the subject (Gandhi, 2007, in Beckerlegge, 2013, p.136).

References

  • Beckerlegge, G. (2013) ‘No face more familiar: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – Mahatma Gandhi’, in A332 Book 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 99-154.

Image Credits

Statue of Mohandas Gandhi, image by Daniel Christiansz from Pixabay

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