Mahatma Gandhi’s contest with Kama Deva – Sudhir Kakar

The SerpentMahatma Gandhi called sex a serpent, a poisonous scorpion that was determined to bite and inflame him. He fought it all his life. His strange experiments with celibacy scandalised his ashram. Now, a new biography has raised questions about a different aspect of his sexuality and pointed to allegedly racist pronouncements from his South African years. This article concerns his struggle to become a pure brahmachari, a spiritual condition that Hindu civilization has always held in high esteem even as it holds the opposite condition, pure eroticism, in equally high esteem. – Editor

Sudhir KakarThere has rarely been a public figure in the history of the world who, in his letters and autobiographical writings, has been as candid as Gandhi in dealing with his sexuality. A sympathetic reader cannot fail to be moved by the dimensions of Gandhi’s sexual conflict – heroic in its proportion, startling in its intensity, interminable in its duration. Kama, the god of desire, is the only opponent Gandhi did not engage non-violently nor could ever completely subdue. The god is the “serpent which I know will bite me”, “the scorpion of passion”, whose destruction, annihilation, is a preeminent goal of Gandhi’s spiritual life. In sharp contrast to all his other opponents, whose humanity he was always scrupulous to respect, the god of desire was the only antagonist with whom Gandhi could not compromise and whose humanity (not to speak of divinity) he always denied. For Gandhi, defeats in this private war were occasions for bitter self-reproach and a public confession of humiliation, while the victories were a matter of joy, “fresh beauty”, and an increase in vigour and self-confidence that brought him nearer to moksha. By the time Gandhi concludes his autobiography with the words, “To conquer the subtle passions seems to me to be far harder than the conquest of the world by the force of arms. Ever since my return to India [from South Africa] I have had experiences of the passions hidden within me. They have made me feel ashamed though I have not lost courage…but I know I must traverse a perilous path”, no reader will doubt his passionate sincerity and honesty. His is not the reflexive moralism of the more ordinary religionists, of the (in W. B. Yeats words) ‘priests in black gowns … binding with briars my joys and desires’.

Kamadeva & RatiWe can follow Gandhi’s struggle with his sexuality only if we also view it, as Gandhi did, as a spiritual struggle. Gandhi’s embrace of an ascetic lifestyle, his fasts and his radical experimentation with foods to find those that did not inflame the senses, were all in service of one of the three cornerstones of his personal life – brahmacharya or celibacy, the other two being non-violence (ahimsa) and truth (satya). Of the three, he felt he might have at times fallen short of ahimsa and brahmacharya but had never lost his devotion to truth. The only way Gandhi could ever lose the high regard, even reverence, in which he is held all over the world would not be because of the discovery of any byways of his sexuality but if it was found that he had lied about them or, by Gandhi’s own high standards, that he had not told the truth loudly enough. Such a discovery would strike at the heart of what made him a Mahatma: his uncompromising integrity.

Although he had taken the decision to be sexually abstinent in 1901, Gandhi took the vow to observe complete celibacy in 1906 when he was 38, and on the eve of his first nonviolent political campaign in South Africa. The two, non-violence and celibacy, were linked in his mind, ‘… one who would obey the law of ahimsa cannot marry, not to speak of gratification outside the marital bond. ‘

Gandhi with Manu & AbhaWe cannot understand Gandhi’s sexual preoccupations without understanding their source in Hindu Vaishnav ideas on semen and celibacy, which he had absorbed from his culture while growing up and which he had internalised. In brief, physical strength and mental power have their source in virya, a word that stands for both sexual energy and semen. Virya can either move downward in sexual intercourse, where it is emitted as semen, or move upward into the brain in its subtle form known as ojas. The downward movement of semen is regarded as enervating, a debilitating waste of vitality and essential energy. If, on the other hand, semen is retained, converted into ojas by brahmacharya, it becomes a source of spiritual life and mental power. Memory, willpower, inspiration – scientific and artistic – all derive from the observation of brahmacharya. Gandhi is merely reiterating these popular ideas when he writes that sex, except for the purpose of generation, is “… a criminal waste of precious energy. It is now easy to understand why the scientists of old have put such a great value upon the vital fluid and why they have insisted upon its strong transmutation into the highest form of energy for the benefit of society”.

KhajurahoIn Gandhi’s periods of doubt, such as the one from 1925 to 1928, after his release from jail, when he was often depressed, believing that Indians were not yet ready for his kind of non-violent resistance to British rule, he would characteristically look for lapses in his brahmacharya to account for his ‘failures’ in the political arena. In another emotionally vulnerable period comprising roughly eighteen months from the middle of 1935, we read: “I have always had the shedding of semen in dreams. In South Africa the interval between two ejaculations may have been in years. Here the difference is in months. I have mentioned these ejaculations in a couple of my articles. If my brahmacharya had been without this shedding of semen, then I would have been able to present many more things to the world. But someone who from the age of fifteen to thirty has enjoyed sexuality – even if it was only with his wife – whether he can conserve his semen after becoming a brahmachari seems impossible to me. Someone whose power of storing his semen has been weakened daily for fifteen years cannot hope to regain this power all at once. That is why I regard myself as an incomplete brahmachari. “

Another dark period covers the last two years of Gandhi’s life when during the country’s Partition and Hindu-Muslim riots, he felt unable to influence political events. For an explanation, Gandhi would characteristically probe for shortcomings in his celibacy, seeking to determine whether the god Kama had perhaps triumphed in some obscure recess of his mind, depriving him of his spiritual and mental powers and thus, ultimately, of political efficacy. Thus in the midst of human devastation and political uncertainty, Gandhi wrote a series of five articles on brahmacharya in his weekly newspaper, puzzling his readers who, as his secretary N. K. Bose puts it, ‘did not know why such a series suddenly appeared in the midst of intensely political articles. “

Leo TolstoyIn reflecting on Gandhi’s sexuality, we must concede the possibility of sexual celibacy to a few extraordinary people of genuine originality with a sense of transcendent purpose – Vivekananda, Tolstoy (who Gandhi took as his model), and even Sigmund Freud, who became abstinent in his middle age. We can also never know whether Gandhi was a man with a gigantic erotic temperament or merely the possessor of an overweening conscience that magnified each departure from an unattainable ideal of purity as a momentous lapse. A passionate man who suffered his passions as poisonous of his inner self and a sensualist who felt his sensuality distorted his inner purpose, we can only empathise with Gandhi’s conflict between the spirit and the flesh. Gandhi’s agony is ours as well, an inevitable byproduct of being human and thus divided within ourselves. We all wage war on our wants.

» The author, who has just written A Book of Memory, has based this article on the chapter ‘Gandhi and Women’ from his book Intimate Relations.

See also 

  1. Censorship in India at