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Mahatma Gandhi's views on, and his personal experiments in, Brahmacharya (sexual celibacy being a partial translation of it) are difficult to comprehend for his followers and critics alike. Many of his ardent admirers cannot understand, much less endorse, his highly nonconformist and innovative Brahmacharya experiments. They generally tend to respond to any debate on this subject with embarrassed silence, suggesting that even though they regard him as a Mahatma in many other astonishing things he did in his life, he tripped from the pedestal of mahatmahood in this particular case. As for his critics, they view his preaching and practice of Brahmacharya as perverse, indeed proof of him being a fake Mahatma.
Gandhiji's sexuality is one of the most debated, but least understood, aspects of his life. Debate on it has once again been revived, this time by an indefensible ban on Joseph Lelyveld's latest book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. Lelyveld has clarified that the book does not say that Gandhiji was 'homosexual', 'bisexual' or a 'racist'. Sections of the western media are clearly guilty of falsifying and sensationalising Gandhiji's sexuality, about which there is a heavy crust of ignorance, prejudice, and voyeuristic interest, both abroad and in India.
Ignorance and prejudice are a lethal combination with pretensions of defeating the truth. However, their alliance is completely powerless when it comes to the truth about Mahatma's life, from which he never tried to hide anything. As someone, who recently had to do extensive research on this subject for a book on Gandhiji that I have just completed, I can categorically state, based on my understanding, that he was not homosexual. I do so without passing any value judgment on homosexuality—which is a natural mode of sexuality for some people. Gandhiji's relations with his close associates, male or female, had highest levels of goal-oriented intensity and spiritual intimacy. Precisely for that reason, these relations can be easily misunderstood. For example, when Maganlal Gandhi, his chief comrade-in-arms from his South African days and the 'soul' of the Sabarmati Ashram suddenly died in 1928, a grief-stricken Gandhiji remarked, 'I have been widowed'. This does not mean that the two had a homosexual relationship. Gandhiji was also light years away from being a hypocrite or a pervert in sexual matters. No other personality of global stature comes anywhere close to him in terms of the unimaginable levels of transparency and honesty that he brought to bear on discussing his sexual life, with not only his close associates but also with readers of his journals. He regarded secrecy as a sin. Indeed, the dividing line between the private and the public had become non-existent in his case, as is evident from a remarkable passage in the chapter on 'Brahmacharya' in his secretary Pyarelal's magnum opus Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase—by far the finest book on the final heroic years of Gandhiji's life. Pyarelal writes: "There were no 'walls' in his Ashram. He had no 'private life'. His most intimate functions were performed not in privacy. Thus, he had his massage (an important component of nature cure) practically naked, with young girls very often as masseurs. He often received visitors and even members of the (Congress) Working Committee while stretched on the massage table. Similarly, while having hydropathic treatment, he allowed both men and women to assist him and any and almost everybody had free access to him in his bath. In his celebrated letter to Churchill, while appropriating as a compliment the disparaging epithet of the 'half-naked fakir', which the Tory leader had applied to him, he went on to say that it was his ambition to become completely naked—literally as well as metaphorically—the latter being of course more difficult" (emphasis mine).