I’ve been reading a review of a recent biography of Mahatma Candhi which has given me a different slant on him. I’ve known for some time that he was a man of iron will, a charismatic and highly effective political leader. I was less acquainted with his impish wit and great warmth, and I didn’t know he was a superb mediator as well as fundraiser. I was unaware that he was such an autocrat, or that his religious beliefs were such a hodge podge of Jain-inflected Hinduism and Victorian orthodoxy.
None of these revelations were much of a surprise. What did astonish me, though, was discovering that he more or less believed that the caste system legitimately reflected the roles which we are meant to play in this life. In other words, the caste system was not a result of prejudice, lack of opportunity, unfairness, or unjust discrimination. We were born into the caste into which we are called and which is our mission to fulfill.
The second thing that astonished me is the depth of what to me can only be called a highly neurotic attitude toward sex. It impresses me as extraordinarily immature, the view of an adolescent. Sex, for Gandhi seems to have been solely an act of lust, not an act of love. It seems to me to be quite similar to attitudes expressed by many of the Roman Catholic clergy today.
Like the demands made on the Roman Catholic priest, Gandhi demanded that even his married followers refrain from sex, on the grounds that it would drain their strength needed for the fight for freedom. In his mid-seventies, Gandhi slept with his great-niece. I had been assured that it was to keep a frail and often-fasting man warm, but it seems to have been a test of his self-control. A further manifestation of what seems an immature understanding of sex took place when Gandhi was in his mid-sixties when he endured an involuntary ejaculation. He was so humiliated by this apparent transgression that he made a public confession of this terrible lapse.
Sex, then, was not seen as an act of love from which one may draw strength and determination and courage. It was tantamount to gluttony.
In a paradoxical way, I find these revelations about Gandhi an encouraging relief. He accomplished a great deal in his life time, and especially today, his message of how to fight for justice without violence is a lesson we in America need to learn.
But I’m glad to know that even imperfect, incomplete, and quite possibly downright seriously neurotic people can nonetheless make a difference – even a very big difference.
Like so many other people, I often feel helpless in the face of so many of the world’s problems. I’m not strong enough, or smart enough, or courageous enough, or loving enough to make any difference.
But Gandhi suggests that one can be pretty screwed up on some fundamental issues related to human equality and mature sexual relationships, and still do a lot of good. Sometimes one’s best might not be perfect. But it’s still amazing.