Sensual Pradox of the Gandhians: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the most awe-inspiring and enigmatic person in world history. Messages from his life are, it could be said, decidedly not merely in the shape of swachh Bharat (cleanliness in India) or non-violence. His life – an experiment with truth – drew interests of hundreds of scholars from his own life time on. Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst by profession, brings to us a historical novel that claims to present the true story of the lives of and the relationship between Madeline Slade (aka Mirabehn) and MK Gandhi. Unlike several other works on Gandhi’s life, Kakar’s study analytically examines the relationship of Madeline and Gandhi with reference to the formation and working of human nature, emotion and prushartha (personhood) of Madeline and Gandhi. #Author

Photo Credit: iAreef via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: iAreef via Compfight cc

 Sensual Life of Gandhi and Mira: A Psychoanalytical Examination

By Dhiraj Kumar Nite

Gandhi, son of a Diwan and a housewife based at the Saurashtra region in Indian subcontinent, established himself by the middle of the 1920s as the most influential axis of the struggle for freedom of India from the British colonial rule. Madeline Sade, a thirty-three old English lady, joined fifty-six year old Gandhi in 1925, who was by now popularly known as Mahatma and Bapu. Madeline was a daughter of the chief of British Navy in India, and came to stay with Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi set up Sabarmati Ashram as a commune of a few hundred persons for popularising his philosophy of non-violence, satyagraha (the pursuit of truth and justice), Hindu and Muslim unity, the removal of Untouchablity, a celibate life, and preparing cadres for the freedom struggle. Madeline came to know Gandhi from her study of a biography of Gandhi: Mahatma Gandhi authored by Romain Rolland in French in 1924. She identified herself with Gandhi’s philosophy and, more so, with his experiments with truth. She sought a spiritual pole star within him that was an alternative to the western society which she found indulgent in the war-technology. She vowed before Mahatma to adhere to the spirit of Gandhi’s commune, popularly known as the regimen of nineteen principles. Gandhi, in turn, gave her a new name, Mira; subsequently, other participants in Gandhian freedom struggle called her Mirbehan. Lives of Gandhi and Mira and their relationship passed through a series of ‘ups and downs’ at the level of their personal – emotional exchanges, in the course of constructive programme, political campaign, civil disobedience, and political negotiation. Both regarded their lives as spiritual journey through the noblest way and for the genuine wellbeing of humanity. Both of them extended care to each other, bore pain because of each other, and undertook anguished struggles with a view towards maintaining the moral standard, which Gandhi laid down for himself and his associates.

Gandhi offered a privileged treatment to Mira, Kakar suggests (p. 100). He involved Mira, along with Ba (Kasturba Gandhi: wife of Gandhi), in an-hour long evening conversation. Mira became, besides Ba, a personal carer of Gandhi at the Ashram, companion during his visit to Kanpur Congress and Wardha Ashram of Vinoba Bhabe in December 1925 and January 1926. He replied back to her all letters in case both of them lived apart. Indeed, Mira gained emotional intimacy with Gandhi and took place of Ba as carer in this period. Such caring and emotionally intimate relationship between Gandhi and Mira was, argues Kakar, an expression of some kind of relation of love. Kakar seems to presume that the relation of love between them was very natural, socially inevitable to germinate between them.

A subtle shift in their relationship, suggests Kakar, surfaced since May 1926, when Gandhi returned back from his ten-day long visit to Bombay (p. 125). Since January 1926, he preoccupied himself with the writing of his Autobiography. Now, Ba recovered her practical link with Gandhi. Gandhi showed an erratic behaviour towards Mira. Although, he never laughed with her; now he was often irritated, and scolded her for the smallest mistake. He ignored her. He seemed to have been withdrawn and reserved. He behaved as a moody. He developed a new frown line in his forehead (p. 134). He slapped a German voluptuous lady, Helen, who came to the Ashram to stay as her disciple and obsequiously sought his nearness. He was enraged over the habit of stealing, as it came to the light, on the part of his adopted daughter, Lakshmi, who originally belonged to the untouchable parents. Initially he considered beating her, but he came down to deploying the threat of social ostracisation of Lakshmi and the punishment of hard labour for redemption. Similarly, he publically chastised Ba for her persistent desire for possession. Gandhi now often conveyed a sannata (fear, shock, consternation) kind of silence, Mira felt (p. 130). In his autobiography, he worked on a section related to his youthful sexual temptation, which others did not understand in terms of the fact that for him sexual desire was the biggest roadblock for someone who would travel on the spiritual path. His conviction was that passions were poisonous to the true, inner self, and that sensuality sabotages our deepest purpose (p. 131).

Kakar explains the forgoing alteration in Gandhi’s state of mind and human nature in the following terms: Gandhi was in the throes of a personal crisis, of the disquiet of his soul. Mira, in turn, was faced with heartbreak. He became unbending and self-conscious. During the latter part of 1926, Mira had the feeling that Bapu’s magnification of his own lapses […] resulting from what most people would have considered an unattainable ideal of purity, was making him more unbending towards the failings of others. It was as if his memories, in being retrieved and set free during the process of writing his autobiography, were colouring his perceptions and taking over his moral judgement (p. 136). He regarded the corruption in the ashram to be merely the reflection of the hidden wrongs within him. Gandhi was here struggling against his own inner violence, for wresting of tolerance from an overweening, moralistic conscience, rescuing of his brahmacharya from the swamp of sensuality. He was involved in an inner struggle in the realm of human nature against lapses, failings, temptation with a view towards reaching saintly heights. The cause responsible for disturbances in Gandhi’s emotion and his inner struggle for purity and chastity, I suggest, could have been other way round as well. His experience of the present emotional life would have invoked a particular shade of memories of the past in the shape of sensual temptation. Kakar only hints at the Eros-related disquiet of his soul, which either came to the fore owing to his intimacy with caring, devoted Mira or because of his engagement with autobiography as an experiment with truth, including his philosophy of celibate life for deepest purpose of spiritual journey of freedom struggle.

Mira now not only continued to revere Gandhi as a sacred being, as the highest embodiment of the Eternal Spirit, but she marvelled at the effort it had taken him to reach these heights. Mira’s wish to be close to Gandhi now transformed into a strong need and, when thwarted, an almost unbearable craving (p. 141). She suffered from the pangs of separation as a result of Gandhi’s distancing of himself from spatial intimacy with Mira. It reminded her of the old pain of another unrequited love, but did not take the shape of any guilt-ridden despair. She moved to Rewari Ashram in 1927. Gandhi sent her to this ashram for furthering her Hindi study and familiarity with the country (p. 143). She involved herself in reading of Mira’s poetry, bhajan, and began to identify herself with them (p. 145). She passionately longed for Gandhi. She found herself in the emotional ties of dependency with him. She could not relate large entities, like mankind or higher ideals except through a person. She found herself in the state of spiritual love with Gandhi. Such philosophical claim of Mira did not last long, and equally manifest itself in its earthly form (p. 152). In the summer of 1929, she moved to Bangalore for reunion with Gandhi on an invitation of Gandhi for his speaking tour through north India (p. 165). Before this, Gandhi was restraining himself at best and passed through moments of breakdown. Contrary to Kakar’s analysis, the Doctors of Gandhi ascribed his breakdown to overwork and nervous exhaustion. At one point, Mira hugged Gandhi’s feet to her breast on one evening in June 1929 at Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi once again guided her for desisting from earthly expression of her passion. Yet, he also acknowledged his tempestuous nature of their relationship but now from the point of strength (p. 173).

Mira went to jail following her participation in the Dandi March. She accompanied Gandhi in Europe for his wellbeing in 1931.

She set up her rural development programme near Wardha in 1934. Gandhi joined her in Wardha and set up his Sevagram in the period of 1934-42. In the period of 1932-42, Gandhi passed through episodes of severe depression and spiritual despair (p. 213). His failure in relation to the removal of untouchability and the diffusion of Hindu–Muslim conflict agonised him (p. 213). (To note, Kakar does not take up the same kind of exposition for the period of the 1920s). Kakar argues, at the same time, that Gandhi plunged in the well of despair, severe disturbances to his inner peace due to what Gandhi considered as shortcomings in his determined efforts to maintain his chastity resulting from incidents of sexual arousal while he was awake which deeply shamed him. This is when he decided to live by himself in Mira’s village. Now he took shelter in Mira’s space but with an optimum physical distance for living by himself (p. 214). Wardha Sevegram continued to give an unfinished look as compared to Sabarmati Ashram. Now, he also looked at animal husbandry and education through craft. Here, Gandhi acted more as mother than fatherly master, Kakar suggests. Thus, his human nature and emotional effort sat coping with inner unease also developed. Mira continued to be protective and possessive of Gandhi (p. 220). By contrast, Gandhi emphasised an attachment with God, and disciplined life for achieving God (245-247). This was Gandhi’s another coping strategy.

Prithvi Singh, a freedom fighter of forty-seven year age, entered Wardha Sevagram, and in the lives of Mira and Gandhi during 1938-42. He was a rustic Punjabi of animal vitality. He was not overawed by the preaching of Gandhi on celibacy and nonviolence. Mira suspected that Gandhi threw her and Prithvi together (p. 233). Mira was infatuated with frank and fearless nature of Prithvi. Yet, she felt cravings for love of Prithvi. She fell in love with an accomplished physique of Prithvi as someone who joined her on the path of serving the country together (p. 236-37). Prithvi saw her love as weakness in her character. He related himself with her as brother. He believed in military discipline and physical education, and rejected Mira’s love under the influence of Indian patriarchal culture wherein the expression of love by a woman meant weakness of her character,argues Kakar (p. 240-241). He fled away. But in company of Prithvi, Madeline already realised that her association with Gandhihad sapped her free energy and self-reliance (p. 251). It had undermined her self-expression. She became incapable of doing any sustained or independent work. Her contact with Prithvi Singh prompted her to look for ‘purna swaraj’ from Gandhi. She recognised woman’s fullest strength in the loving relationship with a man. But Prithvi was not attracted to Mira as an old woman. His Rajput and peasant culture and notion of masculinity meant no recipient of Mira’s mannish courting (p. 261). [Here, Kakar applies a sociological explanation, which is not in sync with his overall psychoanalytical approach.] Finally, Madeline was found distraughtand fraught with an unfulfilled life and personhood in 1968.

Kakar’s elaboration of the dynamics of Gandhi’s human nature and its evolution, it could be said, interpolates to other literature on the evolution of Gandhi’s politics and strategy of freedom struggle which Bipin Chandra et el document in their work (2000).

Madeline with time became awareof her emotional dependency on Gandhi, and inadequacy as a disciple of Gandhi. Her experience surfaced as comparable to what another character, Navin become aware of in his own experiment with truth in the company of Gandhi. This appears, it could be said, an exposition of the paradox of Gandhian philosopy of social life. Gandhi did not claim to be Budhha, but many of his followers at Ashram and Sevagram were like the dependent rake to him.

Kakar applies a simple-narrative style of discussion. The author becomes a participant observer by adopting a historical character of Navin, a Hindi teacher of Madeline and follower of Gandhi. At times, he speaks from both vantage points of Navin and as an author. Fictions are deployed as the binding material in the interstices of the building blocks of the true story gathered from the letter exchanges between Mira, Gandhi and Romain Rolland. Yet, he presents the divergent versions of awful interaction between Madeline and Gandhi. Like a novel, he weaves a couple of small subplots (such as Bhansali’s story) with a view towards making the narrative multitudinal and integrated with a few lighter moments. He writes life history of Madeline for describing her emotional structure, but this life history is focused on her Eros and her preference as well as socio-psychological sources of her human nature. Kakar occasionally cross-checks one set of historical source with other available sources (p. 223), including diaries of various historical agents. This brings a touch of plausibility to his narrative.


Dhiraj k NiteDhiraj Kumar Nite, A Social Scientist, University of Johannesburg, Ambedkar Univeristy Delhi. You can contact him through

Book Review: Kakar, Sudhir. Mira and the Mahatma, Delhi: Penguin, 2004.


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