I don’t know about you, but when I think of Mahatma Gandhi, sex, bodybuilding and censorship don’t come to mind. Yet a new biography “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India” by Joseph Lelyveld has ignited a firestorm because it addresses Gandhi’s close relationship with the German-Jewish architect and body builder Hermann Kallenbach, with whom Gandhi lived in Johannesburg, South Africa from 1908 to 1914.
Because some book reviews have said that “Great Soul” depicts Gandhi as having been bi-sexual (a “Wall Street Journal” review referred to Gandhi as a “sexual weirdo”), an outcry against the book has erupted in India. Many are calling for its ban nationwide — though “Great Soul” hasn’t been published there. It’s been banned in Gujarat, the state of India where Gandhi was born. (Banned books are good for sales. “Great Soul” is selling like hot cakes on Amazon in India.)
If you turn to “Great Soul” expecting hot sex, you’re out of luck. Lelyveld, a former executive editor of “The New York Times” and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former South Africa and India correspondent, focuses not on Gandhi’s sex life, but on his “evolving sense of his constituency and social vision.” If, like me, you’re interested in how the renowned philosopher pioneered non-violent protest and led India to independence from Great Britain, you’ll find “Great Soul” to be highly engaging.
But you can’t talk about the political without bringing in the personal, and Lelyveld, though far from being lascivious, doesn’t shy away from bringing Gandhi’s private life into “Great Soul.”
Though Gandhi, who lived from 1869 until he was assassinated in 1948, had a wife and children, he took a vow of celibacy in 1906. Although known for his asceticism, vegetarianism, commitment to living simply and, general, saintliness, Gandhi was no plaster saint. He could be as political as the next politico. At age 69, he spoke of having “wet dreams” and his followers gossiped about his love of massage (only women massaged him, the scuttlebutt went). “I am of the earth, earthy,” Gandhi famously said.
Gandhi’s relationship with Kallenbach “it can reasonably be said,” Lelyveld writes in “Great Soul,” was “the most intimate, also ambiguous, relationship of [Gandhi’s] lifetime.”
“[Gandhi and Kallenbach] were a couple,” Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud told Lelyveld.
Later in his life, “Kallenbach … remarked that they’d lived together ‘almost in the same bed,’” Lelyveld writes.
Looking through 21st century queer eyes, it sure seems like some same-sex love (or maybe even sex) was going on here.
One Gandhi scholar described Gandhi and Kallenbach’s relationship as “homoerotic … intending … to describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more,” Lelyveld writes, “the conclusions passed on by word of mouth in South Africa’s small Indian community were sometimes less nuanced. It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man.”
Gandhi destroyed what he called Kallenbach’s “logical and charming love notes.” Kallenbach saved Gandhi’s letters to him, which were auctioned decades after both of their deaths (and in the public domain since 1994).
Of course, just because it walks like a duck, doesn’t mean it’s a duck. As Lelyveld writes, “In an age when the concept of Platonic love gains little credence, selectively chosen details of the relationship and quotations from letters can easily be arranged to suggest a conclusion.”
More than a century since Gandhi and Kallenbach lived together, we can speculate, but not definitively know if they had sex. But why should this matter?
Yet in India, where homosexuality was a criminal offense until 2009, many view the thought that Gandhi may have been intimate with another man as tarnishing his legacy. “Even a passing reference that Mahatma left his wife to live with a … bodybuilder,” Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Vijay Jolly told NPR, “we consider to be derogatory in nature.”
Some in India disagree. Gandhi’s friendship with Kallenbach was “well documented,” Tushar Gandhi, a Gandhi great grandson told NPR, adding, “I deplore … the burning of books.”
It’s easy to feel that homophobia has (largely) faded away. The “Great Soul” controversy reminds us that prejudice and censorship are still with us. In Gandhi’s spirit, let’s fight them —non-violently.