The Mahatma's women

This books describes Mahatma Gandhi's trust with Brahmacharya and his female associates.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2006 18:02 IST

Brahmacharya Gandhi & His Women Associates
Author: Girja Kumar
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Vitasta Publishing Pvt. Ltd.
Pages: 411
Price: Rs 695
ISBN: 81-89766-00-7

Mahatma Gandhi was not shy of speaking about his relationship with his women associates, except in a few cases. He wanted the world to know of his tryst with Brahmacharya in which women constituted an integral part. He kept a meticulous record and tried to make the players keep records too. Alas! Most of them seem to have either lost the records or refused to disclose the intensity of their feelings. A construct, however, is still possible based on Gandhiji’s writings and on the basis of writings of some of them who were involved. Gandhiji persuaded Kanchan Shah, his role model for married Brahmacharya, and Prabhavati, wife of Jaiprakash Narayan, to practice married Brahmacharya. It was a difficult odyssey and the book tries to analyse why it was difficult.

 L-R: Pyarelal Manilal Gandhi, Sushila Pai, Sita Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi, Abha Gandhi and Kanu Gandhi

It was the revulsion from sex that forced Gandhiji to take the vow of Brahmacharya in 1906. then onwards, till the laboratory experiment in Noakhali, Gandhiji kept trying to find out if it was possible to overcome desire and remain a Brahmachari. There were more than a dozen women who cam to be closely associated with him at one time or the other. Some of them were foreigners – Millie Graham Polok, Nilla Cram Cook, Sonja Schlesin, Esther Faering, Mararete Spiegel and Mirabehn. Prabhavati, Kanchan Sahh, Sushila Nayar and Manu Gandhi formed a part of his entourage at various points in time. He called JEKI “the Only Adopted Daughter”. Gandhiji was too fond of Saraladevi Chowdharani, Rabindranath Tagore’s niece, and often displayed her as his mannequin for popularising Khadi. He called her his “spiritual wife”.

His closeness to Saraladevi or arguments on Brahmacharya with Premabehn Kantak created a storm in the ashram and exposed him to public glare. He was undaunted and made a tactical retreat to allow the storm to subside. Soon things were back to normal. While the world was unsure, the Mahatma was sure of his actions.

There was a definite attraction in Gandhiji that brought womenfolk to him. It is quite possible that they were looking for glory and he provided the opportunity. Some like Mirabehn were inspired by his ideals and wanted to devote their entire life to his cause. But once they came close, Gandhiji and not his cause became their obsession. They hardly knew this was the next step to losing him, as the Mahatma could not be chained. He had higher goals. This book is a psycho-biography and a study of man-woman relationship involving one of the greatest men in living memory.


Here are some excerpts from the chapter titled “Saraladevi: The Romantic”:

“Saraladevi Chowdharani came very close to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Their whirlwind romance lasted for barely two years but it upset the balances of the Gandhian establishment and shook its very roots. She is now a part of history and a footnote in contemporary Gandhian literature. She, however, left scars in the mind of Gandhiji for the rest of his life. Mahadev Desai was to recall in his address to the Gujarat Vidyapeeth that Saraladevi had dazzled everybody like a flash of lightning. Indeed, she was a meteor that arose from nowhere and disappeared like a flash.”

“Gandhiji had arrived to a tremendous public reception at Lahore. He was received in style by Saraladevi at her residence. He had been invited by the Rambhujs to stay with them during his tour of the Punjab. In the meanwhile, Rambhuj found himself in jail. Gandhiji hesitated to accept the invitation but he was prevailed upon by Sarala not to refuse it. The Rambhuj residence became the Mecca of political activities. Saraladevi was a perfect hostess. She travelled with him extensively. She occupied the stage with him and freely mixed with the crowds as a prima donna. In his Punjab Letter, he was to give a vivid impression of their growing intimacy: “In Lahore I am the guest of Smt. Saraladevi Chowdharani and have been bathing in her deep affection. I first met Saraladevi in 1901 [in Calcutta]. She comes from the famous Tagore family. On her learning and sincerity, too, I get evidence in ever so many ways.”

“Swadeshi and Saraladevi Chowdharani proved to be a lethal combination which egged on Gandhiji and took her all over the country. Romance was in the air. He was no complaining about Ba refusing to take to khadi. She continued to stick to wearing mill-manufactured textiles. Here he was telling everyone within his listening distance in his public address. He said that: “He was taking Saraladevi all over India with him as she had better understood his swadeshi principles than his wife.””

“In absolute terms Saraladevi had scored over Ba. She wore khadi dresses. She gave enthusiastic talks on swadeshi, swaraj and khilafat. She was exhilarating company for him in his parikrama throughout the length and breadth of the country. Last, but not the least, she was a museum piece on public display for the titillation of others.”

First Published: Apr 20, 2006 18:02 IST