Gandhi on Jews. Part 1: A Jewish Gay Lover

He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!” -Brian’s mother in Terry Jones’ Life of Brian (1979)

A former executive editor of The New York Times and Pulitzer award winning author Joseph Lelyveld, has written a ­generally interesting book about ­Mohandas Gandhi, titled Great Soul; Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, which triggered a controversy at the time of its publication with Gandhi’s kin, and historians arguing that it was an attempt to sensationalize the life of the “father of the nation” and worldwide icon of non-violence.

Gandhi Gay
“Gandhi-giri” portrayed as “Gay-giri”.

The crux of the controversy seems to be the talks of two subjects on which Indians have strong views: Gandhi and sexuality (which society considers a matter so dirty that is not taught in schools). Some historians have note that key cultural differences between American and Indian attitudes to same-sex friendships might be the reason for which the American author suggests of a homosexual relationship. The author concludes that Gandhi was not only “a sexual weirdo“, and in more ways than one, but also “a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist.”

The love of his life it seems to be that was a German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder named Hermann Kallenbach, for whom Gandhi left his wife in 1908 during their stay in South Africa. Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach about “how completely you have taken ­possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” Gandhi nicknamed himself “Upper House” and Kallenbach “Lower House,” and he made Lower House promise not to “look lustfully upon any woman.”

The book was banned in different parts of India like in the state of Gujarat which is Gandhi’s home state -the site of his ashram and the historic Salt March- and where has been ruled for the last decade by the Hindu nationalist BJP; which styles itself as the defender of traditional Indian values. However, it would be difficult to consider the near decade-long rule of chief minister Narendra Modi as an era of Gandhian virtue. But the author had the last laugh on this issue: Banning the book was a great favor to him because the publisher was able to triple the print run.

Was really Gandhiji bisexual? Many people really didn’t care when the issue came out, and felt that the media was making a mountain out of a molehill from this story, arguing that the sexual orientation of a person is his or her own business, so Gandhi, as he is known for his principles and what he has done for India, the majority thought that to comment on such matter is worthless because he would have written clearly about it in his auto-biography.

This entire issue of the new disclosure of “lecherous behavior” towards a Jewish bodybuilder many people thought that was like a publicity stunt to promote the book and create an interest in it, and the truth is that it really worked. The whole thing certainly generated a useful public discourse but not about homosexuality or sex education if not about the limits of free expression. India has a different philosophy than that of other liberal democracies: It upholds free expression, but… privileges national harmony over the right of the individual to offend.

Lelyveld has maintained that his book is “not sensationalist“, and is based on material already published by another writers and historians. He thought that his book might raise eyebrows because of the way it explores the conflict between Gandhi’s ideals and the country that venerates him. But when it was published, much of the reviewers and readers attention focused on just a few paragraphs in which he discusses Gandhi’s possible physical relationship with his Jewish friend. In all, it represents 10 to 12 pages in a book of about 350 pages, and the paragraphs that got attention were 3 to 4 paragraphs of those pages. The author claim that Gandhi was not a saint, but a man of great moral seriousness.

According to Gandhi’s own wife, Gandhi engaged in heterosexual intercourse, but it repulsed him so much it actually made him physically ill, and he vowed never to attempt it again. The deification of Gandhi by the society throughout history intentionally eclipse Gandhi the real man. For example, in the 1930s, both Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to erase all traces of the Indian homoerotic tradition from Indian temples as a result of their systematic campaigns of “sexual cleansing“. In the later stages of his life, Gandhi aspired to a kind of sexlessness; on his ashram, where even married inmates had to swear celibacy, he said: “I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of men and women.” He regularly slept with his 17-year-old great niece Manu and other women but tried to not to become sexually excited. He once told a woman: “Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience“. In the book of Lelyveld also details one instance in which he forced Manu to walk through a part of the jungle where sexual assaults had in the past taken place just to fetch a pumice stone for him he liked to use to clean his feet. She returned with tears in her eyes but Gandhi just “cackled” and said: “If some ruffian had carried you off and you had met your death courageously, my heart would have danced with joy“.

The really thing is that Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach -which have been in the public domain for nearly 20 years- shows very clearly that Gandhi had a deep love for his Jewish friend and wanted him by his side for the rest of his life. But they were parted when Gandhi ­returned to India in 1914, from where he wrote to his loving friend in 1933 that “you are always ­before my mind’s eye.” Kallenbach briefly returned to India in 1937 to make an unsuccessful attempt to enlist Gandhi’s support for the Zionist cause, however, Gandhi consistently supported the Arabs over the Jewish people.

Interesting to know that the speculation over the Mahatma’s sexuality drove the Indian government to shell out over a million dollars for the Gandhi-Kallenbach papers.The India’s Ministry of Culture said at that time that experts reviewed the letters and recommended the government obtain them as a matter of “highest priority”, claiming that the acquisition was purely to aide research into Gandhi’s philosophy. Despite those letters and photos documenting the intimate friendship between the god-like Indian figure Gandhi and his German-Jewish friend, in today India, being gay remains deeply taboo. Sex between people of the same gender had been illegal in India since the 1860s, when a British colonial law classified it as “against the order of nature“. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (introduced during British rule of India) was devised to criminalize and prevent homosexual associations. Although legalization and social acceptance to gay marriages seems to be a distant dream, politicians should engage in making India a country more inclusive and diverse as for example in worrying about the education of safe sex for all people.

Today, with an increased outcry against sexual violence that women face, sexuality education has come to the fore, and its importance as part of youngsters education. A country that is home to nearly a fifth of the world’s population surely needs to confront these questions. The moment you exclude talks, teaching or discussions about sexuality to the young generation, you are also excluding all conversation about desire, changes in the body as one grows up, positive body image, what constitutes an equal and healthy sexual relationship, marital or otherwise, the different sexualities and genders, and disabilities.

So, what is the reason to avoid sexuality education, it is the bigotry and hypocrisy in the mindset of the Indian society? By not talking about all this, they are immediately creating a silence around gender equality, freedom from discrimination and democratic values. After all, if “the father of the Nation”, the person considered as the driving force behind the establishment of Independent India, had a homosexual relationship more than 100 years ago with his Jewish lover, what is the big deal about it? Did you thought love was only true in fairy tales…?

Mahatma Gandhi (on the left), and his alleged Jewish lover, Hermann Kallenbach (sitting on the right) in South Africa. The deification of Gandhi intentionally eclipse Gandhi the real man. The pair lived together for two years in a house Kallenbach built in South Africa and pledged to give one another “more love, and yet more love…” At the age of 13 Gandhi had been married to 14-year-old Kasturbai Makhanji, but after four children together they split in 1908 so he could be with Kallenbach. Although it is not clear why, Gandhi wrote that vaseline and cotton wool were a “constant reminder” of Kallenbach. The American author Lelyveld, in his book on Gandhi, goes beyond the myth to paint a very different picture of Gandhi’s private life and makes astonishing claims about his sexuality.
If “the father of the nation”, as it is documented, really behaved that way, why the bigotry and hypocrisy in the mindset of the Indian society about homosexuality and to avoid sexuality education?
About the Author
Alfredo de Braganza is an award-winning independent filmmaker & chocolate-coated sufganiyah lover from Spain currently living in India. His documentary "Smoking Babas" was selected for the Madrid International Film Festival and his film "Maayan The Fisherman" for Best Narrative Film at the Florida International Film Festival. He is the first Spanish person to make a feature film in India, on celluloid and native language. His documentary "Boxing Babylon" won Best Documentary Awards at the 2013-Norway Film Festival and New Delhi International Sports Film Festival. He can be contacted at: