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The Gandhi None of Us Knew - Inclusion - By The Reverend Irene Monroe - Editorial Board

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It has been not quite a century since Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was assassinated in January, 1948 at the age of 78 in New Delhi, India, and the bevy of hagiographies on him are now being replaced with truth-telling biographies on the Gandhi nobody knew.

The most recent one is titled, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India” by Joseph Lelyveld.

According to Lelyvard, Gandhi, the pacifist, was a wife-beater, denied sex to his wife for decades, was purported to be a “celibate,” living life as an ascetic, but actually was a pedophile who ritualized sleeping naked with underage girls in order to test “the ferocity of his sexual desires,” and at one point left his wife for a male lover.

While one would think, at first glance, reading Lelyveld’s shocking revelations about Gandhi, it’s all tabloid fodder for a rapacious audience that diets on sordid tales, Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, pays meticulous attention to details.

Between 1908 and 1910, Gandhi left his wife to be with a wealthy German-Jewish bodybuilder and architect, Hermann Kallenbach. But the only evidence Lelyvard gives the reader, suggesting the bonding of the two men was at least homoerotic if not homosexual, is a salacious one-liner where Gandhi allegedly told Kallenback, “How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” According to Gandhi’s own wife, Gandhi engaged in heterosexual intercourse, but it repulsed him so much it actually made him physically ill, avowing never to attempt it again.

While Gandhi may have been repulsed by heterosexuality he seems to be repulsed, at least publicly, by homosexuality, too. 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.”

The revelation in Lelyveld’s book of Gandhi’s alleged bisexuality is the only positive news in a long laundry list of sexual peccadillos, bizarre personal habits, like his love for enemas, and done twice a day, mind-bending cult practices like “spiritual marriages” with women where sex is purportedly absent, and his unbelievable blatant racists attitudes towards black South Africans.

How did the public get so hoodwinked by the divinity of Gandhi?

The deification of Gandhi intentionally eclipsed Gandhi, the real man. Elevated to a 20th Century messiah by both European and American Christian clerics and missionaries, who wanted to convert Hindus to Christianity, and elevated to a 20th Century Hindu god by Indians, Gandhi’s real life was overlooked and supplanted with a series religious myths. For example, John H. Holmes, a Unitarian pastor from New York, praised Gandhi in his writings and sermons with titles like: Gandhi: The Modern Christ, and Mahatma Gandhi: The Greatest Man Since Jesus Christ, and Krishnalal Shridharni announced that Gandhi was “The seventh reincarnation of Vishnu, Lord Rama.”

Known the world over as Mahatma Gandhi, Sanskrit for “Great Soul,” and as Bapu, Gujarati for “Father,” Gandhi comes to my conscious from the father of this country’s Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, who, too, was assassinated, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I loved Gandhi because King did.

Gandhi’s pacifist philosophy of “satyagraha,” a Sanskrit term he coined to mean the resistance to oppression through mass civil disobedience firmly rooted in “ahimsa“ or absolute non-violence that transforms foes into friends, won India its independence from British colonialism in 1947. Gandhi’s liberation paradigm profoundly informed the socio-political theology of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, giving rise to a black non-violent movement consisting of sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches that shamefully exposed and eventually toppled the South’s Jim Crow ordinances.

As with King, Gandhi, too, became an iconic image in The Movement. However, if King and others knew of Gandhi’s racist views of black South Africans, and knew why Gandhi never met with African Americans civil rights leaders, who were hungry to not only meet the man but to know more about his philosophy of “satyagraha,” Gandhi wouldn’t have been so highly profiled in his public sermons.

But Gandhi was unabashedly a diehard supporter of India’s Hindu caste system, and would never mix with a lowly group or caste. Lelyveld, in “Great Soul” lays out Gandhi’s unedited views:

“We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs (offensive term equivalent to the n-word),” Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there. “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized - the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”

In an open letter to the legislature of South Africa’s Natal province, Gandhi wrote of how “the Indian is being dragged down to the position of the raw Kaffir,” someone, he later stated, “whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a number of cattle to buy a wife, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

On white Afrikaners and Indians, he wrote: “We believe as much in the purity of races as we think they do.”

In a recent speech at a Virginia high school, President Obama stated that Gandhi was a “real hero of mine,” describing Gandhi as someone with whom he would like to dine. “He is somebody whom I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King.”

I’m sorry Mr. President, that wouldn’t happen. Lelyveld’s Gandhi reveals a great soul the public didn’t know. Editorial Board member, the Rev. Irene Monroe, is a religion columnist, theologian, and public speaker. She is the Coordinator of the African-American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the Pacific School of Religion. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. She was recently named to MSNBC’s list of 10 Black Women You Should Know. Reverend Monroe is the author of Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible Prayers for Not’So’Everyday Moments. As an African-American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is Click here to contact the Rev. Monroe.

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Mar 31, 2011 - Issue 420
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