A new book on Mahatma Gandhi has delved into the intimate life of the Indian icon whose famous vow of chastity did not prevent him sleeping with naked women and conducting bizarre sex "experiments".
"Gandhi: Naked Ambition" by British historian Jad Adams sheds new light on the spiritual leader and independence hero whose spartan existence and resistance to earthly pleasures are an integral part of his popular image.
The book has been released in Britain and will be available soon in India where it is bound to make waves in a country where Gandhi's image is fiercely protected and a source of national pride.
That his attitudes to sex were censorious and unusual is well known. He wrote of his disgust at himself for having intercourse with his wife Kasturba, aged 15, when his father died in 1885.
In later life, having fathered four children, he forbade even married couples in his ashram retreats from having sex and lectured men on the need to take a cold bath when they felt lustful.
More than 60 years after Gandhi's death, Adams has gone through hundreds of pages of his writings and eyewitness accounts to build a behind-closed-doors picture of a man considered both a saint and the father of the nation in India.
"One of things you find about Gandhi is how much he wrote about sex," Adams told AFP by telephone from his home in London.
"When we look at his sexuality, what happens is that he has a perfectly normal sex life for the first part of his life, one that would be recognisable to almost anyone in the world.
"He gets married and has a family of four.
"But what interested me was that he made a decision that it would be a good idea to be chaste (in 1900). Six years later, he makes a vow and puts it into practice."
But contrary to the image of the abstemious Hindu ascetic, in later life Gandhi frequently bathed with nubile young women, had nude massages and often shared a bed with one or more of his followers, Adams' book said.
Adams says he has no evidence that Gandhi broke his vow of chastity with any of the women, though he was defining the idea in a rather limited way.
"He's talking about penetration. However he's defining sex so narrowly that he's ignoring a lot of activities that many people would consider sensual, if not actively sexual.
"My interpretation is that he was expecting these women to try to stimulate him sexually in order that he could demonstrate his resistance."
The sister of Gandhi's secretary, Sushila Nayar, was one of the women who took part, as was his 18-year-old grandniece, Manu.
In other cases, the wives of men in his ashram were called upon to share his bed, even though they were forbidden to sleep with their husbands, leading to complaints from some of his most devoted male followers.
Adams believes the "experiments" were like a game of striptease in which there was non-contact sexual activity.
"He wanted to see if sex could be controlled because he felt it was such a powerful force," he said.
Gandhi's views and activities -- he also believed in conserving his semen, which he saw as a source of spiritual energy --- did not endear him to fellow independence leader and India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
"Nehru considered them abnormal and completely distanced himself from Gandhi's behaviour," Adams said.
And what of Gandhi's long-suffering wife Kasturba, whom he married when he was 13?
As with his long absences abroad, his sometimes indifferent treatment of his children and frequent extreme fasts, she appears to have gone along with the chastity and sex experiments, albeit reluctantly.
"She didn't give much credit to the restrictions on eating or seemingly any of the things that he did, but she went along with them because she was a devoted and devout Hindu wife," said Adams.
The author says that Gandhi's practices were commonly discussed when he was alive but after his assassination in 1948 the details were glossed over in his elevation to the stature of national icon.
"I don't think that an understanding of any individual's sexuality necessarily casts them in a poor light. To suggest it does implies a negative view of sex, which I don't have," he said.
Adams is a visiting research fellow at London University and has previously written biographies of British politician Tony Benn, pioneering British feminist Emmeline Pankhurst and India's Nehru dynasty.
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