Gandhi's Yoga: Part II - The Vow of Celibacy

Dr Chand Prakash Mehra

Gandhiji said, 'It is better to enjoy through the body than to be enjoying the thought of it. It is good to disapprove of sensual desires as soon as they arise in the mind and try to keep them down, but if, for want of physical enjoyment, the mind wallows in thoughts of enjoyment, then it is legitimate to satisfy the hunger of the body. About this I have no doubt. Sex urge is a fine and noble thing. There is nothing to be ashamed of in it, but it is meant only for the act of creation.'*1

Gandhiji was against the use of contraceptives for birth control. He believed in self-restraint of animal passion and in cohabiting only when reproduction or birth of a child is desired. He opined that brahmacharya means control of senses in thought, word, and deed and that is the way of life which leads to God.

Gandhiji took the vow of brahmacharya (celibacy) in 1906 at the age of thirty six years, after full discussion and deliberation. He had not shared his thoughts with his wife until then, but only consulted her at the time of taking the vow. She had no objection, but he had great difficulty in making the final resolve. He had not the necessary strength. How was he to control his passions? The elimination of carnal relationship with one's wife seemed then a strange thing. But he launched forth with faith in the sustaining power of God. It is like walking on the sword's edge and he saw in every moment the necessity for eternal vigilance.

What is brahmacharya? It is the way of life which leads us to Brahma. It includes full control over the process of reproduction. The control must be in thought, word, and deed. If the thought is not under control, the other two have no value. For one whose thought is under control, the other is mere child's play.

Gandhiji said, 'It appears to me that even the true aspirant does not need the above-mentioned restraints. Brahmacharya is not a virtue that can be cultivated by outward restraints. He who runs away from a necessary contact with a woman does not understand the full meaning of brahmacharya. However attractive a woman may be, her attraction will produce no effect on the man without the urge.'

He further stated, 'I know from my own experience, that, as long as I looked upon my wife carnally, we had no real understanding. Our love did not reach a high plane. There was affection between us always, but we came closer and closer the more we, rather I, became restrained. There never was any want of restraint on the part of my wife. Very often she would show restraint, but she rarely resisted me, although she showed disinclination very often. All the time I wanted carnal pleasure, I could not serve her. The moment I bade goodbye to a life of carnal pleasure, our whole relationship became spiritual. Lust died and love reigned instead.'

Control of the palate is the first essential in the observation of the vow. Gandhiji found that complete control of the palate made the observance very easy and so he started dietetic experiments. As a result, he observed that a brahmachari should be limited to simple spice less, and if possible uncooked foods. The brahmachari should take his evening meal before sunset; fruit and nuts were his ideal food. He found milk to be an aphrodisiac and advised people to avoid milk as far as possible.

As an external aid to brahmacharya, fasting is as necessary as selection and restriction in diet. So overpowering are the senses that they can be kept under control only when they are completely hedged in on all sides, from above and from beneath. It is common knowledge that the senses are powerless without food, and so fasting undertaken with a view to control of the senses is, he felt, very helpful.

Gandhiji said, 'But the path of purification is hard and steep. To attain perfect purity, one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion. I know that I have not in me as yet, that triple purity, in spite of constant, ceaseless striving for it. That is why the world's praise fails to move me; indeed, it very often stings me. To conquer the subtle passions seems to me harder by far than the physical conquest of the world by the force of arms.' Later on, when Gandhiji returned to India, he realised that such brahmacharya was impossible to attain by mere human effort. Until then he was under the illusion that a mere diet of fresh fruits and nuts would enable him to maintain celibacy.

'Those who desire to observe brahmacharya with a view to realising God need not despair, provided their faith in God is equal to their confidence in their own effort. Therefore His name and His grace are the last resources of the aspirant after moksha. This truth came to me only after my return to India.'

'Divine knowledge is not borrowed from books. It has to be realised in oneself. Books are at best an aid, often even a hindrance.' Thus said Gandhiji.

Gandhiji recommended cold water hip bath for control of passion and night falls. Pandit Shri Pad Damodar Satvelekar had mentioned in one of his letters to Gandhiji (Sabarmati Gandhi Sangrah) that semen discharged because of masturbation or night falls could be absorbed by rubbing at the eyebrow centre or on the chest where both ribs meet.

Gandhiji said, 'Brahmacharya is such only if it persists under all conditions and in the face of every possible temptation. If a beautiful woman approaches the marble statue of a man, it will not be affected in the least. A brahmachari is one who reacts in a similar situation in the same way as marble does.'*2

'You argue that the sight and the company of woman have been found to be inimical to self-restraint and are therefore to be avoided. This argument is fallacious. Brahmacharya hardly deserves the name if it can be observed only by avoiding the company of women, even when such company is kept with a view to serve. It amounts to physical renunciation un-backed by the essential mental detachment, and lets us down in critical times.'

'I want to test, enlarge and revise the current definition of brahmacharya, in the light of my observation, study and experience. Therefore, whenever an opportunity presents itself I do not evade it or run away from it. On the contrary, I deem it my duty, dharma, to meet it squarely in the face and find out where it leads to and where I stand.'

'To avoid the contact of a woman or to run away from it out of fear, I regard as unbecoming of an aspirant after true brahmacharya. I have never tried to cultivate or seek sex contact for carnal satisfaction. I do not claim to have completely eradicated the sex feeling in me. But it is my claim that I keep it under control.'

Gandhiji experimented with different techniques which help in observing celibacy.*3 He allowed women inmates of his ashram to sleep with him on the same bed and under the same cover, just to test whether it aroused any passion in him or in the woman.

Gandhiji felt more at home in dealing with the special problems which belong to womankind. He apotheosised womankind; so much so that he finally came to the conclusion that progress in civilisation depended upon the introduction into it of a large measure of the love and self-sacrifice which woman, the mother of man, best represented in her own person.

Women, for their part, drew readily near him, for they instinctively recognised in him one of their own kind. Their intimate association helped to strengthen those elements of non-violence of which he held them to be natural representatives; while such occasions were also utilised by him for examining how far his own identification had become complete.

The feminine attitude developed as an important trait in his character ever since he began his practice of brahmacharya and as the identification was never complete, the desire to imagine how far it had advanced at any point of time remained permanently with him.

This spiritual necessity of association with woman and of constant self-examination by means of a technique reminiscent of tantra was, however, not appreciated by some of Gandhiji's closest associates, who even left him because of it. Gandhiji used to sleep with young women on the same bed, not for satisfaction of any animal passion, but for valid moral reasons; for establishing brahmacharya.

His close associates were of the opinion that he was suffering from a sense of self-delusion in regard to his relation with the opposite sex. After he asked women to share his bed and even the cover he used, he then tried to ascertain if even the least trace of sensual feeling had been evoked in himself or his companion.*4 In the opinion of Gandhiji this was merely an experiment or self-examination to test his establishment in brahmacharya.

Gandhiji did not call that brahmacharya, which means not to touch a woman. In his opinion, brahmacharya is that thought and practice which puts you in touch with the infinite and takes you into His presence. He tried to reach that state and in accordance with his belief, and he had made substantial progress in that direction.

He said his wife ceased to be an instrument of lust after he took his vow of brahmacharya, she ceased to be that when she lay with him naked as his sister. If she and he were not lustfully agitated in their minds and bodies, the contact raised both of them.

The woman inmates of his ashram used to hold Gandhiji tightly clasped to their bodies*5 in cold weather or whenever his blood circulation became poor because of his old age, in order to give him the warmth of their youthful bodies. This practice is known as 'gorocomy'.

Gandhiji said, 'It is wrong to call me an ascetic. The ideals that regulate my life are presented for acceptance by mankind in general; I have arrived at them by gradual evolution. Every step was thought out, well considered, and taken with the greatest deliberation. Both my continence and non-violence were derived from personal experience and became necessary in response to the calls of public duty. I claim to be no more than average with less than average ability. Nor can I claim any special merit for such non-violence or continence as I have been able to reach with laborious research.'


*1. An Autobiography, M.K. Gandhi, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad.

*2. All Men are Brothers, Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as told in his own words, UNESCO Paris.

*3. My Days With Gandhi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Calcutta.

*4. Ibid.

*5. Ibid.

Courtesy : 'Yoga Today', London