This Thursday, Aug. 15, will mark the 66th anniversary of India's independence from centuries of British rule. (Pakistan, the other country that was formed from the partition of British India, celebrates its independence on Aug. 14).
Across all the decades since India became a republic, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known the "Mahatma" (or "Great Soul") remains the enduring icon of Indian nationalism, independence and the very idea of India itself.
Gandhi's name carries much weight among human rights and peace activists – equal to such revered historical figures as Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, even Jesus Christ himself -- essentially for his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience.
However, within and outside of India, many misconceptions remain about this mortal man, more than 65 years after an assassin's bullet ended his life on Jan. 30, 1948. In addition, some facts of Gandhi's life and personality might surprise, even shock, his multitude of admirers and followers.
Here are some aspects of the Mahatma that may not fit the usual accepted narrative of his biography:
*Gandhi Opposed The Industrialization of India
In stark contrast to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, Gandhi viewed India's vast rural hinterlands as the country's core and did not favor Western-style industrialization.
As early as 1908, in his book "Hind Swaraj" (Indian Home Rule) Gandhi wrote: “Civilization in the real sense of the term consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures. We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of year ago. We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before.”
*While Studying Law in England He Tried To Make Himself Into An Upper-Class Englishman
As a student training to become a barrister in London in the late 1880s, in stark contrast to his later image as an ascetic, the young Gandhi sought to integrate with British society by, among other things, buying new suits, speaking in an upper-crust English accent, learning French, and even learning how to dance and play the violin. (He eventually gave up on all these efforts.)
*Gandhi Was Racialist Against Black Africans
Upon arriving as an attorney in South Africa (where he would spend the next two decades), Gandhi was appalled by the treatment accorded to the local Indian population whom he served. While he fought for citizenship rights and equality with whites for Indians, he did not extend such a cause towards the country’s native blacks, whom he called by the derogatory term “Kaffir.”
He described the “raw Kaffir” [black African] as a person “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."
In solidarity with South Africa’s white Afrikaners, Gandhi declared: “We believe as much in the purity of races as we think they do.”
According to a biography called “Great Soul” by Joseph Lelyveld, Gandhi was appalled that Indians were housed with blacks in South African prisons.
"We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs," Gandhi said. "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."
*Gandhi Frequently Offered Indians To Fight In Wars On Behalf Of Britain And South Africa
Before his immersion into the philosophies of peace and non-violence, the younger Gandhi often offered the services of Indians to fight in various wars on behalf of Europeans. For example, during the Boer War in South Africa in 1900, he encouraged Indians to volunteer as ambulance drivers and medics for the English side. A few years later, Gandhi offered Indians to help the British military fight Zulus in South African kingdom of Natal. By the Great War (World War I), Gandhi recruited Indians to fight for Britain, largely in an effort to bolster the cause of Indian independence.
*Gandhi Was Distrusted By The ‘Untouchables’
Although Gandhi advocated for the removal of India’s centuries-old caste system and uplifting the status of Dalits (Untouchables) -- whom he called “Harijans” or “God’s children” – Dalit leaders widely distrusted Gandhi and his motives.
B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, resented the paternalistic and condescending views of upper-caste Hindus like Gandhi, calling him “devious and untrustworthy.” Indeed, in the mid-1920s, Gandhi campaigned against the right to Dalits to worship in Hindu temples.
"Would you teach the Gospel to a cow?" he told a Christian missionary in 1936. "Well, some of the Untouchables are worse than cows in their understanding."
Gandhi also took measures to prevent Dalits from holding any seats in any future Indian parliament and even speculated that the abolition of the caste system “would not entail [upper] caste Hindus having to dine with former Untouchables."
Conversely, some conservative Hindus criticized Gandhi for trying to subvert the caste system by rejecting ancient texts.
*Gandhi Had Some Strange Views On Jews
In 1946, after the horrors of Nazi Germany had been unveiled to the outside world, Gandhi cryptically stated in an interview with the Jewish-American journalist Louis Fischer: "Hitler killed 5 million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany... As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions."
Prior to the war in the 1930s, as Jews in Europe campaigned for a homeland in Palestine, Gandhi opposed the formation of a Jewish state, matching the views of all Muslim groups in India and elsewhere.
Equating the presence of European Jews in Palestine to European colonialism and imperialism elsewhere, Gandhi was strongly opposed to Zionism. He even suggested that the Jews in the Middle East “should rely wholly on the goodwill of Arabs.”
As for Adolf Hitler, in 1940, as Britain and Germany were at war, Gandhi wrote: “I do not consider Herr Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted. He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed,” adding that in future generations, Germans “will honor Herr Hitler as a genius, a brave man, a matchless organizer and much more.”
*Gandhi Slept Next To Naked Young Women To Test His Celibacy
By 1906, after 24 years of marriage to his wife Kasturba, Gandhi took a vow of celibacy. By the 1940s, when he was an elderly man, Gandhi would have his 17-year-old grandniece, Manu, or other young women lie naked next to him in bed as an “experiment” to test his celibacy. Gandhi once told a woman about his nightly activities: "Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience." This practice – which Gandhi reportedly called “nightly cuddles” -- triggered widespread criticism from Nehru and well as other supporters and associates.
*Gandhi Disliked His Nickname ‘Mahatma’
Gandhi reportedly was uncomfortable with the honorific Mahatma ("Great Soul") which was apparently bestowed upon him by the legendary Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
*Gandhi May Have Had Gay Sexual Affair With German Man
One of the most explosive and controversial items in Lelyveld’s biography on Gandhi (which aroused enormous hostility in India), suggested the Mahatma had an intimate relations with Hermann Kallenbach, a Jewish-German architect and bodybuilder. In a letter to Kallenbach, Gandhi wrote: “Your portrait stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed,” adding that "how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”
The pair also vowed "more love, and yet more love — such love as they hope the world has not yet seen.”
Bizarrely, Gandhi even nicknamed himself “upper house” and Kallenbach “lower house,” and requested that Kallenbach promise not to "look lustfully upon any woman."
*Gandhi Enjoyed Good Relations With Italian Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini
The Mahatma and Il Duce formed a mutual admiration society during the 1920s and 1930s. According to a book titled “Subhash Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany,” author Romain Hayes wrote that in late 1931, Gandhi accepted an invitation to visit Mussolini in Rome while the Mahatma was touring Europe. Reportedly, the two men -- the vain Italian Fascist and the modest, unassuming Indian ascetic -- got along extremely well and admired each other. Hayes wrote that, among other things, Gandhi reviewed a black-shirted Fascist youth honor guard during his visit. “Mussolini hailed Gandhi as a 'genius and a saint,' admiring ... [Gandhi's] ability to challenge the British Empire,” Hayes wrote. Regarding his visit with Il Duce, Gandhi wrote in a letter to a friend: "Mussolini is a riddle to me. Many of his reforms attract me. He seems to have done much for the peasant class. I admit an iron hand is there. But as violence is the basis of Western society, Mussolini's reforms deserve an impartial study.”
Gandhi's missive continued: “[Mussolini's] care of the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about coordination between capital and labor, seem to me to demand special attention ... My own fundamental objection is that these reforms are compulsory. But it is the same in all democratic institutions. What strikes me is that behind Mussolini's implacability is a desire to serve his people. Even behind his emphatic speeches there is a nucleus of sincerity and of passionate love for his people. It seems to me that the majority of the Italian people love the iron government of Mussolini.”
Gandhi also hailed Mussolini “one of the great statesmen of our time.”
*Gandhi Barred His Son Manilal From Marrying Muslim Women
In stark contrast to Gandhi’s dreams of Hindu-Muslim unity in India, he prevented his son Manilal from marrying a Muslim girl in South Africa named Fatima Gool. "It [would] be like putting two swords in one sheath," he said of the proposed mixed marriage. He persuaded Manilal to overcome his "infatuation" and "delusions" of love.
"Our love is between brother and sister. Whereas here the main urge is carnal pleasure," Gandhi exhorted. (Manilal eventually married a Hindu girl of his father’s choosing).
*Gandhi’s Son Harilal Became An Estranged Alcoholic
Embittered by his father’s harsh discipline and demands for self-denial, Harilal Gandhi rebelled by wearing Western clothes, womanizing and drinking alcohol (eventually becoming hooked on booze). After remarrying following the death of his first wife, Harilal earned his father's eternal wrath.
"If Harilal wants to marry against my wish, I will have to stop thinking of him as my son," Gandhi lamented.
Harilal eventually died from liver disease shortly after his father’s death.
*Indira Gandhi Was Not Related In Any Way To Mahatma
Indira Gandhi, the third prime minister of India, was the daughter of Indian nationalist leader and first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira gained the surname Gandhi when she married a Parsi politician/journalist named Feroze Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma). Naturally, the happenstance of the same surname provided a boon for Indira’s subsequent political career and her global image.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.