Gender, Identity & the Culture of Change: A consideration of Gandhi’s concept of the human, sex and transformation

A consideration of Gandhi’s concept of the human, sex and transformation

There were many Gandhis in the Mahatma: the Gandhi of England, of South Africa, the rebel Gandhi of 1920s, the non-violent revolutionary of 1930s, lastly the Gandhi of Noakhali period, during which time he launched into his last and most controversial experiment, namely, ‘Yajna’, while the nation thrashed about in its birth pangs. 

Also Gandhi was many things to many people. If some were drawn by his ideas of village swaraj and trusteeship, some by his philosophy of non-violence or satyagraha as a distinct yet creative and effective instrument of social and political change, some by his integral spirituality.

At a time when the one-time established narratives and discourses are being questioned, when the major political ideologies have failed to deliver their promised goods, it is not surprising to see thinkers and activists relooking at these different Gandhis, so to say, in their search for alternatives, for different, peaceful, non-violent and non-exploitative ways of being and doing things in the world. I believe this workshop is an attempt to explore those possibilities by way of discussing his economics, his notion of swaraj, his technique of dealing with political issues and so on. However, I wish to focus on a much less discussed subject, namely, Gandhi’s concept of man, his understanding of human sexuality and spiritual transformation, and consider their social implication today.


Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher who had considerable influence on Western Thought, is believed to have thought of woman as a sort of incomplete man. Thomas Aquinas, it is said, regarded woman as misbegotten man. If Quran deems woman inferior to man, the Book of Genesis gives notice to women thus: ‘And thy desire shall be thy husband and he shall rule over thee…’ And Corinthians declares: ‘The head of every man is Christ; and the head of every woman is man.’ Our own Manu of Manu Dharmashastra warns that women are fickle, capricious and unfaithful, therefore they need to be engaged and controlled by man.

In Gandhian world view, however, man is seen as an incomplete woman, and woman an incomplete God.

If we can identify roughly three phases in Gandhian spiritual experiments, not as disjointed but as a continuous process, then,

  •     the first phase could be interpreted as a phase of ‘discovering woman’, or discovering the ‘other’ in oneself;
  •     the second as of becoming a complete woman, rather a mother to one and all;
  •   the third and final one, called yajna, was the final oblation of all traces of sexuality and identity to become ‘god-eunuch’.

Gandhi called his life an open book. In his scheme of life there was no such thing as a purely private or public space. The two interpenetrated to become one unified field of action. Spirituality was not something purely personal or private anymore than politics was strictly social and public. The spirituality of politics and politics of spirituality came together in Gandhi’s life to form a dialectics of growth and freedom. ‘What I want to achieve,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘what I have been striving and pinning to achieve these 30 years, is self-realisation, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha.’

One might think that there is nothing original in the way Gandhi lived and in his ideas, that many of his ideas and practices could be traced to some Indian tradition or the other (not to discount the inspiration he drew from the works of Thoreau, John Ruskin, Tolstoy, and the Sermon on the Mount; though it was Indian philosophy that formed the bulwark); still, the way he conducted his life in the open, the way he articulated these ideas and redefined some of the classical Hindu concepts (almost turning some of them on their head) and projected them on to the social and political realm was something unique and his own.

Before we go into the details of how Gandhi conducted his politico-spiritual experiments, how out of his spiritual struggle to become woman and then god-eunuch he tried to develop a new cultural politics of change, we could briefly consider here how some of the Indian leaders perceived British Imperialism and their idea of a resurgent India.

Several nineteenth century Indian leaders believed that India had fallen prey to waves of foreign invasions because Indians had become passive, effete, inert, degenerate, and that they were in deep slumber, profoundly apolitical, devoid of patriotism and so on. And all of them encouraged a selfless devotion for the country, advocated new principles of morality and social organization, new national character. Among these leaders and religious reformers there were many who thought the Indians had become passive and weak and devoid of energy largely as a result of their sensuous and self-indulgent life style. Even a mystic-reformer like Vivekananda contended that the loss of sexual purity and discipline and the weakening or loss of faith in one’s own spiritual traditions was the central cause of the downfall of Indian civilisation.

Gandhi too shared these concerns and was keen to harness sexual energy for political purposes, to channelize the fire of sexual passion into a cultural and political action for freedom and growth. However, unlike some of the religious reformers of the period who stressed ‘masculine’ virtues and wanted Indians to become ‘manly’ in the manner of their colonial master, both to achieve freedom and recover the ancient glory of Bharath, Gandhi’s strategies for change and his idea of a healthy and dynamic civilization was quite different. His concern to integrate man and woman to become a ‘whole’ person, his attempt to feminize politics and develop a new yugadharma based on principles of truth and feminine virtues, and maternal principles, in particular, was something radical and new. While most of his views or ideas were borrowed from traditional sources yet the way he charged them with new meanings and projected them on to the social and political realm marked at once both a departure from and an extension of certain ancient values and vision of integral life. For instance the idea or value of ahimsa which traditionally meant avoidance of violence or refusal to inflict violence on others, in the hands of Gandhi it gained an activist’s meaning: it meant intervention, or engagement with the world to free society from all forms of violence.

His ideas of sexuality and brahmacharya were certainly derived from Indian traditions. He accepted the widespread belief that sexual activity was the most energy consuming and enervating of all human activities. However, with appropriate practices this sexual energy could be channelized or made to move upward through the spinal cord into the brain and get transformed into ojas or spiritual energy. Gandhi accepted this theory yet he differed from the tradition in the sense that he believed that this spiritual energy enabled one not only to attain supreme consciousness or moksha, but also released tremendous revolutionary power to transform society. For Gandhi the personal and social were not segregated spaces just as the political and spiritual were not two separate activities. Freedom or swaraj was multidimensional: the social, political and spiritual freedoms led one to the other and depended on each other.

His understanding of brahmacharya was also different from the popular traditions. These traditions expected a brahmachari not only to eschew sex but avoid all contact with women. Gandhi thought of this view as cowardly, narrow, hidebound and retrograde. It betrayed a deep fear of woman and could only lead to suppression of sexuality and not to its sublimation or transcendence. A genuine transcendence of sexual desire or sexual impulse could be achieved not outside of society or with total avoidance of women who form an integral part of our lives, just as the search for and realization of truth and ahimsa could not be transacted outside society but within society, in the thick of samsara.

We should note here that the notions of truth and non-violence, or satya and ahimsa are central to Gandhi’s philosophy. Almost all his other ideas, as for instance his ideas of personhood, wholeness, moksha, as also his idea of a new moral and social order is related to or emanates from these two master concepts.

On the level of faith, Truth according to Gandhi was pure consciousness, the power that holds the universe together, it is God, Nature, Cosmic order, names are secondary. But in the phenomenal world this supreme reality is revealed through ahimsa and love; it is in fact the centripetal and cohesive force immanent in all of us and in the world. But, man, according to Gandhi, is not given to know this absolute truth, for absolute truth would mean absolute ahimsa, incarnation of truth in totality. Relative truth is all that is given to us, hence we can but move from truth to greater truth and in the light of this dynamic, progressive knowledge manage and resolve human problems and conflicts. ‘As long as I have not realized this Absolute truth,’ he said, ‘so long must I hold by the relative truth as I have conceived it. That relative truth must meanwhile be my beacon, my shield and buckler.’

So then, in Gandhian philosophy and praxis, history, our past, present, our experiences  and hopes and ideas of future become relative truths, consequently society or world become the functional standard of objective truth. And the individual’s search for truth naturally has to take place in terms of the community of which she or he is a part. Outside society individuals cannot be good and realize the truth; rather, within the praxis of continuous, tireless search for truth, individual and social health and happiness is made possible. Further, in a world of conflicting theories and ideologies, a world in which violence has become a creed and is justified not only politically but even on moral grounds, the means by which we pursue truth shall be non-violence. In other words, living in a world of relative truths and in an imperfect, evolving society where man is not God or in possession of absolute truth, he is not competent or cannot posses any right to punish or kill or destroy. Hence only non-violence will be the means to resolve conflicts, for only ahimsa can create the creative possibilities for both the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘victim’ to realize their common humanity and achieve their freedom and happiness.

It is from such an understanding of satya and ahimsa, and out his own experience of insult and indignation that Gandhi forged his technique of Satyagraha to challenge and fight against the black laws during his stay in South Africa. But it was only after his return to India and after his rigorous experiments in social change and fight against the British Imperialism that he was to discover the greater and profounder implications of his twin concepts. And he developed a theory of liberation, so to say, which entailed liberation from not only the historical, political and social oppression and injustice but also from all forms of violence within and without. In effect, it was a critique of modernity and western ideologies of normality, masculinity, adulthood, and rationality, all of which, in the words of Ashis Nandy, ‘have been crucial planks in the various secular theories of salvation and progress, which have been popular during the last one hundred and fifty years of western hegemony.’ In other words, Gandhi’s theory of freedom offered a critique of the grave errors in the western epistemology, rooted as it was in dualistic or binary thinking as found for instance in the cultural disjunctions between the male and the female, the young and the old, between man and nature, good and evil and so on.


Now, what is of interest and significance for our deliberation here today is to know how Gandhi tried to resolve the deepest conflicts about or between femininity and masculinity, how through a redefinition of womanhood and the concept of man, he struggled to develop a new cultural politics and spirituality to counter modernity based on patriarchal values.

Gandhi associated (man’s) sexuality with aggression and violence. His vow of brahmacharya was backed by a conviction that sexual act was grossly selfish and exploitative and it used up excessive energy which ultimately damaged bodily regeneration. It was like partial suicide. And it made man incapable of spiritual growth and transcendence.

More importantly, the conventional notion of sexuality bifurcated the human species and stood in the way of human unity and a non-oppressive world. This bifurcation encouraged the hopeless and false division of human qualities into purely masculine and feminine. If men were conditioned to be rational, tough, competitive, aggressive and strong, women were expected to be emotional or sentimental, soft, tender and so on. This way each sex was condemned to remain only ‘half’ of a human being excluding qualities associated with the other. Therefore the sexual bifurcation needed to be overcome if one aspired to be ‘whole’ or ‘complete’. And this, Gandhi suggested, could be done by internally appropriating the ‘other sex’ and the qualities associated with it. Way back in 1921, speaking to the Ashram women, he said: ‘My ideal is this: A man should remain man and yet should become woman; similarly a woman should remain woman and yet become man. This means that man should cultivate the gentleness and the discrimination of woman; and woman should cast off her timidity and become brave and courageous.’ In practical terms this meant that men should also perform women’s work whether it was cleaning, washing, or even cooking. And women should learn to do men’s work, and even participate in satyagraha. Gandhi of course didn’t go the whole hog and encourage women to literally perform all tasks hitherto done by men. Still, the implication was tremendous, particularly with regard to men appropriating women’s qualities. If we have to quote Ashis Nandy again: ‘Here the assumption was that femininity in men, especially in the form of maternity, provided a self-critical masculinity which could subvert the values of the modern civilization.’

In mid thirties, Gandhi’s equation of violence with masculinity became more pronounced. He may not have used terms such as ‘phallo-centric’, ‘andro-centric’  and so on which are used by feminists today, not even the term ‘patriarchy’, but he was more than convinced, particularly after his own personal ‘failure in brahmacharya’ in 1936 & 1938, and after witnessing increasing violence in the country, that the root of ‘evil’ lay in man, that this aggressively evil civilization had come out of man’s domination, his self-assertion, his dangerous sexuality, aggression and brutality. In contrast woman seemed all positive, creative and life-affirming. And womanhood an anti-dote to man’s illness. Woman exemplified non-violence, sacrifice, tenderness, giving, loving: qualities he believed would ultimately save the world and can become the basis of a new yugadharma.

During these years, at some point, he moved from the position of ‘discovering woman’ or appropriating woman’s qualities, to the position of becoming a full or complete woman. Writing about this phase in Gandhi’s life, Bhikhu Parekh says: ‘So long as he was conscious of himself as a male, elements of aggression and violence were bound to remain, even if he was not conscious of them. The only way out was to cease to be a male, to become woman.’

When translated into politics or projected into the socio-political arena, it meant that if the world had to be cleansed of aggression and violence, the world had to be reconstituted on the feminine, especially maternal principles.

So now he tried to become a complete woman, rather a mother to the people in his ashrams, to his close female associates, especially to Manu Gandhi. This was of course not an entirely new development, but only an extension and intensification of what he had been doing for many years. As a public servant, a political leader, and a spiritual seeker he had been living and working in close proximity with his female associates. Not only political and intellectual work, even mundane activities such as taking a bath, oil massage and so on were conducted in the open. The female co-workers used to even sleep beside him during the nights. At times Gandhi would even oil and comb Manu’s hair like a mother. All his female co-workers and many other women too who had come in contact with him or worked with him, openly spoke to the effect that they could relate to him as they would to other women and felt totally at home in his presence. There were of course some women who did become possessive of him and his love; for instance, persons like Mira Behn, who, on a couple of occasions, had to be sent away to work in other places. Analysing this relationship between Gandhi and his close female associates, Bhikhu Parekh says that it ‘had some elements of Krishnite love’.

It is of importance to note here that womanhood as a symbol and womanliness as a subject have played a major role in the creative consciousness of several forms of art and in the philosophy of many Hindu traditions. In modern times, not only in Gandhian spirituality, as Ashis Nandy would say, even in some of the religious reformers after the beginning of British rule, the concept of womanhood and femininity have played a major role. In particular, to quote Nandy again, ‘Ramakrishna and Aurobindo found in motherhood the supreme concept of a new godhead, rooted in tradition on the one hand and capable of balancing the over-emphasis on masculinity in the Semitic religions on the other.’

It was not as if Gandhi was ignorant of all this; in fact, as we have said earlier, several of his ideas were borrowed from traditional sources. But the uniqueness of this womanly man lay in the fact that he enlarged them with new socio-political meanings in order to transform and empower a defeated people and their traditions. He was no mystic yet a seeker of supreme consciousness, he was no philosopher but a thinker who worked out his concepts and values from his experience of day-to-day living and confrontations with the realities around him.

The last phase of Gandhi (1940s), however, offers a fascinating, disturbing yet challenging story. During this phase he was no more satisfied trying to be a complete woman or mother, he sought to go beyond, to lose all sense of sexuality, rather to transcend sexual consciousness and become a god-eunuch.

I understand that the term ‘eunuch’ would sound derogatory today; even tend to demean the people of different sex. However, the terms like non-sexual, bisexual, androgyny and so on may not adequately convey the intended meaning; moreover it will not serve the purpose of this discussion to replace the term, so we’ll stick to the expression used by Gandhi.

Before we go into this phase, it is necessary to consider the historical circumstance under which he undertook his Yajna. The 1940s was a traumatic period, a period of great upheavals, unprecedented tragedies and irrevocable historical changes. It so happened that during this period, now and then Gandhi was thrown into disagreements with the leaders of the Congress Party over the issue of civil-disobedience and interpretation of non-violence. On December 30, 1941, in a letter to the Congress President Maulana Azad, he wrote: ‘… it is my certain belief that only non-violence can save India and the world from self-extinction. Such being the case, I must continue my mission, whether I am alone or assisted by an organisation or individuals. You will, therefore, please relieve me of responsibility laid upon me by the Bombay resolution.’

In 1942 the World War II broke out, the same year Quit India movement was launched and Gandhi was imprisoned till 1944, during which time his close associate Mahadev Desai and his wife Kasturba died, leaving him feeling alone and in despair. After his release from Aga Khan Palace, all his attempts at negotiations with the British Government, with Jinnah and even CWC members to prevent the partition failed. The division of the country would be only on the vivisection of my body, he had said, but now, he was unable to prevent the division and the coming holocaust. In 1946 the great Calcutta killings took place leaving behind 5000 dead and nearly 15000 injured. Soon the bloody riots spread to Noakhali and other places. He undertook what is considered to be his greatest fast to stem the tide of violence. But there was no final solution and the future looked dim and gloomy.

He felt unwanted, betrayed by his own one-time close co-workers, his non-violence rendered weak, his spiritual power waning, ineffective. Hitherto he had been exploring ways of releasing, conserving, mobilising his own as well as popular energy, to convert, to transform a beleaguered society, but all that seemed to have come to a naught. Yet, at times, he would think: ‘I do feel that I have come nearer to God and truth…’ Still, something was missing. It seemed he had now reached the last stage of his life. He was now on a ‘do or die’ mission to stop the raging flames, the spreading madness, and transform himself completely so as to come upon moksha and the spiritual power the likes of Mohammad, Christ and Buddha possessed. Didn’t the Patanjali Yoga Sutra say that a realized person would come to posses the spiritual power to tame even the wildest animals, let alone win over the most implacable enemies? Gandhi believed in the sutra and in himself as having the potential to posses the spiritual power to change the course of history. Indeed, he is believed to have said that if he could ‘master’ his sexuality, that is, become a god-eunuch, he ‘can still beat Jinnah’, and prevent the partition.

Gandhi had subjugated the palate, the senses, he had conquered anger, but there seemed to be still traces or vestiges of sexuality left in him which seemed to be blocking the flow of spiritual energy. But he felt he was close, only he needed to take the final step, which involved going beyond even the woman in him and becoming completely sexless, a ‘god-eunuch’. He called this final experiment in brahmacharya a yajna —meaning sacrifice, total surrender. He had done everything possible by him, there was nothing more left except giving himself up totally and waiting for the divine grace to descend upon him.

The idea of sexlessness or freedom from sex consciousness, or attaining the state of ‘god-eunuch’ can be found in several religious traditions, including that of Islam and Christian. In Islam, there is the idea that the one who gets closer to khudda or receives the grace of God is the one who has become a god-eunuch not through surgery but by prayer. And in Christianity, Jesus is believed to have said: ‘…there are some eunuchs, who are so born from the mother’s womb, some were so made by men, and some who have made themselves so for the love of the Kingdom of Heaven’.   

In Hinduism, bisexuality or trans-sexuality, even sexlessness or asexuality, have always been considered as a mark of saints, yogis and sages. Sukhadeva, son of Vyasa, is believed to have been born without sexual impulse. Tantric tradition seeks unity of female and male, prakriti and purusha through passionless sexual act. In the bhakti tradition, we find some of the male saints, for instance, Basavanna, singing in female voices, taking on female personae. A male saint-to-be not only sheds his caste and samsara he ‘drops his masculinity, becomes a woman, so that he can open to the lord’. To quote A.K Ramanujan, ‘Thus, in the course of constituting or reconstituting themselves in this new ways of being, men may take on feminine roles, speak through female personae and yearn for their male god as woman do for their lovers.’

In effect, it means that by taking on female personae one ‘becomes woman, whole and androgynous like the gods themselves (Purusa, Shiva, and Vishnu).’ In the symbol or image of ardhanarishwara we have the idea of bi-sexuality permanently etched on Hindu consciousness. However, we may note here that generally the Hindu tradition considers sex a beautiful, even a divine impulse, and it occupies an important place among the four purusharthas. Jayadev’s Gita Govinda celebrates sexual love, and there are Puranas that narrate sexual adventures of gods with great relish. What is generally warned against is attachment to sex. Krishna who is considered to be an embodiment of love, is also considered an eternal brahmachari, while Narada, unmarried and a brahmachari has to overcome the delusion or the illusion of sex by becoming a woman and experiencing sex and samsara. However, there is a general agreement among almost all Indian spiritual traditions that sexual energy/urge is not only meant for procreation, but, equally, for self-creation.

According to Advaita tradition, ultimately a human being is neither male nor female. The sexual distinction or differentiation is only a maya, a socially conditioned perception, or, a social construct, if you like. In this context, one is reminded here of a vachana from Devara Dasimayya, an eleventh century vachanakara. Expressing the non-dualistic vision, he sang thus:

If they see

breasts and long hair coming

they call it woman,

if beard and whiskers

they call it man:

but, look, the self that hovers

in between

is neither man

nor woman

O Ramanatha.

A hundred year later, in a strikingly similar language and expressing a similar vision, saint Goggavve sang:

They call one woman if one has

breasts and a braid;

They call one man if one possesses

moustache and a loin cloth.

Is knowledge of these twain

male or female?

O Nastinatha.

Given this background, Gandhi’s ideas of sexuality and his idea of god-eunuch, therefore, mark at once a continuity and departure from traditions. He was like an acharya who did not merely follow the scriptures or tradition but offered his own commentaries of the texts. And like a scientist he sought validity or otherwise of ancient ideas in his own body-mind, looking for the materiality of his spirituality.

Now, Yajna involved lying together (not sleeping together) with a woman, to test himself, to know if he has transcended sexuality completely. This art of self-temptation is known to several traditions, including the Christian. To use Bhikhu Parekh’s words, this ‘“homoeopathic” principle of purifying desire by intensifying it’, was practiced by Ramananda, a disciple of Chaitanya’. However, this experiment in brahmacharya was not an entirely new development in the 40s, a number of women had taken part in it with Gandhi at some time or other in the past. But now, while touring the riot-torn Noakhali, with Manu Gandhi as his partner, the experiment, something like the tantric yogic practice, reached a feverish pitch. And he talked openly about it in his prayer meetings. For every article on the political situation he wrote for Harijan, there were two or three on ‘brahmacharya’ which shocked and upset many, including his close associates and several Congress leaders. In one of his letters to a close associate he wrote: ‘One who never had any lustful intention, who by constant attendance upon God has become capable of lying naked with naked women, however beautiful they might be, without being in any manner whatsoever sexually excited…’

Some called it immoral, and many felt it had no basis in Hindu tradition. Several of his close political associates and friends, including his son, Devadas, dissented to his ‘yajna’ and tried to dissuade him. But Gandhi stubbornly defended himself saying that it should in no way mislead people or weaken the moral basis of society as the experiment was not an invitation to promiscuity but the opposite. What he was doing was only to test, enlarge and revise the current understanding of brahmacharya in the light of his observation and experience; rather, by exploring new areas of experience he was in fact extending the boundaries of available knowledge. Therefore, even if his friends left him, even if the world went against him he would not stop the experiment. But then stop he did, when pressure mounted against him from several sides and when Manu Gandhi, who was his partner in the ‘yajna’, was asked to tell Gandhi to suspend the experiment.

We do not know if through this experiment Gandhi attained to the state of being he desired. Years later the experiment came under much criticism. Without accounting for the ‘self-temptation’ as a method practiced in certain religious traditions to gauge one’s spiritual progress, some psychologists declared the ‘yajna’ as a case of regression to childhood. Even, the great psychologist Erik H. Erikson, who has made some penetrating and insightful analysis of Gandhi’s experiments, especially of his concepts of satya and ahimsa, wondered ‘weather the whole arrangement expressed a senile and eccentric self-testing, a belated need for younger women, or, indeed, a regression to an infantile need for motherly warmth. It could well have been all of these’.

As we have already said, for one thing, there is a long tradition among certain religious groups to back Gandhi’s experiment. That is not to say a tradition is sacrosanct and unquestionable. At any rate there seems to be a deep flaw in the ‘self-temptation’ method itself. According to tradition it is a upaya, something like trying to remove a thorn with a thorn, like using the mind to still the mind in meditation, like trying to attain the desireless state by subjecting oneself to the temptation of desire. One is not sure if this method works, or has ever worked.

However, what needs to be appreciated is that there was no secrecy involved in Gandhi’s experiment. And it is to the credit of this extra-ordinary man, who lived and wondered aloud, who, however flawed his experiments might have been, carried them out openly and honestly and strove ‘to extend the boundaries of available knowledge’.

Crucially, by questioning sexual bifurcation or unitary conception of sexuality, and by trying to through his experiments become ‘woman’ and then ‘god-eunuch’, Gandhi, whether unwittingly or knowingly, was reasserting and trying to bring into the public space the great insights of the enlightenment traditions.

From Tantric philosophy, Kundalini Yoga and lives and teachings of sages such as the Buddha, Anandamayi Ma, Ramana and U.G.Krishnamurti, what we learn is that there is a state of being, whether we call it the state of enlightenment or the natural state, which is beyond sexuality, which is not to be confused with the state of a sexual eunuch. Most likely that is the truth concealed behind the image of Ardhanarishwara.

The terms hermaphroditic and androgynous do not adequately explain that state. It is a state of being a sage comes into when the bodily changes occur. Such an individual is then neither purely man nor woman, rather both qualities of man and woman coexist in the body. A perfect union of animus-anima, man-woman in union, pictorially represented by the image of ardhanarishwara: one half or the right side of the body as Shiva and the other half or left side of the body as Parvathi. This is the undivided state of consciousness, and one who is in that state, a sage, therefore, cannot make love, for love needs two and there is no two in that state of being.

In the case of Gandhi’s yajna, it seems to me that it was like putting the cart before the horse. It is doubtful if one could become a ‘god-eunuch’ or attain the state of ardhanarishwara (though they are not exactly the same thing) through sadhana or experiments. In other words, as I understand, the state of ardhanarishwara is an attribute of the natural state of being or enlightenment; that is to say, when one is enlightened, one naturally, with absolutely no effort, comes into that state of being.

However, the many ideas and values Gandhi generated during the course of his several experiments carry tremendous significance, both politically and culturally, for our times today.

I believe that his notion of relative truth and satyagraha have particular relevance in our increasingly violent world today. His philosophy of non-violence, among other things, was an assertion of the pacifist culture of women and an ecological outlook to life, which we need to reassert and bring it to the fore. In other words, his non-violent struggle not only challenged the colonial project driven by masculinist values, it was also an attempt, a method, to feminize politics hitherto dominated by masculinist thinking, to restructure society based on maternal principles/values.

Interestingly, some of the ‘Second Wave’ feminists, without of course making any reference to Gandhi, do think and argue that through their maternal experience and thinking, it is possible to construct a new politics and ethics grounded in feminine values of caring and nurture. However, there is a fear that ‘maternal thinking’ somehow reifies the dichotomy between sexes which is at the root of the oppression of women, and that, far from replacing the male order, by privileging women over men, could perpetuate the dichotomy inherent in the male discourse.

The middle-path would be to reject the exclusive association of the feminine with woman, the masculine with man. To work out a more fluid, plural understanding of man/woman, a more plural, non-unitary conception of sexuality, which will be closer not only to what the deep spiritualities of the world have tried to indicate and what Gandhi tried to actualize through his experiments, but is closer to our own lived experiences which should replace the unitary conception of sexuality which has been the cause of much mischief and harm. In other words, to construct maleness which is inclusive of femininity, and of femaleness that does not pre-empt or exclude masculinity. This could be done without jettisoning the notion of difference not only between men and women, but also between men and women themselves.

Not surisingly, there are also feminists who believe in unisex norm as an ideal norm. Arguing for Androgyny as an ideal for human development, Ann Ferguson, says, ‘…it seems more plausible to assume that human nature is plastic and moldable, and that women and men develop their sexual identities, their sense of self, and their motivations through responding to the social expectations placed upon them.’ Further, she claims, ‘There is good evidence that human babies are bisexual, and only learn a specific male or female identity by imitating and identifying with adult models …on this analysis, if the sexual division of labour were destroyed, the mechanism that train boys and girls to develop heterosexual identities would also be destroyed.’ 

In certain communities and sections of modern societies today there may not be clear-cut sexual division of labour but that alone cannot make us transcend the age-old unitary conception of sexuality.  It is deeply ingrained in our minds, it is there in our narrow view of nature, in our conception of human nature, our notions of masculinity and femininity, therefore, unless these hardened ideas are replaced by a holistic understanding of nature and life it would be like scratching the surface of the problem and that wouldn’t help.

Moreover, the unitary conception of sexuality is related to what Amartya Sen calls a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity in deep, complex ways, which sees human beings as members of exactly one religion, one language, one caste or community. Needless to say that these conceptions of exclusive identity, this partitioning of humanity, deeply influence our thoughts and actions in many different ways and are responsible for what we are today, for living poorly and defectively within the narrow confines of our singular identities. Indeed, as Amartya Sen would say, ‘…many of the conflicts and barbarities in the world are sustained through the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity. The art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations, and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have. The result can be homespun elemental violence or globally artful violence and terrorism.’ But it is not within the scope of this paper to go into the whole gamut of this politics of identity, but that should be for another time.



  1. My Days with Gandhi, Nirmal Kumar Bose, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1974.
  2. My Experiments with Truth, M.K.Gandhi, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1976.
  3. Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire, Rajmohan Gandhi, Penguin-Viking, New Delhi, 2006.
  4. Gandhi’s Truth, Erik Erikson, Norton, New York, 1969.
  5. Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography, B.R.Nanda, OUP, New Delhi 1996.
  6. Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, Bhikhu Parekh, Sage, New Delhi, 1989.
  7. Mahatma Gandhi: Last Phase, Pyarelal, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1986.
  8. Mahatma: Vol-7, Tendulkar D.G Publication Division, 1994
  9. Reader in Feminist Knowledge, edited by Sneja Gunew, Routledge, London, 1991.
  10. The Collected Essays of A.K.Ramanujan, Edited by Vinay Dharwadker, OUP, New Delhi, 2001.
  11. Speaking Tree, Translated with an Introduction by A.K.Ramanujan, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 1973.
  12. The Biology of Enlightenment, Unpublished Conversation with U.G.Krishnamurthi, edited with an Introduction by Mukunda Rao, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2011

Gender, Identity & the Culture of Change

—A Consideration of Gandhi’s concept of the human, sex and transformation

-a paper presented on 30 March 2013 at Gandhi Adyayana Kendra

National Law School, Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru-560242

Mukunda Rao

Kote Mane, Hale Kote

Durgadahalli, Devarayanadurga

Urdigere Hobli

Tumkur Taluk/District

Pin Code : 572140          


Contact Ph. No : 91-8756216171 


Forms of Religion, Identity & Violence -a brief consideration

At the outset I must declare that I’m not against religion, I’m not an atheist and I don’t believe in violence. The old adage that violence cannot be vanquished by violence is an absolute truth.

Conflict is inevitable in a relationship, it could be between any relationships, be it between parents and children, husband and wife, between people of different religions and political persuasions, or between nations. This conflict is because we think we know the right way, our religion is true, our values are the best, and, each one of us has such absolute views and that is the problem, the source of conflict.

But, as Gandhiji would say we do not know the absolute truth, we cannot claim that our view is the best and it must be good for everyone and for all time. Relative truth is all that is given to us: History, our past, present, our experiences and hopes and ideas of future constitute relative truths. So, living in a world of relative truths, and in a world of conflicting theories and ideologies, the means by which we pursue truth shall be non-violence. In other words, living in a world of relative truths and in an imperfect, evolving society where man is not God or in possession of absolute truth, he is not competent or cannot possess any right to punish or kill or destroy. Hence only ahimsa shall be the means to resolve conflicts, for only ahimsa can create the creative possibilities for both the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘victim’ to realize their common humanity and achieve their freedom and happiness.

Or, as Dr. Ambedkar, who too was a firm believer in ahimsa, showed, it is possible to deal with human conflict creatively and successfully through democratic process, through education, dialogue, even protest (but in democratic and non-violent ways), and by developing public awareness.

With that cautionary note, now let me take up the subject for which I have been invited to speak. That is, the nature of religion, its different forms, the problematic forms of identity, and if there is a way out of conflict and violence.

All religions have two sides to them: one that inspires most ennobling art and great architecture, and is a source of liberating wisdom and transcendence.

The word religion is derived from the Latin re-ligio, which means ‘to link back, to bind’, to return to the source, to our natural state. The Indian notion of Dharma, derived from the root dhr, which means ‘to hold up, support or bear, sustain’ is sometimes used to mean religion, but it is not same as religion; rather, the concept of Dharma is quite complex, signifying many things. It is in fact the notion of Yoga (though a clichéd, much abused term today), derived from the verb yuj, meaning ‘to yoke, join, or ‘to bind together’, that comes close to the Latin re-ligio.

What we call the religious quest is propelled by this urge to ‘link back’, ‘to bind’, to return to the source, that sets up the journey, the inquiry, the search for truth. Not only the lives of sages and saints, such as the Buddha, Basavanna and Ramana Maharshi, to name only a few, but also the lives of thousands of people embody this facet of religion, which is a sacred, private affair, which is a quest for and realization of truth, of that which is ineffable and inexpressible.

Then there is the other side of religion, which is the opposite of the first one, which manifests itself in majorly two ways,: one, it functions as a system of faith that is based on the belief in and worshipping of God, and related to it, following a set of ‘moral principles’ or ‘commandments’ or ‘laws’ in order to realize a specified (religious) goal; two, which is the diabolic side of religion, that is organisational, structured, authoritative, political, divisive, oppressive and violent. Forceful conversions, oppression and killings of people the world over in the name of religion and God are the worst manifestations of this diabolic side of religion.

So, to reiterate, religion as an inquiry into meaning of life, as a quest for transcendence, as love and kindness towards all life forms, is indeed most ennobling and beautiful aspect of our existence, but that should not detract us from understanding and accepting the fact that religions, or, certain interpretations of religions, if you like, have been a source of great conflict, fear, hate, division and most appalling crimes committed in the name of God.

The ideas of God could have inspired many to turn inwards and mature into great artists and poets, into mystics and compassionate human beings, but they have also been a source of great violence, of most heinous crimes in history. The Mumbai blasts, Gujarat carnage, bomb blasts in London, in Paris, and the recent killings in India in the name of dharma have yet again exposed this dangerous side of religion.

It would be simplistic and naïve, therefore, to believe that religion is basically good, that these killings are only aberrations, that the massacres are the handiwork of only misguided people or fundamentalists. It would be a grave error if we fail to reckon with the fact that religions have emerged out of separative consciousness and thereby create the urge to transcendence, and also frontiers both within and without and make killing people in the name of God easy and guiltless.

It seems the trouble with us is not an excess of aggression, but an excess capacity for fanatical devotion to ‘selfless’ ideals, be it religion or religious identity, or some political ideology either of the left or the right. We are easily driven not so much by hatred as by loyalty to whatever persuasion, which turns us into butchers. In point of fact, ‘hate’ or ‘hatred’ has no independent existence of its own except in relation to ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’. Rather, ‘hate’ is born of the womb of ‘love’ and ‘loyalty’.

A close look at riots/massacres/genocide should reveal that people indulge in destruction of property and kill because they feel threatened, humiliated, because they feel they are treated unjustly (by whatever authority or power), or because the ‘other’ interfered with their great wishes and grand designs. This destructive streak in man, therefore, one would argue, is more of an ‘impulse to protect’ rather than the ‘impulse to destroy’ or ‘death wish’.

Now, one might ask: to protect what? Is there any real danger or is it all imagined or exaggerated? Most often it is exaggerated if not an entirely imagined sense of danger. Many factors together contribute to this neurotic state: a false consciousness produced by a biased reading of history and exclusive, (untenable) identities, submerged prejudices whipped up by fanatical forces, unqualified identification with social/political groups and uncritical acceptance of their belief-systems or ideals. In this context, even a notion of justice could become a self-transcending ideal which could drive individuals and groups to indulge in acts of revenge.

Revenge is the grand yet macabre theme of the theatre of war we play often. And the theme: an eye for an eye is the moving, often spellbinding motif of most of our popular cinema, of action-bound films from Hollywood to Bollywood, of Gujarat carnage, of the one-sided war fought in the name of ‘eternal justice’ by America on the desert sands of Afghanistan, occupation of Iraq, 9/11 attack, and now the Paris blasts.

In effect, these killings or acts of revenge point out that the most dangerous trait of man consists not so much in his selfishness, or his alleged aggressiveness, as in his chauvinist lifestyle, and in his loyalty to transpersonal ideals. As Arthur Koestler would argue: ‘No historian would deny that the part played by crimes committed for personal motives is very small compared to the vast populations slaughtered in unselfish loyalty to a jealous god, king, country, or political system’.

To put it differently, a person’s identification with a group or an identity, be it Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or some political ideology, becomes a self-transcending act which reinforces his self-assertive or aggressive tendencies and prepares him to injure and kill, and also die for the cause. And when the person kills, which is often done in groups or collectively, it is not seen as murder, but as ‘sacrifice’ which is not very different from a tribal practice of offering human blood for a jealous god. Further, the act of killing is not seen as an immoral act, rather it is experienced as a supremely moral act for a higher goal. An idea of morality informed and inspired by a sense of loyalty, duty, discipline, by transpersonal ideals. Therefore what is problematic here is not immorality, but the very notion of morality; it is not injustice, rather the danger here is the notion of justice itself. Justice that demands human sacrifice! 


Religious scriptures (not necessarily all philosophical or spiritual texts or mystical literatures) whether of the east or the west continue to suppress and prevent a free and open enquiry into the predicament of human existence. These scriptures as answers and solutions to the problems of life have failed, still we are not prepared to view them with a healthy scepticism. It becomes quite tricky therefore, if not blasphemous and provocative, to say that these scriptures have not only failed as solutions to our problems but have become a major part of our problem.

With the growth of new consciousness whether in the field of science or politics or humanities, it seems rather easy to argue and show how for instance feudal system, caste practices or slavery, early marriages or widow burnings are human creations that violate a humane sense of justice and freedom, how cultural practices or social structures are man-made and could be changed (without god’s intervention), while it seems almost impossible to show that these religious scriptures are human constructs and it is possible to go beyond and reconstruct a better world without these exclusive, antagonistic identities.

Freedom to question the scriptures or even to reject its tyrannical authority and dump religious beliefs and practices that violate our sense of dignity and freedom does not mean we embrace atheism or some hopeless nihilism, it does not mean destroying temples and churches, or burning religious scriptures, it does not mean rejection of the mystery of life, the wonder of cosmos, the beauty of earth, or the cleansing and transforming quality of compassion. The sacredness of human life and relationship and life affirming tenderness need no validation from scriptures however ancient or profound. In fact, it is the scriptures whether of the east or the west that need validation from the standpoint of our growing understandings and experiences.

But seriously, can religion be changed? Is it possible to overcome its dualistic and oppressive elements and benefit from its liberating wisdom? Can it really change the violent structures of our society? Can the appointed leaders and gurus start living the teaching and stop lecturing and leave people alone? After all, isn’t religion deeply personal and sacred? Or, are the secular notions of freedom, equality, human right, justice, dignity and self-determinism sufficient to challenge and transform the patriarchal and violent structures of the world?

But then, it’s important to note here that most of our secular ideas too are but an extension and modification of religious ideas, and geared towards social engineering. Secular and political notions of revolution, progress, order, reason, law and utopias did not emerge in an intellectual vacuum. They grew out of the religious ideas of good and evil, sin and redemption, reward and punishment, divine order and salvation; in short, our religious thinking, which, in the first place, put humanity on the wrong path, or, on what maybe called this most absurd yet vicious merry-go-round! Therefore, the religious roots of our ideas or ideals need to be understood. It is inevitable, for religion has been the mother of all our ideals and ideologies. To understand religion, therefore, particularly its neurotic side, is to begin to understand our problems and the endless troubles we have created for ourselves and others.

Notions of Identity

This leads us on to a consideration of the notion of identity which has a bearing on things we have discussed so far.

Identity is not a given, it is unlike the natural attributes like your eyes, nose and mental dispositions you are born with. After your birth, as you grow up in a family, in an environment, you acquire an identity. So it is something you put up, construct and it has a tremendous, historical momentum behind it.

That is to say, the identities we build or construct for ourselves through living have only a functional role and value, which is necessary to communicate, to make sense of certain things, to function in the world, but we behave as if we are born with identities, like the skin on our body, or as if they are solid, natural, unchangeable and permanent, and that is an illusion. For all identities are fluid, relative, a social construct and functional, whether you are a man or woman, Hindu or Muslim, auto-driver or a professor of English.

Identities can bring people together to live together, work for a common cause but it also firmly exclude many people, divide society, and easily lead to ‘othering’ people who do not share your identity and wage wars against them.

Amartya Sen calls it the ‘miniaturization of human beings’, which is unnatural, nevertheless it unfortunately conditions people to see and experience themselves and others in terms of their little identities and thus impose grave limits on human possibilities.

This kind of thinking in terms identities, categorizing and analysing people and groups in terms of religion, of singular or communal identities, is counterproductive, instead we should work against the sharp separation of people along one single hardened line of division or identity and bring into focus the pluralities of human identity and its functional nature.

We are all affected by desire, hunger, fear, worry and sorrow, whether you are a Hindu, an American, an industrialist, economically poor or rich or belong to the other gender. You may call yourself a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, an African or a Soliga, but you experience the same anxiety, the same joy and sorrow, through your religion or faith, you are searching for the same psychological security, the same permanent happiness in your beliefs and rituals and gods.

The expressions may differ but the content is always the same. E.g. notions of God, heaven, afterlife and so on may differ. One may say there is no rebirth, souls go to heaven and God after death, another may say that after death, souls come back to earth and take a new form of life, but the nature of the mind that seeks different forms of escape from the fear of death, and an anchor to rest, is the same in both cases.

It is this content which is same in all of us that binds us all as human beings living on this planet, the different identities are only a veil thrown over these basic emotions that makes us human, and propels us to live the way we do. It is in that sense, we need to understand that identities have only a functional meaning and purpose, to assume anything beyond it is false and an illusion.

Now, to sum-up:

-identities are robustly plural and the importance of one identity at a given point of time need not obliterate the importance of other identities. E.g.-the economic side that sustains one’s living.

-study of individuals and communities in terms of identities becomes a major intellectual barrier to focussing more fully on the nature of problems, on prevailing social conditions and politics. E.g.-inter-religious dialogues or harmony events have limits, etc.

-Understanding people in terms of identities lead to stereotyping people and that becomes a singularly major obstacle in understanding the fundamental problems of a society and its people. E.g.-Identities within the general identity, not monolithic. ‘Othering’!

-We are always and already different and much more and larger than our identities, much more and larger than our religion, culture and politics. E.g. – identity is fluid, contradictory, deconstructs itself, etc.

-Indeed, in the last analysis, an individual cannot be capsuled, held within an identity, for a human being is more than his culture and religion. Perhaps we could say that a human being is a child of the cosmos, of that mystery which probably can never be understood conceptually, and that is a tremendously humbling factor that should enhance our sense of being on this planet.   


Mukunda Rao

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