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South Africa : Gandhi’s Relationship with Hermann Kallenbach in 20th Century

Great Soul, Joseph Lelyveld's recent biography about Mohandas K. Gandhi, explores his intimate relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a Jewish East Prussian architect in early 20th century Johannesburg. The men shared a home and collaborated in the violent resistance struggle in South Africa.The Indian state of Gujarat banned Great Soul this week because the book has a passage intimating that Gandhi left his wife to live with Kallenbach.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

3rd May 2011 10:30

Alessia Valenza

The controversy centres on three paragraphs in Great Soul about the Gandhi-Kallenbach relationship.

Lelyveld…quotes Tridip Suhrud, a cultural historian: "They were a couple". Mr Lelyveld goes on to write in the next line: "That’s a succinct way of summing up the obvious — Kallenbach later remarked that they’d lived together ‘almost in the same bed’ — but what kind of couple were they?"…

Mr Lelyveld, a journalist, quotes another Gandhi scholar characterising the Gandhi-Kallenbach relationship as "’clearly homoerotic’ rather than ‘homosexual’", then adding "intending through that choice of words to describe a strong mutual attraction, nothing more". The author goes on to write: "The conclusions passed on by word of mouth in South Africa’s small Indian community were sometimes less nuanced. It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi, leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man."

Joseph Lelyveld uses Ghandi’s letters to Kallenbach to discuss the relationship. Here are some excerpts from those letters:

"Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed…. How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”

Gandhi asked Hermann promise not to “look lustfully upon any woman.” The two men pledged “more love, and yet more love….(such as) the world has not yet seen.”

Those three paragraphs raise the sensitive question of sex but reach no conclusion. When the book appears in India in a few weeks, I urge readers to turn the page where they will find my own humble attempt at a conclusion: that it’s best to be guided by what the two men actually said about celibacy, abstinence and the control of diet in the pursuit of those aims.

My own belief is that they were not hypocrites and that their practice almost certainly conformed to their principles. But that is just the beginning of the story. I think my discussion of Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach which have been in the public domain for nearly 20 years shows very clearly that Gandhi had a deep love for his Jewish friend and wanted him by his side for the rest of his life. He says as much.

It’s harder now than it probably was a century ago, when Gandhi and Kallenbach lived at Tolstoy Farm outside Johannesburg, to believe that two men can be on loving and intimate terms without it becoming overtly sexual. But it’s an effort of imagination we should at least attempt.

If it’s wrong to discuss sex in connection with Gandhi (who much later would tell his grand-niece Manu that he wanted her to regard him as her mother), I’m guilty. The critics mistake the discussion for an insinuation that I did not intend. What Gandhi aspired to, in the later stages of his life at least, was a kind of sexlessness, something different from bisexuality (a word, incidentally, I never use).

I don’t discuss that aspiration in any detail because of my own limitations: I don’t understand it. Nirmal Kumar Bose’s essential "My Days with Gandhi" is still the best starting point for considering the question. There is also Bhikhu Parekh’s essay, ”Sex, Energy and Politics”.


The Mahatma’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, has vehemently opposed the Gujarat government’s decision to ban the controversial new book that portrays the Father of the Nation as a bisexual who left his wife Kasturba to be with his "lover", Hermann Kallenbach, in South Africa.

"It is the most un-Gandhian thing to do!" Tushar Gandhi said of the ban. "If you have a problem with the claims made in the book, then you have to counter them intellectually. Banning the book, in fact, will give it a halo, the status of a martyr. Banning anything is simply an easy way out for the government."

Lelyveld makes one of the most serious attempts in recent times to understand the fascinating and complex relationship between Hermann Kallenbach and Gandhi — by sensitively reading the large cache of letters of Gandhi to Kallenbach. A few years ago, Thomas Weber in his work Gandhi as a Mentor and Disciple provided a detailed account of this relationship, which led to the creation of Tolstoy Farm. Any reconstruction of this relationship is hampered by the fact that we have only half the archive, Gandhi did not preserve Kallenbach’s letters, while Gandhi’s letters to him are part of the public domain.

Gandhi’s sexuality was a matter of salacious gossip even during his lifetime. For him, however, it was a part of his sadhana, his spiritual and political experiments on himself and to the extent that it was possible and given to him to speak of the spiritual experiments, he placed his experiments with brahmacharya in the public domain for scrutiny. Gandhi began with a limited and restricted notion of brahmacharya as celibacy and chastity in South Africa. He saw this as an imperative for anyone wishing to dedicate life to public service. But he was soon to expand this idea and take it beyond celibacy, including chastity within marriage. Gandhi began to see the relationship between food and sexuality, between control of the palate and control of the impulses of the body and the mind. It would take him several decades, but through his observances, his experiments, Gandhi developed insights into the interrelatedness of Truth, Ahimsa and Brahmacharya…

We have not been able to cultivate the distance and the equanimity necessary to ask the questions of Gandhi’s sexuality. We continue to show markedly contradictory tendencies regarding Gandhi’s sexuality. It fascinates us, maybe even titillates us and yet we remain unable to have any serious discussion about it. Each attempt, including that of Bose’s, was met with opprobrium and some form of censor, governmental or societal. We would continue to explore this aspect of Gandhi in the years to come as it is an integral aspect of Gandhi’s selfpractices. What sense we make of it would depend upon what each individual researcher brings to the endeavour, those seeking gossip would find that and those seeking an age-old spiritual practice would find that light.