No, thank you very much, this emphatically does not mean he was one of those slightly dim Westerners who blather on about "tantric sex" because they saw something about it in a magazine and think it might make a good pick-up line. Far from it. Still, the fact is that when one spends enough time reading up on Hinduism, and especially on the Shakta school, one inevitably develops at least a nodding acquaintance with some of this stuff. As when reading church history, one inevitably learns something about celibacy.
We mention these bona fides only because we are about to suggest that Mohandas Gandhi, the brilliant exponent both of Indian independence and of Hinduism as a way of life, interpreted the religious practices of his people in a peculiar and unsavory fashion -- and that his interpretation was not customary among others of his faith and time.
Per biographer Jad Adams writing in The Independent, Gandhi enjoyed the full fruits of connubial bliss beginning at the not-unusual age of 13. Indeed, he enjoyed those fruits very much, even leaving the bedside of his dying father to indulge himself. Long afterward, in his 30s, he decided to embrace the spiritual life, taking vows of poverty and chastity. As Adams notes, though, "Gandhi found poverty easy to embrace. It was chastity that eluded him."
The result is that, through the rest of his long and very public life, Gandhi indulged in quite a bit of behavior that was highly sexual, without necessarily amounting to intercourse. His conversation and letters, including public statements, often dwelt on sex; he organized an ashram in which married couples were obliged to remain celibate, and even sleep separately; and -- coming to the heart of the matter -- he insisted that a series of comely young women, generally his own relations and some married to other men, share his bed and his bath.
The idea, at least supposedly, was to test his resolve. We think there may similar stories about Christian holy men from the patristic era, although none comes to mind offhand. But Gandhi was not some figure from dim antiquity, rather an almost exact contemporary of FDR, and to modern ears these hijinks sound like considerably more than personal spiritual challenges. They sound like intense narcissism, leading to the sexual harassment (if not outright molestation) of people who admired him. Frankly, it sounds less like a saint and more like a cult leader.
In his own time, all this was known, and considered scandalous, a potential threat not only to Gandhi's reputation, but to the movement he led. Adams says that in the years after independence, there was a concerted effort to whitewash the historical record, not for the sake of Gandhi but for the sake of India. Fair enough.
But an historical record exists for the sake of more than a single political cause. American liberty has not been jeopardized by the nearly certain (and, when you think about it, unsurprising) proof that Thomas Jefferson slept with Sally Hemmings. Nor will India be damaged by the reminder that its modern hero was not a demigod, but an ordinary human being. And a rather odd one.