in gandhi’s Life
There was a woman in Mahatma Gandhi’s life with whom he had contemplated ‘spiritual’ marriage. Rajmohan Gandhi’s recent book on the Mahatma more than hinted at this alliance.
V.N. Datta, a historian who has been researching this relationship, talks to
The Tribune and attempts to reconstruct the strong bond between Gandhi and Saraladevi, a niece of Rabindranath Tagore
was Saraladevi Chowdharani and how did she impact the life of
one of India’s greatest sons, Mahatma Gandhi? She stares
poignantly out of the early 20th century black and white
pictures, clad in rich silk sarees and her black hair flowing
loose. Her bold, sharp features and intelligent eyes full of
depth stare out of yellowed pictures. Calling out to unravel a
strange story that was buried with her remarkable life, which
took an unusual turn when the Mahatma stayed at her Lahore
residence in 1919 when her Punjabi husband Rambhuj Dutt
Chowdhary was in jail.
Bengali wife of Rambhuj Dutt Chowdhary, was no ordinary woman.
She was exceptional in every way and was decades ahead of the
time and milieu in which she lived. She belonged to the Tagore
family. Her father Janakinath Ghosal was an important figure in
the early years of the Congress movement and her mother
Swarnakumari was an active figure in the Bengali literary field
and the nationalist movement. Sarala was Rabindranath Tagore’s
niece. Her large family comprised some of the most creative
minds in pre-Independence India. They were involved with the
arts and were writers, musicians, actors and painters. This
combination left a massive impact on Saraladevi’s development.
Vivekananda had once commented to Sister Nivedita that
Saraladevi had the perfect education. Martin Greene in his
book Gandhi: Voice of a New Age Revolution mentions that
Sarala was educated at the Bethune school and then she studied
physics at the Science Academy. After getting a degree in
English, she went on to study French, Persian and Sanskrit.
Sarala was an accomplished musician and poetess; she composed
many patriotic songs and issued a collection of them, Satagan.
In 1895, she taught at a school in Mysore for a year and
returned only after falling sick. She edited Bharati for
a year and was an active participant in the militant nationalist
movement of Bengal. She attended meetings of societies that had
all male members and presided over boxing and wrestling matches
organised by her. She was probably the only woman leader in
Bengal’s militant nationalist movement.
wanted Sarala to accompany him on his sojourn to the US as a
dynamic emblem of India’s nationalism but her family did not
approve of this scheme. Sarala married Pandit Rambhuj Chowdhary
in 1905 and shifted to Lahore where she continued her
nationalist work with zeal. Her husband himself had a very high
opinion of her and described her as the "greatest Shakti in
India." This was the woman that Gandhi met in 1919,
popularly called ‘Devi Chowdharani’ for her feminism and
A clear hint of
Sarala and Mahatma Gandhi’s unusual relationship is given in a
recent book by Rajmohan Gandhi, Mohandas: A True Story of a
Man, his People and an Empire. Rajmohan quotes from one of
Gandhi’s letters written on October 27, 1919, and addressed to
Anasuyaben in Ahemdabad: "Saraladevi’s company is very
endearing. She looks after me very well." Rajmohan further
adds that "the following months saw a special relationship
that Gandhi called ‘indefinable’ after its character changed
in June 1920. In between he had not only overcome his caution
regarding exclusive relationships but even thought of a ‘spiritual
marriage’, whatever that may have meant, with Saraladevi."
on to write that "for four to five months – between
January and May 1920 – Gandhi was clearly dazzled by her
personality and seemed to fantasise that providence desired them
together to shape India to a new design. He wrote to her that he
often dreamt of her and that she was a great shakti."
During this period, Young India carried a song by
Saraladevi on the front page and Navjivan published
another poem by her along with Gandhi’s comments that it was
another quote from Gandhi’s letters (made available by Prof V.
N. Datta, historian and writer) to Sarala dated May 2, 1920,
"You will continue to haunt me in my sleep. No wonder that
Panditji (Rambhuj Dutt) calls you the greatest shakti.
You may cast that spell over him. You are performing the same
trick over me." In another letter dated January 23, 1920,
the Mahatma wrote, "Saraladevi has been showering her love
on me in every possible way." The nature of their
relationship is further uncovered in a letter dated August 23,
1920: "You are mine in the purest sense. You ask for a
reward of your great surrender, well, it is its own
that this relationship was causing a furore among Gandhi’s
disciples and in the family. For instance, C. Rajagopalachari
writes in a strong letter on June 16 that the contrast between
Saraladevi and Kasturba was similar to that between "a
kerosene oil Ditmar lamp and the morning sun." Asserting
that Gandhi "had nursed a most terrible delusion," C.R
added that, "the encasement of the divinest soul is yet
flesh it is not the Christ but the shell that I presume to
warn and criticise. Come back and give us life pray disengage
yourself completely." It was really after the intervention
of his son Devdas and Mahadev Desai, Mathuradas and
Rajagopalachari that Gandhi came around to giving up on his
tryst of 1919-1920 with Saraladevi. Gandhi later told Father
Lash: "It was their love which chained me so tightly and
strongly and saved me."
later complained (quoting Rajmohan) that she had "put in
one pan all the joys and pleasures of the world, and in the
other Bapu and his laws, and committed the folly of choosing the
latter." She demanded an explanation that Gandhi gave in a
rather revealing letter dated December 1920, "I have been
analysing my love for you. I have reached a definition of a
spiritual marriage. It is a partnership between two persons of
the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent. It is
therefore possible between brother and sister, father and
daughter. It is possible only between two brahmacharis in
thought, word and deed.
that exquisite purity, that perfect coincidence, that perfect
merging, that identity of ideals, the self-forgetfulness, the
fixity of purpose, that trustfulness? For me I can answer
plainly that it is only an aspiration. I am unworthy of that
companionship with you. This is the big letter I
has further explored this relationship in his book giving 14
pages to it and he writes quite explicitly: "Her
relationship with Gandhi is worth studying because it was
personal to a more striking degree than his other relationships.
It was erotic, in the sense the word carried when applied to
novels. The letters between them that survive do not express the
alliance of comrades but a love relationship." Martin
further writes, "It seems clear that – whether
consciously or not – Gandhi was tempted to take over, or marry
to his own purposes, the dynamism of pre-1910 Bengal. He had
done so in the matter of Swadeshi, and he was tempted to do so
in the matter of Saraladevi, the embodied Durga." Martin
adds that "he and she together would certainly have made an
extraordinary political phenomenon. But their personal
relationship was a bit unstable."
Datta, who has been researching Gandhi and Sarala’s
relationship for a while mentions to The Tribune,
"There is no doubt that Gandhi was drawn to her and dazzled
by her, this is mentioned by both Rajmohan and Martin. At that
time she was 47 and he was 50 years of age. From October 1919 to
March 1920, Gandhi stayed in Lahore and she later visited
Sabarmati several times. There was much talk of their
relationship, whisperings, innuendos, etc and this relationship
was terminated by the efforts of Devdas Gandhi, Mahadev Desai
and especially Rajagopalachari in June 1920, when the latter
sent a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, asking him to hold back."
we do not hear Sarala’s voice anywhere," asserts Datta,
adding that the writers too have overlooked the historical
context. "Also Gandhi had been experimenting with celibacy,
reading Patanjali and doing introspection. He wanted to
achieve complete control over sexual impulses but Sarala came in
the way. Now from his correspondence, it can be assumed he
retreated from the relationship not only because of family
influence but also because he could not meet the ideal of her
being his spiritual wife and of their having a spiritually pure
relationship with no physical overtones. He writes quite clearly
that ‘I am too much physically attached to you and you have
too many weaknesses. I am not worthy of you because I have not
reached that stage where carnal desires have been satisfied.’"
Datta stresses, "Gandhi stumbled and fumbled and he felt he
had not reached the great spiritual heights of Patanjali and he
felt he had not been able to eliminate sexual urges."
"And what of Sarala, she was really an independent-minded
woman who wanted to know where she stood with Gandhi in her
relationship with him. She later complained that she gave up her
prestige, her social responsibilities, and moral traditions but
for what. She possibly wanted a marital relationship and some
legality to what they shared and did not want to be a stooge or
a guinea pig or a cat’s paw and she wanted a clear space for
herself in his life and she was utterly uncompromising on
husband died in 1923 and she shifted to Calcutta with her son.
In 1935, she renounced the world, finding a guru and taking to
entire life was ruined and destroyed," says Datta,
"Gandhi’s indifference after their parting and his
silence is complete. He never looked back at her again."
Almost the Mahatma allowed
himself to smell from afar the fragrance of the rose of love but
never allowed himself the luxury of making it a part of his
life. But, then the man sacrificed everything. Did not he?