Shortly before Valentine’s Day 2009, a devout Hindu group known as Lord Ram’s Army invaded a bar in Mangalore in India’s Karnataka State and proceeded to drag women out by their hair and beat them up for the sin of flirtatiousness. “We are the citizens of this nation,” said the group’s founder, “and I feel it is our duty to discipline indecent behavior.”
Prominent Indian government officials approved. The chief minister of the Indian state of Rajasthan said he would work to ensure that “the culture of boys and girls going hand-in-hand to pubs and malls for drinking is stopped.” Nirmala Venkatesh, a member of India’s National Commission for Women who chairs a panel investigating the incident, insisted that women must recognize societal limits and planned to interrogate the parents of these ne’er-do-wells.
Perhaps emboldened by this government sympathy, Lord Ram’s Army threatened to shut down Valentine’s Day altogether. “Valentine’s Day is definitely not Indian culture. We will not allow celebration of that day in any form,” said its commander.
For once, women fought back—not by dragging men out of their temples and beating them but by means of the more compelling technique of ridicule. A group calling itself the “Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women” organized itself on the Internet and deluged Lord Ram’s Army with a mailing of some forty thousand pairs of pink panties. Not all of them had been washed. Valentine’s Day survived for another year in India.
Hindus are not the only God experts who are cracking down on Valentine’s Day. In Saudi Arabia, the sale of red roses—indeed, of virtually everything red—is legally banned in the weeks before the day of Satanic temptation. The Muslim council of Indonesia last year declared Valentine’s Day illegal and succeeded in getting some municipal governments to cooperate in the ban. As the deputy mayor of one city put it, “The Valentine’s Day celebration is not our culture as it usually relates closely to immoral acts where, during the celebration, young couples tend to hug and even kiss each other. This is an immoral act, right?”
In neighboring Malaysia, lawmakers have issued dire warnings: “From the point of view of Islam, this is not an advisable practice. . . . Unmarried couples might come together and mingle with each other in unacceptable ways.”
Imams in the Sudan rail against St. Valentine’s Day not only because it glorifies sin but because of its Christian origins. The Catholic Church, though, is quick to point out that St. Valentine himself had nothing to do with romantic love. The Valentine’s Day tradition, like most of what is pleasant about Christianity, actually originated with the Roman pagans, who observed a joyous feast of sexuality in mid-February called “Lupercalia.” The early Christians renamed Lupercalia and tried to re-characterize it along holier lines but failed.
Meanwhile, back in India, a professor at Nehru University who sides with the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women (a club that definitely needs a men’s auxiliary) shrewdly noted, “When they say it’s against Hindu culture, we get into a debate. It’s a trap. Then they have you exactly where they want you. We should just put them in jail.” He is absolutely right. One need look no further than the life work of the most prominent Hindu theologian of the twentieth century: Mohandas Gandhi, who enjoyed being called “Mahatma,” which means “Great Soul.”
Great Soul Gandhi hated sex, period. Though he married at age thirteen and sired five children, he told his followers: “Take it from me that there is no happiness in marriage . . . I cannot imagine a thing as ugly as the intercourse of man and woman. That it leads to the birth of children is due to God’s inscrutable way. . . . I refuse to believe that the sensual affinity referred to here can at all be regarded as natural. No, I must declare with all the power I can command that sensual attraction even between husband and wife is unnatural.”
Sex outside of marriage was of course unthinkable. Even within marriage, though, Great Soul taught that either partner could and should break the original contract at will: “In my opinion husband and wife do not have to obtain each other’s consent for practicing [chastity]. . . . Mutual consent is essential for intercourse. But no consent is necessary for abstention.” Great Soul himself informed his wife one day that her sex life was over, and that was that.
Ever the realist, Great Soul did not seek to live in the last generation of Indians: “Procreation ought to be looked upon as duty and sexual union resorted to for that purpose only. Apart from this they should never engage in the sex act. Nor should they allow themselves privacy. If a man controls his semen except on the occasion of such purposeful cohabitation, he is as good as an avowed [celibate].”
“In this world,” Gandhi wrote, “the violation of [chastity] is the root cause and only source of evils such as a passion for pleasure, envy, ostentation, hypocrisy, anger, impatience and violent hatred. If one’s mind is not under one’s control . . . indulging oneself once every day or even more, what other crimes would one not commit, knowingly or unknowingly? What unforgivable sins would one stop short of?”
Gandhi wrote to a relative to acknowledge the birth of a daughter: “If I say that it is good, it would be a lie. If I express sorrow, it would be violence. According to my present ideas, I should remain indifferent. . . . Meanwhile, I would only say and wish that you learn to control your senses in the right manner.”
One thing Great Soul did like was cuddling naked with teenage girls. The idea, he explained to critics, was to condition himself to an absence of desire even in the most trying of circumstances. He insisted that if he could achieve that, the resulting burst of holiness energy would be powerful enough to free India of British rule.
The fact that a rather large body of Hindu sacred literature expressed an entirely different view of sex did not faze Great Soul. Nor was his asceticism limited to sex; it even covered things like modern medicine, another great evil. He urged the avoidance of all pharmaceuticals; he allowed his wife to die rather than let her have a shot of penicillin. How could she be sick, after all, when Gandhi himself had written about the great health benefits of celibacy?
Celibacy was not Gandhi’s only contribution to modern medicine. Another practice he promoted was called “Ramanama,” which consisted of repeating the name of the God Rama over and over, for hours on end. According to Dr. Gandhi, this produces “a state in which one will have reduced oneself to a cipher. Such a person, who lives constantly in the sight of God, will every moment feel Rama dwelling in his heart.”
Gandhi wrote extensively about Ramanama, insisting that it produced peace of mind, mental equilibrium, and composure. It also contributed to chastity by cleansing the mind of impure thoughts. No need for psychiatrists; according to Gandhi, “Ramanama is an invaluable remedy for mental illness.” At various times, Gandhi insisted that Ramanama was “a sovereign remedy for all our ailments,” “a most powerful remedy” with “miraculous powers,” “a panacea for all our ills.” “When Ramanama holds sway, all illness vanishes.” Getting down to cases, Gandhi revealed that “Ramanama is the unfailing remedy for eradicating malaria.” Who needs quinine?
wing from Middle Ages Christianity, Gandhi laid out the Ramanama rationale: “All illness is the result of the violation of the laws of nature, in other words, the penalty of sin against Him, since He and His laws are one.” The sixteenth-century Pope Pius V had ordered that before administering treatment, all physicians should call in “a physician of the soul” because “bodily infirmity frequently arises from sin.”
“Where there is absolute purity, inner and outer, illness becomes impossible,” said Gandhi. “If one is knowingly filled with the presence of God within, one is that moment free from all ailments, physical, mental or moral. . . . Disease is impossible where there is purity of thought. . . . Conscious belief in God and a knowledge of His law make perfect cure possible without any further aid.”
In a 1946 article entitled “Nature Cure Treatment,” Gandhi explained, “Nature cure treatment means that treatment which befits man both mind and soul. For such a being, Ramanama is the truest nature cure treatment. It is an unfailing remedy. . . . No matter what the ailment . . . recitation of Ramanama from the heart is the sure cure.” Long before the onslaught of medical malpractice cases, Gandhi sought to cover his exposure: “If, in spite of this, death supervenes, we may not mind. On the contrary, it should be welcomed. Science has not so far discovered any recipe for making the body immortal. Immortality is an attribute of the soul.”
Reality sometimes has a way of intruding on the most finely honed theology, though. Gandhi’s teenaged great-niece, Manu, who shared his bed, was chronically ill with intestinal problems. There was no need to see a doctor, though, said Gandhi. “She will not have frequent bouts of fever, if she had Ramanama firmly enshrined in her heart. . . . Still I am convinced that if she only has Ramanama inscribed in her heart she will suffer no physical enfeeblement.”
Nearing death, Manu was finally rushed to a hospital, where her life was saved by an emergency appendectomy. Gandhi was mortified, not because he realized that his own pigheadedness had nearly killed his great-niece but because of the incontrovertible evidence of his inadequate holiness. He later told Manu, “Though I have no longer the desire to live for 125 years as I have said again and again of late, my striving to meet death unafraid with Ramanama on my lips continues. I know my striving is incomplete; your operation is a proof.”
Where did Gandhi get these bizarre ideas? They did not come from careful study of the vast body of Hindu literature. There were a few Hindu texts Gandhi quoted frequently, but others he seems never to have read at all. Instead, he dealt directly with God, who instructed Gandhi by means of what Gandhi called “the Voice.” For example, in 1933, the Voice told him to launch a twenty-one-day fast. “At about twelve o’clock in the night something wakes me up suddenly, and some voice—within or without, I cannot say—whispers, ‘Thou must go on a fast.’ ‘How many days?’ I ask. The voice again says, ‘Twenty-one days.’ ‘When does it begin?’ I asked. It says, ‘You begin tomorrow.’ I went off to sleep after making the decision.”
Indians demanded to know more about this Voice. Gandhi replied, “What is it? What did I hear? Was there any person I saw? If not, how was the Voice conveyed to me? These are pertinent questions. For me the Voice of God, of conscience, of Truth or the Inner Voice, or ‘the still small Voice’ mean one and the same thing. I saw no form. I have never tried, for I have always believed God to be without form.” Later, he added that it was “like a Voice from afar and yet quite near. It was as unmistakable as some human voice definitely speaking to me, and irresistible. I was not dreaming at the time I heard the Voice. The hearing of the Voice was preceded by a terrific struggle within me. Suddenly the Voice came upon me. I listened, made certain it was the Voice, and the struggle ceased. I was calm . . . not the unanimous verdict of the whole world against me could shake me from the belief that what I heard was the true Voice of God.”
In fairness, the Voice sometimes told Gandhi to do positive things. This particular manifestation ordered Gandhi to go on a hunger strike against the mistreatment of the Untouchables caste, which he called “a great Satanism,” a “hydra-headed monster,” a “canker eating at the vitals of Hinduism,” and an “unmitigated curse.” Although he regarded the Hindu caste system in general as “invested with religious meaning,” he fought tirelessly against the degradation of the Untouchables and shocked orthodox Hindus by expressing a desire to be reincarnated as an Untouchable. He even asserted that the devastating Bihar earthquake of 1934 resulted from God’s anger over Untouchability, just as Reverend John Hagee later blamed Hurricane Katrina on the sinfulness of New Orleans. The problem with accepting leadership from one who relies on the Voice rather than on common sense and experience is that you can never predict what the Voice is going to say. Allowing religion to play such a large part in India’s independence movement produced tragic results.
The acknowledged leader of the Muslims who comprised a quarter of British India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a thoroughly secularized statesman who enjoyed his cigars and whiskey without a trace of Islamic remorse and even married a non-Muslim. Jinnah spent the early part of his career urging cooperation between Muslims and Hindus to establish a unified independent state, promoting resolutions that “the political future of the country depends on the harmonious working and co-operation of the various communities in the country,” while warning against the danger of dividing India into what he called “two watertight compartments.” In 1916, Jinnah proclaimed that “I believe all thinking men are thoroughly convinced that the keynote of our real progress lies in the goodwill, concord, harmony and cooperation between the two great [Hindu and Muslim] sister communities. The true focus of progress is centered in their union.”
Unfortunately, it was right about this time that the Great Soul returned to India from South Africa and began infecting the independence movement with his peculiar religious zeal. The breakpoint occurred at a public meeting in 1920, when Jinnah was shouted down by a Hindu mob for opposing a resolution offered by “Mr.” Gandhi without referring to him as “Great Soul.” Within a year, Jinnah began speaking against Gandhi’s program as “an essentially spiritual movement” based on “destructive” methods “opposed to the nature of an ordinary mortal like the speaker himself.” Once the independence movement began centering on religious rather than secular principles, Jinnah could see no positive future for his Muslim minority other than to have its own separate state.
There is no question that Gandhi understood how important India’s Muslim minority was and that he had every intention of respecting Islam after India achieved independence. In the 1920s, Gandhi had been heavily involved in a campaign to restore the Caliph of Istanbul (the near-equivalent of a Muslim pope), who had been deposed by Atatürk’s secular revolution in Turkey. An admirer of traditional Islam’s puritanism, he aggravated Hindu and Muslim God experts alike by reading verses from the Qur’an at Hindu religious gatherings. The problem was that Jinnah simply couldn’t trust a Hindu ascendancy. “Every time a Hindu shakes hands with me,” Jinnah complained, “he has to wash his hands.” Jinnah was not about to subject his f
ellow Muslims to that kind of worldview. He ultimately achieved his goal of a separate Muslim state, Pakistan, but at a horrific cost: at its birth over a million people died in the worst religious violence of the twentieth century. Ironically, one of the victims was Gandhi himself, assassinated by another Hindu fanatic for being a “Muslim-lover.” Though Jinnah’s public reaction to the news was polite and appropriate, he surely must have felt that his own intransigence had been vindicated.
Reverend Ian Paisley, the militant Northern Ireland Protestant who knows a thing or two about religious violence, once sagely observed that “I have found this, that when people laugh at a thing they will not worship it.” It’s too bad the organizers of the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women were not around ninety years ago to mail forty thousand pink panties to Great Soul Gandhi. If he had been taken down a few pegs at the outset, South Asia might be a far better place today.