Gandhi to Asaram: Who Empowers the Sex Crimes of ‘Gurus?’
by Rita Banerji
It’s uncanny how similar he is to Gandhi. I’m talking about Asaram, the Indian spiritual leader who was recently arrested for sexually assaulting the 15-year-old daughter of one of his devotees.
Both Gandhi and Asaram commanded followers in the millions, who regarded them as saints, spiritual ‘guides’ and called them “Bapu” or Father.
Both Gandhi and Asaram regarded sex as and sexual desire as “sins,” and any expression of sexuality as ‘dirty’ imports from the west that needed to be shunned because they ruin India’s youth and culture. Both preached abstinence to their followers and the control of sexual desire as a form of self-‘purification.’
And both Gandhi and Asaram in hypocritical violations of their own preaching, indulged in sexual gratification of one kind or another, even when it resulted in the sexual abuse of girls and women in their flock.
Details that continue to emerge about Asaram’s past indicate that he not only sexually abused and raped other women, but that he regarded the women in his ashram as his sexual ‘toys.’ Gandhi on the other hand would have among the younger of his female followers, some in their late teens, sleep naked with him, in his bed, at night. He claimed that was his way of testing his ‘power’ of abstinence. More shockingly, this was open knowledge not just among his followers, but among everyone who came in contact with him—his large fan following of politicians, activists, philosophers, and journalists—both from Indian and abroad. While having the girls and women sleep naked with him was in and of itself a form of sexual abuse – a privilege Gandhi exercised because of his position and stature, what actually took place in his bed remains hidden, because the women were sworn to secrecy. Non-the-less studying the behavior and responses of the women around him, and examining excerpts from some of their diaries, there are clear indications of sexual manipulation and exploitation. [See below an excerpt from my book ‘Sex and Power.’]
What allows these spiritual leaders to blatantly get away with sexual predation?
Firstly, it is the clout these leaders have over the political and governing classes because of the hypnotic command they have over large masses. Because of their cult figure status, that makes millions worship them blindly, the politicians see them as an easy way to reach out to and influence the masses. Gandhi’s close political associates, even those who disapproved of what he was doing remained silent precisely for this reason. Similarly, the reason the police took 15 days to arrest Asaram is because he had the protection of politicians who hope to garner the votes of the millions of Indians who worship Asaram, in the upcoming election in India in 2014. So actually it is the masses that follow blindly that have the power to give immunity to gurus and godheads. After all, religion or belief in any organized form lends itself well to this kind of cult mentality and blind following.
Yet, contrary to what many argue this is not just about religion. This cult-like mentality and blind faith also includes people who may shun religion, but who exalt and place on high pedestals public personas like Gandhi, who they equate with lofty ideas and ideals. And these sanctified men with cult followings exist in all fields – religion, politics, sports and even the performing arts!
Asaram’s followers went on the violent defensive attacking media vans and journalists to shield him. But Gandhi’s worshippers do the same, even today! Articles I’ve written on Gandhi with regards to his attitude to sex, sexuality and women, or even an article in a UK newspaper that cited me, have had public comments, not just from India but from western countries too, that were verbally hostile and defensive. Interestingly, the critics didn’t want to engage with what was written, but emphasized aspects of him they saw as redeeming. In other words, because they think Gandhi preached non-violence or led India to freedom, this was a little something in him that they’d happily ignore! And they wish the rest of us would too. Some others insisted that sexual abuse etc. is an issue of our times, and that it didn’t mean the same at that time! I wonder, what these people think the parents of the teenage girls in Gandhi’s entourage felt in the 1940s? Are they suggesting those parents felt honored to have Gandhi use their daughters for his perverse experiments with sex?
It is very important to recognize that men in leadership positions can sexually prey on vulnerable girls and women because the people who honor their leadership, also create the space and give them to power to do so!
Asaram has now been arrested. But it wasn’t easy. The father of the 15-year-old girl victim was a lone voice standing by his daughter when she filed her complaint with the police of how Asaram held her hostage and sexually molested her for an hour. He remained resolute in his demand for an arrest, despite the powerful protection offered to Asaram by politicians, the police, and millions of angry Asaram supporters. The father who once was Asaram’s devotee said he was wrong in following him so blindly! But it has now given courage to other victims of Asaram to come forward.
It is an important pointer, to the fact that we are each responsible for the injustices of the men we place on pedestals! And we are each accountable.
[Below are excerpts from pages 265-281. In Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies by Rita Banerji. Penguin Books, India, 2008; Penguin Global, 2009]
[Celibacy was one] of Gandhi’s favoured ideologies…propounded with much zeal as an integral aspect of his social and political preaching…[He] regarded sex as an “impure” practice for all people, including married couples. Sexual curiosity among [the unmarried youth in his ashram] would displease Gandhi. He was known to ask women [among his followers] to take on a lifelong vow of celibacy as a guru-dakshina [a teacher’s fee] to him. He [even] advised married couples [in his ashram to]…avoid sharing not just a bed but also a room, unless they intended to have a child…Despite his denouncement of the [caste based] practice of ‘untouchability’…he rarely placed Adivasis or tribals in responsible positions in his ashram..because he disapproved of their sexually liberal traditions…His vision for celibacy was that some day it would be embraced by “the whole world.”
Gandhi’s wrangling with his libido played out in a lifelong ordeal as he obsessively experimented with all sorts of strategies to subdue [what he called] “the insidious enemy.” He admitted to being a person of intense “sexual passion”…and spoke of needing constant “courage” and “vigilance” in his “war” against this “enemy.” He tried to achieve control through food, exhaustively categorizing food into those that fed the libido and those that killed it.
[The kind of sexual repression Gandhi exhibited] according to [Swiss psychologist] Jung [is] often expressed either in sexually perverse behavior or in Puritanism, both of which Gandhi exhibited amply. [For ironically,] as fixated as he was on eliminating [sexual] sesory stimulation through food, he did not apply this theory to [his proximity with women.]
He was constantly surrounded by young women who tended to his [bodily] needs…including full body naked massages [and baths]. He used women as [body] props for support..and walked, draping his arms around their shoulders, when a walking cane, or a couple of young men would have served just as well. [His so-called “experiments with Truth” involved] sleeping with naked young women to test the resolve of his celibacy —one of these girls being his own great-niece.
It is difficult to imagine the psychological state [of these young women, many of who were teenagers]. It was well know that women in his entourage constantly vied for physical proximity to him…competing for [his] touch…and women who shared his bed…were known to get “hysterical” exhibiting [jealousy and] rejection anxiety if he turned them away…The upheaval in the minds [and lives] of some of these women is revealed in [what is recorded as a ‘dream’ narrative in the personal diary] of Prema Kantak. [She writes that] she was a small girl in Gandhi’s lap, drinking milk that spurted from his breast into her mouth. She recalls the intense alarm she felt in the dream when the milk did not stop streaming out, even when she was satiated and her clothes and her body was drenched, while Gandhi kept coaxing her to drink more. Even though Gandhi brightly assured her that it meant she felt safe with him, the symbolism of semen as milk, and the pent-up sexual content [and implications of sexual abuse in this] relationship are unmistakable elements of Prema’s [subconscious narrative].
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist, and the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India’s female genocide. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies,‘ is a historical and social look at how the relationship between gender and power in India has led to the ongoing female gendercide. Her website is www.ritabanerji.com She blogs at Revolutions in my Space and tweets at @Rita_Banerji