Youth is a fragile period when boundaries are fluid and ethical values are not yet established, when there is a surfeit of energy but no balance of mind or depth of perception. During this phase, insecure and ignorant men and women lost in the merry company of debauched friends often succumb to peer pressure and undertake foolhardy actions which can trap them in lifelong vices. Gaining experience in alcohol, sex and drugs is mistakenly regarded as a sign of maturity. On three occasions in his youth, Mahatma Gandhi was inadvertently drawn by friends into a tryst with prostitutes but escaped narrowly due to his childlike timidity or his nascent ethical personality. He related these episodes in response to a question on the power of Ramanama (i.e. the chanting of the name “Rama”). This article first appeared in the Navjivan (“new life”) newspaper that Gandhi used to publish from Ahmedabad.
Power of Ramanama, Navajivan, 17 May 1925 (Extracts)
…. I shall describe how I was saved in those three occasions by the grace of God. All the three occasions concern public women (i.e. prostitutes).
I was taken to two of them by friends on different occasions.
On the first occasion, I went to the place out of false regard for the friend and, if God had not saved me, I would certainly have fallen. This time the woman whose house I had entered herself threw me out with contempt. I simply did not know what to say or how to behave in such a situation. Prior to this incident, I always regarded it as shameful even to sit near a public woman, so that I was trembling even when entering that house. After going in, I could not even look at her face and I do not know what her face was like. What could that smart woman do to such a fool but turn him out? She said a few angry words to me and asked me to go away. At that time, of course, I did not realize that God had saved me. I left feeling miserable. I felt crestfallen and even unhappy about my stupidity! I felt that I lacked manliness. It was later I realised that I had been shielded by my stupidity. God had saved me by making me behave like a fool. Else how could I, who had entered a house of ill-fame with evil intention, have been saved?
The second occasion was more dreadful than the first one. I was not so innocent then as I was at the time of the first incident, though I was of course more vigilant. Moreover, I had the protection of vow administered to me by my revered mother. But this time the place was in England. I was in the very flush of youth. Two of us friends were lodged in one house. We had gone there only for a few days. The landlady was as good as a prostitute. Two or three of us sat down to play cards with her. In those days I used to play cards on occasion. In England, a mother and a son can, and do, play cards for innocent amusement. On this occasion too, we sat down to play, following the usual custom. The beginning was completely innocent. I, of course, did not know that the landlady lived on her body. But as the play warmed up, the atmosphere changed. The woman started making gestures. I felt tempted. I was flushed in the face, for lust had entered me and I had become impatient.
On my lips was the language of lust. My good friend noticed my behaviour. We knew each other very well. He had seen me in difficult situations in which I had, with an effort of will, kept my purity. But he saw that on this occasion evil had entered my mind and that, if the night progressed while I was in that mood, I too would fall like him.
It was this friend who first made me realize that even immoral men have good instincts. He felt unhappy to see me in that plight. I was younger than he. Rama came to my help through his person. He aimed arrows of love at me: “Moniya!” (This is an affectionate form of “Mohandas.” I remember that I used to be called by that name by my mother, my father and the eldest cousin in our family. The fourth person to call me so was this friend who, through his goodness, proved a brother to me.) “Moniya, be careful. You know that I have fallen. But I shall not let you fall. Recall the promise you have made to your mother. This thing is not for you. Be off from here. Go to bed. Are you gone? Throw off the cards.”
I do not remember whether I replied to him. I put down the cards. For a moment I felt unhappy. I felt ashamed and my heart began to beat fast. I got up and went to bed…. For me, this was an occasion when I first become aware of the existence of God.
The third incident is amusing. During one of my journeys, I came into fairly close contact with the ship’s captain, as also with an English passenger. In every port where the ship weighed anchor, the captain and some passengers would go and search for brothels. The captain once invited me to go with him and see the port. I did not know what that meant. We went and stood before a prostitute’s house. Then I knew what was meant by going to see a port. Three women were produced before us. I was completely taken aback, but felt too embarrassed to say anything. Nor could I run away. I had of course no wish to indulge in this immoral pleasure.
Those two went into the rooms. The third woman led me into her own room. While I was still thinking what I should do, the other two came out of the rooms. I do not know what that woman must have thought about me. She stood smiling before me, but that did not have the slightest effect on me. Since we spoke different languages, there was no question of my talking to her. Those friends shouted for me and so I went out, I certainly felt a little humiliated. They had seen that I was a fool in these matters. They even joked between themselves on this point. They pitied me, of course. From that day, I was enrolled among the fools of the world, as far as the captain was concerned. He never invited me again to see a port. If I had remained in the room longer or if I had known that woman’s language, I do not know what would have been my plight. But I certainly realized that day, too, I was not saved by my own power, put that it was God who had protected me by having made me stupid in such matters. I remembered only these three incidents at the time of the speech in question. The reader should not think that I have not been through more of similar experiences. But I certainly wish to state that every time I escaped, thanks to Ramanama.
- Girja Kumar. Mahatma Gandhi’s letters on brahmacharya : sexuality and love, New Delhi : Vitasta Pub, 2011, pp 32-35; Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 27: pp 108-110.
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