Controversy is raging over claims in a new book that Mahatma Gandhi fell in love with a German Jewish man while living in South Africa.

Reviews of the book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India, by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld, about the iconic figure’s life have highlighted Gandhi’s relationship with the architect and amateur bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach.

The two lived together in Johannesburg for two years, before Ghandi returned to India in 1914. Gandhi was married at the age of 13 to 14 year old Kasturbai Makhanji, from whom he split in 1908 – apparently so that he could be with Kallenbach.

Lelyveld quotes a number of passages from Gandhi’s intimate letters to Kallenbach, including, “how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance”.

The book also claims that Gandhi named himself “Upper House” and Kallenbach “Lower House.”

According to Lelyveld, “He made Lower House promise not to ‘look lustfully upon any woman.’ The two then pledged ‘more love, and yet more love . . . such love as they hope the world has not yet seen’.”

Gandhi also told Kallenbach: “…your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom.”

Kallenbach, who emigrated from Germany to South Africa, met Ghandi in 1904 and donated a farm near Johannesburg to Ghandi’s cause. They went on to become “soulmates”, in Ghandi’s words.

Gandhi, his secretary Sonia Schlesin
and Kallenbach in 1913

According to Wikipedia, Kallenbach planned to accompany Gandhi to India in 1914, but with the outbreak of World War I, he was detained in England because of his German citizenship. Kallenbach visited Gandhi twice thereafter, in 1937 and in 1939.

Lelyveld’s book also reportedly suggests that Ghandi had at least one racist outburst while in South Africa.

“We were marched off to a prison intended for K*****s. We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. K*****s are as a rule uncivilised,” Gandhi is quoted as saying.

But Lelyveld has come out insisting that that the book has been misread: “I do not allege that Gandhi is racist or bisexual. The word ‘bisexual’ nowhere appears in the book,” he said in a statement.

“The word ‘racist’ is used once to characterise comments by Gandhi early in his stay in South Africa… the chapter in no way concludes that he was a racist or offers any suggestion of it,” he added.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is known as the father of independent India and is revered for his philosophy of satyagraha; the resistance to tyranny through nonviolent mass civil disobedience.

He worked as a lawyer in South Africa, where he was jailed for a time, and helped in the local Indian community’s struggle for civil rights before returning to India. Gandhi lived modestly, wearing clothes made by himself, was a vegetarian and fasted for long periods as a means of protest against British colonial rule of India.

He was a proponent of women’s rights, fostered interaction between religious and ethnic groups and is often referred to as Mahatma, which is Sanskrit for “Great Soul”. Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 at the age of 78.

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