After taking his vows of poverty and chastity, Gandhi began setting up ashrams (essentially Hindu monasteries) to teach his ideas to others. But they were also intended to be places where Gandhi could experiment with the best way to stay chaste. These ashrams took in young boys and girls and began training them to live their lives without sex. Children and adults of both genders were expected to live, sleep, and even bathe together. But any sort of sexual talk or behavior was punished. And of course, Gandhi also subjected himself to these experiments in chastity.
Gandhi frequently slept and bathed with his young female followers. When others criticized this practice as being unseemly, Gandhi argued that it was a way for him to increase his spiritual power. And as Gandhi said of his practice of bathing with Sushila Nayar, the younger sister of his secretary, “While she is bathing I keep my eyes tightly shut. I do not know … whether she bathes naked or with her underwear on.” Obviously, it wasn’t an explanation that satisfied his critics. But the opportunity to bathe or sleep with Gandhi was seen as a great honor among his followers.
It was a sign that “Father,” as they called him, had taken a special interest in their spiritual development. But Gandhi seems to have taken a special interest in his female followers based on how young and attractive they were. When Sushila grew older, she found herself being replaced in Gandhi’s bed by his 18-year-old grandniece, Manu. According to Gandhi’s writings, these unorthodox experiments sometimes went further than just sleeping. Gandhi sometimes asked the women he slept with to perform strip-teases or make sexually explicit conversations. As Gandhi explained it, this was the ultimate test of his vow of chastity.
As to whether or not Gandhi might have ever given in to his urges, it’s hard to say. Some of Manu’s diaries describing her nights with Gandhi record some episodes that seem to be less than completely chaste. For instance, one entry describes how “when Bapu [Gandhi], Sushila, and I were sleeping on the same cot, he embraced me and patted me.” And some of Gandhi’s own writings include references to “accidents” that happened when he was sleeping with one of his followers. If the goal of the experiment was to stay chaste, then an “accident” might logically mean giving in to temptation.
It’s also worth mentioning that Gandhi probably slept naked through most of these experiments and expected the girls he was sleeping with to do the same. As Gandhi told Manu when she first came to his bed, “[we] must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked.” Gandhi somehow connected the idea of spiritual purity with a young girl sleeping naked with her granduncle. Today, most people are fairly skeptical of this idea. And even at the time, people accused Gandhi of using spirituality to justify exploiting his followers sexually.