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Gandhi's Body

Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism

Joseph S. Alter
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Gandhi's Body
    Book Description:

    No single person is more directly associated with India and India's struggle for independence than Mahatma Gandhi. His name has equally become synonymous with the highest principles of global equality, human dignity, and freedom. Joseph Alter argues, however, that Gandhi has not been completely understood by biographers and political scholars, and in Gandhi's Body he undertakes a reevaluation of the Mahatma's life and thought. In his revisionist and iconoclastic approach, Alter moves away from the usual focus on nonviolence, peace, and social reform and takes seriously what most scholars who have studied Gandhi tend to ignore: Gandhi's preoccupation with sex, his obsession with diet reform, and his vehement advocacy for naturopathy. Alter concludes that a distinction cannot be made between Gandhi's concern with health, faith in nonviolence, and his sociopolitical agenda. In this original and provocative study, Joseph Alter demonstrates that these seemingly idiosyncratic aspects of Gandhi's personal life are of central importance to understanding his politics-and not only Gandhi's politics but Indian nationalism in general. Using the Mahatma's own writings, Alter places Gandhi's bodily practices in the context of his philosophy; for example, he explores the relationship between Gandhi's fasting and his ideas about the metaphysics of emptiness and that between his celibacy and his beliefs about nonviolence. Alter also places Gandhi's ideas and practices in their national and transnational contexts. He discusses how and why nature cure became extremely popular in India during the early part of the twentieth century, tracing the influence of two German naturopaths on Gandhi's thinking and on the practice of yoga in India. More important, he argues that the reconstruction of yoga in terms of European naturopathy was brought about deliberately by a number of activists in India-of whom Gandhi was only the most visible-interested in creating a "scientific" health regimen, distinct from Western precedents, that would make the Indian people fit for self-rule. Gandhi's Body counters established arguments that Indian nationalism was either a completely indigenous Hindu-based movement or simply a derivative of Western ideals.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0474-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface: History, Body, Culture
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    • Chapter 1 Gandhi’s Body, Gandhi’s Truth
      (pp. 3-27)

      A multitude of scholarly works have analyzed and reanalyzed Mohandas K. Gandhi’s epic life and work from numerous angles.¹ In spite of this focused attention, or perhaps on account of it, the Mahatma remains something of an enigma: a genius, to be sure, and one inspired by a kind of transcendental moral conviction, but an enigma nevertheless on account of how he conceived of morality as a problem in which Truth and biology were equally implicated. (“Truth” is capitalized when it specifically denotes Gandhi’s sense of an absolute, ontological principle.) As he put it, “morals are closely linked with health....

    • Chapter 2 The Ethereal Politics of the Mahatma’s Fasts
      (pp. 28-52)

      Gandhi’s use of fasting as a tool—or, as he referred to it, a “weapon”—in his broad-based sociopolitical work is well known and has been given careful consideration by a number of close associates and scholars (Brown 1977; Erikson 1969:227–378; M. Gandhi 1959; Pyarelal 1932). Between 1918, when he stopped eating in support of a textile workers’ strike in Ahmedabad, and 1948, when he gave up food for five days to protest a resurgence in communal violence, Gandhi engaged in at least thirteen major fasts. Many of the fasts unto death he undertook were pivotal in the sequence...


    • Chapter 3 Nature Cure and Yoga: Transnational Experiments with Ether and Hydrotherapy
      (pp. 55-82)

      To understand yoga as it has been practiced in India for the past century it is probably more important to read the works of various late-nineteenth-century German nature cure doctors, along with their counterparts in the United States, than to read Patanjali’s Yogasutra or the Hathyogpradipika, the Shivasamhita, or the Gherandasamhita. The fact of the matter is that over the past seventy-five years it has become virtually impossible to distinguish yoga therapy from naturopathy. Even “higher” forms of yoga have been heavily influenced by the philosophy of nature upon which nature cure techniques are based. To be sure, the structure...

    • Chapter 4 Surya Namaskar—Salute to Village Democracy
      (pp. 83-112)

      Ostensibly, surya namaskar—prayer or salutation to the sun—is an ancient Indian exercise routine that is nominally structured on the principle of Vedic ritual and is even said to hark back to the earliest prostrations performed by the Indo-Aryan participants in a pre-Vedic solar cult. Today, surya namaskar routines are an integral part of most yoga regimens practiced throughout the world. Apart from the putatively ancient origins of this modern exercise, the history of surya namaskars can be traced precisely to the small princely state of Aundh, in what is now Maharashtra, and the concern of the rajah of...

    • Chapter 5 Somatic Nationalism: Gama the Great, Another Heroic Indian
      (pp. 113-145)

      In his influential collection of essays entitled The Nation and Its Fragments (1993a) Partha Chatterjee argues for a treatment of nationalism that is cultural rather than political, one that is not limited by a discussion of institutional structures, policies, and government. In doing so, and in placing the culture of nationalism squarely in the imaginary of the colonized middle class, Chatterjee follows, but also extends, Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities (1991). Chatterjee poses this significant question: what is left to imagine, in terms of the meaning of community in countries such as India, if, in fact, the nation as...

  6. Conclusion: Post-Gandhian Somatics: Auto-Urine Therapy
    (pp. 146-154)

    In this book I have attempted to use the body to read against both the idealism and the materialism of culture and history. As such, the perspective I have taken focuses on practices and the consequences of practice rather than on the logic of ideology or reason. In some sense, the rationale for taking this perspective stems from two congruent propositions: first, that a focus by almost all scholars on what might be called Gandhi’s political philosophy, his philosophy of action, his religious beliefs, and his program of social reform, has distorted the underlying basis of his embodied practice; second,...

  7. Glossary
    (pp. 155-158)
  8. Notes
    (pp. 159-172)
  9. References
    (pp. 173-188)
  10. Index
    (pp. 189-204)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 205-207)