The supra-human goes out for a jog

Gandhi's Body
December 8, 2000

To many of his followers and admirers Gandhi appeared an almost supra-human presence. It was not only Albert Einstein who wondered whether future generations would believe that such a man "ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth". But, now that scholarship has discovered "the body", Gandhi conveniently serves to exemplify what Joseph Alter dubs "the bio-moral politics" of Indian nationalism.

As he points out, a large part of Gandhi's autobiography is devoted not to the politics of non-violence, but to his dietary "experiments" and struggle to achieve celibacy. At critical junctures in Gandhi's life, his obsessive engagement with issues of sex, health and diet was inseparable from his political preoccupations, forming part of his "bio-moral imperative". Disease was a kind of "untruth"; "self-control" meant "personal cleanliness". Without regaining power over the physical self, Indians could not regain control over their moral and political lives. But, while in some ways seeming to embody Indian tradition, Gandhi's approach to the body was eclectic and "transnational". He developed his own idea of what "science" signified, but instead of applying this either to western bio-medicine or Indian Ayurveda, his "experiments with truth" led him to Louis Kuhne, to naturopathy and hydrotherapy, mud poultices and sitz -baths.

Barely a third of the way into the book, Gandhi becomes a peripheral figure and Alter shuffles off in search of other bodily themes. In ways that explore the transnational dimensions of science and physical culture, the centrality of corporeal anxieties and identities in Indian nationalism, and the constant reinvention of what is casually called tradition, he then discusses the naturalisation in India of naturopathy and, conversely, the invention of yoga as a form of physical therapy and the global dissemination of a practice "rooted in a secular, scientific, and largely urban, middle-class Indian base". He considers the exercises devised by the ruler of the tiny state of Aundh, part of an attempt (briefly aided by Gandhi) to combine a regime of physical discipline with the introduction of village democracy. The book closes with the career of Gama, an Indian wrestler whose ideas carry the discussion of physicality, diet and identity into a more subaltern domain.

Gandhi's Body is a curious book that never quite gels. A collection of loosely linked essays, it attempts too much and achieves too little. A discussion of Gandhi alone might have done more to establish the origins and evolution of his physical preoccupations. An account of the rise of physical culture and its links to Indian nationalism, or the authority of science in a transnational context - any of these individually might have produced a better focused and more compelling work. Instead, there are fascinating insights, suggestive ideas and some wild errors (Gandhi did not invent the term swadeshi , nor did the Quit India movement occur in 1946). Corporeal entity or cultural exemplar, Gandhi's body deserves better treatment.

David Arnold is professor of South Asian history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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

Author - Joseph S. Alter
ISBN - 0 8122 3556 8
Publisher - University of Pennsylvania Press
Price - £26.00
Pages - 207

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