To millions around the world, Mahatma Gandhi is one of the 20th century's greatest exemplars of human wisdom and compassion. In a century most notable for its villains, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (“Mahatma” is an honorific title) is seen as a heroic figure—and justifiably so.
But one social group in particular—secular liberals—holds Gandhi in especially high regard, no doubt for many legitimate reasons, but also in part because of the perceived political correctness of his non-Western, non-Christian religious tradition, his pacifist teachings, and his 21-year struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
It’s no surprise then—when you consider the sway that secular liberals have over the ideas generated by the media and the academy—that of the thousands of articles and websites you can find on the internet about Gandhi’s life and his pacifist teaching, few say anything at all about his views on issues of human sexuality. That’s because Gandhi’s positions on sex and marriage are not what you would expect from a hero of the Left. What's worse—from a secular liberal perspective—nothing more clearly reveals Gandhi’s deeply conservative understanding of human sexuality and the relationship between a man and a woman—and only a man and a woman—than does his stance on artificial contraception.
Gandhi is best known today for his non-violent struggle against the British rule of India, and for his efforts to assist the oppressed and destitute. But in the years between his return to India from South Africa in 1914 and his death at the hands of a radical Hindu in 1948, he wrote numerous articles and letters, many of which addressed a wide range of social and moral issues confronting India in the 20th century, including issues of human sexuality.
Gandhi feared that men and women would become 'mental and moral wrecks' if they embraced contraception.
This isn't surprising, because while Gandhi was very practical in his work to improve conditions for the poor and outcast, he wasn't practical in the sense of “worldly.” He refused to reduce man to his lowest common denominator—to his animal passions—but instead sought to recognize his inherent dignity, and ultimately to uplift and ennoble him in service to God.
Because many modern arguments for “reproductive rights,” or access to contraception and abortion, are based on the claim that these “services” are needed to alleviate human suffering, it’s instructive to examine them in light of Gandhi's searing critique of artificial contraception, since the Mahatma was certainly not indifferent to human suffering.
For a short period early in his public life Gandhi accepted the use of artificial birth control, but he soon changed his position dramatically when he realized what the consequences of birth control would be. During the last 25 years of his life he was an outspoken opponent of the practice. All of the quotes contained in this article were written between 1927 and 1937 for an Indian audience, appearing mostly in the Indian periodicals Harijan and Young India. In these writings Gandhi responded to the movement to promote artificial birth control—a movement that had set its sights on India. Many of his arguments against artificial birth control were novel at the time he was writing, and his opponents often labeled him an alarmist in his predictions about the inevitable outcome of contraception. As we look back today on the predictions he made 75 years ago, we can see that his statements were prophetic.
To properly understand Gandhi’s views on contraception, it’s necessary to understand his overall view of human sexuality. This view was based on three central principles.
First, he believed strongly in sexual self-control as universally practicable, inherently ennobling to the human person, and necessary in developing an intimate relationship with God.
Second, he understood sexual relations as appropriate only within the context of marriage between a man and a woman, which he believed should be a loving, holy and indeed sacramental relationship founded in mutual unselfishness. (The Hindu understanding of marriage as a sacrament differs from the Catholic understanding, but it does include the belief that it is not simply the physical union of two people—dharma, or religious duty, is a necessary element)
Third and last, he believed very strongly in the dignity of women and their unique contribution to society. It was in light of these three principles that Gandhi viewed the issue of artificial birth control.
Some elements of Gandhi’s beliefs on sexuality will seem strange to Westerners, as they are steeped in his form of monotheistic Hinduism. But by and large his views are remarkably consistent with those of Christianity, by which he was undeniably influenced during time he spent studying in England.
Although he was married at thirteen and had six children, at the age of 36 Gandhi took a vow (with his wife’s concurrence) to embrace complete continence. He was a strong believer in the beauty, dignity, and ultimately, the feasibility of chastity, and had a great reverence for the tradition of vowed chastity and poverty in the Christian world—a tradition he described as “a small but inexhaustible reservoir of purity and strength” beneath the “deceptive surface” of the decadent West. He was also clearly in favor of the celibacy of religious persons, stating of those who dedicate their lives to God:
He condemned contraception in part because it was 'an insult to womanhood' and 'inconsistent with [her] dignity.'
[They] will not divide their time between the rearing of a special family and the tending of the general human family. Necessarily, such men and women cannot afford to live the general life which is designed to promote the special, individual interest. Those who will be celibates for the sake of God need to renounce the laxities of life, and find their enjoyment in its austere rigours. They may be ‘in the world’, but not ‘of it.’
Gandhi’s belief that “celibacy is a superior state”—and should be embraced if one is capable—in many ways echoes the views of early Church fathers like Benedict, Jerome and Augustine. He was unquestionably an ascetic, and understood the sexual act in terms of procreation alone. (This differs from modern Catholicism, which understands that there is also a unitive aspect to the sexual act for a married couple. Gandhi believed that absent the active intent to have a child, it was better to practice continence, even among married couples. Like many early thinkers from the Judeo-Christian tradition, he believed that outside of this procreative aspect, enjoyment of the sex act was based around a selfish desire to make one’s spouse an “instrument of sexual enjoyment.” He did not make allowance for the understanding of “spousal self-giving” that has become so prominent in Catholic thought due to the influence of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”)
Gandhi always proclaimed the beauty of marriage. While he extolled the virtues of chastity and continence, he never said anything that could be construed as disdain for the married state. He said, “Marriage is a natural thing in life, and to consider it derogatory in any sense is wholly wrong … The idea is to look upon marriage as a sacrament … In modern times, marriage has unfortunately come to be regarded purely as a physical union.”
This sacramental idea of marriage is repeated frequently in Gandhi’s writing, and he describes how the “love that it incarnates is intended to serve as a stepping stone” to the Divine. Gandhi repeatedly argued for the “sanctity” of marriage, and he was very aware of the modern threats to this sanctity. He stated, “The perfection of the anti-conceptional practice and the methods of bringing about abortion has led to the emancipation of either sex from all moral restraint. No wonder marriage itself is laughed at.”
Gandhi saw pre- and extra-marital sex as inherently sinful, and while he recognized that “the wisest among the protagonists of contraceptives restrict their use to married women who desire to satisfy their and their husband’s sexual appetite without wanting children,” he believed that the unwillingness of married couples to have children and the “satisfaction” of this unwillingness through contraception was “detrimental to the spiritual progress of the human family.”
It was in part due to increasing sexual immorality in the West that Gandhi disdained Western influence in India. He said, “Birth control, as practiced in the West, has led to the degradation of marriage and unbridled sensual enjoyment. Men, supposed to be good thinkers in Europe, call marriage a superstition.” Among the European intelligentsia, the argument that marriage was bad and unnatural for man—and ought to be done away with—was becoming increasingly popular. In response, Gandhi declared: “Such ideas based on so-called ethics and science fill me with horror.”
Gandhi’s reverence for marriage and the family, and his exhortations to selflessness within the married state, also influenced his thinking on abortion. For instance, when counseling a young man whose unfaithful wife has become pregnant, he stated that it is “clear as daylight that abortion would be a crime,” and that it is “the sacred duty of the husband to bring up the baby with all the love and tenderness that he is capable of and to refuse to yield to the counsels of [those who recommend abortion].”
Gandhi’s traditional view of marriage did not extend to a blanket endorsement of traditional Hindu society. He was very reform-minded with regard to various aspects of Indian culture. For example, he was a vocal advocate for the “untouchables” in Indian society; he fought against the practice of suttee (the burning of widows); he argued for lifting the purdah (or veil) from Indian women; and he protested against the practice of child-marriages. He was, in short, anything but a Hindu traditionalist.
Gandhi in many ways echoes the views of early Church fathers like Benedict, Jerome and Augustine.
One of Gandhi’s greatest concerns was the defense of the dignity of Indian women. He told the story of a woman who refused anesthesia during a painful operation because of fears that it would harm the unborn child in her womb: the “only anaesthetic she had," he recounted, “was her love for the babe, to save whom no suffering was too great.” And so, he continued: “Let not women, who can count many such heroines among them, ever despise their sex or deplore that they were not born men.”
It isn’t, therefore, surprising that Gandhi condemned artificial contraception in part because it was “an insult to womanhood” and “inconsistent with [her] dignity." He rejected the argument that contraception was necessary to ensure the proper role of women in society—in fact he argued just the opposite. He saw that a dependence on artificial contraception would twist the meaning of sexual relationships, tear apart marriages, and ultimately destroy the family—all of which would hurt women in the long run. He stated:
It is an insult to the fair sex to put up her case in support of birth-control by artificial methods. As it is, man has sufficiently degraded her for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her. I urge the advocates of artificial methods to consider the consequences. Any large use of the methods is likely to result in the dissolution of the marriage bond and in free love…Birth control to me is a dismal abyss.
He believed that woman “should realize her majesty and train herself to say ‘No’ when she means it,” and that man “must understand that woman is his companion and helpmate in life, and not a means of satisfying his carnal desire.” In Gandhi’s view, contraception made it easier to objectify women, and would poison a true understanding of their worth.
Birth control advocates who worked on behalf of women’s rights often asked him to consider whether, in difficult situations, birth control might be advisable. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood—and a supporter of eugenics—once asked him to concede that these situations existed. “I agree,” said Gandhi, “there are hard cases. Else birth control enthusiasts would have no case.” But he never agreed to the logic of allowing artificial contraception in such cases. Rather, he argued forcefully against the logic that underlay most of the cases that were put forth. For instance, regarding the situation of girls married at an early age against their will, he considered that it was not “pregnancy that is to be feared” but rather “the rape of a girl of tender age.”
Once, in a debate with a birth control advocate, his opponent asked Gandhi whether he would advocate artificial birth control in specific cases where the health of the mother might be at risk. His reply? “No. One exception will lead to another till it finally becomes general.” Instead, Gandhi recommends that in these rare situations couples live apart if they are truly incapable of continence—a situation he was not ever willing to concede lightly. This statement was typical of Gandhi’s approach to these hard cases. “A wise judge will not give the wrong decision in the face of a hard case. He will allow himself to appear to have hardened his heart, because he knows that truest mercy lies in not making a bad law.”
Gandhi argued that the long-term implications of a contraceptive mentality posed a grave danger to society by disordering mankind’s understanding of the sexual act. He feared that men and women would become “mental and moral wrecks” if they embraced contraception. He saw the great danger to sexual purity within a society where sex was separated from its reproductive purpose.
Gandhi served as a spiritual director for many young men and women in India whom he advised personally, often through letters. Based on this experience, he stated: “Artificial methods [of contraception] are like putting a premium on vice. They make man and woman reckless,” and “birth controllers turn vice into virtue. When sexual indulgence is regarded a virtue, it will be the undoing of man.”
According to Gandhi, once all sexual constraints were destroyed, “the remedy will be found worse than the disease.” With the loosening of sexual mores, he argued, would come the notion that everyone ought to satisfy all their sexual urges. Tongue firmly in cheek, Gandhi said: “It is dinned into one’s ears that gratification of the sex urge is a solemn obligation like the obligation of discharging debts lawfully incurred.” The point seems obvious to us today, but at the time Gandhi was writing there was considerable debate about whether artificial contraception would, in fact, increase sexual license (many people believed man couldn’t fall much farther than he already had). In one discussion, Margaret Sanger mocked what she called Gandhi’s “appalling fear of licentiousness and over-indulgence” that might result from widespread use of birth control. But Gandhi saw the future more clearly: “Undoubtedly, there is already much of sex indulgence and even sex perversion. But contraceptives would ... give a status to intemperate connection which it does not enjoy now.”
He believed that refusing to be a slave to all one’s sexual temptations was a part of glorifying God.
With a remarkable degree of foresight, Gandhi was willing to take the contraceptive mentality to its natural conclusion on another issue as well:
If mutual consent makes a sexual act moral, whether within marriage or without, and, by parity of reasoning, even between members of the same sex, the whole basis of sexual morality is gone and nothing but misery and defect awaits the youth of the country… It is futile to hope that the use of contraceptives will be restricted to the mere regulation of progeny. There is hope for a decent life only so long as the sexual act is definitely related to the conception of precious life. This rules out of court perverted sexuality and, to a lesser degree, promiscuity. Divorce of the sexual act from its natural consequence must lead to hideous promiscuity and condonation, if not endorsement, of unnatural vice.
Gandhi repeatedly made the connection between the spread of artificial birth control and an increase in homosexual behavior, arguing that a sexual ethic based simply on the gratification of passions would make it “the rage among boys and girls to satisfy their urge among members of their own sex.” This was a radical prediction to make at the time, but Gandhi insisted on fundamentally equating sexual gratification, whether hetero- or homosexual, divorced from its procreative aspect.
Gandhi’s opponents often argued that sexual license was “natural” for man, and therefore to be encouraged. But Gandhi was not prepared to compromise on this issue. He argued: “The reasoning underlying the use of artificial methods is that indulgence is a necessity of life … You may be incapable of attaining the ideal, your flesh may be weak, but do not, therefore, lower the ideal.” To do so was to make “irreligion your religion.”
Gandhi’s had an entirely different anthropological understanding of what was natural for man:
No word seems to be more abused to-day than the word ‘Natural”… Indeed, if we were to put man in the same category as the brute, many things could be proved to come under the description ‘natural’. But if they belong to two different species, not everything that is natural to the brute is natural to man…Man does not live by bread alone, as the brute does. He uses his reason to worship God and to know Him, and regards the attainment of that knowledge as summum bonum of life. The brute, if he can be said to worship God, does so involuntarily. The desire to worship God is inconceivable in the brute, while man can voluntarily worship even Satan. It must, therefore, be, and is, man’s nature to know and find God. When he worships Satan, he acts contrary to his nature.
This profound understanding that the true nature of man was to know God was at the heart of Gandhi’s repudiation of contraception, despite increasing pressure. Reminding his readers that “Man alone is made in the image of God,” Gandhi repeatedly emphasized the responsibilities placed upon them by virtue of their unique status in creation; he said: man cannot “dignify every want by the name of necessity.” Always focused on uplifting man, Gandhi reminded those who wished to concede to the weaknesses of human nature that “the downward instinct requires no advocacy, no argument.”
The argument that chastity was unrealistic and ignorant of man’s nature prompted this comment; “Jesus, who set the seal of his own blood upon his precept 'love thine enemy,'… would be held to have uttered the precept in ignorance of mankind, simply because we are far away from the realization of that principle!”
One can well imagine what Gandhi’s position would be today with regard to providing condoms as a means of disease control rather than birth control.
As to the use of contraception to control population growth, he said: “The bogey of increasing birth-rate is not a new thing. It has been often trotted out.” Then, as now, India was faced with serious overcrowding and terrible poverty in certain areas of the country, and many advocated artificial birth control as a remedy for the problem. Today it is obvious that India is in no danger of famine—it is one of the world’s largest grain exporters—but for a long period in the 20th Century, the question of whether India would ever be able to support its population was hotly debated. Gandhi was extremely skeptical of the immediacy of the “population problem,” and said so in no uncertain terms:
The earth has not suffered from the weight of over-population through its age of countless millions. How can it be that the truth has suddenly dawned upon some people that it is in danger of perishing of shortage of food unless the birthrate is checked through the use of contraceptives?
He argued that by building up industry, using better agricultural techniques, and instituting a proper system of land use, India could support a far greater population, and that an increase in population “is not and ought not to be regarded as a calamity to be avoided.” This is not to say that Gandhi believed in having as many children as possible—he did not. He argued that men and women should not be married at the extremely young ages common in Indian society, and that they ought to exercise some restraint, limiting population growth by “methods which in themselves ennoble the race”—that is, self-control.
While acknowledging that some limitation of family size was necessary, there was, he maintained, a fundamental distinction to be made between situations where “married people regulate, so far as humanly possible, the number of their progeny by moral restraint” (he thus cautiously accepted early “natural family planning”) and those where couples avoided children but still clung to their “sexual indulgence.” His argument was similar in its basis to the classic Christian understanding that you cannot use an evil means to accomplish a good end. He said: “Moral results can only be produced by moral restraints. All other restraints defeat the very purpose for which they are intended.” Similarly, he pointed out that while “It is a sin to bring forth unwanted children… it is a greater sin to avoid the consequences of one’s own action. It simply unmans man.”
'I agree,' said Gandhi, 'there are hard cases. Else birth control enthusiasts would have no case.'
Religion was a crucial factor in Gandhi’s views on contraception. Gandhi’s understanding of the proper form of birth control was, we have seen, founded on self-control. But Gandhi understood continence to be impossible without recourse to God. Indeed, he said that a “moral life without reference to religion is like a house built upon sand,” and that it was possible “only with God’s grace, and God’s grace comes through ceaseless communion with Him and complete self-surrender.”
He believed that all people were called to some degree of self-denial, and that refusing to be a slave to all one’s sexual temptations was a part of glorifying God. “Above all, a life of restraint presupposes an intense living desire for reunion with God. When there is a heart-felt perception of this central fact, there will be continuously increasing reliance upon God to keep his instrument pure and in order.” Gandhi understood that this call is difficult, and yet no less universal for its difficulty—these “laws that govern the soul” were “few and unchangeable, capable of being understood and followed by the whole of the human family.”
There is a great silence—a willful ignorance, perhaps—in the secular world today about Gandhi’s positions on contraception; yet this moral issue continues to be central to the debate on the proper understanding of human sexuality. He believed that chastity is both possible and positive, that marriage is sacrosanct, and that woman has a particular dignity that must be respected and supported. He rejected one of the basic premises of today’s popular opinion on human sexuality—that contraception is necessary and even good. There is a remarkable prescience in many of Gandhi’s pronouncements on the inevitable consequences of a “contraceptive mentality”—a prescience that merits discussion even among those who disagree with his positions. Indeed, there is something in Gandhi’s arguments that is reminiscent of the alarmist—and accurate—Cassandra-like prophecies of G.K. Chesterton regarding the future of the family.
The similarity between Gandhi’s views and those of the Catholic Church is also striking and inescapable. The Catholic Church’s stance on artificial contraception is often looked upon as an issue of religion-specific dogma—and one without relevance to the majority of the world—rather than an issue inextricably linked to the dignity intrinsic to man and his sexuality. When we examine the issue in a broader religious context, it is useful—and surprising—to encounter the position of a non-Western religious and social icon such as Gandhi. Apologists for the Catholic position on contraception would do well to make use of Gandhi’s views in defense of teachings that were long understood as part of human nature and natural law.