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Gandhi's Body

Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism

By Joseph S. Alter

Publication Year: 2000

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Critical Histories


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p. vii

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Preface: History, Body, Culture

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pp. ix-xviii

There is probably no single person more directly associated with India and India's struggle for independence than Mahatma Gandhi. One of the great men of the twentieth century, he defined the ways and means of nonviolent political resistance, redefined the meaning of peace, and made politics take account of morality...


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Chapter 1. Gandhi's Body, Gandhi's Truth

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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 ofan enigma: a genius, to be sure, and...

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Chapter 2. The Ethereal Politics of the Mahatma's Fasts

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pp. 28-52

Gandhi's use offasting 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; PyarelaI1932). Between 1918, when he stopped eating in support of a...


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Chapter 3. Nature Cure and Yoga: Transnational Experiments with Ether and Hydrotherapy

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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...

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Chapter 4. Surya Namaskar-Salute to Village Democracy

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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 preVedic solar cult....

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Chapter 5. Somatic Nationalism: Gama the Great, Another Heroic Indian

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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...

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Conclusion: Post-Gandhian Somatics: Auto-Urine Therapy

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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...


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pp. 155-157


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pp. 159-171


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pp. 173-188


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pp. 189-203


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pp. 205-207

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204742
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812235562

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2000

Series Title: Critical Histories
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OCLC Number: 794702134
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Gandhi's Body

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Gandhi, Mahatma, 1869-1948.
  • Sexual ethics -- India.
  • Medicine, Ayurvedic.
  • Nationalism -- India.
  • India -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • Diet -- India.
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