Eradicating the “Scourge of Drink” and the “Unpardonable Sin of Illegitimate Sexual Enjoyment”: M.K. Gandhi as Anti-vice Crusader

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Harald Fischer-Tiné, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1874 – 1948) is one of the few political leaders from what used to be called the ‘Third World’ who has become an iconic figure in the West. Admittedly, he is mostly not known as an ardent crusader against the unholy trinity of drugs, drink, and debauchery in the first place, but rather as a spokesman and symbol of anti-colonial nationalism. Yet, from early on, Mohandas Gandhi started to cultivate a quasi-religious obsession with physical health and moral perfection that seems astonishingly close to the concerns of late 19th and early 20th century Christian purity crusaders. It made him engage in active campaigning against the very same ‘evils’ targeted by both the protestant international and advocates of a science based ‘scientific’ social hygiene’ schemes: alcohol abuse, the trafficking and consumption of opium and all forms of prostitution.

The paper revisits the Mahatma’s biography and writings to analyze this often neglected aspect of his ideology and work. The focus will be on his temperance activities, his campaign against ‘the opium evil’ as well as his fight against prostitution and sexual ‘licentiousness’ more generally. By doing so, Gandhi emerges as a truly cosmopolitan figure who – while ostentatiously drawing on Hindu traditions of chastity and renunciation – was also connected to global anti-vice networks and crucially influenced by a variety of contemporary Euro-American health and purity discourses.

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