06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Bed with Gandhi: Are God and Sex Incompatible?

When I found out, it felt like Mother Teresa all over again. For the longest time, no one had imagined that there was a single negative thing to be said about that woman. And then allegations began to surface about her denying desperate women birth control and encouraging them to stay impoverished. And now it's Gandhi, whose name is synonymous with "peace," and "non-violent revolution," and "really, really amazing."

But just ask biographer Jad Adams what was going on.

Apparently, Gandhi had some serious issues with sex.

Well, so do plenty of people, you might say. Or you might say, "The guy was celibate! Are you saying every single priest has a serious issue with sex?" To which I would respond, "I'm not even going to get into that!"

Like many of the supposedly celibate priests, Gandhi didn't always act in appropriately chaste ways. He liked to "test" himself by sleeping with beautiful naked young women. As Gandhi got older, the women got younger. At 77, he was sleeping with teenagers. Sleeping, he insisted, was the operative word. The point was that he was not tempted. Which is why he had to constantly watch gorgeous young women undress for him. Because he was so very chaste and so very uninterested. Logical? Enough people seemed to think so. Why couldn't Gandhi just have sex like everyone else? Because he was exceptionally spiritual. He had taken a vow of brahmacharya, a stage of spiritual education characterized by chastity.

So here's what I'm wondering, as I read all of this sordid information about a man whose brilliant leadership changed the world: Why is it that sex and God* keep getting separated? I mean, I know, that's a very old, very redundant, very broad, very speculative, very unimaginative question. I should be asking better questions, like, "What were the social and religious influences in Gandhi's life that may have caused him to arrive at these conclusions about the oppositional nature of sexuality and spirituality?" But I can't get past the fact that so many people come to exactly the same conclusion. If God, then no sex.

Maybe abstinence makes some sense at the leadership level. Clergy members are often set apart from everyone else. They're supposed to differentiate themselves in obvious and significant ways. Everyone's having sex; clergy members abstain. They prove that they have fundamentally different desires. But when we're talking about everyone else, as Gandhi eventually did when he began to urge his followers to abstain even in marriage, then we're just saying that sex and God don't go together.

But where's the fundamental incompatibility between sex and God? After five years of studying religion at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I still don't know.

Here's one answer, most notably traceable in Western religious thought to early Christian asceticism: Sex is physical, of the body, and God is spiritual, of the soul. The body and the soul are two very separate things. The body can die, the soul can continue on.

Is that it? Are we really just afraid of death? And in order to believe in afterlife, we have to separate some critical part of our beings from our physical bodies? Then sex is collateral damage, along with other bodily activities. After all, Gandhi wasn't eating much either. And neither were the Christian ascetics. In many ways, sex is more interesting than eating. So we think and talk more about the sex part. Who can blame us?

Here's another answer: Certain theological and philosophical trends influenced the development of concepts like morality and sin and purity. They were completely contextually dependent, but each contextual development informed the next, until we arrive here, in the current age, with a collection of ideas about right and wrong that feels familiar and straightforward, but is in fact the amalgam of millennia of popular trends.

Maybe there are too many answers. All I know is that sex and God are here to stay, and I'm tired of people acting like they definitely hate each other. Like they can't co-exist. Like they can't have a lot of fun together, support each other, inform each other, and strengthen each other.

Religion is full of examples of positive sexuality. Let me give you just a few.

Talmudic Jewish law demands that a husband fulfill his wife sexually. This is part of his obligation as an observant Jew, and it is grounds for divorce if he can't comply. In Genesis, God utters the first commandment, "Be fruitful and multiply." Jewish tradition clearly interprets this as, "Thou Shalt Have Sex" -- and procreate, of course. But sex, as we all know, is a critical part of that process! In the Zohar, the major Jewish mystical text, there are instructions on how to make sure a woman is physically aroused enough to have sex. Being turned on is a Godly thing. Let me be perfectly clear: All of these ancient Jewish texts are written by and for men. I'm not pretending otherwise. But I'm also not pretending that they're entirely, unrelentingly misogynistic.

Muslim hadith has multiple instances of positive representations of sex, including a story in the narration of Jabir bin 'Abdullah about a young man who marries a "matron." Muhammad chides him for not marrying a virgin (young woman) instead. This is not the first time that the Prophet encourages young men to marry young women for the sake of the sexual fulfillment of both parties. Sexual pleasure is important enough within the context of marriage to merit the Prophet's reproach. The Prophet eventually agrees that the young man's decision is acceptable, but only after the new husband explains that he's being responsible to his family by providing a mother-figure for his sisters.

Marriage is a sacrament for Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. That which marriage involves, the obvious interpretation goes, is therefore also a sacrament. The Book of Common Prayer declares that in marriage a man and woman "become one flesh." Not soul, but flesh. A positive understanding of sex, say the Christians I've asked about this (and I do go around asking Christians questions about sex), is often implied in their traditions without being explicit. Lucinda Mosher, author of the Faith in the Neighborhood series, told me that to imagine that Christianity as a whole frowns upon sex would be "a shallow interpretation of the New Testament." Christian scripture, Christians keep reminding me, includes the Song of Solomon. They rest their case.

When I did ethnographic research at Metropolitan Community Church of New York, an LGBTQ community, I discovered a thriving group of Christians who interpreted scripture in both sex-positive and queer-friendly ways.

I know this is a controversial example for many people, but even Paul, though famously celibate and encouraging of celibacy, certainly allowed for sex.

In a Hindu wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are considered the embodiment of divinity. Sex is implicit in their union, and they come together as fully physical and also completely spiritual. And, of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the following two words: Kama Sutra.

God and sex are getting along just fine everywhere I look. Which is part of the reason why I can ask stupid questions like, "Why do people choose to believe that sex and God are incompatible?"

And while I'm asking, let me just say, "Seriously, Gandhi? Why??"

*I understand that "God," is not precisely the correct term to use in reference to Hindu spirituality, and please forgive me for translating spiritual concepts into stereotypical Western language for the sake of simplifying my point.