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Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)
Experiments with Truth

Some aspects on the life and thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi

From The Vegetarian, September/October 1984, published by The Vegetarian Society UK:

MOHANDAS GANDHI was born in 1869 at Porbandar, a coastal town on the Kathiawar Peninsula in Western India, into a devout Hindu family where vegetarianism was a part of their religion. But, as he relates in his autobiography, as a youth Gandhi yielded for a short time to the temptation to eat meat. He was assured by a friend that eating meat would make him strong and daring, while the Englishman's power to dominate India was attributed among his companions to the superior strength that came from regular meat eating.

The young Gandhi's first rebellion, going secretly with his friend to chew a tough piece of goat's flesh, was far from a success. On some half dozen further occasions his friend had more tasty meat dishes prepared for him and Gandhi began to enjoy them. Then a moral revulsion from the deceit that he was practising on his parents overcame him and he resolved never to eat meat while they were still alive.

In fact, this was for him the end of meat eating. For when a little later the unprecedented step was taken by the family to allow Mohandas to travel to England to study law, his mother would only withdraw her strong opposition if he took a solemn vow to abstain from meat and alcohol while he was away from home. Gandhi took this vow very seriously and endured many difficulties about food until he discovered that there were vegetarian restaurants in London and a Vegetarian Society of which he soon became an enthusiastic member.

Turning point

In the first of the restaurants that he entered he bought a shilling copy of Henry Salt's Plea for vegetarianism. Reading this was a turning point. Hitherto he had avoided meat because of his vow; now Salt's book convinced him of the moral case. 'From the time of reading this book, I can claim to have become a vegetarian by choice.'

The search for fulfilment in religion which was to dominate Gandhi's life began in England when with Theosophist friends he read The Song Celestial, a translation of the Bhagavadgita, and The Light of Asia telling the story of Buddha. Through other acquaintances he was introduced to the New Testament and was deeply impressed by The Sermon on the Mount.

After adopting a convinced vegetarianism Gandhi began his lifelong practice of experiments in diet. In London these, he admits, were for economy and health. Having first given up the sweets and condiments sent him from home he drank cocoa to replace tea and coffee and later gave up eggs and all dishes made with them in deference to what he knew would be his mother's wish.

But in an address which he gave to the London Vegetarian Society years later in 1931 he advised vegetarians to beware of laying too much stress on any health advantages of their diet at the expense of revealing its true moral basis. Shortly belore his death this thought was again in his mind when he told his evening prayer meeting: "The correct way for people to spread vegetarianism is to reason out its beauties, which should be exhibited in their lives. There is no other royal road to bringing round others to one's view."

Although in 1891 Gandhi returned to India a qualified barrister, he was unable to establish himself as a lawyer at home. So he took advantage of an offer of work in South Africa from a local Moslem firm who needed a lawyer to handle a complicated case in Pretoria. There, after suffering personal humiliations because of his colour, Gandhi began his long and mainly successful championship of his fellow countrymen oppressed by the racial laws of Natal and the Transvaal.

Awareness and Simplicity

His inarticulate diffidence disappeared and he began to show the courage and patient firmness in negotiation which were to become characteritic of him. It was in this struggle that he developed the unique non-violent resistance to evil for which he chose the name Satyagraha (Truth force or Love force). Altogether Gandhi spent twenty-nine years in South Africa and during that very formative period he made a return to the religion of his ancestors as he developed a critical appreciation of Hinduism through a deepened knowledge of its religious classics.

The Gita became for him 'an infallible guide of conduct'. He had come to realise that he must find God by the path of devoted service described in the Gita. "If I found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realisation. I had made the religion of service my own, as I felt that God could be realised only through service".

The non-attachment to posessions, even to life itself, also enjoined in the Gita gave Gandhi his utter fearlessness and be became persuaded that to be always free to serve without a conflict of duties he must impose upon himself the complete chastity, even within marriage, known to Hindus as the Brahmacharya.

Having reflected deeply on what this entailed and with the compliance of his wife, he took the vow for life. He found in a well-chosen and austere diet an imporlant help towards fulfilling his pledge. 'Fasting and restriction in diet now played a more important part in my life. Passion in man is generally co-existent with it hankering after the pleasures of the palate and so it was with me'. In the belief that it 'stimulated animal passion' and also because he had heard of cruel practices to increase the milk yield of cows in Calcutta he gave up milk. At this time he found that fresh fruit and nuts provided an ideal diet.

As he was making this progress in religious awareness and simplicity of life Gandhi records that his passion for vegetarianism was increasing as was his wish to spread its message. The two communities with which be was closely involved in South Africa - the Phoenix Settlement, and the later Tolstoy farm, a meeting plate for his followers in Satyagraha were both vegetarian and he gave support and financial help to vegetarian restaurants. In both settlements, as also in the later Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad after his return to India, poisonous snakes were not killed, yet there were no casualties from snake-bite.

Gandhi had a pronounced suspicion of doctors and in illness preferred to treat himself and his family by diet and certain forms of nature cure. Both he and his wife, the patient and sensible Kasturbai, were tested by doctors who placed an inordinate importance upon meat and milk in the treatment that they prescribed. Particularly memorable is the reply of Kasturbai who when told that her life would be at grave risk unless she consented to take beef tea, refused to do so for deep-seated traditional reasons: "I will not take beef tea. It is a rare thing in this world to be born a human being and I would rather die in your arms than pollute my body with such abominations".

Gandhi was pressed to take milk by doctors attending to him for pleurisy when he wae briefly in England in 1914 but his refusal was absolute. The same thing happened in his most serious illness from disentery and fever in 1918. This time Kasturbai reminded him that his vow was against cow's milk; surely he was free to take goat's milk To his lasting regret Gandhi gave way and he drank goat's milk for the rest of his life. 'This has been', he said later, 'the tragedy of my life'.

After his return to India in 1914, in spite of his political responsibilities Gandhi worked unceasingly to improve the quality of life for the poor in the countless villages whose life he wished to share. His preoccupations were the spinning of yarn and making of home-spun cloth; cleanliness and sanitation; improvement in the status of women and especially the abolition of child marriage; and the ending of untouchability. He also tried to enrich the people's impoverished diet by teaching them the higher food value of unpolished rice, the importance of the soya bean and the benefit of eating green vegetables.

The ideal of not harming other life is quite different from the ideal of compassionate care and may at times conflict with it, as happened to Gandhi. For him the Hindu ahimsa commandment meant active good will shown in the service of all life. For example, he wrote of cow protection as the central fact of Hinduism. 'Cow protection for me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the whole sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realise his identity with all that lives . . . Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God.'

Yet no-one could have castigated his fellow countrymen more severely for their shortcomings than Gandhi did when he wrote: 'By every act of cruelty to our cattle we disown God and Hinduism. I do not know that the condition of the cattle in any other part of the world is so bad as in unhappy India! Near the end of his life in the Delhi Diary he repeated the charge: 'Our cattle have become a burden on the land for want of care. It is gross ignorance to blame the Muslims for cow slaughter. I hold that it is the Hindus who kill the cattle by inches through ill-treatment.'

In contrast Gandhi himself became the target of Hindu wrath on two occasions. In 1926 his friend Ambalal Sarabhai, the mill-owner at Ahmedabad aroused great anger when he ordered the destruction of stray and rabid dogs which were roaming the district. Gandhi defended him in Young India where he allowed the whole matter to be ventilated. He cited the hundreds of cases of hydrophobia treated in the local hospital. Ignorance still prevented humanity from living at peace with other animals. 'In our ignorance we must kill rabid dogs even as we might have to kill a man found in the act of killing people.' Two years later Gandhi again incurred criticism. A calf was ill beyond hope of recovery and he approved the deliberate ending of its suffering.

The ahimsa commandment influenced all Gandhi's activities. 'Complete non-violence is complete absence of ill-will against all that lives. It therefore embraces even sub-human life, not excluding noxious insects or beasts Non-violence is therefore in its active form good-will towards all life'.

This is what especially appealed in Gandhi's life to Albert Schweitzer. In his book Indian Thought and its Development Schweitzer related Indian thought to the broad distinction which he tried to draw in Civilization and Ethics between ethical attitudes which affirmed the value of life and sought to preserve and enrich it and those which denied a meaning and value to the world and had no will to improve it. He found the attitude of 'world and life negation' most Indian thought; Gandhi was an exception. 'Thus in Gandhi's ethical life affirmation ahimsa is free from the principle of non-activity in which it originated and becomes a commandment to exercise full compassion'.

R. F. Summers

An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, M. Gandhi.
The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fischer.
Mahatma Gandhi, H. Polak, H.N.Brailsford and Lord Pethwick-Lawrence.
Gandhi's Truth, Erik Erikson
. The Wisdom of Gandhi, Selections by Roy Walker.
Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Edited by Ronald Duncan.
The Vegetarian News, Vol.XX VII NO.260 Summer 1948.
Indian Thought and its Development, Albert Schweitzer.
Indian Philosophy, S.Radhakrishnan Vol.1 CH. IX The Theism of the Bhagavadgita.
Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles Ved Mehta