Gandhi the Vegetarian

In September 1888 a young Gujarati man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi set sail for England where he would pursue studies in law. Before he left he made a vow to his mother that while he was abroad he would not touch wine, women and meat. Easier said than done!

The challenge began as soon as he boarded the ship–managing to find something to eat, which both his religious belief and palate could support. A fellow passenger, an Englishman, assured him that it was so cold in England that one could not possibly survive without eating meat. The young man managed to subsist on what he could, until he reached England. It did not get any easier when he tried a couple of different lodgings. The English landladies were kind, but at a loss about what to feed their boarder. He ate oatmeal for breakfast, but barely subsisted on bland spinach, a few slices of bread and jam for lunch and dinner. The young man was almost always hungry, but was adamant to keep his vow.

As time passed, he began to find his feet in his new environs. He began to walk around the neighbourhood. He also began to look for vegetarian restaurants; walking sometimes ten or twelve miles in his search. Then one day, as he described in his autobiography: During these wanderings I once hit on a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street. The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after his own heart. Before I entered I noticed books for sale exhibited under a glass window near the door. I saw among them Salt’s ‘A Plea for Vegetarianism’. This I purchased for a shilling and went straight to the dining room. This was my first hearty meal since my arrival in England. God had come to my aid.

Henry Salt’s book opened up a new perspective for Gandhi, and it whetted his appetite for dietetic studies. As he recalled over 40 years later when he shared the dais with Henry Salt at a meeting organised by the London Vegetarian Society on 20 November 1931: I received the invitation to be present at this meeting, I need not tell you how pleased I was because it revived old memories and recollections of pleasant friendships formed with vegetarians. I feel especially honoured to find on my right, Mr. Henry Salt. It was Mr. Salt’s book ‘ A Plea for Vegetarianism’, which showed me why apart from a hereditary habit, and apart from my adherence to a vow administered to me by my mother, it was right to be a vegetarian.

Till then Gandhi was a vegetarian by religion and tradition, but from the moment he read Salt he became ‘a vegetarian by choice’ and the spread of vegetarianism became his mission. He read whatever he could find on the subject. He found that there was a Vegetarian Society in London; he subscribed to its weekly journal, and then began to attend its meetings. In his new zeal, he even formed a branch of the Society in the locality where he then lived. Through the meetings he made friends with like-minded people. One of these friends was a man named Josiah Oldfield who was an active member of the London Vegetarian Society and editor of its journal. Sometime later, the two friends also shared accommodation, and dietetic experiments. In September 1890 Gandhi was elected to the Executive Committee of the Vegetarian Society as Secretary.

Badge of the Vegetarian Society as designed by Gandhi

Interestingly the start of Gandhi’s life-long prolific writing was a series of six essays that he wrote for the Society’s journal The Vegetarian. These were published from February to June 1891 under the heading Indian Vegetarians. In one of the essays Gandhi explained how Asian vegetarianism differed from its European counterpart. Unlike the English, the Indians do not take each dish separately, but they mix many things together. …Each dish is elaborately prepared. In fact, they don’t believe in plain boiled vegetables, but must have them flavoured with plenty of condiments, e.g., pepper, salt, cloves, turmeric, mustard seed, and various other things for which it would be difficult to find English names unless they be those used in medicine.’ He explained how the Indian diet was richer and more varied, except in one respect—the fruit, yes, the all-important fruit, is sadly conspicuous by its absence in the above-mentioned specimen dishes.

Gandhi’s essays took apart some common myths and misconceptions. They also  helped him to articulate his early thoughts on what was to remain a life-long passion and preoccupation. His experiments in dietetics continued during his time in South Africa, and throughout out his life in India. As he experimented, Gandhi also continued to write about diet and health. In 1906 while in South Africa, he wrote some articles under the heading Guide to Health. He further consolidated and expanded his ideas while he was confined to the Aga Khan Palace in Poona in 1942. These were published under the title Key to Health. This booklet concisely but comprehensively covers a wide spectrum of topics related to all aspects of health.

Today, across the world there is a proliferation of gyan on healthy foods and lifestyle. Movements like veganism are trending; as are the paeans to fruit, nuts and seeds; eliminating refined sugar and salt, and adopting non-dairy milks such as almond and soya milk. Whole grains and raw food, and even fasting are being promoted as the newly-discovered pillars of healthy life.  

1 October is celebrated as World Vegetarian Day, and 2 October marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. An appropriate time to remind ourselves that well over a hundred years ago, MKG had already “been there, done that.”

–Mamata

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