B orn on October 2, 1869 in Porbandar, India to a family of the Vaisya, or merchant, caste, Gandhi's childhood ambition was to study medicine, but because this was considered "defiling: to his caste, his father persuaded him to study law instead" (Anon. 1998). Gandhi's religious background influenced his eating habits throughout his life. Ironically, he did not at first trust the connection between his religion and his family's diet, but, according to his autobiographical account, it was through his experimentation with his eating habits that Gandhi found his religious and moral mission in life.
Gandhi's family followed the Vaishnava version of Hinduism and was rigorously opposed to meat-eating. For the young Gandhi, raised in British colonial India, Indian subservience to the British was understood in terms of a superior British diet. One of Gandhi's friends and even his own older brother had begun to eat meat and argued with Gandhi on behalf of their own lifestyle:
We are a weak people because we do not eat meat. The English are able to rule over us, because they are meat-eaters. You know how hardy I am and how great a runner too. It is because I am a meat-eater. Meat-eaters do not have boils or tumours, and even if they sometimes happen to have any, these heal quickly. Our teachers and other distinguished people who eat meat are no fools. They know its virtues. You should do likewise. There is nothing like trying. Try, and see what strength it gives.
(Gandhi 1939: 17 and 19)
Meat makes one healthy, stronger, and able to cope with the exigencies of the world. As Gandhi noted: "I certainly looked feeble-bodied by the side of my brother and this friend. They were hardier, physically stronger, and more daring" (1939: 17).
But Gandhi also understood the political implications of health and strength: "A doggerel of the Gujarati poet Narmad was in vogue amongst us schoolboys, as follows":
Behold the mighty Englishman He rules the Indian small, Because being a meat-eater He is five cubits tall.
(Gandhi 1939: 18)
His friends urged Gandhi to see that many of his teachers were meat-eaters and those who ate meat were both "hardier, physically stronger, and more daring" (Jack 1956: 10). Also, they convinced him into believing that "if the whole country [India] took to meat-eating, the English could be overcome" (Jack 1956: 11). With these arguments, Gandhi decided to eat meat. Immediately after he first tried it, he had nightmares of animals inside him and was full of remorse. However, this new diet was an experiment to teach him about the strength that meat provided and thus he "would remind myself that meat-eating was a duty and he became more cheerful" (Jack 1956: 12).
With this realization, Gandhi came to use dieting practices, mainly abstinence from food, to further the objectives of his missions. His physical emaciation as a result of these practices came to be viewed as a symbol of strength and protest, rather than one of malnutrition often associated with extraordinarily thin individuals in third-world countries.
Gandhi recognized that he was lying constantly to his parents about his new eating habit. He acknowledged that "though it is essential to eat meat, and also essential to take up food reform in the country, yet deceiving and lying to one's father and mother is worse than not eating meat" (Jack i956: i3). In their lifetime, therefore, meat-eating was beyond the pale. He stated that he decided to pursue vegetarianism at least until his parents passed away. But part of the reason he gives as an adult is the image of the "meat-eater," not as the ruling Englishman in Rudyard Kipling's image but rather as the crude and hypocritical Indian avatar, the convert to Christianity as the meat-eating parvenu:
In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this. I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment. About the same time, I heard of a well-known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one's own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.
(Gandhi 1939: 29)
And, one can add, eating meat.
While in England attending law school, Gandhi reaffirmed his commitment to vegetarianism and rather than abstaining from meat for the sake of his parents, he did so as a personal choice (Jack 1956: 18). In England, he actively searched for vegetarian restaurants and would often "trot i0 or i2 miles each day" in order to find one of these restaurants. During one of these searches, Gandhi found a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street, London and believed "God had come to my aid" (Jack 1956: 18-19). At this restaurant, he purchased a book by Henry Stephen Salt entitled A Plea for Vegetarianism (1886) and now claimed to have become a vegetarian by choice. That day, he made the choice "in favor of vegetarianism, the spread of which forward became my mission" (Jack 1956: 18-19). But, like his hated Hindu convert, it was within the realm of British vegetarian practice that Gandhi found an acceptable Western scientific and therefore moral rationale for avoiding meat:
I saw that the writers on vegetarianism had examined the question very minutely, attacking it in its religious, scientific, practical and medical aspects. Ethically they had arrived at the conclusion that man's supremacy over the lower animals meant not that the former should prey upon the latter, but that the higher should protect the lower, and that there should be mutual aid between the two as between man and man. They had also brought out the truth that man eats not for enjoyment but to live.
(Gandhi 1939: 46)
The Christian underpinnings of this view, so obvious even in the high Victorian period, the 1880s, when Gandhi studied in England, are part of his account.
While at a vegetarian boarding house in Manchester, Gandhi met a vegetarian Christian who persuaded him to read the Bible (Jack 1956: 22). While reading the New Testament, Gandhi reconciled the Sermon on the Mount with the teachings of the Gita and the Light of Asia (Jack 1956: 23). He wrote that the Sermon "went straight to my heart." The verses read, "But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Jack 1956: 23). These teachings promoted the ideas of nonviolent protest. In i904, while in South Africa and writing news columns, he met Henry S.L. Polack in a vegetarian restaurant, who introduced him to the writings of John Ruskin, by lending Gandhi the book Unto this Last (Jack 1956: 56). Gandhi claimed that the book "gripped me . . . I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book" (Jack 1956: 56). He believed the teachings of that book centered on the good of the individual being determined by the good of the community, the work of any man is as good as that of any other, and the life of labor is worth living. After this reading, Gandhi claims that "he arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice" (Jack 1956: 56). He considered his religious disciplinary "conclusions" to include
"chiefly vegetarianism, abstinence from stimulants, and self-control in general" (Jack 1956: 471).
According to his account, Gandhi had only remained a vegetarian "in the interests of truth and the vow I had taken [in front of my mother], but had wished at the same time that every Indian could be a meat-eater, and had looked forward to being one myself freely and openly someday, and to enlisting others to the cause" (Jack 1956: 19). But suddenly being a "good" British subject meant following a new (yet old) dieting practice.
Vegetarianism becomes the space in which all Indians can be reconciled, as in Gandhi's account of the establishment of the "Tolstoy Farm" in i904.
We were all vegetarians on Tolstoy Farm, thanks, I must gratefully confess, to the readiness of all to respect my feelings. The Musalman youngsters must have missed their meat during ramzan, but none of them ever let me know that they did so. They delighted in and relished the vegetarian diet, and the Hindu youngsters often prepared vegetarian delicacies for them, in keeping with the simplicity of the Farm.
(Gandhi 1939: 276)
Later in his life, Gandhi became a greater figure of political, cultural, and economic protest. His eating habits became part and parcel of his politics. Gandhi first protested in attempt to eradicate race prejudice in South Africa in 1893. Later, after years of civil protest in South Africa, he returned to his homeland, India, where he spoke of a new India in which Indians could be free of class constraints. Following the passage by the English ruling government of India of the repressive Rowlatt Act of i9i9, Gandhi called for a general strike against Englishmen throughout the country, and, after 400 Indians were killed in the Amritsar Massacre that year, he called for non-cooperation with British courts, stores, and schools. In 1921, the Congress Party, a coalition of various nationalist groups, voted again for a nonviolent disobedience campaign. After England's entry into World War II, Gandhi proposed non-cooperation, and, as a result, he was imprisoned along with other members of the Congress Party.
When the British attempted to blame Gandhi, he fasted for about three weeks while in jail. The politics of fasting always maintained an ethical dimension well learned as a student in Britain:
Fasting and restriction in diet now played a more important part in my life. Passion in man is generally co-existent with a hankering after the pleasures of the palate. And so it was with me. I have encountered many difficulties in trying to control passion as well as taste, and I cannot claim even now to have brought them under complete subjection. I have considered myself to be a heavy eater. What friends have thought to be my restraint has never appeared to me in that light. If I had failed to develop restraint to the extent that I have, I should have descended lower than the beasts and met my doom long ago. However, as I had adequately realized my shortcomings, I made great efforts to get rid of them, and thanks to this endeavour I have all these years pulled on with my body and put in with it my share of work. . . . And if there was some occasion for penance or the like, I gladly utilized it too for the purpose of fasting. But I also saw that, the body now being drained more effectively, the food yielded greater relish and the appetite grew keener. It dawned upon me that fasting could be made as powerful a weapon of indulgence as of restraint.
(Gandhi 1939: 267)
Gandhi believed that Hindu-Moslem unity was natural and undertook a twenty-one-day fast to bring the communities together. He also fasted in a strike of mill workers in Ahmedabad. Later, in i946, after he emerged from being imprisoned by the British, he looked to create a united India with a federal parliament. He objected to the separate Muslim state of Pakistan that Muhammad Ali Jinnah demanded. However, Jinnah refused to compromise and instead commanded communal killings that left 5,000 dead and 15,000 wounded in Calcutta, and this violence spread throughout India. As a result, in Bengal, Gandhi declared that he would fast until his death unless Hindus and Muslims could learn to live peacefully together. The situation calmed in Bengal, but riots continued in other parts of India. Gandhi did not participate in his nation's celebration of their independence from England in i947, for he despaired his nation's lack of unity. On September i , i947, he began another fast for Indian unity, after an angry mob broke into the residence he stayed at in Calcutta. His fast ended when both Hindu and Muslim leaders agreed that there would be no more killings. On January 13, 1948, in Delhi, he began his last fast, praying for Indian unity. That day, he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist, as he fasted.
Gandhi changed the emaciated image from one of victim of Third World hunger, to that of strength to abstain from food for moral aims. Likely, it was his extreme practice and unusual motivation that garnered Gandhi attention and respect during his protests. Through the success of such spectacular displays of food abstinence, Gandhi inevitably was an essential figure in setting the forefront for more modern-day fasters.
SLG/Caroline A. Bugg
See also Emaciated Body Images; Religion and Dieting; Vegetarianism
References and Further Reading
Anon. (1998) "Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand," in Paula K. Byers (ed.), Encyclopedia of World
Biography, 2nd edn, Vol. XVII, Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Group.
Gandhi, Mahatma (1939) Gandhi: An Autobiography— the Story of My Experiments with Truth, trans. Mahadev Desai, London: Pheonix Press.
-(1949) Diet and Diet Reform, Ahmedabad:
Navajivan Publishing House.
-(1959) The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism,
Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.
Jack, Homer Alexander (ed.) (1956) The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of His Life and Writings, Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.
Salt, Henry Steven (1886) A Plea for Vegetarianism, Manchester: Vegetarian Society.
Walters, Kerry S. and Portmess, Lisa (2001) Religious Vegetarianism: from Hesiod to the Dalai Lama, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Wolpert, Stanley A. (2001) Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Was this article helpful?
Are you looking to lose weight or even just tone up? What is stopping you from having the body you want and help you feel great at the same time? I created Weight Loss All-Star for all those wanting to lose weight, and keep the weight off. I know how hard it is to do diets and stick with them, and get the motivation to get up and exercise.