Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gandhi on Raw Food

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated - Mohandas K Gandhi


Gandhi may be one of the most often quoted vegetarians to grace pro-veg bumper-stickers and t-shirts. A well-known promoter of non-violence, Gandhi is revered by the general public and is thought by many to be a saint.

Less well-known is that in addition to advocating vegetarianism, Gandhi promoted a raw vegan diet. Gandhi is famed for in his later years keeping a goat with him throughout his travels, yet he believed that milk was unnatural and unnecessary in the human diet. In his autobiography he writes “It is my firm conviction that man need take no milk at all, beyond the mother's milk that he takes as a baby. His diet should consist of nothing but sunbaked fruits and nuts. He can secure enough nourishment both for the tissues and the nerves from fruits like grapes and nuts like almonds”(206). Gandhi himself was a practicing vegan for only 6 years; due to health issues and pressure from the medical establishment he was convinced to take goat's milk. However, he remained committed to the theory of veganism, and particularly raw veganism. That he could not perfectly apply the diet in his own life continued to be a source of irritation until he died in 1948. His keeping of a personal goat was a compromise – both because he had vowed to abstain from cow and buffalo milk, and because he believed that the dairy establishments generally mistreated the animals.




Gandhi was born into a society heavily influenced by the meat-culture of the British occupation. It was believed by many, both Indian and British, that meat-eating was what gave the British the upper hand over the indigenous nations of the world. Many vegetarian Hindus strove to gain equality with the British by adding meat to their diets. While Gandhi was raised in a devout Hindu family who abhorred meat, young Gandhi was receptive to peer-pressure and the meat propaganda. He recounts: “It began to grow on me that meat-eating was good, that it would make me strong and daring, and that, if the whole county took to meat-eating, the English could be overcome” (11). His family would have been completely opposed to his experimenting with meat, so at the age of 14 or 15 years old Gandhi snuck out with a friend to taste animal flesh for the first time. It was goat’s meat; he writes that it made him sick and gave him nightmares in which a live goat bleated from inside his stomach.

It’s not commonly known that at one time Gandhi ate meat, and even believed that meat was necessary to cultivating a strong personality. His fame as a vegetarian overshadows the fact that, for a time, Gandhi was an avidly pro-meat. While his first experience with meat was far from pleasant, Gandhi was so convinced in the superiority of animal foods that he continued to sneak out of his parent’s house at night to consume meat. Gandhi only re-discovered and claimed vegetarianism for himself on his arrival in England in 1888. Having made a solemn promise to his mother that while abroad he would avoid the three sins; meat, alcohol and women, Gandhi began to haunt various vegetarian restaurants in London. There he found Henry Salt’s book on vegetarianism. He heralds this book as converting him to the path of ethical vegetarianism and convincing him that meat is not necessary for a healthy body, or a healthy society.

Gandhi could be considered a born again vegetarian. He became committed to spreading vegetarianism and joined several vegetarian clubs in London. Salt’s book led to other books on diet and health, and Gandhi began to experiment with his own diet. He gave up coffee and tea, and soon he also gave up all spices and condiments. He writes, “I stopped taking the sweets and condiments I had got from home. The mind having taken a different turn, the fondness for condiments wore away, and I now relished the boiled spinach which in Richmond tasted insipid, cooked without condiments. Many such experiments taught me that the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind” (29). Gandhi’s experiments were at first undertaken for health reasons. With time he would come to find more spiritual benefits from his dietary restrictions, especially in the twin pursuit of ahimsa and brahmacharya, the two moral guidelines which he would come to dedicate his life.

As a result of his reading, Gandhi also became convinced that milk was unnecessary for human health. But it was not until he learned about the mistreatment of dairy animals that he finally gave up milk and embraced ethical veganism. At this point the two defining principles of his life had begun to take pre-dominance- ahimsa and brahmacharya (non-violence and ). He writes:
“It was from Raychandbhai that I first learnt that milk stimulated animal passion. Books on vegetarianism strengthened the idea, but so long as I had not taken the brahmacharya vow I could not make up my mind to forego milk. I had long realized that milk was not necessary for supporting the body, but it was not easy to give it up. While the necessity for avoiding milk in the interests of self-restraint was growing upon me, I happened to come across some literature from Calcutta, describing the tortures to which cows and buffaloes were subjected by their keepers. This had a wonderful effect on me” (173).
Gandhi was living in South Africa when he took a vow to abstain from cow milk and buffalo milk. He did it both to protest the mistreatment of dairy animals and to more closely follow a natural diet for a human being, believing the taking of another species’ milk to be unnatural. On behalf of dairy animals one of his lesser-known causes was born, "Cow-Protection", which strove to improve the living conditions of dairy animals. By this point his dedication to ahimsa was solidifying, bringing with it the inspiration for the Satyagraha (firmness in truth) philosophy that would become his defining passion. Ironically, it would be his single-minded dedication to the Satyagraha movement that would ultimately lead him to drinking milk again. 

His vow against milk was a source of vexation to his friends and doctors, both non-Hindu and Hindu. Over the years, Gandhi faced opposition, especially from the medical community. In the early 20th century, the opinion of most Western doctors was that meat and dairy were absolutely essential for human health, and on one occasion a doctor refused to treat Gandhi unless he partook in eggs. On another occasion, Gandhi’s wife was unknowingly fed beef broth while in the hospital. The doctor had felt it his moral duty to nourish her with meat while Gandhi’s back was turned. 

Around the same time that he gave up cow milk, Gandhi embraced raw food. He termed his new diet a “pure fruit diet” or a “fruitarian” diet. Both of these new changes in diet came about as a part of his dedication to brahmacharya, a yogic principle that is often translated as “celibacy”, but for Gandhi came to represent detachment from all the bodily senses. Throughout his autobiography, he strives for this perfect brahmacharya, which he finds to be the divisive quality of humans from the rest of nature and the key to attaining enlightenment. He writes, “Life without brahmacharya appears to me to be insipid and animal-like. The brute by nature knows no self-restraint. Man is man because he is capable of, and only in so far as he exercises, self-restraint” (167). This quest led him to constantly seek to simplify his life. He abandoned all household frivolities and even forced his wife to give up her jewelry. He wore only rough, handspun cloth and donned the garments of the working class. He desired nothing more than the bare necessities for survival, a philosophy that he carried to the dinner table. “Food should be taken as a matter of duty – even as a medicine – to sustain the body, never for the satisfaction of the palate. Thus, pleasurable feeling comes from satisfaction of real hunger” (Key to Health, p13). A fruit diet, for Gandhi, was an attempt to give up emotional attachments to food. But he found that he enjoyed a fruit diet even more than a cooked grain diet (169), a situation he viewed as a hindrance in his quest for brahmacharya.

To counter the pleasure of a fruit diet, Gandhi took certain measures. He restricted himself to only 5 fruits per day, and chose only between the fruits that would have been available and affordable to India’s poorest people. To this end, he seems to have survived on a diet of primarily peanuts, lemons, dates, and olive oil (174). He also took up fasting on holidays and the full moon, and decreased his food intake to one meal a day. Here he found the higher nutritional value of raw food useful. He writes that the inclusion of raw foods in the diet “will at least enable one to do with less quantity of food and thus not only make for economy in consumption but also automatically reduced the dietetic himsa (violence) that one commits to sustain life” (Key to Health 13). Gandhi felt that a raw food diet allowed him to consume less food, therefore decreasing his consumption of world resources and the inevitable violence caused by growing and transporting food. 

Unfortunately, a diet of peanuts and lemons does not fulfill all one’s nutritional needs, and after six years Gandhi became very ill. He admits on page 240 that an overconsumption of peanut butter (and an underconsumption of other foods) probably contributed to his illness. It was at this point in his life, after much internal debate and external pressure from doctors and family members, that Gandhi began drinking goat’s milk. As he had vowed to abstain from cow and buffalo milk, he chose goat’s milk. He never felt good about this decision, and constantly strove to return to a vegan diet. But he never fully recovered his health; and, distracted and overworked with the burgeoning Satyagraha movement, he felt goat’s milk to be a necessary evil. “The memory of this action even now rankles in my breast and fills me with remorse, and I am constantly thinking how to give up goat's milk. But I cannot yet free myself from that subtlest of temptations, the desire to serve, which still holds me” (243). With failing health, Gandhi felt the only way he could continue to lead the struggle was if he took goat’s milk. His dedication to the Satyagraha movement, rooted in the same principle ahimsa that had inspired his decision to give up cow milk, ultimately persuaded him to return to animal products.

Even as he partook in milk, his values and ideas about milk and animal rights never changed. Many years after falling ill, he continued to promote a vegan diet. In 1929 he wrote: 
“As a searcher for Truth I deem it necessary to find the perfect food for a man to keep body, mind and soul in sound condition. I believe that the search can only succeed with unfired food, and that in the limitless vegetable kingdom there is an effective substitute for milk, which, every medical man admits, has its drawbacks and which is designed by nature not for man but for babies and young ones of lower animals.” Young India, 8/22/1929 
The pro-dairy camp has used Gandhi’s illness and eventual return to drinking milk to argue that animal products are essential to health. Anti-raw food groups have used his failure on the “pure fruit” diet as proof that a raw food diet is unhealthy. But even after he himself was persuaded to diverge from a raw vegan diet, Gandhi remained convinced of its superiority to other diets. He continued to search for a substitute for milk in his own diet. At one point he entreats the reader to provide dietary suggestions that would allow him to eschew all animal products. “I should be greatly obliged if anyone with experience in this line, who happens to read this chapter, would tell me, if he has known from experience, and not from reading, of a vegetable substitute for milk, which is equally nourishing and digestible” (143). 

Gandhi believed that human health does not depend on the inclusion of animal products in the diet, but was unable to commit to a varied and calorically sufficient vegan diet. His focus on the denial of the body led him to severely under nourish his own body, both calorically and nutritionally. Most likely, Gandhi’s health problems came from a severely limited diet of peanut butter and lemons. While he was committed to the theory of raw veganism, Gandhi did not put the diet into practice in a healthy and normal way. A raw diet may be higher in nutrients than most cooked food diets, but only a normally varied and adequate diet, cooked or raw, will suffice. Gandhi is revered as a practitioner of non-violence, a man of great moral discipline, and possibly a saint, but his diet was not appropriate for the raw food aspirant who hopes to lead a normal and non-ascetic lifestyle. Those who would like to use Gandhi as a representative sample should consider that he sets a poor example of the diet before arguing for or against veganism, raw food, or fruitarianism. 
 For a list of the books Gandhi mentions in his Autobiography as being inspirational, please check out the Recommended Reading page on this site.

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