Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)
Vegetarianism: The Road to Satyagraha

Arun M. Sannuti
The world remembers Mohandas K. Gandhi as a great man, who taught the power of peace. Without this message, Gandhi would have just been another revolutionary, just another nationalist, in a country that was struggling to throw off the rule of a foreign nation. Where did Gandhi discover this message? How was he able to learn his method when all the other nationalists were learning to fight? He learned it one step at a time, and as one of his first steps, he became a true vegetarian, someone who chose vegetarianism because of beliefs and morals, not due simply to a cultural heritage.
Vegetarianism is rooted in Indian culture and religion as a part of the doctrine of ahimsa, which the Vedas espouse and which Gandhi later appropriated for his own Satyagrahi movement. Ahimsa, in the Vedic tradition, means "having no ill feeling for any living being, in all manners possible and for all times... it should be the desired goal of all seekers." (1) The Laws of Manu, one of the sacred texts of the Hinduism, states that "Without the killing of living beings, meat cannot be made available, and since killing is contrary to the principles of ahimsa, one must give up eating meat." (2) Jainism, which is prominent in Gandhi's home state of Gujarat, espouses strict vegetarianism and restraint from the use of any products made from the slaughter of animals. Vegetarianism pervades the life of all Indians, for even those who do not entirely believe in the religious reasons for avoiding meat, live in a culture where, due to the economics of meat-eating, vegetarianism is a part of life. In India, meat is expensive, a luxury which is not part of the normal lifestyle, and thus difficult to find. Gandhi, when explaining the vegetarian practices of India to his vegetarian friends in England, put it this way:
"In practice, almost all the Indians are vegetarians. Some are so voluntarily, and others compulsorily. The latter, though always willing to take, are yet too poor to buy meat. This statement will be borne out by the fact that there are thousands in India who have to live on one pice a day. These live on bread and salt." (3)
This was the culture into which Gandhi was born. Some Indians wanted to discard the old traditions and thus espoused meat-eating, since they believed that the ancient customs made Indians weak and allowed the British to conquer and rule them. Since Britons ate meat, some Indian nationalists pounced on vegetarianism as a deleterious habit. Gandhi's childhood friend, the "tragedy" in his life, Sheik Mehtab believed in the powers of meat-eating. He told the young Gandhi:
"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." (4)
Mehtab also argued that meat-eating would cure Gandhi's other problems, including his irrational fear of the dark. Gandhi observed that both Mehtab and Gandhi's brother, also a meat-eater, possessed greater physical strength and athletic ability than himself. Gandhi saw indications that meat-eating produced stronger and more courageous men, not only in the British culture, but in India as well. The Kshatriyas, the warrior caste of India, had always eaten meat, and it was generally thought that their diet was one of the sources of their strength. (5) With these arguments, Mehtab eventually convinced Gandhi, well hidden from his parents, to eat meat. At first, Gandhi abhorred it. "The goat's meat was as tough as leather. I simply could not eat it. I was sick and had to leave off eating." (6) However, now that Mehtab knew that Gandhi was convinced of the benefits of eating meat, he would surrender. At extraordinary expense, he managed to get a room in a restaurant and have meat expertly prepared by a trained chef. After eating meat in this manner, hidden from his parents, Gandhi "became a relisher of meat-dishes, if not the meat itself." (7) Yet this came at a price for the painfully honest young Gandhi. He knew that every time he ate meat, he broke an implicit promise to his parents, especially his mother, who would have regarded her youngest son's meat-eating with horror. Gandhi vowed to give up meat, though he thought at the time, as he said in his autobiography, that "it is essential to eat meat, and also essential to take up food 'reform' in the country." He tempered his decision by promising himself that "when they are no more and I have found my freedom, I will eat meat openly, but until that moment arrives, I will abstain from it." (8) Thus, Gandhi based his decision not on the morals or ideals of vegetarianism, but on his desire to honor his parents. Gandhi, by his own admission, was not a true vegetarian. Only his respect for his parents forced him to remain a vegetarian. Gandhi believed in eating meat, because he believed that only by fighting, through physical strength, would his country be free.
So, where did Gandhi learn his vegetarianism? From his descriptions of his mother, one can conclude that religion and its culinary aspects occupied a very important portion of her life. Gandhi remembered in his autobiography, "The outstanding impression of my mother has let on my memory is that of saintliness...She would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching." (9) He goes on to mention her devotion to God through fasting. Fasting was at the core of her religious life. Yearly, she would fast during Chaturmas, and she often subjected herself to fasting more rigorous than was required by religion or tradition. No doubt, this tradition of renunciation of culinary pleasure included her vegetarianism, though her upbringing was probably such that she never consciously thought of vegetarianism as a sacrifice. Just as his father's proclivity for carnal pleasure and Gandhi's fundamental disrespect for that aspect of his father's psyche, led to brahmacharya, the renunciation of sexual activity, Gandhi's love for his mother and his respect for her fasting capabilities led to his realization that moral strength can be achieved through vegetarianism and fasting.
In other ways, Gandhi's true vegetarianism was implicitly tied with his feelings for his mother. As he prepared to study for his law degree in England, others warned him repeatedly that he would end up eating meat, since it was required of those living in England. His mother did not want her son to become a meat-eater, and forced a vow from him; under the administration of a Jain monk, Gandhi vowed to his mother that he would not touch wine, women or meat, and thus secured her permission to go to England. Without this oath, Gandhi might not have ever become a true vegetarian. En route and within England, he had to refuse to eat meat repeatedly. He was told, "It is all very well so far but you will have to revise your decision in the Bay of Biscay. And it is so cold in England that one cannot possibly live there without meat." (10) When he finally reached England, he discovered the difficulty of continuing the practice of vegetarianism. His landladies, who agreed to provide board as well as housing, did not know what to cook except for boiled vegetables and bread; he described himself as starving at times. Although he had eaten meat previously and considered it a good substance, he stuck to his vow. As he once tearfully told a friend who was badgering him to eat meat,"I also know that you are telling me again and again about [eating meat] because your feel for me. But I am helpless. A vow is a vow. It cannot be broken." (11)
As Erikson explains, the vow represented not simply a promise to Gandhi's mother, but a connection to her, and to his motherland and mother-religion. As long as Gandhi held to his vow, he could escape his home sickness, since he was linked to home through his vow to his mother. Thus, he continually challenged his female associates to help him keep his vow, forcing them to become vicariously his mother, while subtly demanding his male associates to play the part of Mehtab and attempt to convince him to eat meat. (12) In all of his descriptions of England, men were the ones who attacked his vegetarian practices, and women, even meat-eating ones, who tried to support him, at least in some small way. When he returned from England to discover that his mother had died during his absence, his vegetarianism became a permanent connection to her and her memory. No longer could he think of eating meat, even though his parents were "no more" and he had found his "freedom."
But Gandhi could not think of eating meat for a more basic reason than an ethereal connection with his mother. In England he received a revelation, which helped form his vision of the Satyagrahi movement. As Gandhi indicated in the chapter of his autobiography entitled "My choice," his lifelong vegetarianism did not result from his mother's feelings on the matter; rather, he made a moral decision to keep the practice of vegetarianism. This decision was a necessary change in his life, for if he were simply to be a vegetarian due to his mother's influence, he would not have been a person capable of his own choices. As Erikson posits, "the future Satyagrahi had to learn to choose actively and affirmatively what not to do - an ethical capacity not to be confused with the moralistic inability to break a prohibition." (13)
And choose he did. Even though Gandhi resisted the temptation to break his vow, he still faced the practical problem of finding food for himself. After hearing of vegetarian restaurants in the city from his landlady, he searched for one, and when his quest was over, he said, "The sight of it filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after its own heart." (14) This feeling prophesied the change of heart he was about to experience. In the restaurant, he bought a copy of Salt's "Plea for Vegetarianism" (*), which he read cover to cover. The book discussed the moral reasons for being a vegetarian - the inherent violence present in the eating of meat, and the non-violence that could be achieved from abstaining from it. No longer was Gandhi a vegetarian wishing he were a meat-eater. "The choice was now made in favour of vegetarianism, the spread of which hence forward became my mission." (15) Gandhi had decided that ahimsa was his goal. It became the core of his Satyagrahi movement, and the core of his life.
Gandhi had desired meat because he thought that it would provide the strength that Indians would need to overcome the rule of the British. Yet with his choice for vegetarianism, he realized there are other sources of strength - satyagraha, which had the power to end the British raj, while physical strength alone would have been defeated. After his first step towards this moral strength, he started to study Christianity, Hinduism and the other religions of the world. As he soon found through his studies, "renunciation [is] the highest form of religion." (16) Renunciation of pleasure became his highest goal, and he delighted in the pursuit of this goal as an origin of satyagraha. Vegetarianism was his first source of this new force, since it was a type of self-control, and fasting, as an extension of vegetarianism, later became the ultimate symbol of his self-control.
Once Gandhi abandoned of his idea that abstinence from meat made India weak, he realized some of the truths about his country, which he had been blinded from before. In an article for The Vegetarian, the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society in England, he wrote of other reasons why the British could conquer India and hold it so easily, arguing against his own previous theories:
"One of the most important reasons, if not the most important one, is the wretched custom of infant marriages and its attendant evils. Generally, children when they reach the great age of nine are burdened with the fetters of married life...Will not these marriages tell upon the strongest constitutions? Now fancy how weak the progeny of such marriages must be." (17)
This freedom allowed him to see the other social ills that were stripping the nation of India of its strengths, problems that he had not noticed before, including the caste system. It also allowed him to reverse around the traditional western definition of strength, turning it into the definition that made his movement so powerful. Meat-eating was a type of aggression, which Gandhi once thought was the only key to mastery. After becoming a true vegetarian, and thus discovering the ideas of ahimsa, he realized that aggression is a path to mastery for those without self-control. Ahimsa, non-violence, is the path to mastery for those with self-control. The idea of renunciation, also part of the revelation that brought him to vegetarianism, eventually brought him to another major philosophy in his life, that of brahmacharya. Gandhi's choice to become vegetarian started him on the road towards ahimsa, renunciation, and finally, satyagraha itself. Without it, he would have never realized the power of morality and never would have become the Mahatma.
1. Patanjali Yoga Sutras, 2. 30, as quoted in Steven Rosen, Food for the Spirit; Vegetarianism and the World Religions, (New York, Bala Books, 1987) p. 72.
2. Quoted in Rosen, p. 72.
3. Quoted in Erik H. Erikson, Gandhi's Truth, (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969) p. 151.
4. Quoted in Mohandas K. Gandhi, Autobiography, Trans. Mahadev Desai, (New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1983) p. 17.
5. Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph, Gandhi, TheTraditional Roots of Charisma, (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1983) p. 23.
6. Gandhi, p. 19.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid. p. 20.
9. Ibid. p. 2.
10. Ibid. p. 38.
11. Ibid. p. 42.
12. Erikson, p. 142-145.
13. Ibid. p. 144.
14. Gandhi, p. 43.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid. p. 60.
17. Quoted in Erikson, p. 150.