by Marly Winckler – Chair of the International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
In 1888, at the age of 19, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi left for London to study law. Shortly before, during high school, he befriended a Muslim a few years older, who, unlike Gandhi, was tall and had an athletic build. Gandhi began to eat meat under his influence, with the idea of becoming physically stronger, since he was thin and also a little fearful: he feared thieves, ghosts and snakes. His friend encouraged him to eat meat saying that he would be more courageous. He would have argued that "the vegetarian diet weakened Hindus, while a carnivorous diet gave the British the strength to dominate India." This idea started to hang around Gandhi's head, who in a hidden way started to consume meat.
But Gandhi did not feel good about eating meat. He belonged to a Vaishnava Hindu family, which ate neither meat nor eggs; they were lacto-vegetarian. One day, after eating goat meat, he dreamed that the animal was bleeding inside his stomach which made him awake full of remorse and guilt. But he soon remembered that eating meat would make him strong and he moved on. Whenever he ate these meals with his friend, he did not dine at home, which created some distrust in his mother, who started asking him questions. Gandhi made up different excuses, but that also left him feeling guilty. This whole process took about a year and he had no more than half a dozen meat meals when he stopped altogether.1
Before leaving for England, his mother made him promise not to eat meat. In London, young Mohandas was finding difficult to eat, because in addition to not eating meat and eggs, the type of food he found was very different from what he was used to. He walked a lot to find a place where he could have his meals. On one of these hikes, he came across a vegetarian restaurant on Farringdon Street, the Central Restaurant. The establishment also sold books and magazines and there he bought a copy of A Plea for Vegetarianism, by Henry Salt, whose reading convinced him to become a vegetarian by choice, and not just because of a religious requirement. He soon joined the London Vegetarian Society (LVS), which had recently become independent from the Vegetarian Society, based in Manchester. He served on its executive committee and wrote articles for its magazine, The Vegetarian.
London Vegetarian Society
In October 1889, LVS members founded the Federal Vegetarian Union (VFU), with the aim of bringing together vegetarian societies from around the world. Some of them had participated in the first International Vegetarian Congress in the previous month, in Cologne, Germany, and offered to host the next Congress in London, the following year (1890).
A Plea for Vegetarianism by Henry Salt
In May 1891, the LVS appointed Gandhi as its delegate for the meeting of the Federal Vegetarian Union in Portsmouth, England. At this meeting, he met Henry Salt, whose book had been so important in his life two years earlier. In June of that year, after graduating, Gandhi returned to India to begin his career as a lawyer. The Saturday before he left England, he organized a farewell dinner for vegetarian friends, where he expressed the hope that a future Congress of the Federal Vegetarian Union would be held in India.
Between 1894 and 1903, Gandhi continued to send articles to The Vegetarian, now from South Africa, to where he had moved. In the African country, he began to put into practice the principles of non-violence and passive resistance, first advocated by Leo Tolstoy (another vegetarian), and which he probably read for the first time when they were published in The Vegetarian in December of 1889.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the London Vegetarian Federal Union came to an end, but shortly after, in 1908, the International Vegetarian Union (IVU) was founded, with a more global perspective. The new organization was launched at the 1st World Vegetarian Congress in Dresden, Germany. The London Vegetarian Society became a prominent member of the IVU and, in 1926, hosted the 6th World Vegetarian Congress in its former home - Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street.
IVU foundation - Dresden 1908
In 1931, Gandhi returned to London to talk to the British government about India's independence. Taking advantage of his presence in the country, the Vegetarian Society of London organized a special meeting, where he addressed its members. Beside him was his old friend and mentor, Henry Salt. At the conference given on the occasion (“The moral basis of vegetarianism”, which would give name to the booklet that would be released years later), Gandhi shared some ideas on his principles related to food. Throughout this period, and for another twenty-six years, all IVU World Vegetarian Congresses would continue to be held in Europe.
Gandhi and Henry Salt at his right in a meeting of the London Vegetarian Society - 20 November 1931
Gandhi's desire, expressed in 1891, for a Congress to be held in India, did not materialize during his lifetime, cut short by the murdered man in January 1948. However, in the early 1950s, a group of Indians began efforts to achieve this goal - and, finally, in December 1957, they held the 15th World Congress of the IVU, the first outside Europe, in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras - an event of great repercussion in the country, with the participation of the main Indian statesmen, including President Rejendra Prasad, Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru and at least five ministers of state.
Gandhi, of course, was remembered at the event. In the words of Rukmini Devi Arundale, chairman of the Congress reception committee and vice president of the International Vegetarian Union (IVU) for 31 years: “If Gandhi were still alive, he would have been 88 – and he would certainly have been the guest of honor at the Congress. "I hope, as a result of this Congress, Government itself will be convinced of the necessity of promoting vegetarian diet at least from the nutritional and economic point of view, if not for humanitarian reasons, though I believe that the Government of a people who call Gandhiji the Father of the Nation should be happy to govern in the light shed by his principles. Two of our greatest leaders, Dr. Annie Besant, who was my own Guru, and Gandhiji, were of the opinion that they would rather not live than kill an animal, bird or fish for food."2
Rukmini Devi - president of the All India Reception Commitee
Mahatma Gandhi adopted many of his values and principles from ancient Indian scriptures, such as the Vedas and the Upanishads. These moral codes - including truth, celibacy, non-violence (ahimsa) and non-possessiveness - neti, neti (not this, not that), as the Vedic method of denying advocates - became the principles most dear to Ghandhi and shaped his activism, politics and philosophy for the rest of his live. Food was also a matter of principle for him and he believed that people should eat in moderation and fast occasionally.
Unlike other vegetarian activists of his day, like Herbert Shelton, Gandhi believed that the motivations and moral consequences of vegetarianism should be emphasized, not their physical benefits. Gandhi said that people who interrupted their vegetarian diets were usually those who became vegetarian for health reasons or because they were suffering from an illness. That is, when health was restored, they returned to the harmful diet. Thus, he concluded that in order to remain vegetarian there must be a moral basis. Still in England, Gandhi began to question milk consumption, believing that it is our moral duty not to live on other animals. He stopped consuming cow's and buffalo's milk, despite consuming goat's milk, which he later called “the tragedy of his life”. The following excerpt, taken from the booklet The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, a collection of Gandhi's writings on the subject is illustrative of his thinking:
“I have always been in favor of the pure vegetarian diet. But experience has taught me that, to keep us perfectly fit, the vegetarian diet must include milk and dairy products, such as curd, butter, ghee, etc. This is a significant departure from my original idea. I excluded milk from my diet for six years. At that time, I didn't feel anything bad about it. But in 1917, as a result of my own ignorance, I was struck by a severe dysentery. I was reduced to a skeleton, but I stubbornly refused to drink milk or curds. But I couldn't maintain my body and be strong enough to get out of bed. I had vowed not to drink milk. A doctor friend suggested that when making the vow I could have had cow's and buffalo's milk in mind; why should the vote prevent me from drinking goat's milk? My wife supported him and I relented. To tell you the truth, for those who stopped drinking milk, although at the time of making the vow only that of cow and buffalo were on my mind, milk should be taboo. All animal milks have practically the same composition, although the proportion of components varies in each case. So I can say that I kept only the letter, and not the spirit, of the vote. Anyway, the goat's milk was brought in immediately and I drank. It seemed to bring me a new life. I got up quickly and was soon able to get out of bed. Because of these various similar experiences, I was forced to admit the need to add milk to the strict vegetarian diet. But I am convinced that, in the vast vegetable kingdom, there must be some type that, while providing the necessary substances that we derive from milk and meat, is free from its disadvantages, ethical and other”.
Perhaps Gandhi surrendered here to a "wishful thinking", that is, deep inside, perhaps, he wished to drink milk.
The mind has its "tricks" to make us believe what may be a wish. The renowned medical nutritionist, dr. Eric Slywitch, specialist in vegetarian diets, comments on this testimony from Gandhi from a nutritional point of view, following a request from us:
“In view of current medical and nutritional knowledge, it is perfectly feasible to maintain a vegetarian diet with the absence of milk and dairy products. The diarrhea condition calls for abstaining from the use of milk, as the enzyme lactase, which digests milk carbohydrate (lactose) has its production decreased by the intestine when there is any inflammatory process, whether infectious or not. Diarrhea and milk are combinations banned in current nutrition. From a nutritional point of view, the two nutrients that we could focus on in Gandhi's diet with the exclusion of dairy products would be calcium and vitamin B12. Neither of these two, when disabled, cause diarrhea. There is no nutritional diagnosis that can be associated with an improvement in the intestinal condition with the resumption of the use of dairy products. In the current medical condition, the investigation and treatment of diarrhea would be different, and it would certainly not be necessary to use milk again.”
As for the ethical aspect, it is worth remembering that in Gandhi's time, animals, especially the cow and the goat, which, in this case, were the animals that produced the milk he consumed, were raised in a very different way than today.
In fact, due to the way in which, for example, cows are currently treated, milk cannot be included in the list of foods that do not imply suffering or damage to a living being - if it ever was able to -, being contrary, therefore, to the principle of ahimsa that Gandhi advocated.
Quite the contrary, cows are perhaps the beings that suffer most throughout their lives in the current breeding and exploitation system, being subjected to cruel treatment: confinement, separation from the calf (who is usually killed shortly after being born as having no economic value), artificial insemination, overload of antibiotics, genetic manipulation, artificial feeding and incessant milking by sucking machines that cause painful inflammation in the breast tissue (mastitis) etc. After a few years, when they could live for a long time, they are taken to the slaughterhouse, often being left days without water and food, not to mention all the stress they are subjected to in transport and rough handling. At the slaughterhouse, cows are stunned with a pistol that fires a retractable plunger that causes serious brain damage and, if they are lucky, loss of consciousness. They are then lifted by one of the hind legs and beheaded while they are still alive, so that blood is expelled from the body. Sometimes cows are still conscious when they are beheaded.
Ahimsa is the abstention from any kind of violence. It doesn't just mean not killing, but not voluntarily inflicting any damage, suffering or pain on any living being, by words, thoughts or actions. It means the highest degree of harmlessness. Not causing violence or harm to any living being is an integral part of ahimsa. Eating in a way that does not cause violence or harm to any living being is one of the requirements of this central principle of Gandhi's philosophy and life. Strict vegetarian eating, that is, without any animal ingredients, is a fundamental and integral part of a world without violence, healthy, sustainable and that respects all forms of life. This was the world that Mahatma Gandhi sought.
It is difficult to say with any certainty, but I want to believe that today, with the worsening of the environmental impacts and with the discoveries of science favorable to strict vegetarian diet, and, above all, due to the fact that the animals started to be confined in industrial farms, being bred and slaughtered in appalling conditions, Gandhi would be a strict vegetarian, by conscious choice, a vegan.
1. M. Mehta, Man & Mahatma, Pustak Mahal, 2013, p. 16.
2. Gandhi and International Vegetarianism, International Vegetarian Union (IVU) website. https://ivu.org/history/ivu/gandhi.html
3. Margaret Puskar-Pasewicz (editor), Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism, Greenwood, 2010, p. 114.
4. M. K. Gandhi, The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, Ahmedabad, 1959, p. 2-3. (https://ivu.org/history/gandhi/the_moral_basis_of_vegetarianism.pdf).