Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
23 January 2000 Issue

Gandhi: On The Path To Vegetarianism
By Steve Best - [email protected]

"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." Albert Einstein

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is best known for his heroic struggles against British imperialism in India, which led to (a very troubled) Indian independence in 1947. Because he was trying to change the world through spiritual means, Gandhi's political and spiritual vision were inseparably melded. "People describe me as a saint trying to be a politician, but the truth is the other way around."

Gandhi described his goal as first helping his people prepare for freedom, and then helping them to attain it, seeking to free his people not only from the British, but also from modern and Western influences in general. Gandhi drew sharp contrasts between ancient Indian religions, based on the philosophy of ahimsa (the absence of desire to do harm), and Western culture, which he saw to be rooted in pathological violence.

Stimulated by Hindu philosophy and Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience," and in turn extremely influential on Martin Luther King and countless other activists, Gandhi achieved dramatic results through nonviolent civil disobedience. Gandhi's name for this process was satyagraha, or, literally, "soul force," the power of love and understanding against hatred and ignorance. Satyagraha is not a weapon of the weak, he taught, for it requires moral and physical strength, discipline, and intense spiritual training to maintain a nonviolent attitude in the face of force and hostility. For Gandhi, it takes far more courage to absorb a blow than to deliver one, to die than to kill. Counter-violence contributes to the deterioration of the human spirit; only non-violence heals and restores.

Consistent thinker and genuine spiritual revolutionary that he was, Gandhi did not fail to draw the direct connections between nonviolence and vegetarianism. He saw all living beings as embodiments of God, as part of the spiritual world, and therefore equally deserving of respect and reverence. We cannot eat flesh, participating in the unnecessary destruction of life, and say, without pain of contradiction, that we are spiritual beings or nonviolent in our outlook and actions.

But Gandhi only came to this position after a great deal of evolution and struggle. Every vegetarian can appreciate that Gandhi too once faced the same battles we all do in the culture of carnivores. Even in India, as a young man, he had to deal constantly with friends and family who believed that animal protein was necessary for health. Many even claimed that the English were able to rule over Indians because they strong meat-eaters, while Indians were weak vegetarians!

Being frail in constitution, the young Gandhi was influenced by these arguments. He was torn between the desire to be "strong" like his friends and moral strictures against eating meat imposed by his Vaishnava parents. Unable to endure the tension, Gandhi decided one day he would go down to an isolated spot on the river bank and consume meat in a shameful and secret act. That night he was ill and had terrible dreams. For a year he ate meat, all the time lying to his parents. When guilt overwhelmed him, he vowed to abandon the forbidden substance until his parents died, and decided that deceiving his parents was worse than any ill health effects that might accrue from vegetarianism.

One day, however, as fate would have it, while dining in England where he was studying law, five years before his momentous struggles in South Africa and India, Gandhi happened upon Henry Salt's famous Plea For Vegetarianism and there he found new and better reasons to affirm vegetarianism. "From the date of reading this book [in 1888], I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice. I blessed the day on which I had taken the vow [not to eat meat] before my mother. I had all along abstained from meat in the interests of truth and the vow I had taken, but had wished at the same time that every Indian should be a meateater, and had looked forward to being one myself freely and openly some day, and enlisting others in the cause [of meat-eating]. The choice was now made in favor of vegetarianism, the spreading of which henceforth became my mission."

Fellow vegetarians take heart. Never let it be said that a book, pamphlet, or conversation regarding vegetarianism cannot change a human heart, mind, and will for a lifetime. Salt's book converted Gandhi from a begrudging abstainer of meat to an ethically committed vegetarian. But Gandhi had one more major stage in his moral development to undergo -- a passionate embrace of God. Here again, history had another chance encounter in store for him and the issue of vegetarianism played a key role in his development.

Eating in a vegetarian boarding house, the nonreligious Gandhi met a Christian, whom he implored to read the Bible to find advice against drinking and meateating. The Christian did so, and brought Gandhi a copy of the Bible, which Gandhi in turn read deeply. Although the Old Testament bored him, Jesus' message of peace in the New Testament stimulated him to learn more about religion and, ultimately, to embrace God as his central passion. Through this spiritual conversion, Gandhi found a still deeper reason to be a vegetarian. "Meat eating is a sin for me," he proclaimed, because he felt it was wrong to harm any of God's creatures, human or otherwise.

Thus, vegetarianism was crucial not only to Gandhi's own development, but, indirectly, to the figures and movements he inspired. Gandhi's ethic of nonviolence applies to vegetarians not only in relation to the diets we affirm every day, but also in our very attitudes toward others. Violence is expressed in many forms, only the most coarse and obvious of which involves physical force and brutality. Violence is less a visible gesture than a mindset, and although we may never abuse someone else physically or emotionally, we may still have violent characters troubled by anger, resentment, intolerance, and hatred.

When an ignorant carnivore mocks the food on our plate, or an angry driver flips us off as we protest animal abuse, it is hard to remain unperturbed. But if we follow Gandhi's example, we will try to meet hatred with love, ignorance with understanding, and physical force with soul force. A nonviolent man who died violently, Gandhi taught the world the central role vegetarianism plays in the purification of both body and mind.

This review originally appeared in "Life Giving Choices", the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP).

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