"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
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
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
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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