Mahatma Gandhi and food: From shunning 'abominable chocolate' to advocating fruitarian diet, a journey of the culinary cosmopolitan

Mahatma Gandhi’s eclectic food choices reflect his equally eclectic confluence of many spiritual traditions.

Ashish Mehta October 02, 2019 08:04:49 IST
Mahatma Gandhi and food: From shunning 'abominable chocolate' to advocating fruitarian diet, a journey of the culinary cosmopolitan
  • The eclectic food choices of Mahatma Gandhi reflect his equally eclectic confluence of many spiritual traditions.

  • Following Patanjali, Mahatma Gandhi saw the body as the true instrument of dharma, and keeping it efficient and making the best use of it for both his spiritual quest and the freedom struggle.

  • The search for better diet options led Mahatma Gandhi to culinary cosmopolitanism, which coupled with failed experiments, led to humility and open-mindedness.

“I see death in chocolates,” Mahatma Gandhi wrote in 1911. Why? Because there were “few substances so heating as the abominable chocolate[,] that cursed product of devilish slave labour”.

“In that one sentence,” American historian Nico Slate writes in his Gandhi’s Search for Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind (published by Orient BlackSwan this year), “he connected the three foundations of his diet – nutrition, faith and ethics.”

Mahatma Gandhi and food From shunning abominable chocolate to advocating fruitarian diet a journey of the culinary cosmopolitan

File image of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Getty Images

Gandhi was much more than a political leader; and his followers strive to emulate his mode of living, even if symbolically, as is the case with khadi. His experiments in diet, however, are something most diehard Gandhians too have preferred to ignore, while others see him as a food faddist. For Gandhi, ‘asvadvrat’ (palate control) was one of his formative ekadash vrat, Eleven Vows.

Which is as it should be. More than one ancient sage have advised us that self-discipline begins with controlling the tongue, in both senses. Indeed, the Gandhi saga very much begins with food. His moral development as well as interventions in public life – the two went together – began with diet. His experiments with truth began with his experiments in breakfast, lunch and dinner.

He flagged this fact upfront in his autobiography, recalling his student days in London: “As I searched myself deeper, the necessity for changes both internal and external began to grow on me. As soon as, or even before, I made alterations in my expenses and my way of living, I began to make changes in my diet.”

Arriving in London as a shy, callow, diffident youth, he had shown a little hint of the exceptional experiment in self-formation that was to come except for the three pledges made to his mother – no wine, woman and meat. The third vow meant a search for vegetarian meals in London, which led him to a small restaurant. There he came in contact with European advocates of vegetarianism and found a cause. For these “fringe radicals”, the diet was only the tip of a wider world view and a new mode of living. It was in this company and for the cause of diet that Gandhi first stepped into public life, campaigning with them and making speeches to small clubs.

“Throughout his adult life, he thought about food, talked about food, and experimented with food. Understanding Gandhi’s diet is to understand the man and his life, and to connect two of history’s perennial questions: how to live and what to eat,” writes Slate. His book is an indispensable compendium of Gandhi’s experiments with food, fasting and health practices, explaining each in the wider Gandhian perspective of ethics, economy, politics and self-cultivation.

Gandhi’s eclectic food choices reflect his equally eclectic confluence of many spiritual traditions. Following Patanjali, he saw the body as the true instrument of dharma, and keeping it efficient and making the best use of it for both his spiritual quest and the freedom struggle. (“You must put your body right even as an artisan’s first duty is to keep his tools in order.”) At the other end of the spectrum would be Advait Vedanti Shankaracharya, whose dictum in the matters of food was succinct yet comprehensive: Treat the hunger like a disease. One doesn’t eat medicine for taste, and one doesn’t consume it more than necessary. (This can be construed as advice against fasting and self-mortification too.) Gandhi arrives at the same conclusion via a bit of philology: he notes that the Sanskrit word for medicine, ‘aushadhi’, also means food, and hence “All food should be taken as medicine”. Here’s more on his assorted inspirations: he quoted Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, rendering his Latin quote as “Many dishes, many diseases”.

It is also in the matter of food that the term Gandhi used in the title of his autobiography, experiments, is fully clarified. On 22 August, 1893, for example, he wrote the first entry in his ‘raw food diary’, announcing the beginning of “the vital food experiment … Had two tablespoonfuls of wheat, one of peas, one of rice, two of sultanas, about twenty small nuts, two oranges, and a cup of cocoa for breakfast”. For 15 days he persisted with this menu, noting in detail how his body was taking it, and finally concluded that “it does not seem to agree well”.

Hypothesis, experiment, observation, and conclusion. To arrive at objective conclusions, he often teamed up with others, asking them to share their observations, and waited anxiously to hear from them how it went for them. On Gandhi’s suggestion, many people across the country took up the fruitarian diet, and he wrote, “I have asked them to let me have the results.” On another occasion, he sought volunteers to join him in trying neem for various ailments.

Of course, many of Gandhian trials ended only in errors – which he gladly accepted as the discovery of some truth. Yes, science – allopathy or even Ayurveda – would vehemently disagree with many of his idiosyncratic preferences. His obsessive search for a perfect diet did take a great toll on his frail body. If one wishes to learn from Gandhi the art of self-cultivation, the point is not to emulate him and copy his favourite breakfast menu (he himself kept improvising it). Slate wisely distinguishes between studying what Gandhi ate and “studying what he ate for lessons about how to live”. Thus, one should investigate his motivations behind diet choices and, crucially, how he discovered virtues from his experiments.

Being vegetarian is nice – and Hitler is said to have been one too. It is Gandhi who takes the next step of thinking it through and discovering the principle of nonviolence from it, and then persisting in exploring its application in other facets of life. The search for better diet options led him to culinary cosmopolitanism, which coupled with failed experiments, led to humility and open-mindedness. Palate control and fasting aided brahmacharya and then spiritual development. Also, one can learn to be sensitive to the unspoken global arrangement in which multinationals exploit the cravings of those who can afford when those who can’t go to sleep on a hungry stomach.

In this learning process, one can keep a couple of Gandhi quotes handy. Here is one: “He who has his tongue under control, being both sparing in speech and moderate in his taste for good food, must be reckoned to have achieved a great success.” Or, as Slate notes: At the root of “lying, pleasure-hunting, perjury, theft and so on,” Gandhi found the “failure to restrain the craving of our palate”.

And then consider the chocolate.

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