Timeless efficacy of Gandhian Key to Health
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi lovingly called “Bapu” by millions and acclaimed as the harbinger of independence in British ruled India, valued life close to nature, for its simplicity and spirituality, and evolved practical and simple rules of health. He had almost a religious faith in vegetarianism and said, “As a searcher for Truth I deem it necessary to find the perfect food for a man to keep body, mind and soul in a sound condition.”1 According to him, man is not the owner of his body to do as he pleased, but a guardian taking good care of it, in order to “serve God and His creation.”2
Food Values in a Vegetarian Diet
The word ‘vegetarian,’ coined by the founders of the British Vegetarian Society in 1842, comes from the Latin word ‘vegetus’ meaning “whole, sound, fresh,” or as in ‘homo vegetus’ which means “a mentally and physically vigorous person.”3 The British Vegetarian Society, presently called ‘Vegetarian Society’ defines ‘vegetarian’ as “Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shell-fish or by-products of slaughter.”4 For Gandhiji the original meaning of the word implied a balanced philosophical and moral sense of life, a lot more than just a diet of vegetables and fruits which would be evident from the following points:
1. Milk - Gandhiji was already a ‘vegan’ decades ago when he wrote, “Milk is an animal product and cannot by any means be included in a strictly vegetarian diet”5 and claimed that the defects and ailments inherent in the animal inevitably passed on to the eater both through milk and meat. However, he was a pragmatic vegetarian and admitted the value of adding milk and milk products like curd, butter, ghee, etc., to vegetarian diet because animal protein contained in milk is one of the most easily digestible sources of protein for human body. Skimming i.e. removal of fat from milk, which again has become a regular practice amongst today’s health conscious individuals with leading brands like Amul, Nestle, Mother Dairy and many others providing toned and skimmed milk versions in the market, was propounded years back by Gandhiji when he wrote, “Skimming removes the fat, and does not affect the proteins at all.”6
2. Cereal - Gandhiji was not in favour of a mixed intake of cereals i.e. wheat, rice, juwar, bajra etc., because it becomes difficult to regulate the quantity and recommended taking “one only, at a time.”7 He was against sieving the flour as it removed the ‘pericarp’ a rich source of salt and vitamins and supplied roughage helpful in bowel movement. Similarly, he opposed the use of polished white rice because machine pounding besides removing the outer husk also sheds the barn destroying the high fibre content, vitamins and minerals inherent in a rice grain, supplying us with almost pure starch. It is a sad state of affairs that unpolished ‘Brown Rice’ envisaged by Gandhiji as an economical source of sumptuous nutrition for the poor of India is today affordable only by the rich.
3. Pulses - For Gandhiji protein rich pulses-beans, lentils, etc., were only for those engaged in hard manual labour and specially the ones who cannot afford milk. He strongly discouraged pulses for followers of sedentary lifestyle as they are hard to digest and as his heart consistently craved for the impoverished, he desired the rich to give up pulses to make them cheaply availability for the poor in the market.8
4. Vegetables and Fruits - Gandhiji advocated a fair helping of ordinary fresh vegetables in daily diet and certain varieties such as cucumber, tomatoes, mustard and other tender leaves to be eaten raw. Similarly, he wanted our daily diet to include the available fruits of the season, to be taken, preferably early in the morning. His heart pained at the plight of villagers in India whose diet remained bereft of fresh leafy vegetables and suggested “elaborate research and examination of the nourishing properties of the innumerable leaves that are to be found hidden among the grasses that grow wild in India.”9 In India, the existing per capita consumption of vegetables is only about 80g/day compared with Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) recommended 200g/day. To improve the nutrition of rural families, the share of cereal farming should be reduced and replaced with vegetable and fruit production in India. Fruits and vegetables are more vulnerable to adverse weather conditions, therefore, government needs to provide more insurance cover, minimum support price and cold storage facilities to farmers involved in their production. The World Vegetable Centre (AVRDC) in Hyderabad is busy funding research to develop high yielding and disease resistant vegetables. The centre’s high beta carotene tomato provide three to six times as much vitamin ‘A’ as normal tomatoes, so that a single tomato provides a person’s daily vitamin ‘A’ need.10
5. Ghee and Oil - Gandhiji suggested “an ounce and a half of ghee per head per day”11 to supply fat needs of the body. He gave precedence to pure ghee over oil and rendered it unnecessary when ghee is easily available. He was very much aware of the corrupt tactics in vogue among Indian manufacturers; therefore, instead of consuming rancid oil and adulterated ghee, he advised conscious abstention of the two. In the present scenario oil is seeping into Indian diet like never before. The per capita consumption of edible or vegetable oil in the country shot up from around 3kg annually in 1950 to 14.2kg during 2010-11. In fact the same year the country imported about 9.2 million tons of vegetable oil costing around Rs 38,000 crore.12 The reports are alarming for the cardiovascular bearings of the placid Indians not into manual work. For those feasting on ghee and vanaspathi oil sold in the market, newspapers abound with incidents of adulteration using cow and pig lard, reported from different parts of the country.
6. Sweets - Gandhiji was critical of undue prominence given to sweets in Indian platter. He was a socialist even in matters of the palate and emphatically declared, “to partake of sweetmeats and other delicacies, in a country where the millions do not even get an ordinary full meal, is equivalent to robbery.”13
Thus, as per Gandhian regime, “Food should be taken as a matter of duty-even as a medicine-to sustain the body, never for the satisfaction of the palate”14 and consisting of purely vegetarian ingredients because he held “flesh-food to be unsuited to our species.”15 Besides his hereditary habit and adherence of the vow of vegetarianism administered to him by his mother, it was Henry S. Salt’s book A Plea for Vegetarianism that made him understand the moral obligation of a vegetarian.16
1. Condiments - He was not in favour of adding condiments i.e. chillies fresh or dry, pepper, turmeric, coriander, mustard, methi, asafetida, etc., to food as they destroy the natural flavour of vegetables and cereals. He advised their intake for some time for medicinal purpose but condemned their compulsory and liberal use “just for the satisfaction of the palate.”17 Unfortunately, Indian spice bazaar is flooded with factory made seasonings and ‘masala’ for every culinary preparation concocted since decades.
2. Tea and Coffee - He was strongly opposed to the intake of tea as “tannin when taken internally impairs digestion and causes dyspepsia.”18 In today’s world his words would be rejected as all seem to be enamoured with the benefits of tea as an antioxidant; however, many studies corroborate his aversion. It is an established fact that tea plant has the highest tendency of absorbing fluoride present in the soil ranging from lesser content in new leaves and higher in old tea leaves and sellers of economy tea definitely use older leaves. Similarly, Gandhiji condemned coffee in spite of extraordinary levels of physical and mental alertness it generates, because of its addictive temperament. These days the debate over coffee’s health risk continues to brew and studies abound negating each other over the benefits and harmful effects of coffee, however, as per Harvard Medical School Health Publication, August 2004, excessive coffee intake does result in increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat.19 Again Tea and Coffee hinders iron absorption in body leading to Anemia in expecting mothers and infants.20 Therefore, Gandhiji’s substitute for tea and coffee, a healthy nourishing drink of ‘hot water, honey and lemon’ seems the safest sip for the salubrious.
3. Intoxicants - He vehemently denounced the use of intoxicants like alcohol, tobacco and opium. He campaigned for complete prohibition on sale of alcohol in India because it “makes a man forget himself and he becomes utterly incapable of doing anything useful.”21 To those who advocated its consumption in limited manner, he blatantly questioned the possibility of self-discipline among innumerable masses. WHO-Global Status Report (released 2011) declared that harmful use of alcohol results in approximately 2.5 million deaths each year, while in India as per National Crimes Record Bureau the registered cases of alcohol related deaths were 4547 in 2011 rising to 5478 in 2012.22 As for opium, Gandhiji did admit to its medicinal value but rejected its use as an intoxicant as it made people dull and lazy. As per an exploratory study conducted by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in five States of India viz., Manipur, Mizoram, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, youngsters, mostly in their twenties are being drawn towards drugs categorized as Amphetamine-Type Stimulants(ATS). The study established link between ATS use and crime with 18 per cent of the participants admitted being apprehended by the police after ATS use.23 Tobacco intake in form of smoking, snuffing and chewing were declared “most dirty habits”24 by Gandhiji, and was disgusted with the unabashed spitting by tobacco chewers on nearby walls, floors and corners, a revolting habit very much ailing our countrymen even today. The Annual Report 2011-12 issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, claimed the country to be the second largest consumer (after China) of tobacco products in the world with nearly eight to nine lakh people dying every year due to tobacco related diseases.25 Attempts are on to make India a tobacco free society, and cooperation is needed from every individual professing even an iota of faith in the ideology of the ‘Mahatma.’
4. Brahmacharya - For Gandhiji, containing one’s carnal passions formed an integral part of a salubrious lifestyle. According to him, self-restraint meant restraint of all the senses including sexual desires and sensations. However, Gandhian concept of ‘Brahmacharya’ envisaged not only abstention from sexual activities but “freedom from anger and kindred passions”26 making man independent of all basal animations and transforming him into an earthly replica of his ‘Creator.’ Newspapers and Television channels seem flooded with reports of rapes and sexual abuse inflicted on women and children across the country. If not wholly, but even partially Gandhiji’s Brahmacharya be imbibed by the people of India the aforementioned criminal milieu would be mitigated to a great extent.
Scientific Researchers around the world are working on the health benefits of different types of vegetarian diets for all ages of people to maintain proper body weight and stay disease free, leading to a happy and successful life. A new international study27 using 2008 global cancer rates from World Health Organization has found that certain lifestyle factors-specifically smoking and eating diets high in animal products have the strongest association with cancer rates. In such a scenario, the ‘Gandhian Diet Chart’ based on Bapu’s personal life experiences and experiments offers a seasoned solution to the numerous lifestyle ailments steadily on the rise not only in India but across the globe.
-In Young India 8-8-1929 Gandhiji wrote, “Instead of using the body as a temple of God we use it as a vehicle for indulgences, and are not ashamed to run to medical men for help in our effort to increase them and abuse the earthly tabernacle.”28 For him, the human body was a wonderful and perfect machine that could be set right without medicines. He attempted to discover causes of ordinary ill health and improvised simple remedies of Nature Cure. To quote him, “Nature Cure is thus a way of life, not a course of ‘treatment.’ It is not claimed that Nature Cure can cure all disease. No system of medicine can do that or else we should all be immortals.”29
Gandhiji’s faith in natural therapeutics was based on successful implementation of the nature based antidotes suggested in Adolf Just’s book Return to Nature. The Science of natural therapeutics is based on a use of the same five elements, in the treatment of disease, which constitute the human body. These are earth, water, ether, sunlight and air, to these, Gandhiji added the age old Indian practice of fasting and ‘Ramanama’ because for him living according to the laws of nature did not simply mean proximity with the five elements but a thorough transformation of one’s physical, mental, moral and social life through faith in God.
1. Earth - Earth or the ‘Mother Divine’ has been believed to be possessing healing attributes since the dawn of civilization. Gandhiji advised cold ‘mud poultice’ - mixture of clean earth and water, packed in a piece of thin cloth, for relieving constipation, headaches, ordinary boils, wasp sting and ‘abating the restlessness’ of a typhoid patient. He also made free use of hot mud poultice as a substitute for antiphlogistine.30
2. Water - Used for symbolic washing away of sins, this natural phenomenon is endowed with soothing characteristics that have been lately recognized by modern western medicine also. Gandhiji suggests cold ‘Hip Baths’ to bring down the temperature in high fever. Similar effect could be had from wet sheet packs which were also useful in the treatment of prickly heat, urticaria and even measles and smallpox, provided the sheets are sterilized separately. Steam was declared a ‘valuable therapeutic agent’ by Gandhiji and its usefulness in cases of rheumatism and other joint-pains has been acknowledged universally.31
3. Akash (Ether) - Gandhiji was in love with nature and his amorous affair lucidly reflected in his words when he wrote, “If our bodies could be in contact with the sky without the intervention of houses, roofs and even clothes, we are likely to enjoy the maximum amount of health.”32 He detested the tendency of hoarding unnecessary furniture in the house and condemned them as ‘means of harbouring dust, bacteria and insects.’ He desired man to “establish contact with the infinite, possess nothing and yet possess everything.”33
4. Sun - Life cannot be borne and sustained devoid of sunlight. Unfortunately, Heliotherapy is still a neglected field and we have failed to harness the infinite solar energy around us to enjoy perfect health. For the treatment of debility and slow circulation, Gandhiji advised exposing the uncovered body to the morning sun to accelerate the metabolism. He also suggested sunbaths as a cure for tuberculosis and intractable ulcers. According to a research presented at the Swedish Society of Medicine’s Annual Conference in Gothenburg in 2010, women who sunbathe regularly live longer and enjoy health benefits which outweigh the risk of skin cancer.34
5. Air - Gandhiji was a claustrophobic in the literary context of the word and endorsed “living in the open, in the midst of plenty of fresh air”35 an epoch practice for staying free from ailments. ‘Going Green,’ enjoying the freshness and beauty of nature is in vogue, man finally fed up with this artificial life he wove for himself in returning into the arms of nature for good, once again proving the eternal value associated with Gandhian theories.
6. Fasting - Gluttony has been declared one of the seven sins to be absolved in the Christian purgatory. Abstention from a meal or two gives the much needed rest to human metabolism from functioning incessantly. Food for Gandhiji was a means for staying alive and not the other way round and in keeping with the same sentiment he declared, “An occasional fast, say once a week or once a fortnight, will enable one to keep the balance even. If one is unable to fast for the whole day, one should miss one or more meals during the day.”36
7. Ramanama - Gandhiji’s fervent belief was that “when the soul is sinless, the body which she inhabits is healthy too. That is to say, as the soul progresses towards freedom from sin, the body also tends to become immune from disease.”37 The means to this blissful state was ‘Ramanama’ i.e., unceasing repetition of God’s name, but the recitation must not be parrot-like; it must be born of faith. Ramanama was the number one therapeutic for Gandhiji, the hub around which the Nature Cure system revolves. In defending it from the skeptics he said, “Ramanama cannot perform the miracle of restoring to you a lost limb. But it can perform the still greater miracle of helping you to enjoy an ineffable peace in spite of the loss while you live.”38
Gandhiji practiced what he preached and was one of the cotrustees in Dr. Dinshaw Mehta’s Nature Cure Clinic in Poona, functioning today as ‘National Institute of Naturopathy,’ country’s premiere institute, imparting training and encouraging research on naturopathy. However, the voice of India’s poor pulled him to open a natural therapeutics centre at Uruli-Kanchan, a village near Poona, on 23 March, 1946, for he believed Nature Cure to be an economical and effective medication for the poverty-stricken masses. The clinic revered by many as a temple of naturopathy has been christened ‘Nisargopchar Ashram’ and continues to employ the Gandhian attested methods of diet regulation, fast, sunbath, fomentations, steambath, mud-bandage, massage and intake of non-injurious indigenous herbs. Gandhiji’s therapeutics saved many from the paraphernalia of big hospitals and doctors beyond the reach of majority of his countrymen even in the twenty-first century.
Today, India spends 4.10 per cent of its GDP on health, which has been adopted as one of the thrust areas in the Twelfth Five Year Plan. Lifestyle diseases are emerging as India’s major threat resulting from bad food habits, physical inactivity, wrong body posture and distorted biological clock. A joint report of W.H.O. and World Economic Forum says India will incur an accumulated loss of $236.6 billion by 2015 on account of unhealthy lifestyles and faulty diet.42 Besides, a large number of Indian’s still live ‘Below Poverty Line’ giving birth to the need of a cost effective yet qualitative health system which seems a farfetched dream with the shortage of medical persons and hospitals specially in the rural areas. AYUSH, the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy, started by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India in November 2003 to function along with allopathy in alleviating health issues at all levels of rural and urban medical care,40 is the most befitting example of timeless efficacy of Gandhian belief in traditional and economical methods of medication for the masses of India. Similarly, the sprouting of traditional health care centres spread across different parts of India have played a vital role in transforming the country into a medical hub, with the state of Kerala holding first position,41 and promote the cause of ‘Health Tourism’ expected to become US $ 100 billion industry by 2015, generating over forty million new jobs in India, by 2020.42
Thus, once again it is Gandhiji’s Key to Health, focused on Vegetarianism and Natural Therapeutics that emerges as a panacea, most suited to Indian conditions, offered on a platter by the doyen of India’s freedom struggle to salvage its people once again from the clutches of disease and death.
Notes and References:
Adapted from 'Gandhi Marg', Vol 37 Number 1, April-June 2015
*PERSIS LATIKA DASS is Lecturer, Department of History, Sophia Girls' College, Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati University, Ajmer- 305001 (Rajasthan). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org