Gandhi’s eat­ing habits were in­ti­mately con­nected to his pol­i­tics


n Fe­bru­ary 1929, African-Amer­i­can sci­en­tist Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Carver out­lined a spe­cial diet in­volv­ing whole wheat flour, corn, fruit and milk made from ei­ther soy­beans or peanuts. With this ve­gan diet, Carver hoped to bring “greater health, strength and eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence to In­dia”. Could a diet re­ally achieve such grand am­bi­tions? The in­tended re­cip­i­ent of Carver’s diet cer­tainly thought so. Like Carver, Ma­hatma Gandhi was a pas­sion­ate food re­former who be­lieved that eat­ing right was cen­tral to liv­ing right, that a good diet was as much about pol­i­tics and ethics as about nutri­tion.

How­ever, align­ing his culi­nary choices with his other be­liefs was not al­ways easy. In­deed, part of the ap­peal of Carver’s diet was that Gandhi had, for years, strug­gled to be­come ve­gan. He be­lieved con­sum­ing milk was un­eth­i­cal, but found that elim­i­nat­ing it from his diet left him weak and un­able to re­spond to the many de­mands of his life. Could peanut milk pre­pared by a for­mer slave help Gandhi re­solve his life­long search for the per­fect diet?

When I started study­ing Gandhi’s diet, I was in­ter­ested in two ques­tions: what did food mean to Gandhi? And what could I learn from his culi­nary and nu­tri­tional ex­per­i­ments? Here was a man who was ex­traor­di­nar­ily busy and yet found time to au­thor scores of ar­ti­cles, let­ters and speeches on ques­tions of diet. He of­fered food ad­vice to friends and strangers and ea­gerly de­voured (for­give the pun) the lat­est re­search on the sci­ence of nutri­tion. What could he teach us now about how to eat and how to live?

The first thing that struck me was how Gandhi an­tic­i­pated so many of to­day’s di­etary pre­oc­cu­pa­tions— from ve­g­an­ism and whole grains, to raw food and fast­ing. Elim­i­nat­ing salt and su­gar from his diet, for­ag­ing for wild greens and mak­ing his own al­mond milk, Gandhi seemed more like a poster-child for food­ies now than the rad­i­cal an­ti­colo­nial ac­tivist I had stud­ied as a child. But as I delved deeper into the his­tory of Gandhi’s re­la­tion­ship with food, I re­alised that his diet was in­ti­mately con­nected to his pol­i­tics. For Gandhi, eat­ing eth­i­cally meant more than avoid­ing cer­tain foods; it meant connecting what we eat to the strug­gle against in­jus­tice and in­equal­ity.

Con­sider his veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. Gandhi was born into a veg­e­tar­ian fam­ily. As a young man, he came to be­lieve that eat­ing meat had al­lowed the English to con­quer In­dia. If he was go­ing to grow strong, he rea­soned, he would have to eat meat too. Se­cretly, he sam­pled a few bites of goat meat. That night, he had a night­mare. “Ev­ery time I dropped off to sleep,” he later re­called, “it would seem as though a live goat were bleat­ing in­side me, and I would jump up full of re­morse.”

Be­fore be­gin­ning his le­gal stud­ies in Lon­don, Gandhi promised his mother that he would not touch “wine, women and meat”. In Eng­land, he came to truly be­lieve in veg­e­tar­i­an­ism for the first time in his life. Although he had avoided meat for most of his child­hood, it was only in Lon­don that he em­braced eth­i­cal rea­sons to not eat meat. In the process, he found his first po­lit­i­cal cause: veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. As a mem­ber of the Lon­don Veg­e­tar­ian


So­ci­ety, Gandhi over­came his fear of pub­lic speak­ing and be­came, for the first time, an ac­tivist cham­pi­oning a cause. Or rather, he be­came an ac­tivist cham­pi­oning a range of causes. The veg­e­tar­ian com­mu­nity at­tracted so­cial re­form­ers of many kinds, and Gandhi learned to link his veg­e­tar­i­an­ism to a se­ries of rad­i­cal causes and to an ex­pan­sive con­cep­tion of non-vi­o­lence.

Gandhi was not sat­is­fied with merely re­ject­ing meat. As his be­lief in veg­e­tar­i­an­ism deep­ened, he grap­pled with whether he should forego not just meat but also eggs and milk. Ul­ti­mately, he be­came con­vinced that he should be­come ve­gan. But giv­ing up milk proved much harder than ab­stain­ing from meat. For decades, he tried to find a ve­gan equiv­a­lent to milk. By the time Carver pre­pared his recipe for peanut milk, Gandhi had al­ready per­fected his own home­made al­mond milk. But nut milks proved un­sat­is­fy­ing, per­haps be­cause they were hard for him to di­gest. Even­tu­ally, Gandhi did some­thing quite unGand­hian—he re­vised a vow. He had vowed to never drink milk, but de­cided that his vow did not in­clude goat’s milk. From goat meat to goat’s milk, Gandhi’s veg­e­tar­ian path was wind­ing, of­ten frus­trat­ing, but ul­ti­mately re­veal­ing of one of the great­est lessons of his life­long strug­gles with food: that no one can achieve the per­fect diet.

Gandhi prac­tised many of to­day’s most pop­u­lar di­etary prin­ci­ples, espe­cially calo­rie re­stric­tion and a diet high in fruits, veg­eta­bles and nuts. His per­sonal and spir­i­tual growth were deeply con­nected to his di­etary growth. His ex­per­i­ments with his diet have a lot to teach us, but that doesn’t mean that they can be re­duced to sim­ple lessons. Gandhi would have been ei­ther amused or dis­gusted—or per­haps both—by the ten­dency of food pun­dits to of­fer sim­ple so­lu­tions to all di­etary ques­tions. Gandhi changed his mind re­peat­edly. He strug­gled with his diet—and those strug­gles be­came as fas­ci­nat­ing to me as his di­etary tri­umphs.


His di­etary and po­lit­i­cal strug­gles were in­ter­linked. He praised salt as a young man, re­jected it en­tirely in the mid­dle of his life and then turned to mod­er­a­tion as he aged. His pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with salt ex­plains one of his most renowned acts of civil dis­obe­di­ence. He might never have con­ceived of a 'Salt March' if he had not been ob­sessed for decades with how much salt to add to his own food.

His in­ter­est in raw food and wild food, sim­i­larly, was both nu­tri­tional and po­lit­i­cal. He re­peat­edly ex­per­i­mented with eat­ing noth­ing but un­cooked food, or what he called “vi­tal food”, be­cause it ap­pealed to his love for sim­plic­ity. In ad­di­tion, he be­lieved that nu­tri­ents were lost in the process of cook­ing. “Vi­ta­min A is de­stroyed by the mere ap­ply­ing of heat,” he wrote. But his love for raw, wild greens also stemmed from his hope that In­dia’s ru­ral poor could find sus­tain­able and af­ford­able sources of nutri­tion.

Part of what drove my ini­tial in­ter­est in Gandhi’s diet was my hope that I would learn lessons I could ap­ply in my own kitchen. I failed to in­ter­est my wife or chil­dren in Gandhi’s raw food diet. I shouldn’t have been sur­prised: Gandhi him­self usu­ally in­cluded some cooked food in his diet. One of his favourites is a sta­ple in my home as well: por­ridge. Whereas we tend to make ours with oat­meal, Gandhi pre­ferred a whole wheat por­ridge that he made from scratch. His pas­sion for whole grains is one of the eas­i­est Gand­hian di­etary pre­cepts to fol­low in our world.

What is the hard­est? That de­pends on one’s own di­etary con­straints and one’s taste buds. I find it rel­a­tively easy to cut back on salt—although I have never tried, like Gandhi, to ab­stain en­tirely. I pre­fer fruit to most pro­cessed sweets and so am not too trou­bled by Gandhi’s re­jec­tion of re­fined su­gar (although when of­fered dark choco­late, I tend to con­ve­niently for­get Gandhi’s state­ment that there is “death in choco­lates”). For me, the great­est strug­gle is to eat less. In ad­di­tion to reg­u­larly fast­ing, Gandhi was a mas­ter of por­tion con­trol. While his ob­ses­sion with con­trol­ling his food in­take was of­ten ex­ces­sive, those of us who have the op­po­site prob­lem can learn from the many strate­gies Gandhi em­ployed to eat less. Did he re­ally need such strate­gies? I used to think it was easy for Gandhi to ab­stain from eat­ing. But con­trary to his as­cetic im­age, Gandhi loved food. That is part of why his search for the per­fect diet is so re­lat­able—it wasn’t easy for him to live up to his own di­etary ideals.

At his best, Gandhi con­nected his di­etary pas­sion to his strug­gles to cre­ate a bet­ter world. In 1942, with the world en­gulfed in war, he re­ceived a se­ries of writ­ings from Carver, hand-de­liv­ered by a doc­tor vis­it­ing from the US. Gandhi jok­ingly told him that he would re­ceive the writ­ings only from Carver him­self. Af­ter be­ing in­formed that Carver was too sick to travel, Gandhi ini­ti­ated a pointed con­ver­sa­tion.

Gandhi: “But even this ge­nius suf­fers un­der the hand­i­cap of seg­re­ga­tion, does not he?” Doc­tor: “Oh yes, as much as any Ne­gro.” Gandhi: “And yet these peo­ple talk of democ­racy and equal­ity! It is an ut­ter lie.”

Doc­tor: “But Dr Carver is never bit­ter or re­sent­ful.” Gandhi: “I know, that is what we be­liev­ers in non­vi­o­lence have to learn from him.”

As we recog­nise the 150th an­niver­sary of Gandhi’s birth, it is fit­ting to ask what we can learn from Gandhi, his legacy, and his diet. As his praise for Carver makes clear, Gandhi him­self learned from many peo­ple, as well as from his own mis­takes. His diet was a form of con­nec­tion. Per­haps that is the great­est les­son of Gandhi’s diet. In our strug­gles to eat right and to live right, we are never alone. ■

Nico Slate is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity and the au­thor of Gandhi’s Search for the Per­fect Diet: Eat­ing with the world in mind and Lord Corn­wal­lis is Dead: The strug­gle for democ­racy in the United States and In­dia



Daily gruel Ma­hatma Gandhi be­ing served a light meal while con­va­lesc­ing in June 1933

'Ma­hatma Gandhi of­fer­ing Nuts to Cripps in Delhi', 1946 In the car­toon, Gandhi and fel­low veg­e­tar­ian Stafford Cripps are shown shar­ing a plate of nuts while ne­go­ti­at­ing In­dia's in­de­pen­dence

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