Food fit for a Mahatma


Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with food were as elaborate as his experiments with truth and nonviolence. Food for him represented a critical step in the journey to attain the ideal life as he envisaged it. But a lot of these experiments, based as they were on sound research, are so relevant today, says E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan.

Mahatma Gandhi once offered goat’s curd to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who looked at the yellowish sludge, and demurred. Gandhi was at the Viceroy’s Palace (known today as Rashtrapati Bhavan) for talks with the new Viceroy of India. At tea time while Mountbatten was served tea in his bone china viceregal set, Gandhi was served lemon soup, goat’s curd and dates by Manu, his grand-niece, in a tin plate. Gandhi insisted and Mountbatten had to accept a spoonful of the goat’s curd, which he later told the authors of the book Freedom at Midnight, he found ‘ghastly’! Taste, as Mountbatten discovered that day, was not a strong or desirable element in the Mahatma’s diet.

Gandhi’s experiments with food are as fascinating as his fasts. A man who started his food experimentation with goat meat and ended with goat’s curd, covered a vast swathe of non-vegetarian, eggetarian, vegetarian, vegan and raw foods. He experimented throughout his life to find his ‘perfect diet’.

Since he had promised his mother on the verge of going to London for higher studies, at the age of 18, that he would abstain from meat, he discovered and visited almost all restaurants offering vegetarian food in London. In the process, he also read Henry Salt’s A Plea for Vegetarianism and greatly influenced, chose vegetarianism as his preferred diet for life.

So what did Gandhi eat?
The remarkable aspect of Gandhi’s diet is, it is supremely relevant today! Much like the man. Gandhi eschewed meat, spices, oil, onions and garlic, and was a firm believer in raw vegetables, curd, fruits, ‘sattvic’ (fresh, organically grown) food and boiled vegetables tempered with just a hint of salt. Today, beset as we are with lifestyle ailments driven by our rich food and sedentary habits, aren’t ‘organic’, ‘raw’, ‘less oil and salt’, our much-bandied bywords?

Gandhi’s typical meal in a day would consist of chapatti, vegetables like beetroot, pumpkin, bottle gourd, leafy vegetables or brinjal, goat’s milk, curd made from goat’s milk, perhaps some juice, and most surely, seasonal fruits. He also believed a lot in the properties of sweet lime and lemon. Most of the vegetables were just boiled and eaten often without salt and oil. Gandhi favoured uncooked or raw vegetables, since it retained its nutritional value, and he maintained that eating uncooked food was less violent too. It must be mentioned here that an experiment in eating only raw foods for many days resulted in diarrhea and he sadly abandoned it in favour of the mixed diet.

Gandhi’s consumption of goat’s curd was an unwilling concession to his own health. He had given up all forms of milk in the firm belief that milk was meant to be consumed only by babies and the young. In fact he believed mother’s milk was the only milk one should consume in one’s life. A bad bout of malaria which laid him low also saw him making a very slow recovery. On his doctor’s insistence and with great reluctance, he agreed to start consuming goat’s milk and curd, as it’s considered nutritionally more rich than cow’s milk. And he continued this practice till his death.

While he believed firmly in vegetarianism, he exhorted his followers that, “Vegetarians need to be tolerant if they want to convert others to vegetarianism. Adopt a little humility. We should appeal to the moral sense of the people who do not see eye to eye with us…Man is more than meat. It is the spirit in man for which we are concerned. Therefore vegetarians should have that moral basis – that a man was not born a carnivorous animal, but born to live on the fruits and herbs that the earth grows”.
It’s a tribute to Gandhi’s strong conviction, diligent research and dietary experiments that things we are learning now and adopting, he had already discovered almost a century ago. He had an intense aversion to white sugar, and considered jaggery as a better substitute. Today most dieticians agree that it’s better to get our sugar dose from fruits, which is also the best way to maintain the ideal weight. Fruits formed a big part of Gandhi’s daily diet.

Gandhi’s personal beliefs permeated everything he did. So his experiment with ‘sattvic’ food was also to support the vow of Brahmachaya he had taken. Such foods consumed as Gandhi did, with just a hint of salt, do not stimulate the body in any way, which was Gandhi’s aim. The reason also why he had given up garlic, onions and various spices. He wanted his food be as bland as possible, yet nutrionally rich.

Gandhi believed that one must use only one grain at a time. In fact, he believed that those who get animal protein in the shape of milk, cheese, eggs or meat need not consume pulses at all. In ‘The Harijan’ dated 1 January 1942 he writes, “If the well-to-do give up pulses and oils, they set free these two essentials for the poor who get neither animal protein nor animal fat”. He continues, “To begin with, one meal may be raw vegetables and chapattis or bread, and the other cooked vegetables with milk or curds. Sweet dishes should be eliminated altogether. Instead gur or sugar in small quantities may be taken with milk or bread or by itself”.

Gandhi’s regular enemas and faith in nature therapy are well-known. He was almost fanatical about regular bowel movements and sanitation. Today, when we opt for detox diets and ‘internal cleansing’, aren’t we echoing what this astonishing man had adopted almost a century ago?

Gandhi’s fasts
If reams can be written about Gandhi’s diet, his ‘fasts’ or denying himself nourishment, is as much a part of who and what he was. In a poor country like India, it was nothing short of a stroke of genius to make the ‘fast’ one of his ‘weapons’ of protests.

Chapattis were also favoured by Gandhi

Chapattis were also favoured by Gandhi

Gandhi fasted on 17 occasions during the freedom struggle, the longest being for 21 days! The only thing Gandhi allowed himself to consume during his fasts was water. Sometimes, when his fast was not very rigid, he allowed a little sweet lime juice or orange juice to be added to the water. At other times, he sipped only lukewarm water and bi-carbonate of soda.
In Freedom at Midnight, the authors describe Gandhi’s meal before he started the last fast of his life on 12 January 1948, just 18 days before he was assassinated: two chapattis, an apple, some goat’s milk and three quarters of a grapefruit. For this last fast of his life, which lasted 121 hours and 30 minutes, Gandhi didn’t accept the addition of even a drop of juice to the water. Finally, when he broke this rigid fast, it was with a glass of orange juice reinforced with glucose. Three hours later, he had his meal of eight ounces of goat’s milk and four oranges. All this at the age of 78! Often, his close aides fasted with him. As did Jawaharlal Nehru, who fasted in empathy with his mentor for the last 2 days of Gandhi’s final fast.

An echo in modern times
The one poster that any dieter, vegan, vegetarian or fitness enthusiast should have up on their wall is of Mahatma Gandhi. I say this with all seriousness. Here was a man who walked the talk. He experimented with his diet all his life and shared and discussed the results of such experimentation. He encouraged those around him to experiment too and adopt practices which caused the least violence to the plant and animal kingdom. He equally frowned on anyone who aped others’ habits without experimenting themselves.

Today we extol the virtues of raw vegetables, curds or yoghurt and decry the ill-effects of sugar and ‘white’ flours. We frown upon fruit juices, and dieticians sing paeans to the benefits of eating the whole fruit. The virtues of walking and good sanitary habits are also extolled. But these were all by-words that Gandhi lived by. He believed that a good diet and physical fitness led to good bowel habits, all extremely important to live a healthy life.

We bemoan our lifestyle ailments and rush to the doctor for the slightest things. Perhaps it’s time we took a leaf from Gandhi’s lifestyle and while at it, acknowledge him for the insight he had into health and fitness and the foresight he had, to personally adopt them.


E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan

The writer is Assistant Editor, One India One People.