Animal Rights: A History Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
This page is part of the section: Animal Rights: A History
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be
measured by the way in which its animals are treated."
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi 2 October 1869 - 1948 was born in Porbandar, a coastal town in present-day Gujarat, India. He was commonly called by the honorific Mahatma Gandhi, which means great soul, first applied to him by Rabindranath Tagore.
Officially honoured as the father of India, Gandhi was the pre-eminent political and spiritual leader during the Indian independence movement. He was a champion of Satyagraha, ('devotion to truth') a nonviolent way to address wrongs by peaceful civil disobedience based upon the philosophy of ahimsa - nonviolence. You can read more about Ahimsa further down. In 1888 he travelled to London England to study law and train as a barrister after which he returned to India accepted a job at an Indian law firm in Durban, South Africa were he spent twenty years, during which time he was sent to prison many times.
Appalled by the treatment of Indian migrants in south Africa he join the struggle to obtain for them basic rights. Eventually the South African government conceded to Gandhi's demands in 1914.
Gandhi is however most famous for his non violent protests against British rule In India and by 1920 Gandhi became an important figure in Indian politics most notable of which was his programme of non violent non-cooperation with the British which included boycotts of British goods and institutions .For his various activities in the endeavour for Indian independence Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison but realised after serving just two years. After which he devoted himself to improving the relationships between Hindu and Muslims. Eventually the two independent states of India and Pakistan were formed. Gandhi was opposed to this petition and on 30th January 1948 he was assassinated.
Gandhi though is considered by many as more of a philosopher than a statesmen. Often overlooked however is that Gandhi's commitment to peace also included non human animals and Gandhi was one of his eras great advocates of vegetarianism. During his time in London he joined and was a member of the executive committee of the vegetarian society which was established 1847 with the aim of promoting understanding and respect for vegetarian lifestyles. As a member of the society he published several articles in various newspapers defending vegetarianism. Gandhi also continued his journalist support of vegetarianism during his time in South Africa.
Gandhi was born to Vegetarian parents who belonged to the Hindu sect of Vaishnavism, but he was also influenced by the religious traditions of Jainism, which included such concepts as compassion for all sentient beings, vegetarianism, fasting for self-purification, and mutual tolerance between individuals of different creeds. Such ideologies would play an important role throughout his adult life. However it may come as a surprise to many people to know that when younger Gandhi was rather led astray by a friend into experimenting with meat for a period of about six months. The argument, presented by his friend being that the British occupiers appeared stronger as a result of their diet of meat and Gandhi hoped to emulate their perceived strength by adopting their diet. He however felt guilt ridden and he never ate meat again after vowing to his mother before he departed for London that he would not do so. Eventually his commitment not to eat meat came from his own earnest belief that it was not moral to do so, as he realised that doing so resulted in harm to innocent animals. After reading a pamphlet by Henry Salt entitled "A Plea for Vegetarianism" Gandhi became entirely convinced, says Gandhi;
I read Salt's book from cover to cover and was very much impressed by it. From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice. I blessed the day on which I had taken the vow before my mother. I had all along abstained from meat in the interests of truth and of the vow I had taken, but had wished at the same time that every Indian should be a meat-eater, and had looked forward to being one myself freely and openly some day, and to enlisting others in the cause. The choice was now made in favour of vegetarianism, the spread of which henceforward became my mission.
An Autobiography or The Story of my Experiments with Truth ~
Chapter four My Choice
Below you can read the Pamphlet that Gandhi refers to above:
International Vegetarian Union - History of Vegetarianism - IVU Online Library
Gandhi was committed to Ahimsa, a Sanskrit term which means to do no harm, to avoid violence, literally: the avoidance of violence - himsa.
(Removal of the "A" gives the word opposite meaning. Himsa literally means 'violence' in Sanskrit, Hindi and other Indian languages including Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil). It is a rule of conduct that prohibits the killing or harming of any living being. Ahimsa is an important part of all the religions that originated in ancient India including Buddhism, Hinduism and most particularly Jainism. Gandhi lived a rather austere lifestyle sustaining himself upon a simple vegetarian diet, often undertaking long periods of fasting as a means of self purification and as a way of making a statement of social protest. At his death he had a few possessions. Gandhi believed that violence was an innate part of any type of exploitation.
If we are to be non-violent, we must then not wish for anything on this earth which the meanest or the lowest of human beings cannot have.
Gandhi's concern for animals was without exception, Ahimsa meant
nonviolence to all animals and an advocate of ahimsa said Gandhi "shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature."
"Ahimsa is a comprehensive principle. We are helpless mortals caught in the conflagration of himsa. The saying that life lives on life has a deep meaning in it. Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living - eating, drinking and moving about - necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa. He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion, but he can never become entirely free from outward himsa.
Gandhi became an ardent vegetarian to the extent that he told the Vegetarian society that he would choose death rather than eat meat: "If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef-tea or mutton, even under medical advice, I would prefer death."
Gandhi believed that the practice of vegetarianism for moral reasons rather than for health was essential to the vegetarian cause; he believed that those who were vegetarian solely for health reasons were less likely to keep to their commitment while those who did so for ethical reasons were more likely to continue to adhere to a vegetarian diet.
Below is a selection of various writings of Gandhi advocating vegetarianism.
In the letter which follows Gandhi maintains that vegetarianism is conducive to not only physical wellbeing in the form of improved health but also spiritual wellbeing.
A letter from Gandhi
VEGETARIANISM IN NATAL
From The Vegetarian (London), March 28, 1896:
Mr. Gandhi is just as busy at work in Natal on behalf of Vegetarianism as he used to be in England. The following valuable letter which he contributed to the Natal Mercury is worth reproducing both for its intrinsic value and as an incentive to others to follow in Mr. Gandhi's footsteps in stirring up the public by means of the press.
"To the Editor of THE NATAL MERCURY
"Durban, February 3rd.
"Sir, - As one interested in food reform, permit me to congratulate you on your leader in Saturday's issue on "The New Science of Healing," which lays so much stress on the adoption of the natural food, i.e., Vegetarianism. But for the unfortunate characteristic of this 'self-indulgent' age in which 'nothing is more common than to hear men warmly supporting a theory in the abstract without any intention of submitting to it in practice,' we should all be Vegetarians.
For why should it be otherwise when Sir Henry Thompson calls it 'a vulgar error' to suppose that flesh-foods are indispensable for our sustenance, and the most eminent physiologists declare that fruit is the natural food of man, and when we have the example of Buddha, Pythagoras, Plato, Porphyry, Ray, Daniel, Wesley, Howard, Shelley, Sir Isaac Pitman, Edison, Sir W. B. Richardson, and a host of other eminent men as Vegetarians.
The Christian Vegetarians claim that Jesus was also a Vegetarian, and there does not seem to be anything to oppose that view, except the reference to His having eaten broiled fish after the Resurrection. The most successful missionaries in South Africa (the Trappists) are Vegetarians. Looked at from every point of view Vegetarianism has been demonstrated to be far superior to flesh-eating.
The Spiritualists hold, and the practice of the religious teachers of all the religions, except, perhaps, the generality of Protestant teachers, show that nothing is more detrimental to the spiritual faculty of man than the gross feeding on flesh.
The most ardent Vegetarians attribute the agnosticism, the materialism, and the religious indifference of the present age to too much flesh-eating and wine-drinking, and the consequent disappearance, partial or total, of the spiritual faculty in man. Vegetarian admirers of the intellectual in man point to a whole host of the most intellectual men of the world, who were invariably abstemious in their habits, especially at the time of writing their best works, to demonstrate the sufficiency, if not the superiority, of the Vegetarian diet from an intellectual standpoint.
The columns of the Vegetarian magazines and reviews afford a most decisive proof that where beef and its concoctions, with no end of physic thrown in, have lamentably failed, Vegetarianism has triumphantly succeeded. Muscular Vegetarians demonstrate the superiority of their diet by pointing out that the peasantry of the world are practically Vegetarians, and that the strongest and most useful animal, the horse, is a Vegetarian, while the most ferocious and practically useless animal, the lion, is a carnovora.
Vegetarian moralists mourn over the fact that selfish men would - for the sake of gratifying their lustful and diseased appetite - force the butcher's trade on a portion of mankind, while they themselves would shrink with horror from such a calling. They moreover lovingly implore us to bear in mind that, without the stimulants of flesh-foods and wines, it is difficult enough to restrain our passions and escape Satan's clutches, and not to add to those difficulties by resorting to meats and drinks, which, as a rule, go hand in hand. For it is claimed that Vegetarianism, in which juicy fruits find the foremost place, is the safest and surest cure for drunkenness, while meat easily induces or increases the habit. They also argue that since meat eating is not only unnecessary, but harmful to the system, indulgence in it is immoral and sinful, because it involves the infliction of unecessary pain to and cruelty towards harmless animals.
Lastly, Vegetarian economists, without fear of contradiction, assert that Vegetarian foods are the cheapest diet, and their general adoption will go a long way towards mitigating, if not altogether suppressing, the rapidly growing pauperism side by side with the rapid march of the materialistic civilisation and the accumulation of immense riches in the hands of a few.
So far as I recollect, Dr. Louis Kuhne urges the necessity of Vegetarianism on physiological grounds only, and does not give any hints for beginners, who always find it difficult to select the right kinds from a variety of Vegetarian foods, and to cook them properly. I have a selection of Vegetarian cookery books (at from 1d. to 1s.), as also treatises on the subject dealing with its various aspects. The cheapest books are given away, and if any of your readers feel disposed, not merely to admire the new science of healing from a distance, but to put its tenets into practice, I shall be very glad to supply them with what pamphlets I possess on the subject, so far as it relates to Vegetarianism.
I submit the following for the consideration of those who believe in the Bible. Before the 'Fall' we were Vegetarians 'God said, behold I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat and to every beast of the earth and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth wherein there is life. I have given every green herb for meat, and it was so.'
There may be some excuse for the unconverted partaking of meat, but for those who say they are 'born again,' Vegetarian Christians claim there can be none; because their state surely should be equal, if not superior, to that of the people before the 'Fall.' Again, in times of restitution: 'The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. And the lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not hurt nor destroy in My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.'
These things may be far off yet for the whole world. But why cannot those who know and can - the Christians - enact them for themselves at any rate? There can be no harm in anticipating them, and maybe thereby their approach may be considerably hastened.
"I am, etc.,
"M. K. Gandhi."
Vegetarianism in Natal - Letters from The Fellowship of Life: a Christian-based Vegetarian group
There appears to be some similarities between the letter to the Natal Mercury and the first section of the following writings, the first eight paragraphs of which are the same. I have therefore included the following extract from the second section.
The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism
By Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi
Speech delivered by Gandhi at a Social Meeting organised by the London Vegetarian Society, 20 November 1931
Mr, Chairman, Fellow Vegetarians, and Friends,
When I received the invitation to be present at this meeting, I need not tell you how pleased I was because it revived old memories and recollections of pleasant friendships formed with vegetarians. I feel especially honoured to find on my right, Mr. Henry Salt. It was Mr. Salt’s book ‘ A Plea for Vegetarianism’, which showed me why apart from a hereditary habit, and apart from my adherence to a vow administered to me by my mother, it was right to be a vegetarian. He showed me why it was a moral duty incumbent on vegetarians not to live upon fellow-animals. It is, therefore, a matter of additional pleasure to me that I find Mr. Salt in our midst.
I do not propose to take up your time by giving you my various experiences of vegetarianism nor do I want to tell you something of the great difficulty that faced me in London itself in remaining staunch to vegetarianism, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that have developed in me in connection with vegetarianism. Forty years ago I used to mix freely with vegetarians. There was at that time hardly a vegetarian restaurant in London that I had not visited. I made it a point, out of curiosity, and to study the possibilities of vegetarianism and vegetarian restaurants in London, to visit every one of them. Naturally, therefore, I came into close contact with many vegetarians. I found, at the tables, that largely the conversation turned upon food and disease. I found also that the vegetarians who were struggling to stick to their vegetarianism were finding it difficult from the health point of view.
I do not know whether, nowadays, you have those debates, but I used at that time to attend debates that were held between vegetarians and vegetarians and between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. I remember one such debate, between Dr. Densmore and the late Dr. T. R. Allinson. Then vegetarians had a habit of talking of nothing but food and nothing but disease. I feel that that is the worst way of going about the business. I notice also that it is those persons who become vegetarians because they are suffering from some disease or other – that is, from purely the health point of view – it is those persons who largely fall back. I discovered that for remaining staunch to vegetarianism a man requires a moral basis.
For me that was a great discovery in my search after truth. At an early age, in the course of my experiments, I found that a selfish basis would not serve the purpose of taking a man higher and higher along the paths of evolution. What was required. was an altruistic purpose. I found also that health was by no means the monopoly of vegetarians. I found many people having no bias one way or the other and that non-vegetarians were able to show, generally speaking, good health. I found also that several vegetarians found it impossible to remain vegetarians because they had made food a fetish and because they thought that by becoming vegetarians they could eat as much lentil, haricot, beans and cheese as they liked. Of course those people could not possibly keep their health.
Observing along these lines, I saw that a man should eat sparingly and now and then fast. No man or woman really ate sparingly or consumed just that quantity which the body requires and no more. We easily fall to prey to the temptations of the palate, and therefore when a thing tastes delicious we do not mind taking a morsel or two more. But you cannot keep health under those circumstances. Therefore I discovered that in order to keep health, no matter what you ate, it was necessary to cut down the quantity of your food, and reduce the number of meals. Become moderate; err on the side of less, rather than on the side of more. When I invite friends to share their meals with me I never press them to take anything except only what they require. On the contrary, I tell them not to take a thing if they do not want it.
What I want to bring to your notice is 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. If a vegetarian became ill, and a doctor prescribed beef tea, then I would not call him a vegetarian. A vegetarian is made of sterner stuff. Why? Because it is for the building of the spirit and not of the body. 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. I know we must all err I would give up milk if I could, but I cannot. I have made that experiment times without number. I could not, after a serious illness, regain my strength, unless I went back to milk. That has been the tragedy of my life. But the basis of my vegetarianism is not physical, but moral. If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef tea or mutton, even on medical advice, I would prefer death. That is the basis of my vegetarianism.
I would love to think that all of us who called ourselves vegetarians should have that basis. There were thousands of meat-eaters who did not stay meat-eaters. There must be a definite reason for our making that change in our lives, from our adopting habits and cus-toms different from society, even though sometimes that change may offend those nearest and dearest to us. Not for the world should you sacrifice a moral principle. Therefore the only basis for having a vegetarian society and proclaiming a vegetarian principle is, and must be, a moral one. I am not to tell you, as I see and wander about the world, that vegetarians, on the whole, enjoy much better health than meat-eaters. I belong to a country which is predominantly vegetarian by habit or necessity. Therefore I cannot testify that that shows much greater endurance, much greater courage, or much greater exemption from disease. Because it is a peculiar, personal thing. It requires obedience, and scrupulous obedience, to all the laws of hygiene.
Therefore, I think that what vegetarians should do is not to emphasise the physical consequences of vegetarianism, but to explore the moral consequences. While we have not yet forgotten that we share many things in common with the beast, we do not sufficiently realise there are certain things which differentiate us from the beast. Of course, we have vegetarians in the cow and the bull -- which are better vegetarians than we are - but there is something much higher which calls us to vegetarianism. Therefore, I thought that, during the few minutes which I give myself the privilege of addressing you, I would just emphasise the moral basis of vegetarianism. And I would say that I have found from my own experience, and the experience of thousands of friends and companions, that they find satisfaction, so far as vegetarianism is concerned, from the moral basis they have chosen for sustaining vegetarianism.
In conclusion, I thank you all for coming here and allowing me to see vegetarians face to face. I cannot say I used to meet you forty or forty-two years ago. I suppose the faces of the London Vegetarian Society have changed. There are very few members who, like Mr. Salt, can claim association with the Society extending over forty years.
Mr. Henry S. Salt was Assistant Master at Eaton 1875-1884, Honorary Secretary of the Humanitarian League, 1891-1919. He has been a vegetarian for over fifty years, and has never had reason to doubt the superiority of the diet. He was an octogenarian at the moment of Gandhi’s speech. and a writer whose opinion of the present ‘civilisation’ may be gathered from the title of his book ’Seventy years among Savages’.
Source animal rights library The Animal Rights Library
The following is what Gandhi said about animal sacrifice when he witnessed the sacrifice of sheep as he passed the temple of Kali in the early 1900s during a stay in Calcutta:
During these days I walked up and down the streets of Calcutta. I went to most places on foot. I met Justice Mitter and Sir Gurdas Banerji, whose help I wanted in my work in South Africa. And about this time I met Raja Sir Pyarimohan Mukarji. Kalicharan Banerji had spoken to me about the Kali temple, which I was eager to see, especially as I had read about it in books. So I went there one day, Justice Mitter's house was in the same locality, and I therefore went to the temple on the same day that I visited him. On the way I saw a stream of sheep going to be sacrificed to kali. Rows of beggars lined the lane leading to the temple. There were religious mendicants too, and even in those days I was sternly opposed to giving alms to sturdy beggars. A crowd of them pursued me. One of such men was found seated on a verandah. He stopped me, and accosted me: 'Whither are you going, my boy?' I replied to him. He asked my companion and me to sit down, which we did. I asked him: 'Do you regard this sacrifice as religion?' 'Who would regard killing of animals as religion?' 'Then, why don't you preach against it?' 'That's not my business. Our business is to worship God.' 'But could you not find any other place in which to worship God?' 'All places are equally good for us. The people are like a flock of sheep, following where leaders lead them. It is no business of us sadhus.' We did not prolong the discussion but passed on to the temple. We were greeted by rivers of blood. I could not bear to stand there. I was exasperated and restless. I have never forgotten that sight. That very evening I had an invitation to dinner at a party of Bengali friends. There I spoke to a friend about this cruel form of worship. He said: 'The sheep don't feel anything. The noise and the drum- beating there deaden all sensation of pain.' I could not swallow this. I told him that, if the sheep had speech, they would tell a different tale. I felt that the cruel custom ought to be stopped. I thought of the story of Buddha, but I also saw that the task was beyond my capacity. I hold today the opinion as I held then. To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body. I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it s to protection by man from the cruelty of man. But he who has not qualified himself for such service is unable to afford to it any protection. I must go through more self-purification and sacrifice before I can hope to save these lambs from this unholy sacrifice. Today I think I must die pining for this self-purification and sacrifice. It is my constant prayer that there may be born on earth some great spirit, man or woman, fired with divine pity, who will deliver us from this heinous sin, save the lives of the innocent creatures, and purify the temple. How is it that Bengal with all its knowledge, intelligence, sacrifice, and emotion tolerates this slaughter?
The Story of My Experiments with Truth:
An_Autobiography_or_The_Story_of_my_Experiments_with_Truth Free on-line copy
Famous Animal rights quotes form Ghandi
It ill becomes us to invoke in our daily prayers the blessings of God, the Compassionate, if we in turn will not practice elementary compassion towards our fellow creatures.
"We must be the change we wish to see in the world. (and) I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man."
It is necessary to correct the error that vegetarianism has made us weak in mind, or passive or inert in action. I do not regard flesh-food as necessary at any stage
I do feel that spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants.
I hold flesh-food to be unsuited to our species. We err in copying the lower animal world if we are superior to it.
To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body.
Various article by or about Gandhi related to Vegetarianism
Important please note:
I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.
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