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Vegetarian Fan or Fanatic?

June 2012
Vegetarian Fan or Fanatic? SATYALOGUE
with PostModern Gandhiji (PMG)

An advice column offering the Mahatma’s perspective on modern dilemmas


Dear PMG,

It is quite clear that the writer of this column is a Gandhi fan. But I’m wondering if the “Great Soul’s” fanaticism warrants uncritical fan worship.

I’m a first-year medical student who was raised in a strictly vegetarian Jain household. I was taught to respect all living things. As such, inside the home and outside I avoided eating meat, fish, and even French fries from McDonald’s since they were thought to be fried in non-veg oil.

My quandary came in high school when I was asked to dissect a frog. Since they wanted me to be a physician, my parents allowed me to participate in this biology class experiment. Now in med school, I am realizing that much of modern medicine and pharmacology is based on animal products.

I understand that the Mahatma stopped his wife’s beef-based medical treatments. Doesn’t it seem fanatical to privilege an animal over a human?

Dear Friend,

“I would never allow my wife to be given meat or beef, even if the denial meant her death, unless of course she desired to take it.”  (M. K. Gandhi)

In exploring this topic, I have amended a misconception that I’ve long held about Gandhiji, that in staying true to his worldview around vegetarianism, he was willing to accept a deathly consequence for his wife, Kasturba. While the above dialogue between Gandhiji and Kasturba’s doctor suggests that this is accurate, it is only a half truth. In terms of this column’s postmodern philosophy of choice, the key is the second part of the quote: “unless of course she desired to take it.” Fanaticism leaves no room for other views, no  opportunity for the “art of choosing” (the title of a fine book by Sheena Iyengar).

Clearly, Gandhiji had a democratic streak and left open a window for Kasturba. Just as clearly, the “Great Soul” had a powerful personality and understood that his influence was significant. As such, it is fair to question the sincerity of the “unless” clause used by the legally trained Mahatma. Perhaps a lengthier quote from Gandhiji’s autobiography illuminates the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi:

“I next spoke to Kasturbai herself. She was really too weak to be consulted in this matter. But I thought it my painful duty to do so. I told her what had passed between the doctor and myself. She gave a resolute reply: ‘I will not take beef tea. It is a rare thing in this world to be born as a human being, and I would far rather die in your arms than pollute my body with such abominations.’

“I pleaded with her. I told her that she was not bound to follow me. I cited to her the instances of Hindu friends and acquaintances who had no scruples about taking meat or wine as medicine. But she was adamant. ‘No,’ said she, ‘pray remove me at once.’”

[Dr. Rajesh C. Oza serves as a consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. We invite questions for consideration in the PMG column at raj_oza@hotmail.com.]

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