The moral basis of Vegetarianism
Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad
Excerpts from Chapter 6: The moral basis of vegetarianism
[Address to the London Vegetarian Society on 20th November 1931]
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 to 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 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 at that time hardly a vegetarian restaurant in London that I had not the possibilities of vegetarianism and vegetarian restaurants in London, to visit every one of them. I remember a debate between Dr.Densmore and the late Dr. T.R. Allinson. The vegetarians, then, had a habit of talking of nothing but food and nothing but related diseases. 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 the other – it is from purely the health point of view. 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 also found it is impossible to remain vegetarians because they had made food a fetish and because they thought that by becoming vegetarians, they could eat as much lentils, haricot beans, and cheese as they liked. Of course, these 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 prey to the temptations of the palate and 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 no 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 would not call him a vegetarian. A vegetarian is made of sterner stuff. Why? Because, it is for building the spirit and not the body. Man is more than meat. It is the spirit in man for which is 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. In my case, after a serious illness, regain my strength unless I went back to milk that has been the tragedy of my life. But the basis is not physical but moral. If anybody said that I should die if I did not take beef-tea or mutton, even under medical advice, I would prefer death. That is the basis of my vegetarianism. I would love to have all of you to have the same 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, for our adopting habits and customs 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 saying that vegetarians on the whole enjoy much better health than meat-eaters. 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 emphasize 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 realize that 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 vegetarians. I found that many of us 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. Lastly, I would like you, if you want to ask me any questions, for I am at your disposal for a few minutes.
Gandhiji was then asked to give his reasons for limiting his daily diet to five articles only. He replied as under:
That has no connection with the vegetarianism. There was another reason. I had been a pampered child of nature. I had acquired then that notoriety that when I was invited by friends, they placed before me ample dishes of food. I told them I had come there to serve and personally, I should find myself dying by inches if I allowed myself to be pampered like that. So, in limiting myself to five ingredients of food, I served a double purpose. And, I must finish all my eating before sundown. I have been saved many pitfalls by that. There are many discoveries about that in regard to health reasons.
It has helped me morally and materially – materially because, in a poor country like India, it is not always possible to procure goat’s milk, and it is hard to produce fruit and grapes. Then, I go to visit poor people, and if I expected hot-house grapes, they would banish me. So, by restricting me to five articles of food, it also serves the law of economy. – Harijan, 20-2-1939