“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”- Mahatma Gandhi
Our great country, India, has been the crown jewel of the medical world since time immemorial. India’s contribution to medicine is underlined by the fact that it is home to a posse of medical practice systems – Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha are just the most common ones still in practice. It also boasts some of the earliest recorded medical and surgical histories known to mankind. Charaka Samhita along with Sushruta Samhita, the book chiefly authored by the great physician and surgeon of ancient India, contained a wealth of wisdom on health, its pervasive influence on the human body, and the scores of diseases affecting it. It is thus not surprising that the most well-known public figure in India’s political history and a genius, has something to say about health, the all-important essence of life.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, eponymously known as Mahatma Gandhi, ”Bapu” and “Father of the Nation”, was a multi-faceted personality. Besides being a political trailblazer, his interests transcended far beyond attaining freedom for his beloved country by peaceful agitation and silent coercion. He was an accomplished barrister, a powerful orator, a conscientious family man, a social activist, a freedom fighter, a health “freak”, a philosophical giant and yet, a simple man. His autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” bears witness to his various traits, from his foibles to his greatness without sounding too self-absorbed or boastful. Some of his views on health clearly resonate with modern medical principles, particularly his insistence on cleanliness, dietary control and exercise. His realisation that health, and not riches, is real wealth during the early days of modern medicine, is quite visionary.
Gandhi – The Health Aficionado
Although he spurned modern medicine for its grotesque ways of training, Gandhi was keen to pursue a career in modern medicine, much before he wished to become a barrister. His deep interest in healthcare was deeply rooted in his ideal of service towards others, which seemed to surpass even his primary profession as a barrister. He was a self-taught healer and caregiver, often going the extra mile to provide for the sick and the needy. Despite his disdain for vivisection and animal experiments during training, it is thought with some evidence that he wanted to discontinue his practice of law in South Africa to pursue a medical degree in London, suggesting a deep desire to be of better service through medical practice than through his legal expertise. However, his moral reservations and abhorrence towards vivisection, patients with consumption and venereal diseases got the better of him.
Service towards the sick and the disabled, however, remained ensconced in his inner being and he continued to prescribe both traditional and non-traditional medicines to those who were with him in Sevagram, his mud-plastered hut. From prescribing fasting and semi-fasting to his ailing visitors, he even prescribed castor oil, sodium bicarbonate, iodine and quinine for various maladies. This was supplanted by help from Dr. Sushila Nayyar during his later days. He even housed and nursed a leper and a patient with consumption despite his earlier disdain.
His health ideals included the practice of strict vegetarianism, stringent hygiene, the practice of chastity and fasting. He was also known for his practice of “Nature Cure” in the form of hydrotherapy and mud-cures. He even had an unconventional use of mud-therapy for his own hypertension.
There are anecdotal mentions of his healing methods and their success in various literature, which he also mentions in his writings, including the miraculous cure of his wife from pernicious anaemia using citrus juice and bed care. Although a medical explanation for such cures is implausible, it is thought that the cures were mostly psychosomatic.
His significant contribution to health literature is a surprise to most people, except for his close followers who are familiar with his thought-provoking work, “Key to Health.” He unabashedly urges the reader on by saying that, “Anyone who observes the rules of health mentioned in this book will find that he has got in it a real key to unlock the gates leading him to health. He will not need to knock at the doors of doctors or vaidyas from day-to-day.”
The book extols the intricate functioning of the human body and suggests various healthy practices like fresh air, clean water, wholesome food albeit vegetarian diet, essential condiments, and avoidance of intoxicants like alcohol, opium, and tobacco.
The book also advocates natural therapeutics based on the 5 natural elements, like eating and applying earth, hydrotherapy, akash or ether, adequate sunlight, and fresh air.
Although much of the suggested therapeutics are irrelevant today, many of the general principles of health advocated by Gandhi still hold true and constitute the crux of his contribution to health.
Modern Medicine – A Skewed View
Gandhi was quite vocal in his critique of professional medical practice, which he often equated to “quackery.” His communique to Gokhale is littered with his calling himself a “quack” and giving him health advice about Diabetes. Such ridicule of the medical profession was probably a result of his entrenched belief that “[Western] medical science is based on inconclusive experiments.” Of course, he might have seen it differently today.
His enthusiasm in promoting Indian systems of medicine is highlighted by an incident when he addressed a gathering at the inauguration of a national medical college dedicated to traditional Muslim Unani practices. He exhorted the gathering to not only teach Ayurveda and Unani but to update their practices based on research and counter the “quackery” of both Western and Eastern medical practices. He, however, held in high esteem the work done by a few luminaries of modern medicine of that era. Some of them include Pranjivan Mehta, Thomas Allinson, Josiah Oldfield, Lancelot Parker Booth, Bidhan Chandra Roy, Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, Jivraj Mehta, MDD Gilder, and his personal physician, Sushila Nayyar. This group of physicians, particularly his closeness and regard for Sushila Nayyar, considering women morally superior to men, led him to consider the virtues of modern medicine to those who could afford it.
Gandhi was a health and hygiene “freak” in that he advocated and practised cleanliness to a high degree. However, his recommendation of chastity as a way towards good health and prevention of venereal diseases was somewhat misguided. Nine days of free treatment at his Nature Cure Clinic was strewn with anecdotal therapeutic measures that often included strange suggestions involving nature therapy like beginning every treatment session with a 36-hour fasting and spiritual chanting. He, however, recommended only hospital treatment for those with a hernia. Thus, his practice of healing often bordered between that of a “quack” and that of a philanthropic health enthusiast or teacher, but his strict adherence to “ethical” practice is praise-worthy.
He was a proponent of euthanasia and chose palliative care for his dying wife, citing that it is better to die early than go through a protracted period of suffering. His justification that reducing suffering through empathy and euthanasia is liberating.
Gandhi, later on in his lifetime, was not as abhorrent of modern medicine as during his earlier days, but always believed in Ayurveda and promoted it.
150 Years Thence – Relevance in Today’s World
Much has changed in the practice of modern medicine since Gandhiji’s time and his therapeutic measures may seem archaic, illogical, non-scientific and impractical, but the general principles of good health and hygiene are still accurate.
His contribution to health, although overshadowed by his colossal political achievements, is etched in history and continues to inspire many. His focus on alternative systems of medicine like Ayurveda and Unani has provided inspiration for the parallel practice of both allopathic and alternative medicine in India.
Vocal remonstrations against animal experiments, vivisection and cruelty to animals also played a role in instilling a fear psychosis against vaccination. This had led to a spate of smallpox cases in the 1930s during the historic “Salt March.” About a million were affected by smallpox with a 40% casualty among the affected. It was only later in the 1980s with the dying down of this anti-vaccination movement started by Gandhi, that smallpox was eradicated throughout the world.
Nature cure remedies like mud therapy, hydrotherapy and local medicinal drugs are still in vogue in some parts of the world. Alternative medicine still holds sway in many parts of the world, including India, where AYUSH centres across the country are trying hard to integrate the best of ancient systems of medicine with modern medicine through scientific research and validation of various therapeutic measures. The recent “medical” debacle on “bridge course” for practitioners of Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Homeopathy to prescribe allopathic medicines is a case in point, but without much merit.
The strict dietary practices, especially of vegetarianism advocated by Gandhi was often looked at with derision by modern doctors of his time. But, he persevered in his advocacy of such stringent dietary practices even during his old age and illness such that it became a hindrance to his treatment on numerous occasions. It was only during the mid-1940s during periods of hunger and epidemic that Gandhi sanctioned public exceptions to his precept of vegetarianism. Dietary guidelines in modern medicine have surely changed a lot since Gandhi’s time, but advocacy for a healthy and wholesome diet persists.
Gandhi’s views on physical exercise still hold true in a number of ways. The huge problem of lifestyle diseases that we face today is a direct result of the sedentary lifestyles that we have become accustomed to. Adherence to his guiding principles on physical exercise will continue to transform people’s health in a good way.
Thus, Gandhi’s sway over modern medical practices may be limited but his recommendations on the general principles of health still hold true despite tremendous changes in the last 150 years.
When Old is Gold – Gandhi’s Ideals
A quote from Gandhi, to one of his nephews in 1937, truly sums up his ideals on health and fitness:
“In the matter of improving one’s health, lethargy is a sin. The human body is both a kurukshetra [a field of action/conflict] and a dharma‐kshetra [a field of doing one’s duty and right action]. Insofar as it is a dharmakshetra, it is one’s duty to keep it in good shape.”
This concept of health definitely impacts the way we look at health and healthcare today. It continues to influence the concept of subsidised healthcare in the country to its citizens. The government will sooner or later prove unable to pay for the citizens’ healthcare if too many of them need healthcare as a consequence of physical inactivity and lifestyle diseases accompanying it. His ideal that a citizen’s first-hand duty to keep oneself healthy is all-encompassing in its influence on the principle of duty towards oneself.
Gandhiji’s saying, “Anyone who observes the rules of health will not need to knock at the doors of doctors from day to day,” aptly holds true even today. Preventive medicine is now a worthy ally in modern clinical practice, particularly with the deluge of lifestyle diseases like hypertension and diabetes.
The Gandhian Legacy
Gandhi’s experimental ways, his incessant search for truth, and his holistic approach towards health and science is exemplary. The “ethical compass” and key values with which he conducted his unorthodox experiments on life can be analogised to gold tested by the fire. Such moral fortitude is one to emulate in modern-day clinical practice, particularly with the challenges of modern scientific environments.
Gandhiji’s contribution to health is impossible to eulogise in a few words. However, critical study of his works, particularly his tireless quest for the truth and health, should be a guiding light to every health professional and to every citizen of the country.
As the world celebrates the accomplishments of a political, social and philosophical giant 150 years thence, let us celebrate his medical ingenuity rallying around his ideals of selfless-service, non-violence, moral calibre, cleanliness, dietary control, and physical exercise.
- Gandhi M. K., “An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments With Truth”, Navajivan
Publisihng House, Ahmedabad, India, 1927.
- Gandhi M. K., “Keys to Health”, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, India, 1948.
- Lindley M, “Gandhi on Health”, Gandhi Research Foundation, 2018