Mahatma’s medical legacy

Source: By Jaydev Jana: The Statesman

The human body is the universe in miniature. That which cannot be found in the body is not to be found in the universe. Hence the philosophers formula, that the universe within reflects the universe without. It follows therefore that if our knowledge of our body could be perfect we would know the universe. But even the best of doctors and hakims and vaidyas have not been able to acquire it. ~ Mahatma Gandhi, Key To Health.

Return to Gandhi’ is an expression we often hear in course of the general discourse on the Mahatma. Gandhi. It has become almost become a cliché; not only uncritical admirers but even serious students of Gandhi use it almost as a refrain while affirming that the only way to solve the pressing problems confronted by humanity today is to ‘return to Gandhi’. As the ‘return’ suggests going back to a place where we have been before or to a situation that existed before, to apply the term ‘return’ to Gandhi dose not seem very accurate.

Gandhi is most often presented as an ‘Apostle of Non-violence ‘, ‘Father of the Nation’, ‘Architect of Non-violent Conflict Resolution’ and a ‘Peace Icon’. His inclination and contributions in the area of health and medicine have not been much explored. Throughout his life, he experimented on health. He taught us that health implies all aspects of life and not just physical health. A critical look at his thoughts and experiments with health, diet and diet reforms indicate that he was an independent thinker and he looked at all ideas afresh.

When Gandhi’s name is mentioned in the context of health, it is essential to quote him: ‘It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.’ Indeed, he firmly believed that health is always the real wealth and, along with education, is the cornerstone for longstanding sustainable development. Hence, we can hardly afford to ignore Gandhi’s message of health and hygiene, physical fitness, meditation, balanced diet and cleanliness for a happy and healthy India. Gandhi is among the most quoted figures, but many of those who invoke his words do so out of context.

His critics and even his admirers have portrayed him as being opposed to modern science and modern medicines. But a careful, chronological, analysis of his views shows maturing of ideas over time. In his words: ‘I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search for Truth, I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things.’ Once skeptical of modern medicines, he came to appreciate its uses. But he never became an unqualified admirer.

He appreciated the spirit of research that influenced modern medicine, while deploring the craze for money making so visible among many doctors and hospitals. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote: ‘I was at one time a great lover of the medical profession. It was my intention to become a doctor for the sake of the country. I no longer hold that opinion. I now understand why the medicine men (the vaidyas) among us have not occupied a very honourable status.

Doctors have almost unhinged us. Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin.’ Gandhi’s contribution towards treating patients, nursing, advising them on diet is exemplary and this is his medical legacy. His work and contribution during the plague in Rajkot in the late 19th century and in Johannesburg in the early 20th century, his ambulance and nursing work in South Africa’s Zulu War (1899-1900) and the Bambatha Rebellion (1906) and in London during World War I (1914) his exhortations about hygiene, observations on diseases among African miners in South Africa, and his anti-leprosy work in India are a few that could be mentioned in this regard.

Interestingly, Gandhi’s preference for methods of treating illness went through an evolutionary process. In his twenties Gandhi became attracted to Nature Cure; later, he also learnt yoga. In his thirties and forties, he propagated natural and herbal remedies, applying them to himself and to his friends and disciples as well. His attitude towards modern medicine grew more positive only when he was approaching the age of fifty. He then suffered from piles. Persuaded to try surgery, he placed himself under the treatment of one Dr. Dalal, who in January 1919 operated upon him in Bombay so perfectly that he never suffered from the ailment again.

In 1937, a German visitor asked Gandhi whether it was true, as some supposed, that he was suspicious of modern medicine. Gandhi replied that he did ‘not despise all medical treatments. I know we can learn a lot from the West about safe maternity and care of infants. Our children are born anyhow and most of our women are ignorant of the science of bringing up children. Here we can learn a great deal from the West.’

Indeed, Gandhi’s main arguments against medical science are: (1) it attaches undue importance to the body rather than the soul, which is infinitely more real than the body; (2) it is inconsistent with non-violence, partly on account of vivisection and partly because the modern medicines either contain or involve the taking of animal fat, alcohol, meat and other ‘forbidden’ food; (3) it is expensive and, therefore, inaccessible to the poor; and (4) it is inseparably linked with machinery, industrialization and modern civilization in general which Gandhi rejects in its entirety.

Gandhi advocated Nature cure as opposed to modern medicine. He not only practised nature-cure on himself, his wife and children but also on the inmates of every ashram set up by him in South Africa and India, and on all those who would be willing to receive such treatment from him. During the last two years of his life he spent considerable time preaching and treating nature-cure, especially to villagers. A Nature Cure Clinic was set up in Poona under his patronage, and he even thought in terms of setting up a nature cure university.

While he was confined in the Aga Khan Palace in Poona during 1942 -44, he wrote a book entitled Key to Health and penned the preface ~ ‘Anyone who observes the rules of health mentioned in the book will find that he has got in it a real key to unlock the gates leading to him to health. He will not need to knock at the doors of doctors or vaidyas from day to day.’ In Gandhi’s reckoning, a healthy man is a person whose body is free from disease and who can carry on his normal activities without fatigue.

His teaching insists on one having knowledge of one’s self and body to lead a healthy life. He states in his book that the human body is composed of five elements, which ancient philosophers have described as Earth, Water, Light, Air, and Vacancy or Ether. He firmly believed in Nature’s ability to heal and the body’s power in regaining its composure. But the interplay of the five elements is an absolute necessity. The first element is Air without which we cannot live. Breathing exercise for those who cannot breathe, sleeping under the sky, hydrotherapy, sunbaths and mud poultices are Gandhi’s advice on improving health.

In South Africa, Gandhi had learnt Louis Kuhne’s water treatment. Unfortunately, we have polluted our earth, air and water, and have also harmed Ether which helps to maintain and regain health. The impact of the level of pollution will pose a major health and economic crisis for India in the coming years. Gandhi classifies food into three categories ~ vegetarian, flesh and mixed. According to him, vegetarian is the best, followed by mixed. He states the importance of milk, cereals, pulses, fruit, vegetables, fat and the need to keep a balanced proportion of them in the diet.

In his opinion there are major drawbacks in taking meat as in order to get meat we have to kill. Regarding condiments, Gandhi said the body required certain salts which mostly occur naturally in various foodstuff. His personal experiments over fifty years emphasise the need for such condiments. Gandhi said: ‘Food should be taken as a matter of duty even as a medicine to sustain the body, never for the satisfaction of the palate, there should be self-control as such habits of elders influence children to some extent.’ The remarkable aspect of some of Gandhi’s recommendations is that they are relevant even today.