Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – widely honoured as the Father of the Nation – is often thought of in almost mythic terms: a figure of near universal reverence, internationally celebrated for his dogged struggle for Indian independence; his stand against colonialism; his embrace of pacifism; and denunciation of violence.
In recent weeks, details have come to light about the health of the Mahatma. This is thanks to a book published by the Indian Journal of Medical Research which publishes Gandhi’s health records.
Among the findings are that he suffered from serious ailments, was underweight and relied on ayurvedic medicine to treat his high blood pressure. However, an active lifestyle and healthy diet meant Gandhi was, overall, in good physical health. This leads the book to celebrate the Gandhian philosophy, suggesting his approach to his own lifestyle and wellbeing could be of use to India as it tackles its healthcare issues today.
“Gandhi fasted seventeen times between 1913 and 1948, twice for a period of 21 days…Sometimes, his fasting brought him to the brink of death”
Gandhi was famous for embarking on a number of fasts throughout his lifetime, weaponising hunger in the fight he called satyagraha – a method of civil disobedience which foregoes violence. Gandhi fasted seventeen times between 1913 and 1948, twice for a period of 21 days. The first was in support of Hindu-Muslim unity; the second was while he was detained without charge in a Delhi jail. In total, the Mahatma spent 140 days of his life fasting. Sometimes, his fasting brought him to the brink of death.
Given how often Gandhi went on hunger strike, it may come as little surprise that he was underweight. At the age of seventy, the Mahatma stood at five foot, five inches and weighed 46.7 kilograms. This lent him a body mass index (BMI) of 17.1.
BMI is a figure which indicates how healthy an individual’s weight is, dividing their weight in kilograms by the square of their height in metres. Gandhi’s BMI placed him firmly within in the underweight category, albeit not severely so (a BMI between sixteen and 18.5 is considered underweight, while a BMI below sixteen is considered severely underweight and a BMI below fifteen is considered very severely underweight).
“Gandhi’s use of natural remedy to treat his blood pressure was no isolated incident. Throughout his life, Gandhi embraced naturopathy and homoeopathic cures over their allopathic counterparts, experimenting frequently with a number of “earth and water” cures.”
Gandhi also suffered from hypertension, his blood pressure peaking at 220/110 in February 1940. In the treatment of his high blood pressure, Gandhi eschewed allopathic cures and preferred ayurvedic remedies. In correspondence with one acquaintance, future health minister Dr Sushila Nayyar, he described how he treated his hypertension with three drops of sarpagandha, a milkweed also known as Indian snakeroot which is commonly found in the sub-Himalayas.
Gandhi’s use of natural remedy to treat his blood pressure was no isolated incident. Throughout his life, Gandhi embraced naturopathy and homoeopathic cures over their allopathic counterparts, experimenting frequently with a number of “earth and water” cures.
Despite being hypertensive and underweight, Gandhi was in good physical health for much of his life. This can be attributed to a number of lifestyle factors. He ate a vegetarian diet; avoided caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; practised meditation to benefit his mental health; and exercised much more than most.
“Between 1913 and 1948, Gandhi’s campaigns saw him walk a total of 79,000 kilometres according to the IJMR: the equivalent of two trips around the Earth on foot
On average, the Mahatma walked eighteen kilometres a day. Walking was an integral part of his campaign work, perhaps best exemplified by the 24-day, 240-mile Salt March Gandhi and his followers undertook in the spring of 1930. In total, between 1913 and 1948, Gandhi’s campaigns saw him walk a total of 79,000 kilometres according to the IJMR: the equivalent of two trips around the Earth on foot.
“It is quite possible that some solutions Gandhi had back then may surprise today’s generation, but his philosophy towards life, and healthy living continues to remain relevant,” the editorial of the book states. In a time when noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise in India – driven in part by low levels of physical activity and unhealthy diets – there is much of value to be taken from the Gandhian approach to healthy living.
This is not to say that Gandhi was not susceptible to illness. He was human after all. He thrice contracted malaria, in 1925, 1936 and 1944; underwent surgery to treat piles in 1919 and appendicitis in 1924; and suffered at other times with pleurisy and dysentery. As he aged, he also suffered from myocarditis.
Despite his ailments, the Mahatma forged the path towards India’s liberation. He was tireless in his campaigns against religious violence and division. He was also outspoken on environmental matters ahead of the emergence of the modern environmentalist movement. He protested the burden materialism imposed upon nature and advocated sustainability and ecological balance.
Gandhi was also outspoken about the importance of sanitation, once remarking that “An ideal village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation.” He saw the link between poor sanitation and a multiplicity of diseases
“The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere. I, therefore, believe in the absolute necessity of a clean place for answering the call of nature and clean articles for use at the time.”
More than seventy years after the Mahatma’s death, India is hopefully moving towards a sanitary future. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) seeks to make the country free of open defecation by October 2nd this year – by no coincidence coinciding with the Mahatma’s 150th birthday. So far, the scheme has enjoyed considerable success by extending sanitation services to many villages – and while there is still work to be done, there is hope for the ‘ideal village’ of which the Mahatma spoke being realised at the pan-Indian level.
One environmental issue Gandhi noted with remarkable prescience was the pollution of the Mother Ganga, an issue that continues to frustrate environmentalists and devotees alike in the modern era. After a visit to the holy river in 1915, Gandhi described his disappointment
“I had gone there full of hope and reverence. But while I realized the grandeur of the holy Ganga and the holier Himalayas, I saw little to inspire me in what man was doing in this holy place.
To my great grief, I discovered insanitation, both moral and physical…There is defilement of the mighty stream even in the name of religion.
Thoughtless ignorant men and women use for natural functions the sacred banks of the river where they are supposed to sit in quiet contemplation and find God. They violate religion, science and the laws of sanitation.”
Still today the River Ganga buckles under the weight of pollution – with efforts to clean what Gandhi aptly termed the mighty stream stalled. The Mahatma’s words ought to be on the mind of policymakers when they consider what has become of the great river and how their inaction and neglect has enabled it to occur.
On so many issues of health, as well as social justice, Gandhi showed that he thought far ahead of his time. For a figure so honorific as to be tantamount to immortal, his mortality was brutally realised with three assassin’s bullets on a day when Prime Minister Jaharwal Nehru proclaimed “the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.” We are reminded of that mortality by his newly unveiled health records, yet it was ultimately his humanity what made the Mahatma the figure of reverence he is today. While his mortality may have been realised in illness and in his death, in his prescience and his wisdom, his immortality is realised too.