N. Slate: Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet

Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet. Eating with the World in Mind

Slate, Nico
Global South Asia
Anzahl Seiten
XII, 237 S.
$ 23.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Julia Hauser, Globalgeschichte / Geschichte von Globalisierungsprozessen, Universität Kassel

At a time when sustainability and global entanglements are being debated increasingly, nutrition is becoming of interest in history as well.[1] Nico Slate’s most recent book is concerned with a personality often evoked as a model in such debates: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and his complex relation to diet and food. This is hardly an unexplored topic. Scholars like Faisal Devji, Joseph Alter, Parama Roy, and Leela Gandhi have researched the subject in articles, book chapters, and monographs.[2] Slate’s book differs from these studies in examining not just Gandhi’s contacts to Western vegetarians but also the hybrid knowledge that resulted from such encounters. Beyond this, he seems to aim at a larger audience than just the academic one.

All in all, or so Slate argues, Gandhi defined nutrition as „a holistic approach to building a more just world“ (p. 4). Slate shows this by focusing on certain foods central to Gandhi’s diet as a positive or negative point of reference (salt, chocolate, animal and plant milk, unprocessed or little processed foods) as well as on cultural techniques related to his views on diet: natural medicine, agriculture, fasting. Each of these foods and cultural practices represents one aspect of Gandhi’s thoughts on nutrition which, as Slate argues convincingly, were connected to his political vision.

The book’s first chapter on salt is concerned with Gandhi’s reduction of his consumption of salt for reasons of health and morality and, at the same time, his famous salt satyagraha during which he protested, with thousands of his adherents, against the British tax on salt in colonial India. Slate thus shows that Gandhi partly fought for needs he himself sought to give up. Throughout his life, he cut down on his consumption of salt, thus hoping to bridle his libido. For the people of India, on the other hand, he wanted to ensure free access to salt.

The aspect of sexuality is also foregrounded in the two following chapters in which Slate focuses on Gandhi’s views on chocolate and milk, foods which he avoided to curb desire. To him, chocolate, just like sugar, was connected to slavery because of their origin in plantation economy – but also to what he considered the slavery of sexuality and taste. The chapter on milk deals with his views on animal foods in general. Here Slate shows a certain ambivalence in Gandhi’s attitude. While rejecting meat after brief escapades in his youth, he was less consistent with regards to milk, although he tried to reduce his consumption of cow milk in favour of other kinds of milk. Just like alcohol, both chocolate and milk were stimulants to Gandhi – a view also common among Western vegetarians at the time.

What is slightly confusing to the reader is that Slate draws direct connections between Gandhi’s positions and the animal rights and environmental movement of our times, arguing in some passages that Gandhi shared with them a concern for „the planet“ (p. 47). Gandhi, however, was mainly devoted to the independence of India. His concern was not to protect animals in general but rather the cow which enjoyed special reverence in Hinduism. That Gandhi also appropriated knowledge from the Jain and Vaishnava traditions is only implied in some passages in the book. Similar anachronisms may be found in the following chapter on Gandhi’s experiments with, as Slate puts it, raw foods, or rather little processed foods, which Slate compares to the current craze for the so-called Paleo Diet. Two aspects are overlooked in this comparison. On the one hand, Gandhi’s experiments were never exclusively centered on raw foods. They always included some cooked foods. On the other hand, Slate fails to mention that adherents of the Paleo Diet, unlike Gandhi, reject grain while attaching primary importance to meat, and that they are not driven by ethical concerns but rather the question of body weight.

According to Slate, Gandhi’s views of medicine, already looked at comprehensively by Joseph Alter, were likewise characterized by a desire of living „close to nature“. Food, considered by Gandhi the chief means of preserving health, again assumed special importance in this context. Slate shows that Gandhi acquainted himself intimately with Western knowledge, e.g. from the science of nutrition and the field of nature cure. At the same time, he is described as having relied on „India’s traditional forms of medical practice, especially Ayurveda“ (p. 106). What Slate neglects here is to critically examine these purported traditions. Otherwise he might have noticed that early Ayurvedic compendia recommended meat as a cure for certain illnesses.[3] Other studies have shown that medical knowledge in India saw important transformations in the course of the colonial encounter.[4]

The following chapter on farming delves into territory already explored by Mark Thomson and James Hunt in their respective research on Gandhi’s agricultural experiments.[5] Gandhi, or so Slate states, elevated the idea of agricultural subsistence on the level of village communities to the central aspect of his utopian vision for Indian society. To this end, he founded settlements of his own, modelled inter alia on the utopian thought of Tolstoy. The fact that Gandhi’s concepts were likewise part of a global and globally entangled movement – the co-operative movement – is only hinted at briefly.

In the last chapter of his book, Slate examines Gandhi’s practices of fasting. He demonstrates that Gandhi considered fasting a means of healing and meditation as well as of his political struggle. In this place, too, Slate could have mentioned Gandhi’s entanglement with Western practices such as the hunger strike campaigns embraced by British suffragettes. What he does show, however, are the ambivalent aspects of Gandhi’s experiments with fasting: his long rejection of inter-caste dining and his proximity to anorexia.

All in all, the chief merit of Slate’s study lies in his detailed analysis of Gandhi’s writings on diet. These writings are contextualized by looking at his encounter with Western vegetarians, but less so by reflecting his place in the Indian political landscape. With only a few glances at the problematic aspects of his political vision such as recently examined by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahid[6], Gandhi remains a singular, morally exemplary character – also because Slate almost exclusively draws on Gandhi’s writing and research focused on him. He partly succumbs to anachronism when representing Gandhi as a forerunner of the modern eco movement rather than placing him in a historical context. Finally, the fact that a book on a man struggling with food throughout his life is arranged according to foods and ends with recipes for the reader to try is slightly puzzling. This ultimately brings up the question of audience: Does Slate want to reach scholars and students of modern South Asian history or a more general readership? For the latter, Slate’s book is sure to be of interest, though in some aspects misleading. For an audience familiar with research on Gandhi’s thoughts on diet in the context of his resistance to colonialism, however, his book offers a detailed analysis, but little that is new.

[1] Maren Möhring / Alexander Nützenadel (eds.), Ernährung im Zeitalter der Globalisierung, Comparativ, Leipzig 2007; Alexander Nützenadel / Frank Trentmann (eds.), Food and Globalization. Consumption, Markets and Politics in the Modern World, Oxford 2008.
[2] Faisal Devji, The Impossible Indian. Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence, London 2012; Joseph S. Alter, Gandhi's Body. Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism, Philadelphia 2000; Parama Roy, Alimentary tracts. Appetites, Aversions, and the Postcolonial, Durham 2010, pp. 75–115; Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities. Anticolonial Thought, Fin-De-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, Durham 2006, pp. 67–114.
[3] Francis Zimmermann, The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats. An Ecological Theme in Indian Medicine, Berkeley 1987.
[4] Harald Fischer-Tiné, Pidgin-Knowledge. Wissen und Kolonialismus, Perspektiven der Wissensgeschichte, Zürich 2013.
[5] Mark Thomson, Gandhi and his Ashrams, Bombay 1993; James Hunt, Gandhian Experiments in Communal Living – The Phoenix Community and the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, in: Peace Research 30 (1998), 1, pp. 83–95.
[6] Ashwin Desai / Goolam Vahid, The South African Gandhi. Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, Stanford 2016.

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