The Personal in Gandhi’s Politics

Photo: National Herald

By Sahil Bansal & Anirban Chanda


My Life is My Message” is an oft-cited phrase of Gandhi when one reckons his message. But the lion’s share of such reckoning circumscribes itself to his political actions only. In our reckoning, this is a half-done extrapolation of Gandhi’s message. For a major chunk of that message (life) was also what Gandhi lived as a person in private (yet publicly). In this writing, instead of making Gandhi’s political actions as our starting point, we will take a detour towards his personal practises. We aim to scrutinize Gandhi’s choices and practises in his personal, yet not away from public eye, life. Through such scrutiny we shall strive to trace how his personal choices and practises informed his political actions. Considering the non-capacious nature of this writing, we shall define the limits of our focus on Gandhi’s larger-than-life living. We shall engage and draw a causal link between his personal choices and actions with respect to his dietetic preferences (vegetarianism) and carnal desires (kama), and his politics as a Hindu political leader in the Indian freedom struggle. In this linking we will focus specifically on two ideals in Gandhian politics: non-violence (also compassion) and self-rule (not self-government).

The Causal Link

The causal link we aim to unravel in Gandhi’s choices, actions and practises is concomitant in a tripartite relationship of health, morality and structure of power (politics). It is abundantly clear that Gandhi associated health (sexual and dietetic practises) with morals to a great extent. In fact, some of his writings on these different issues can be linked together to draw an inference as to how health, morality and politics had a significant influence on his personality. For instance, Gandhi’s views on the carnal desires can be well understood from one of his writings that was published in Amrita Bazar Patrika, which was the oldest Indian-owned English daily. Gandhi wrote:

If contraceptives are resorted to, frightful results will follow. Men and woman will be living for sex alone. They will become soft-brained, unhinged, in fact, mental and moral wrecks. (12th January 1935)

Further he associated morality as an indispensable element of politics. In his famous English language weekly titled Harijan, which was launched to fight against untouchability and caste-based discrimination, Gandhi wrote:

I feel that political work must be looked upon in terms of social and moral progress. In democracy no fact of life is untouched by politics. (6th September 1946)

This causal link that Gandhi hinted at is revealed and is as relevant today as it was during Gandhi’s lifetime. Apart from the lived experiences of the minorities in present day India, there is also a 2019 report titled “Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities by Human Rights Watch which reveals a plethora of examples that testify to the relevance of this Gandhian tripartite causal link. It is the stereotypical perception of Muslims, as the only beefeaters (health), which leads to vigilante violence (morals). This violent manifestation of morality coupled with the use of “cow protection” as a vote bank strategy leads to looping in the final link of the tripartite causality, i.e. Politics (structure of power). In this section we have established the understanding and temporally transcendent relevance of our inference of Gandhi’s message of the ‘personal is political’ causality hidden in the phrase “My Life is My Message.” The section to follow will uncover a causal rather than a teleological understanding of Gandhi’s politics in light of his personal dietetic and carnal choices and practises. Thus, this section will invert the often resorted-to causality of politics and their aftermath to rather look at the actions that define the politics of Gandhi.

Inverting the Causality

It was not always the politics which influenced Gandhi’s personal belief and actions but the other way around. Very simple acts in Gandhi’s personal life rather played a role in shaping the principles of his freedom movement, like non-violence, self-rule, etc. We will recurrently tie back these instances of causality to the one phrase of Gandhi which this writing started from, i.e. “My Life is My Message.” Gandhi, it must be noted, strived to and succeeded in altering his own habits, thereby exhibiting an epitome of the values he endorsed. For instance, Gandhi himself was a smoker in his early life; he had also had meat on more than one occasions, amongst many other choices of Gandhi that might come as a revelation to some. But over time he did realise the moral reasons which propelled him to change his habits and preferences, all of which reflected Gandhi’s will to enable self-rule in the life (message) he lived. When an attempt was made by a cigarette brand to use Gandhi’s name, he criticised it. He wrote about the very simple act of smoking: “If every tobacco user stopped the dirty habit, … benefit himself and the nation both.”

In criticising the habit of smoking, he acknowledged the plight of people around the smoker, who have to bear the brunt. This feeds directly into the ideal of ahimsa (non-violence) that Gandhi adhered to. This also ties up with the ideal of self-rule that Gandhi urges the smoker to adopt, for it will help not only the person’s own health but the plight of the nation.

Vegetarianism and Non-Violence

Gandhi’s strict adherence to vegetarianism has more to say about its influence on his non-violent movements and strong emphasis on morals than catches the eye. The dietetic preferences of Gandhi should be understood very simply before they are put through the lens like that of Hinduism, etc. Gandhi’s dietetic preference was rooted as much in his curiosity towards food as it was in his will to overcome the British. Gandhi wrote about his very first instance of tasting meat as follows:

It began to grow on me … if the whole country took to meat-eating, the English could be overcome … and there I saw, for the first time in my life – meat … The goat’s meat was as tough as leather. I simply could not eat it … But then I would remind myself that meat-eating was a duty and so become more cheerful. My friend was not a man to give up easily. He now began to cook various delicacies with meat, and dress them neatly … This went on for about a year. But not more than half a dozen meat feasts were enjoyed in all … Therefore I said to myself: “Though it is essential to eat meat, and also essential to take up food ‘reform’ in the country, yet deceiving and lying to one’s father and mother is worse than not eating meat … When they are no more and I have found my freedom, I will eat meat openly, but until that moment arrives I will abstain from it.”

Gandhi, as inferred from above gobbet, was not averse to the idea of meat-eating as a duty but he found a better alternative in vegetarianism later in his life as far as his food ‘reform’ was concerned. It is not hard for one to sense a polemic of drawing distinctions between the Indians and the British in the writings of Gandhi. This polemic of Gandhi has been furthered by various personal life choices that he made as an Indian and as a Hindu. Vegetarianism in contrast to non-vegetarianism was indeed a somatic choice helpful for Gandhi in furthering this polemic and distinguishing himself from his meat-eating British counterparts in London.

Through his interactions with people like Henry Salt at the London Vegetarian Society, Gandhi was exposed to the moral appeal that vegetarianism was impregnated with. This society was the saviour of Gandhi when he set foot in London having promised his mother that he would practise vegetarianism while living abroad. As understood from his work, Salt regarded vegetarians as the moral leaders of the humankind.

Gandhi’s actions furthered his ‘Indians versus British’ polemic way before it had been inscribed into his writings and his politics in India. Gandhi’s roommate in London, Josiah Oldfield, recalled the instance when Gandhi had gone to a doctor in a situation of life and death. The doctor had sternly advised Gandhi to drink beef-tea if he did not want to die. Gandhi replied to the doctor that if it was God’s will that he must die, then so be it, but still he would not break the promise he had made to his mother. This instance happened after Gandhi has already had meat, on more than one instance, without the consent of his mother while in India. This shows how seemingly somatic choices of diet ventured into domain of strong morals, portrayed by his will to keep the promise.

In his stint of writing for The Vegetarian, in February-March 1890 Gandhi wrote articles elaborating the differences between the versions of vegetarianism in Europe and India. He wrote detailing the recipes of Indian vegetarian dishes and described the Indian version to be richer than its European counterpart. The eminent Indian scholar and Gandhi biographer, Ramachandra Guha, also mentions in his book, Gandhi before India (Penguin Random House India 2013), that Gandhi used the rostrum of The Vegetarian  to highlight issues like that of child marriage and pointed out, amongst other things, that alcohol was the ‘curse of civilisation’. On 1st June 1981 Gandhi wrote in The Vegetarian Messenger:

I further hope the time will come when the great difference now existing between the food habits of meat-eating in England and grain-eating in India will disappear … In the future, I hope we shall tend towards unity of custom, and also unity of hearts (Emphasis added).

Gandhi made ample use of the trope of vegetarianism in his politics not only in India but also South Africa. In its political use, Gandhi employed this trope to further the idea of non-violence. As the learned author, Chandran Devanesen writes in his book, Making of the Mahatma (Orient Blackswan Publishers 2017), Gandhi wanted to convert the meat-eating children in South Africa to vegetarians so that the values of respect for life and compassion (non-violence) are instilled in them, which in turn, will be crucial in dismantling the racial divide. This choice of vegetarianism was not influenced by his Hindu identity but because he wanted to fulfil his ‘duty’ that he mentions in the Diet and Diet Reform. This reveals how Gandhi wanted his own actions to then become a factual backing for the ideals behind his freedom movement. This forms the foundational ground for his words, “My Life is My Message.”

‘Kama’ and Self-rule

Gandhi emphasized upon the importance of abnegation of desires when talking about Swaraj.  He stressed upon self-rule which called for practise of artha and kama within the confines of dharma. Self-government (Swaraj), Gandhi wrote, can be attained only through achievement of self-rule (Swaraj) but not the other way around. It is this one-way causality of self-rule to self-government that provokes one to unravel the operation of this causality in Gandhi’s own life. In his seminal text, Hind Swaraj, Gandhi emphasised on the need for self-transformation to achieve self-rule. Gandhi lived by what he preached. He regularly observed every act of his somatic self in light of the ideals that his life sets an example for. In his letter dated 11th December 1927 to his close associate, Harjivan Kotak, Gandhi narrated one such instance of aberration from his self-rule against kama:

I had an involuntary discharge in sleep twice during the last two weeks. I never practised masturbation … I feel unhappy about this … I can suppress the enemy but have not been able to expel him altogether. If I am truthful, I shall succeed in doing that too.

The instance above reveals Gandhi’s will to not only repent for the aberration but also strive to self-transform and hence strive for self-rule. In general, one will find that Gandhi himself is ubiquitous in his writings; for instance, Hind Swaraj has Gandhi (the editor) at the centre stage. This self-centred modus operandi yet laden with a very nation-wide message once again harks us back to the phrase “My Life is My Message.”


Gandhi’s quest for the moral in somaticity had been shaped from his very childhood through observance of vegetarianism, through the three promises he made his mother before leaving for London, through his interactions with his fellow vegetarians in London, through his observance of celibacy (brahamacharya) and through many more such happenings in his life. The observance of such health-related restraints towards dietetic preferences and kama helped in shaping his principles (morals) of non-violence and swaraj as principles of self-rule. These morals strongly influenced his politics and presented a new way of looking at the life of Gandhi.

Sahil Bansal is a final year undergraduate law student at Jindal Global Law School, India. His academic interests include reading and writing about Law, Gender and History.

Anirban Chanda is a final year undergraduate law student at Jindal Global Law School, India. His academic interests include Constitutional Law, Legal History and Political Theory.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Travel Writing: A mode of constructing knowledge”, edited by Raeesa Usmani, Surat, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s