Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography Sathiya Sodhani is one book which guides you as to what is right and wrong. Most importantly, the author should have experienced all these. The original was in Gujarati, and was later translated into English and other Indian languages. The book is in five parts, beginning with his birth, up until the year 1921. In the last chapter he writes, "My life from this point onward has been so public that there is hardly anything about it that people do not know...."
The introduction reads, "What I want to achieve - what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years - is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal." The paper back edition of the book costs Rs. 30 being subsidized by the Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad.
As I searched myself deeper, the necessity for changes both internal and
external began to grow on me. As soon as, or even before, I made
alterations in my expenses and my way of living, I began to make changes
in my diet. I saw that the writers on vegetarianism had examined the
question very minutely, attacking it in its religious, scientific,
practical and medical aspects. Ethically they had arrived at the
conclusion that man's supremacy over the lower animals meant not that
the former should prey upon the latter, but that the higher should
protect the lower, and that there should be mutual aid between the two
as between man and man. They had also brought out the truth that man
eats not for enjoyment but to live. And some of them accordingly
suggested and effected in their lives abstention not only from
flesh-meat but from eggs and milk. Scientifically some had concluded
that man's physical structure showed that he was not meant to be a
cooking but a frugivorous animal, that he could take only his mother's
milk and, as soon as he had teeth, should begin to take solid foods.
Medically they had suggested the rejection of all spices and condiments.
According to the practical and economic argument they had demonstrated
that a vegetarian diet was the least expensive. All these considerations
had their effect on me, and I came across vegetarians of all these types
in vegetarian restaurants. There was a Vegetarian Society in England
with a weekly journal of its own. I subscribed to the weekly, joined the
society and very shortly found myself on the Executive Committee. Here I
came in contact with those who were regarded as pillars of
vegetarianism, and began my own experiments in dietetics.
I stopped taking the sweets and condiments I had got from home. The mind having taken a different turn, the fondness for condiments wore away, and I now relished the boiled spinach which in Richmond tasted insipid, cooked without condiments. Many such experiments taught me that the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind.
The economic consideration was of course constantly before me. There was in those days a body of opinion which regarded tea and coffee as harmful and favoured cocoa. And as I was convinced that one should eat only articles that sustained the body, I gave up tea and coffee as a rule, and substituted cocoa.
There were two divisions in the restaurants I used to visit. One division, which was patronized by fairly well-to-do people, provided any number of courses from which one chose and paid for a la carte, each dinner thus costing from one to two shillings. The other division provided six-penny dinners of three courses with a slice of bread. In my days of strict frugality I usually dined in the second division.
There were many minor experiments going on along with the main one; as for example, giving up starchy foods at one time, living on bread and fruit alone at another, and once living on cheese, milk and eggs. This last experiments is worth noting. It lasted not even a fortnight. The reformer who advocated starchless food had spoken highly of eggs and held that eggs were not meat. It was apparent that there was no injury done to living creatures in taking eggs. I was taken in by this plea and took eggs in spite of my vow. But the lapse was momentary. I had no business to put a new interpretation on the vow. The interpretation of my mother who administered the vow was there for me. I knew that her definition of meat included eggs. And as soon as I saw the true import of the vow I gave up eggs and the experiment alike.
There is a nice point underlying the argument, and worth noting. I came across three definitions of meat in England. According to the first, meat denoted only the flesh of birds and beasts. Vegetarians who accepted that definition abjured the flesh of birds and beasts, but ate fish, not to mention eggs. According to the second definition, meat meant flesh of all living creatures. So fish was here out of the question, but eggs were allowed. The third definition included under meat the flesh of living beings, as well as all their products, thus covering eggs and milk alike. If I accepted the first definition, I could take not only eggs, but fish also. But I was convinced that my mother's definition was the definition binding on me. If, therefore, I would observe the vow I had taken, I must abjure eggs. I therefore did so. This was a hardship inasmuch as inquiry showed that even in vegetarian restaurants many courses used to contain eggs. This meant that unless I knew what was what, I had to go through the awkward process of ascertaining whether a particular course contained eggs or no, for many puddings and cakes were not free from them. But though the revelation of my duty caused this difficulty, it simplified my food. The simplification in its turn brought me annoyance in that I had to give up several dishes I had come to relish. These difficulties were only passing, for the strict observance of the vow produced an inward relish distinctly more healthy, delicate and permanent.
The real ordeal, however, was still to come, and that was in respect of the other vow. But who dare harm whom God protects?
A few observations about the interpretation of vows or pledges may not be out of place here. Interpretation of pledges has been a fruitful source of strife all the world over. No matter how explicit the pledge, people will turn and twist the text to suit their own purposes. They are to be met with among all classes of society, from the rich down to the poor, from the prince down to the peasant. Selfishness turns them blind, and by a use of the ambiguous middle they deceive themselves and seek to deceive the world and God. One golden rule is to accept the interpretation honestly put on the pledge by the party administering it. Another is to accept the interpretation of the weaker party, where there are two interpretations possible. Rejection of these two rules gives rise to strife and iniquity, which are rooted in untruthfulness. He who seeks truth alone easily follows the golden rule. He need not seek learned advice for interpretation. My mother's interpretation of meat was, according to the golden rule, the only true one for me, and not the one my wider experience or my pride of better knowledge might have taught me.
My experiments in England were conducted from the point of view of economy and hygiene. The religious aspect of the question was not considered until I went to South Africa where I undertook strenuous experiments which will be narrated later. The seed, however, for all of them was sown in England.
A convert's enthusiasm for his new religion is greater than that of a person who is born in it. Vegetarianism was then a new cult in England, and likewise for me, because, as we have seen, I had gone there a convinced meat-eater, and was intellectually converted to vegetarianism later. Full of the neophyte's zeal for vegetarianism, I decided to start a vegetarian club in my locality, Bayswater. I invited Sir Edwin Arnold, who lived there, to be Vice-President. Dr. Oldfield who was Editor of the The Vegetarian became President. I myself became the Secretary. The club went well for a while, but came to an end in the course of a few months. For I left the locality, according to my custom of moving from place to place periodically. But this brief and modest experience gave me some little training in organizing and conducting institutions.