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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 149  |  Issue : 7  |  Page : 39-47

Gandhian Virtues and Their Relevance to Health

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), New Delhi, India

Date of Submission30-Aug-2018
Date of Web Publication22-Apr-2019

Correspondence Address:
Dr Rajni Kant
Head, Division of Research Management, Policy, Planning and Coordination, Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi 110029
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0971-5916.251656

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How to cite this article:
Gupta ED, Kant R. Gandhian Virtues and Their Relevance to Health. Indian J Med Res 2019;149, Suppl S1:39-47

How to cite this URL:
Gupta ED, Kant R. Gandhian Virtues and Their Relevance to Health. Indian J Med Res [serial online] 2019 [cited 2021 Sep 25];149, Suppl S1:39-47. Available from:

“My Life is My Message”

– M.K. Gandhi (Mahatma: Life of Gandhi 1869–1948 (1968) Reel 13)

Mahatma Gandhi is an inspiration to billions across the world. His principles of ahimsa and non-violent civil disobedience have successfully steered our nation towards the goal of freedom. He led a very modest life. Not many are familiar that he had profound interest in medicine. Despite being a professional in law and practicing it for almost twenty years, he continued experiments with medicine and health throughout his life. In fact, he almost pursued the study of medicine twice in his life till his belief in non-violence deterred it.

He once said, “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” In today's time when most of us are running pillar to post to acquire wealth while neglecting our health, there could not be a better eye-opener than this quote. He firmly believed that good health is of paramount importance to any human as without it an individual cannot develop in mind or spirit. It is interesting to note that he kept mental fitness at par with physical fitness while talking about health. The same can be observed in his life practice where morning walk, balanced diet along with prayer, fasting and meditation were part of his daily routine. Gandhiji proposed and vigorously pursued eleven vows (Ekadash Vrata) as ideals in personal living. Three of the vows, i.e., Sharirshrama (physical labour to earn your bread), Aswada (detachment from tasteful foods) and Brahmacharya (which had broader meaning than merely sexual abstinence) have direct bearing on the lifestyle and healthy living. In addition, his constructive programmes included prohibition against alcohol.

Health and cleanliness were brought to the forefront by Gandhiji with their inclusion in his 18-point Constructive Programme for attaining 'Swaraj'. He also used to say that it is necessary to have knowledge about one's body, which most of us are ignorant about. His virtues, namely, Cleanliness, Developing villages, Physical activity, Mental Strength, Healthy Mother and Child, Dietetics, and Care of the Diseased revolve around health. The health status of the world has changed dramatically since his time but most of his beliefs still stand true. The Gandhian virtues and philosophy of good health are based on the following key elements, which he himself preached and practiced and are equally relevant in today's times.

   Cleanliness Top

“We can no more gain God's blessing with an unclean body than with an unclean mind. A clean body cannot reside in an unclean city. So long as you do not take the broom and the bucket in your hands, you cannot make your towns and cities clean.”

Cleanliness and sanitation were one of the major areas that Gandhi held his ground on. He left no stone unturned for awakening the consciousness of the people of India towards cleanliness. Mass media and mass gatherings were extensively used. He wrote extensively in newspapers and bulletins like the Harijan, the Indian Opinion, and the Amrit Bazaar Patrika about the relevance of keeping surroundings clean.

Gandhiji offered detailed comments in Navajivan, dated 2-11-1919, on cleanliness and good habits and indicated their close relationship with good health:

“... No one should spit or clean his nose on the streets. In some cases, the sputum is so harmful that the germs are carried from it and they infect others with tuberculosis. In some places spitting on the road is a criminal offence. Those who spit after chewing betel leaves and tobacco have no consideration for the feelings of others. Spittle, mucus from the nose, etc., should also be covered with earth.”

“Near the village or dwellings, there should be no ditches in which water can collect. Mosquitoes do not breed where water does not stagnate. Where there are no mosquitoes, the incidence of malaria is low. At one time, water used to collect around Delhi. After the hollows were filled, mosquitoes were greatly reduced and so also was malaria.”

It is informative to know that many of his articles spoke vehemently about the unclean habits of people and unhygienic surroundings for the emergence of diseases like plague, and appealed the educated masses to initiate and lead an unstoppable fight against uncleanliness and filth. He also encouraged journalists and press to disseminate information immediately as soon as the incidence of plague occurred and, at the same time, apprise them about the ways to avert the disaster. In fact, cleanliness was one of the agendas of his constructive programme that paved the way for attaining independence for the country. His famous observation, “If we do not keep our backyards clean, our swaraj will have a foul stench,” corroborates the same.

   Villages First Top

“If the villages perish, India will perish too. It will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost.”

Gandhiji dreamt of a free India consisting of a network of self-sufficient villages. He firmly believed that self-reliant villages form a sound basis for a just, equitable and non-violent order. He wrote on several accounts about villages and their development. His writings were published in different books like Rebuilding our Villages, Village Swaraj, etc., where various aspects of village life ranging from sanitation, health and diet to village industries and transport are covered. He was a visionary who very well assessed the dynamics of village life.

Mahatma Gandhi's concept of rural development revolves around creating model villages for transforming 'swaraj' into 'su-raj' His vision of an ideal village, in his own words:

“An ideal Indian village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation. It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The village lanes and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all; also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education will be the central fact, and it will have panchayats for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own khadi. This is roughly my idea of a model village.” (Harijan, 9-1-1937; Vol. 64: Pg. 217–18.)

“That village may be regarded as reformed… where the largest possible number of village industries are flourishing, in which nobody is illiterate, where the roads are clean, there is a fixed place for evacuation, the wells are clean, there is harmony among the different communities, and untouchability is completely absent, in which everybody gets cow's milk, ghee, etc., in moderate quantities, in which nobody is without work, and which is free from quarrels and thefts…” (Letter to Munnalal Shah, 4-4-1941; Vol. 73: Pg. 421)

“My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity. Thus every village's first concern will be to grow its own food crops and cotton for its cloth. It should have a reserve for its cattle, recreation and playground for adults and children. Then, if there is more land available, it will grow useful money crops, thus excluding ganja, tobacco, opium and the like. The village will maintain a village theatre, school and public hall. It will have its own waterworks, ensuring clean water supply. This can be done through controlled wells or tanks. Education will be compulsory up to the final basic course. As far as possible, every activity will be conducted on the cooperative basis. There will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability. (Harijan, 26-7-1942; Vol. 76: Pg. 308–9.)

He wrote in Harijan on February 8, 1935:

“Village tanks are promiscuously used for bathing, washing clothes and drinking and cooking purposes. Many village tanks are also used by cattle. Buffaloes are often to be seen wallowing in them. The wonder is that, in spite of this sinful misuse of village tanks, villages have not been destroyed by epidemics. It is the universal medical evidence that this neglect to ensure purity of the water supply of villages is responsible for many of the diseases suffered by the villagers.”

In fact, he also planned diet that is suitable and sustainable for village life, keeping in mind the climatic conditions of the region and the socio-economic conditions of villagers. One sample of diet prepared by him for villagers in an article published in Harijan on November 2, 1935 is given in the snapshot below:

He took care that the diet consisted of all the essential nutrients along with affordability for the villagers. He provided detailed explanation for the inclusion of each and every component like Koth fruit due to its ample availability, soya bean due its protein and fat content, etc. He had that vision where he knew an idea/advice can work only if it is a perfect balance of desirability, viability and feasibility: an important learning for modern times.

   Physical Activity Top

Gandhi was a staunch supporter of exercise. Morning and evening walks were part of his daily regime since the early days of his life. In fact, the famous Dandi March could be used as an alternative expression of walking where Gandhi famously embarked solo on a 390 kilometer protest walk, and was soon followed by 10,000 strong. There are several instances where he has quoted the importance of exercise towards benefit of health.

“In the matter of improving one's health, lethargy is a sin. The human body is both a kurukshetra [a field of action/conflict] and a dharma kshetra [a field of doing one's duty and right action]. In so far as it is a dharmakshetra, it is one's duty to keep it in good shape.”

(Letter to his nephew, CWMG, lxiv, 414)

The teachings of Mahatma motivate us to be active throughout the day. Even simple things like moving about, climbing stairs, doing household chores, adding a short brisk walk could do wonders for flexibility, stamina and metabolism. The Mahatma has shown us the path, it's us who have to follow to reap the benefits.

   Dietetics Top

“The body was never meant to be treated as a refuse bin, holding all the foods that the palate demands.”

Since his younger days, he was very particular about his diet. He sincerely believed that diet had a deep impact on an individual's psyche. He himself had experimented with various forms of diet and registered the benefits and follies of each throughout his writings. In younger days, despite being Vaishanv, he tried a non-vegetarian diet on the insistence of his friend in order to gain physical strength. He did not continue at that time for the fear of lying to his parents, and his faith in vegetarianism grew day by day. In fact, he vowed in 1912 to abstain from milk and go completely vegan. He realized his mistake in 1918 when he fell very ill and had to take goat's milk on doctor's insistence to regain health. He has written in his book, Key to Health, that, “I have always been in favor of pure vegetarian diet. But experience has taught me that in order to be a perfect fit, vegetarian diet must include milk and milk-products such as curd, butter, ghee, etc.”

In his writings, he has strictly preached against the intake of tea and coffee along with drugs, tobacco and alcohol. He wanted complete abstinence from these substances due to their habit forming capacity as he always believed in practicing self-restraint.

“If cigarette is Beezlebub, then drink is Satan.”

Young India, 15-9-1927

He made sure that prohibition of liquor and opium were included in the Non-Cooperation Movement led by the Indian National Congress during 1920–22. The Gandhian ashrams located in tribal areas popularized teetotalism through folk songs and picketing “Leave Daru and toddy, O, my people rise and awake”, “Be free from debts of shaukar”, “Increase happiness”. (Shirin Mehta, “Social Consciousness”, op.cit., p. 318)

   Care for Diseased Top

“A man is but a product of his thoughts. What he thinks he becomes.”

Mahatma Gandhi was a very compassionate person by nature. His life is full of instances where he cared for people in medically dilapidated state. His contributions during the Boer War (1899) and the Zulu Rebellion (1906) as a part of the Indian Ambulance Corps and Indian Stretcher Bearer Corps, in the plague epidemic during his stay in South Africa, and his innumerable instances with leprosy patients are a window to the empathetic side of his personality. He requested authorities during the Boer War to allow them to serve wounded soldiers. It was he who raised alarm in Johannesburg in 1904 regarding insanitary conditions in the Indian community due to negligence of the civic authorities. He rallied, raised awareness among Indian community, moved infected individuals to clean premise and nursed the victims. Similarly, his tête-à-tête with leprosy patients, be it in Durban in 1894 & 1897, Champaran, Bihar in 1917 or the famous instance of Parchure Shastri in Sevagram, 1939, he was always more concerned about their well being rather than the fear of inflicting the disease himself. He always dealt with them with love and care. His concern for them has helped in diminishing the stigma about leprosy from society.

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”

It needs to be highlighted that Gandhian virtues are time-tested and very much relevant in today's times when country is facing a double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases along with malnutrition and poverty. Our country has travelled a considerable distance in terms of health. Our life expectancy has almost tripled in last 150 years with successful control of dreaded diseases like small pox (eradicated), plague and polio (eliminated). Mortality due to communicable diseases like malaria, cholera, kalaazar has been decreased.

The Universal Immunization Programme is successfully administering vaccination against 12 life threatening diseases. The Maternal Mortality Rate (mother's death rate during child birth) and Infant Mortality Rate have been reduced significantly. On the other hand, the disease burden of non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart diseases, obesity and hypertension are on rise along with changing lifestyles. The finite health and monetary resources need to be allocated in a judicious manner to strike a balance. It is the need of the hour that Indian citizens imbibe Gandhian virtues and bring about a change in attitude so that, along with apt government support and changing technology, this double burden of diseases can be tackled to attain the goal of 'Health for all'.

   Financial Support & Sponsorship: Top

   Conflicts of Interest: Top

   References Top

Gandhi M. Diet and Diet Reform. Edited by Bharatan Kumarappa. 1st edition. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1949.

Gandhi M. Drinks, Drugs & Gambling. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1952.

Gandhi M. Key to Health. Translated by, Sushila Nayyar. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1948.

Gandhi M. Mangal Prabhat. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1930.

Gandhi M. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 20002001.

Gandhi M. The Story of My Experiments with Truth: An Autobiography. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1927.


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