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The Story of The Phenomenon of Mahatma Gandhi

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The night of December 1927, Fenner Brockway, an English political associate, met with a car accident in Madras. During his period of hospitalisation, he was visited daily by a friend. “How are you doing?” his friend asked on one of his routine visits. “I have not slept a wink all night, the pain is excruciating”, Brockway said. The friend took the Englishman’s hand into his own as an act of comfort. The next morning Mr. Brockway woke up to tell people that he hadn’t slept that well without a drug since the accident and it was due to the extraordinary calm that his friend induced in him. You can call it Midas touch, or you can track relevance to inducing a psycho-somatic behavioural approach to healing. A relevant recent article (2018) in the Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences was titled “Brain‐to‐brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction”.

It was in 1944 that Albert Einstein, halfway around the world at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, had said about the very same person that “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth. There are a lot of wonderful individuals in the world today, but none with such extreme charisma as that.”

He was no God-man or Guru. He was however one of the most celebrated names in the recent centuries; the name, as it is often associated with the tag ‘Mahatma’, does indeed, unknowingly forbids us from looking at him as mortal that one can vicariously relate to.

As a boy he was very shy, had no unusual talents and was less than average in studies at school; self conscious, serious, fearful of thieves, ghosts, serpents and darkness. He was restless as mercury and twisted dog ears when he was overcome by ennui. Eventually, as he grew up and the bright summers of 1888 shone upon him, at the ripe age of 18, buzzing with life and vivacity, the younger son of the late Diwan, then a chief minister of a princely state, strongly desired to study medicine from England. The idea was scotched by his elder brother’s objection that their father would have condemned because “Vaishnavas should have nothing to do with dissection of dead bodies”, and by the advice of a friend of the family that insisted that a medical degree will not make a diwan of him and that it would be economically wiser to become a barrister. So, the young boy studied law instead of medicine.

Time passed, the young boy grew to have a family to call his own. He practiced as a barrister but, he was not content with his profession. Though he chose public law as his profession, the passion for caring for ailing individuals, remained. So in 1908, he hoped to visit London, to study medicine, and give his sons wider opportunities for realizing the ideal with which he has inspired them – rendering service to mankind.

During his visit to London in 1909, he was made aware of the ways of medical training. The exercise of vivisection of frogs that was then prevalent in medical curricula as part of the course of Physiology, mortified him. He found them sinful and did not want to be party to what he felt was the blackest of all the blackest crimes committed against God. According to him it was an unpardonable slaughter of innocent life in the name of science, an act nothing short of sheer abomination. It was from here that his detest for European Medical Schools took its roots. And as it would continue, during his course of life, he worked towards lessening the export of the Macau Rhesus monkeys from India to America for the purpose of vivisection.

Although he refrained from pursuing medicine, he couldn’t and by no means desired to abandon nursing the frail, diseased and ailing. Passion developed from what it once was – a hobby – to a spiritual necessity. On one instance, when asked for a global “message” about life, he said “My life is my message.” This is not just restricted to his philosophies of truth and non violence. It encompasses his ideas on healthy living and well being.

During his stay in Sevagram, that which he initially intended as a solitary jaunt, workers from far and near gravitated to this epicentre. He originally tended to the ill himself, but with the coming of Dr. Shushila Nayyar, it metamorphosed into a dispensary, one that he had not premeditated.

Despite the various tasks at hand, be it important consultations, discussions, negotiations, dialogues regarding national struggles, etc., the forefront of his triage was tending to the sick, their treatment and concerns about their diet. His office desk had letters stacked in order of priority, the top always occupied by those seeking his help due to ill health. Although much of his health needs and those of his disciples were largely looked after by Dr. Sushila Nayyar, his diet prescription for those seeking care remained final. Of the various facets of health that he prescribed solutions for, the first coincides with physical well being. He strongly corroborated that exercise was a very crucial component to maintaining health and that humans were made ambulatory for a reason, to stay ambulatory. He vehemently believed that just like an idle mind was a devil’s workshop, an idle body was foreboding Satan’s onslaught. To exercise on a regular basis, he encouraged people to walk to perform their chores and believed that only a ten to twelve mile walk counted as one. For those who were in close proximity to their work place and didn’t have the opportunity to walk that distance on a day to day basis were urged to take long, brisk, invigorating walks on Sundays. He instilled in the minds of the people that working on the land was the best way to go about it. He encouraged people with deep pockets to till their own gardens and coaxed those without that luxury, to work on another’s land. According to him, physical activity not only strengthened the body but also increased the intellectual output just the same. He belatedly recognized, from his own bitter experience, that overwork and getting inadequate sleep can be unhealthy. According to him, Nature forgives abstinence from food but refuses to tolerate abstinence from sleep.

This takes us to the second determinant, diet or the lack of it thereof. Although Gandhiji’s healthy choice of vegetarian diet can be labelled as a trait by default of having been born to into a Modh Baniya family, it cannot be restricted to just that. True that he avoided meat to avoid strife within the family, but he was also deeply influenced by Henry Salt’s book titled “A Plea for Vegetarianism” that eventually drove him to join the London Vegetarian Society. He structured his diet regime to include fresh juicy fruits in particular acid fruits, vegetable broths, either mung water, almond milk or mowra oil as substitutes of milk, ample amount of wheat, whole grain-hand pounded rice, minimal to no pulses, absence of condiments and ample allowance of olive oil. He suggested the use of rice water mixed with jaggery for energy purposes. Although his endorsements of minimal pulses are questionable, he was very justified in his ban on rice grains from the mills in his Ashram for he believed that they were denuded in their nutritional requirements and looked more like jasmine buds than rice grains. He also recommended fasting, known as langhanam in Ayurveda, and semi-fasting once a month or even fortnightly, as he believed that it was necessary for periodic removal of toxins from one’s system and thus helped with purification of body, mind and soul.

An excerpt of his article that was published in Young India included, “With apologies to medical friends, but out of the fullness of my own experience and that of fellow‐cranks, I say without hesitation, fast (1) if you are constipated, (2) if you are anaemic, (3) if you are feverish, (4) if you have indigestion, (5) if you have a headache, (6) if you are rheumatic, (7) if you are gouty, (8) if you are fretting and fuming, (9) if you are depressed, [or] (10) if you are overjoyed; and you will avoid medical prescriptions and patent medicines.”

Recently, the Harvard Medical School released an article that validated the healthy effects of Intermittent Fasting (IF).

Another strong influence was that of Thomas Allison’s and his theory of Hygienic Medicine, which had to a large extent most of the same principles but in addition he also propagated small-pox vaccination and artificial birth control, both of which Gandhi abhorred. He believed that vaccination was a savage custom and doing so would be sacrilege. He was against the extreme cruelty that the cows were subjected to in order to obtain the vaccine from their udder and thought it was better to forego any benefit that may accrue from it. However, as he saw the marvels of of small pox vaccination and the subsequent lives it saved, he went on to admit his lapse in judgment owing to his dogmatic opinions. “I can’t sleep. These kids are fading away like little buds. I feel the weight of their deaths on my shoulder. I prevailed upon their parents not to get them vaccinated. Now the children are passing away. It may be, I’m afraid, the result of my ignorance and obstinacy; and so I feel very unhappy”.

This quality of processing change and admitting to his oversight brings to mind a quote by George Bernard Shaw about a truly scientific mind “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”. Moving on to the third determinant, the subtle yet remarkable emphasis he laid on mental well being. His belief in spirituality, better social integration, endless love for other living beings, non-violence, truth and moral values, all have a significant positive impact on mental health of individuals. “I am painfully conscious of my imperfections and therein lies all the strength I possess, because it is a rare thing for a man to know his own limitations”, gives a reflection of the present day cognitive behavior therapy, which is helpful in so many psychological problems resulting from unrealistic expectations. Gandhiji, in his quest to perfect his ideals, mastered the technique of anger management. Any individual with a demanding position in society needs to master these techniques. He has said: “I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so, our anger controlled can be transmuted into power, which can move the world”.

Gandhiji worked on various aspects like decreasing unemployment, reducing friction between individuals and social groups, which has a positive impact on mental health at the community as well as on the individual level. By rekindling the hand-spinning and hand-weaving of textiles, he instilled self-confidence and self-respect among the people; financial security gave them much needed psychological support. Handicraft is much useful during occupational therapy of patients suffering from mental illness. Social disintegration and unemployment increases the rate of suicide multiple times.

He urged people to worship their Gods of choice for he believed in their Freedom of Religion as expressed poetically in his composition, “Raghupati Raghava Rajaram”. Owing to the psychosomatic effects of prayer, the gate keepers of mental health advocate the “inclusion of spirituality as a potential resource in mental health recovery and wellness.”

Social well being, the fourth determinant, is an extrapolation of Satyagraha. Gandhiji viewed Satyagraha as an attitude of non-violent love, with no self-interest also referred to as “self-Satyagraha,” which forms a bond with humanity. Patience, sympathy and endurance are the fundamentals of “self-Satyagraha,” just as they are for “political Satyagraha.” “Domestic Satyagraha” demands the need to forgive, forbear, support the other person always and when necessity arises, resist lovingly. Here the highest achievement is reached when a couple in a relationship considers the welfare of the other more important than self. In “family Satyagraha” the welfare of the children would take precedence over everything else. At work most conflicts arise because of self-interest; and a finer look would reveal two unbending egos; similar to the saying “Everyone thinks his watch has the right time.” If the concepts of Satyagraha are applied at work, in the true sense, with minimal self-interest, a common viewpoint can be reached and the work can proceed in a healthy and cooperative environment.

The key factors are mutual understanding and cooperation. Many of these concepts form part of problem-solving techniques in dealing with interpersonal relationships. If this is strictly followed so many incidences of domestic violence, community riots, poor work space relations, will stop, leading to a healthier home atmosphere, community participation and job satisfaction respectively.

One can say that Gandhiji took the adage, cleanliness is next to Godliness, very literally. Therein comes the fifth determinant of health, hygiene and sanitation. He was very particular about the levels of hygiene and sanitation of his surroundings and infused its importance in his people too. This included, at a personal level, sun‐bath, hip‐ bath, friction‐bath, Kuhne‐bath that was usually followed by a massage and hot fomentation. The tubs on being used should be washed with water and scrubbed using a clean brush with hot ashes. All kitchen work and cleaning were done by the inmates themselves, and not with the help of the servants.

To add to your list of surprises, during his periods of confinement he was afraid of contracting scabies due to the poor sanitation practices of the prisons and arranged to have his mustache and the hair on his head shaved off. Some even go to say that the characteristic baldness of the Mahatma was artificial, and the artifice was originally for the sake of hygiene. Lastly, the sixth determinant.

From all of Gandhiji’s ideologies, it is abundantly evident that he dwells on the preventive rather than the curative aspect of medicine. It is safe to say that, he had even on many occasions expressed his displeasure towards curing a certain spectrum of disease that he believed stemmed from vices and weakness of the mind and therein he felt that it did not deserve a cure at all. To this point, he also held accountable the doctors and the hospitals. He felt that had there been no hospital for venereal diseases, or even for consumptives, we would have less consumption, and less sexual vice amongst us. To him, curing a disease that stemmed from a vice was equivalent to propagating a sin. He instead wished for people to gain mastery over their minds and attempt to curb the cause rather than the effect. In short, he highlighted the need for mental rehabilitation over medical rehabilitation.

It is no revelation that Gandhiji was strongly against Western medical school and medicine. His only view of curative medicine was restricted to chemical-free, cruelty-free, natural remedies. Of the many instances that showed his inclination to naturopathy, some included his use of mud poultice over the abdomen for treatment of hypertension. He would additionally use one over his forehead during hot seasons. He believed that mother earth had many inherent properties that could potentially rid people of a multitude of diseases. Living in a day where mud or soil is synonymous to Tetanus, modern doctors would regard with consternation the use of lower earth for curing lacerations. But this is exactly what Gandhiji did when he suffered terrible wounds following an assault by a mob in 1908. If you are surprised he actually did that, you’d be more shocked to know that it actually managed to work. However in his letters to the press on one occasion he stated to be in good health excepting for his good, loyal friends, the hookworms and amoebae. Aside from the use of mud poultice, he prescribed a few drugs that were naturally derived, of which castor oil, sodium bicarbonate, quinine, and iodine were some.

Conversely, his views on naturopathy and the traditional schools of medicine suffered cognitive dissonance too. Towards the end of his life, he disregarded practitioners of traditional medicine for he felt they weren’t working hard enough to be at par with the western medicine and that they did not practice evidence based medicine.

The World Health Organisation defines Health as, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. From what we have managed to gather about Gandhiji’s understanding and notion of health through the various determinants listed above, they seem to juxtapose largely. It seems to “mirror” understanding of health in the modern “age of empathy”.

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