Michael Kirby: What would Gandhi do today?

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Monday, 4 February 2013, 10:11 am

Read an extract from the Gandhi Oration delivered by Voiceless Patron, Michael Kirby, at The University of New South Wales on Wednesday 30 January.  The address is a meditation on the contemporary challenges of animals rights.

Gandhi, through his mother, derived many of his values from the Jain traditions of Hinduism.  This led to an embrace of vegetarianism and a demand for respect for animals that, with human beings, make up our world.  As a young boy, Gandhi looked with mixed feelings of distaste and admiration, upon the British rulers of India.  He witnessed their strong armies and incorruptible institutions.  Part of him wanted to embrace their sources of power and to use them, eventually, to rid his country of them.  In his autobiography, he wrote:1

“It began to grow on me that meat-eating was good, that it would make me strong and daring, and that, if the whole country took to meat-eating, the English could be overcome... Whenever I had occasion to indulge in these superstitious feasts, dinner at home was out of the question. [I would tell my mother] ‘I have no appetite today; there is something wrong with my digestion’... I knew I was lying, and lying to my mother... 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 and one’s father and mother is worse than not eating meat.  In their lifetime, therefore, meat-eating must be out of the question.  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...  I have never since gone back to meat.”

When he went to England to study law, Gandhi was elected to the Executive Committee of the Vegetarian Society.  This also led him into contact with the Theosophical Society.  Its beliefs in the common roots of all great religions was  to affect his spiritual ideas profoundly.  Though he was distinctly and loyally Hindu, with strong resonances of Jainism, he borrowed deeply from the Judeo Christian Bible.  In his writings (although not always in his actions) he repeatedly insisted on the spiritual commonalities of Hinduism with Islam. 

The attempts of friends to put him under pressure to convert to Christianity, the religion of India’s rulers, had no more success than the attempt to convert him to eating meat2.  He constantly talked of the abhorrence he felt for the cruel slaughter of animals.  He believed that vegetarianism was a rational progression to a higher plain which human beings were bound eventually to embrace:3

“Our remote ancestors were cannibals.  Then came a time when they were fed up with cannibalism and they began to live on chase.  Next came a stage when man was ashamed of leading the life of a wandering hunter.  He therefore took up agriculture and depended principally on mother earth for his food.  Thus from being a nomad he settled down to civilised stable life, founded villages and towns, and from member of a family he became member of a community.  All these are signs of progressive Ahimsa... Had it been otherwise, the human species would have been extinct by now, even as many of the lower species have disappeared.”

I do not believe that there is any chance that human beings in Australia, or other countries, will embrace vegetarianism en masse.  Gandhi himself found it hard to live on the boiled vegetables served by his English landlady in London.  Almost impossible to find vegetarian restaurants in the city of those times.4  Although things have improved, equally meat-eating has greatly expanded in recent decades.  In Asian countries, where it was once a rarity of tiny proportions, it is now often part of the staple diet.  Even Japan has switched following its infatuation with the meat-eating habits of its American occupiers.  In my childhood in Australia, chicken was a rare treat, reserved to Christmas.   Now it is a huge industry.  Those most sociable of animals, poultry, are subject to mass corporatized slaughter on an assembly line or they are kept in tiny confines for egg production.  If you ever want to see a sight like Belsen, in the midst of our society, go to a chicken slaughter farm, as I once did.  The large door was wheeled open.   Thousands of heads silently turned to peer at me from the gloom.

For nearly four years I have eaten no meat and no poultry.  With John Coetzee I have become a patron of Voiceless, the animal welfare organisation.  I still lapse with a little fish.  I cannot persuade by partner Johan to join in my ‘conversion’, although practicalities have reduced his intake of meat.  To the end of his life in 2011, my father thought it foolish and that I still needed meat protein.  Of course, there is a theory that the human jaws developed to accommodate carnivore habits.  And that the human brain expanded because of the ingestion of protein from other animal species.  But with that brain expansion has come a larger moral sensibility.  We will not all become Jains.  But I hope that increasing numbers in the West, and large numbers returning in Asia, will reduce meat intake. 

Doing this would be good for our health. Cutting up the bodies of sentient creatures to eat their body parts is not necessary for nutrition, still less essential.  The lesson from our mothers in our youth was right to this extent: ‘Eat your vegetables!’.  And Gandhi was the world’s most visible symbol of the healthy vegetarianism of the traditional Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.  Once again, he had the idea.  And he laid it before others as a moral instruction.  Of course, Hitler too was a vegetarian so it is no guarantee of rectitude.  But it is a subject for increasing reflection to reduce the corporatized slaughter of animals.  In meat exporting countries like Australia, the very least that we must insist on, and legislate for, is strict conditions to enlarge (as far as possible) the acceptability of the farming and slaughtering process.  Animals see, smell, hear and feel fear.  Fear there will be in slaughter.  But we can learn from Gandhi to respect and protect the other sentient creatures that share the planet with us.

  • 1. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan Publishing, Ahmedabad, 1927 (Vol. 1), 1929 (Vol. 2), page 33. A new edition was published in August 1948, from which the quotations come. Extracts and citations appear in K. Kripalini (ed) All Men Are Brothers: Life And Thoughts Of Mahatma Gandhi As Told In His Own Words, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1960, Published by UNESCO.
  • 2. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan Publishing, Ahmedabad, 1927 (Vol. 1), 1929 (Vol. 2), page 33. A new edition was published in August 1948, from which the quotations come. Extracts and citations appear in K. Kripalini (ed) All Men Are Brothers: Life And Thoughts Of Mahatma Gandhi As Told In His Own Words, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1960, Published by UNESCO.
  • 3. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, V.K. Jhaveri, Bombay, Vol. VI, 193-195.
  • 4. N. K. Bose, Selections from Gandhi, Navajivan Ahmedabad, 1948, 23.
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