On September 4, 1887, Mahatma Gandhi stepped on board a boat bound for England with the intention to further his academic career. Naïve and intensely shy, young Gandhi did not fully appreciate the extent to which his beliefs were to be challenged, transformed and eventually strengthened during this sojourn into the unknown. Nearly all aspects of his identity, including diet, social traditions, culture and religion, were scrutinized by Westerners and, in turn, as he adopted their perspective, judged unmercifully by Gandhi himself.
Yet though threatened by the new environment, Gandhi recovered a sense of identity in his Indian culture and heritage stronger than he previously experienced. His encounter with the West lent him incredible confidence in his ability to govern himself and thus, enable him to be the remarkable leader India came to cherish and adore.
Even as Gandhi began his journey to the West, he met with considerable challenges. After various difficulties with finance and transport, the voyage to England from Bombay proved to be a significant trial for the unsuspecting Mahatma. He developed ringworm from washing with soap and seawater, remained painfully shy of stewardesses and passengers and, more over, was heavily encumbered by his diet. In keeping with his beliefs and honoring the sacred vow to his mother, Gandhi declared himself a strict vegetarian and, as it may be imagined, the scorn received from Westerners was only equal in intensity to their fervor in encouraging him to eat meat.
Yet “…a vow is a vow, it cannot be broken” (Autobiography ~ pg 47) and he held fast to his diet. Though Gandhi’s decision left him literally starving, as there were few vegetarian dishes available in the West at this time, vegetarianism proved to be the practice by which Gandhi discovered himself.
While suffering acutely throughout the voyage and in the weeks that followed upon arriving in England, Gandhi developed terrific self-discipline and control amidst his tears of homesickness and hunger. His triumph was great indeed, for despite anticipating some inconvenience, he was unprepared for the extent of the sacrifices required in keeping true to this life style. Gandhi vegetarianism met with constant disdain and pity even among his friends. He was forced to walk miles upon miles searching for appropriate restaurants, all the while living off insufficient meals provided by his landlady. Although physically malnourished, with only cocoa, porridge, or bread in his belly, Gandhi stubbornly held to his sacred vow out of respect for his mother.
Eventually, the quick-witted young man came upon literature in a restaurant advocating vegetarianism and was able to use Western ideas to strengthen his vow to abstaining from meat. The consumption of meat was reported to be inefficient in providing nourishment and energy to the body, and furthermore, livestock and poultry were treated with ruthless apathy throughout captivity. This development...