Gandhi & Health
By Dr. Oishee Mukherjee
India hit headlines as the world’s largest public health insurance scheme Ayushman Bharat – Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojna, was launched on Sunday last. Over 550 million economically weaker sections of society will now be entitled to an annual cover of Rs 5 lakh, across the country. However, had governments paid heed to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy on good health, perhaps the country may not have needed such a scheme.
As the nation celebrates his 150 birth anniversary, would be worthwhile to revisit his strategy on basic health. Gandhi’s dimension to health and sanitation has great relevance today, when diseases are on the rise and costs of medicines beyond the reach of the common man. For him expanding medical services and improvement of environment and nutrition were equally important. The improvement of the environment, on the one hand, and low focus on nutrition, on the other, has become imperative.
It is an established fact that in the elimination of epidemics, of all kinds, the environment and nutrition have a decisive role to play. Gandhi during his lifetime sought to redress this imbalance. He was sceptical about the focus only on allopathy without adequate attention to safe drinking water, proper sanitation, proper nutrition and a safe environment.
Gandhi was not convinced about the efficacy of allopathy and whether it would be correct for a country like India. He was convinced that Ayurveda and naturopathy were based on sound principles and became a practitioner of such systems of medicine based on herbs and indigenous methods of manufacture. This faith emanated from a natural love for simple life and belief in the need for harmony between man’s body, mind and spirit. Modern medical gadgets, capital-intensive techniques, antibiotics and other expensive drugs repelled him. In fact, in recent times various studies revealed that most drugs have adverse side effects and this is believed by modern-day medical fraternity.
This ancient system of Indian system of medicine and naturopathy was closer to Gandhi’s philosophical outlook and inevitably turned to such system. He was profoundly influenced by two important books – one by Ludwig Kunne’s The New Science of Healing and Adolf Just’s Return to Nature. The principles and methods of treatment of ayurveda appealed to him as it differed fundamentally, both in its diagnostic techniques and methods of treatment from allopathy. Though Gandhi visualiszed Ayurveda as the balanced and dynamic integration between environment, body, mind, and spirit, he was not quite impressed with the practitioners, as they lacked study and research of modern developments in their system of medicine.
As Gandhi himself noted: “My quarrel with the professors of Ayurveda system is that many of them are mere quacks pretending to know much more than they actually do, arrogating to themselves an infallibility and ability to cure all diseases. They have . . . made it a stagnant system instead of a gloriously progressive science. I know of not a single discovery or invention of any importance on the part of Ayurvedic physicians as against brilliant array of discoveries and inventions which Western physicians and surgeons boast”.
Many Gandhian scholars possibly do not know that Gandhi wrote several articles on health and published them under the title, Guide to Health and also a book called Key to Health published in 1943-44 during the period of political confinement. The book was based on his reading and reflection on the subject, specially on his own personal experience and approach to solving health problems through simple methods.
Steadily, the practice of naturopathy became an integral element of his constructive programme and in 1944 Gandhi established in the village of Uruli near Poona, a nature cure centre. As a naturopath, he evidently did not think very highly of the germ theory and he moved amongst his patients without any fear of infection. What is most significant was that he had no qualms about touching lepers, cleaning and washing their sores.
Though Gandhi firmly believed in the principle of nature cure, he recognised that there were critical occasions when the body may be in need modern medical interventions in the form of surgery. In 1924, he underwent an operation for appendicitis while earlier his wife, Kasturba, had to be operated in a hospital for a major gynaecological disorder.
In tune with his emphasis on nature cure, Gandhi believed that disease was the result of man’s estrangement from nature and that only lasting way to restore health was to bring about a realignment of our life with natural forces. Thus, the principles of nature cure fit into his general philosophy of life. In fact, his distaste for machines of modern industrialisation arose not only from his realisation that these were redundant in a society endowed with surplus labour power, but also from his love of simplicity and the need to emphasise on indigenous methods.
Being a deeply spiritual man, Gandhi’s stressed on spiritual purity as a requirement of good health, maintaining that “the body which contains s diseased mind can never be anything but diseased”. He had also emphasised that water was essential to life and wanted that potable water reach every individual. As a curative agent, water was frequently employed in the enema he used during fasts. He also used the hip bath and the sitz both as curative agents.
In fact, Gandhi had the foresight to visualise that man’s disharmony with nature was the root cause of his physical and mental illness and saw in elements of nature such as earth, water and air, the means of restoring the health of body and mind. He was thus able to present “the accepted nature cure methods of treatment within a rather novel theoretical framework”.
Gandhi also advocated the exposure of the uncovered body to the morning sun and curative benefits of the earth. The mud poultice is recommended by naturapathy for a variety of ailments – constipation, boils, headaches and fever and Gandhi used this method successfully on himself and his patients for a number of years.
His repeated emphasis on simplicity, whether in framing his economic programme or political struggles, enabled him to focus on health. Moreover, he was concerned about the inability of the country’s teeming millions to adopt an expensive method of modern treatment which rendered them in debt and squalor. In recent times, studies have echoed his thinking that not only antibiotics should be avoided but also consuming many drugs may not be helpful to the human body.
Gandhi’s saw fasting as a method of using mud within the body and used this method of treatment widely. Moreover, he maintained that “fasting could be made as powerful a weapon of indulgence as of restraint”. As a result of his fasting, he discovered its enormous potentialities in revamping the body. He believed that to remain fit, one has to avoid everything artificial, breathe fresh air, eat simple vegetarian food, have regular exercise and generally live in close communication with nature.
What doctors are emphasising today, Gandhi advised then– to eat plenty of vegetables and, even told the rich “eat only when you are hungry” and when “you have laboured for your food”. His concept of bread labour required every person to do some bodily labour every day. He recognised physical labour as a biological necessity and pointed out that physical exercise was necessary both for the body and mind.
Gandhi was deeply interested in public sanitation and its relevance in combating diseases. He devoted a great deal of time in instilling in people the importance of sanitation but was disillusioned that he could not arouse the nation’s consciousness on this vital issue, which incidentally has been taken up now through a vigorous campaign.
Thus, to meet the challenge before us of providing affordable health care to all sections of society, specially the EWS, there is need to focus attention on Ayurveda and homeopathy. The Western model of health care may be necessary for surgical or complicated diseases, but for others the traditional Indian systems need to be prompted. The change in strategy in our health system is imperative to realise Gandhi’s dream of ensuring better health for all. —INFA