Hunting with Gandhi

In college, studying Mahatma Gandhi’s moral and political philosophy, I was impressed by the twin commitments of his lifelong quest for truth.

On the one hand, he lived according to what he saw as the truth, which must, he wrote, “be my beacon, my shield and buckler.” On the other hand, he had the humility and wisdom to recognize that his truth was incomplete, that it was only “the relative truth as I have conceived it.” Closing himself off to new insights would obstruct his search.

At the time, in my early years as a vegan, I was confident I had a lockdown on dietary truth. Lacking Gandhi’s humility, it never occurred to me that someday I might have to lay down that particular shield and buckler.

Had I paid closer attention to Gandhi’s experiments with diet, they might have been instructive. He tried eating meat in his youth, returned to the traditional Hindu and Jain vegetarian diet on which he was raised, then went vegan.

Eventually, though, recovering from an illness, he found he could not rebuild his constitution without milk. In his autobiography, he warned others—especially those who had adopted veganism as a result of his teachings—not to persist in a milk-free diet “unless they find it beneficial in every way.”

But I wasn’t ready to hear that then. Nor was I ready to hear that other great teachers of compassion—the Dalai Lama, for example—were not the vegetarians I imagined them to be.

It was only later that some faint echo of Gandhi’s wisdom tempered my certainty.

It was only when I found that my body, too, was healthier if I consumed animal products that my truth changed. It was only when I learned that the production of almost every food I ate depended on controlling cervid populations—that is, on the annual slaughter of millions of deer across North America, by hunters and farmers alike—that I began to see a bigger picture.

Now, I wonder: How would Gandhi have responded if he had found that his body, like the Dalai Lama’s, thrived on meat? What would he have done if it turned out that even the cultivation of the fruits and nuts he ate depended on the constant killing of large, charismatic, wild mammals?

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. In one instance, Gandhi is said to have been asked to recommend whether or not a person should eat sugar. He told the person to come back in a week. A week later, when the supplicant returned, Gandhi recommended that he not eat sugar. When pressed as to why he wasn’t able to recommend that the week before, he said, “Then, I was eating sugar.” He was a big believer in being able to speak from experience.
    Now, I’m getting into a little stretch, but I believe that you’re also speaking from personal experience, so I think you’re at least genuine in your beliefs. I’m sure if you found a Buddhist or Hindu practitioner, you might be able to talk your way into your path, but it all depends on how dogmatic, or otherwise indoctrinated the conversation goes. Just be satisfied that you are doing your best to “…to thine own self be true.” Best we can do on short notice of being alive for a short time on this big rock.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Richard. You’re right, I think: that’s the best we can do as individual creatures, on short notice, in short lives.

  2. It’s hard to fathom that the American bison, elk, mule deer, antelope and plains native peoples were almost completely wiped out to make sure pioneers had wide expanses (tilling the topsoil that took thousands of years to develop), in order to plant wheat–something a moral-driven Vegan might want to contemplate as they’re munching on their slice of bread.

    Frankly, I don’t see much hope of sharing the facts, as Veganism as a whole is now a religion and political movement unto itself. It’s no longer the traditional way of life and is now more a self-identity. When it reaches this point in the human psyche, so totally based on emotion and theory, facts counter to that belief system are most often ignored until they can no longer be ignored…

    Much like the original emotionally charged event or events that caused a knee-jerk reaction of veganism…Or as I was reminded in my Cork’s Outdoors Radio interview with Lierre Keith, it takes another emotionally jarring event to shake things up and hopefully enable a review of the myths perpetrated by the anti-hunting/anti-meat religion–such as the degenerative joint disease that Keith is now permanently crippled by, even with the slight improvements to her system over the last 10 years of eating animal protein: after the 20 years of religious devotion to the strict vegan diet that effected her most important growth years so drastically.

    Having been raised on tofu as a American expat kid in Saigon and Singapore and really enjoyed the taste (and what I thought were physiological benefits), I’m sad to say that I’ll definitely cutting back on the tofu after reading the information she collected for her great book on vegetarian myths and some outright lies perpetrated on the American public, not the least of which is the false research leading to the traditional 1960s-1990s food pyramid.

    That you brought up Gandhi reminds me of an episode of “The Mentalist” I saw a few weeks ago, where a suspect described another character as a shark that “even Gandhi would take a shot at her!” I laughed because of the conflict of images…

    • Tovar says:

      True, Cork: if you want to shake a continent to its ecological roots, there’s nothing like an agrarian culture with an aggressively expansionist vision of manifest destiny.

  3. Leigh says:

    Gandhi, a great influence even well after his time. I was blessed enough to listen to his grandson Arun Gandhi speak back in the Spring of 2009. It was a life changing experience for me as I learned the wisdom from his grandfather’s self discipline and his path to enlightenment… it’s not what he did but how he did it, how he learned… (As you touched on in your post).

    I went into the program feeling like this “Man” was going to push his beliefs on me… When I left I learned how that it wasn’t about making someone believe the same as you, that it was about finding your own path and embracing the differences in others.

    It’s always interesting to see the way that his teachings have affected others.

    Gandhi has this way about distinguishing what one should do during the grey areas of life… when things are questionable…. and what I understood from those lessons is that it’s not always exactly what you do, what actions you take but how you go about it, physically emotionally and spiritually. It’s impossible to say how Gandhi would have reacted if his body demanded meat but I am sure that it would have been another valuable milestone in his journey.

    A great thought provoking post and I just finished rereading Legacy of Love-perfect timing! 🙂


  4. Ingrid says:

    I was planning to give you a break from me, Tovar, but I couldn’t resist. Only because of the Gandhi autobiography. I didn’t read it until I went back to school, as an older student. There was one other person my age in my section, and the two of us read far more into Gandhi’s actions and words than did the kids in our class. I might be one of the few, blasphemously, who asserts that Gandhi’s food rituals bordered on disordered and a-spiritual. He rationalized the choices through the determination of his various quests, but the pedantic way in which he treated himself with respect to food — and some of the actions he took toward his family — suggested, to me anyway, some serious dysfunction. 🙂 Ha. Well, of course, that doesn’t denigrate from the greatness that was also within him.

    With respect to wheat and soy, I couldn’t agree more with Cork. I don’t eat either. And meat eaters who eat both meat and products like wheat are creating even more of an impact than a vegetarian.

    I would be the first to say I’m not averse to eating home-grown eggs — were I not allergic. If eating dairy didn’t produce the endless reproductive cycle and cast-off baby animals, that would be a more palatable option, as well. I don’t think everyone who makes food choices based on ethics, becomes the type of fanatic Cork describes. On the contrary. Some of us are reluctantly limited in our choices by dietary incompatibilities, and by a value system that would make it exceedingly difficult to kill an animal with our hands. I simply couldn’t do it.

    But I’m not saying the choices I make daily for myself apply to everyone. I think the other issue we’ve discussed here — humane consideration of animals — does come into play no matter what your dietary or sporting behaviors. Living according to one’s own values and integrity makes food choices more difficult. Abiding by a principle of least-harm-done and compassion is even more rigorous. But I think everyone, vegetarian or meat-eating, ought to be more thoughtful in this regard. Hunting or eating meat doesn’t exempt one, in my mind, from applying the same level of consciousness to what’s on the dinner table and how it was derived. Even beyond the piece of meat you hunted or purchased.

    • Tovar says:

      Oh, I knew Gandhi would be tempting for you, Ingrid. 🙂 And I welcome your thoughts, as always.

      Good points, all.

      Like you, I know plenty of reasonable, non-fanatic vegetarians and vegans.

      And, yes, Gandhi’s dietary changes do sometimes seem chaotic, and were rooted in some goals that might not resonate for many modern Americans—the suppression of libido, for instance.

  5. Tovar — I can’t help but find Gandhi’s moral reasoning suspect. “Don’t drink milk unless you think it’s really good for you, and then it’s ok.” Now that’s taking a stand! Although I think human health does theoretically enter the moral calculus in deciding what to eat, there are so many diets that can sustain us reasonably well that it’s hard to find a practical application. If it were found that eating giant panda cured cancer, we’d have to re-think that protected species, but the reality is that, in the main, a vegan diet, carefully managed, is perfectly healthful.

    It’s other considerations — of animals, of environment — that pose the difficult questions. That Gandhi was willing to roll over on his principles as soon as he believed his health required it says much about the viability of those principles.

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting, Tamar.

      As I recall, Gandhi was thinking of his diet in spiritual and religious terms, rather than environmental terms. And his reluctant dietary shift back to milk was based on the belief that it would enable him to regain health and return his full energies to his campaigns for freedom and justice in India. That was his way of measuring the value of his own health.

      Here and now, we might have other ways. But we do necessarily include human health in the “moral calculus,” as you put it, of our food choices.

      As a counter-extreme to your panda example, it could be argued that I would do the least harm to the world by eating nothing but grass from the clearing around my house—or by eating nothing at all. But I won’t ever do that, because I value my health, just as I value my family’s health and even a stranger’s health.

      Perhaps a vegan diet can, as you say, be “perfectly healthful” if “carefully managed.” I’m not sure if that’s true for all or even most people in the long term. I’ve seen plenty of examples where people did not do well as long-term vegans. I didn’t do great myself. Was that just a lack of careful management? I’m not so sure. And if thriving on a vegan diet requires extraordinary management measures, does that bring such a diet into conflict with the value we place on our health? For me, I think it does.

  6. Phillip says:

    I dunno, Tamar. I guess we’ll all see this differently, which I think was one of Gandhi’s points. I don’t feel like he spent his time telling us to live as he lived, but only that we might consider carefully why we live as we live.

    The fact that he did allow himself to adapt and change as his conditions or perceptions changed shows that he wasn’t a rigid fanatic. I think that is a perfect reflection of the changing realities of the real world, as well as his recognition of himself as a valuable part of the whole. Principle is fine, as long as it makes sense… but it makes no sense to lock onto a principle at the expense of your own health. Compassion does not equal stupidity.

    With this in mind, in answer to Tovar’s last question, I think Gandhi would have found a way to justify it. I think he’d fall right in league with the current movement toward “compassionate” farming, and as Ingrid says, doing the least harm in light of the fact that doing NO harm is not realistic… but I’m pretty sure he’d eat what he thought he needed to eat.

    • Tovar says:

      That’s the essence of what I was getting at, Phillip, my main point being less about Gandhi’s diet than about his twin commitments to truth.

  7. Ingrid says:

    Here’s my take on the food choices issue. Whether or not one chooses to eat meat, no one needs the quantity of meat ingested by most Americans. Most of the hunters I’ve known throughout my life have no qualms about hunting and also buying into the industrial food system (the anti-Tovars). They’re eating a lot of meat, killing wild animals, eating breads and mass-produced grains, and also contributing to the horrendous conditions we all know exist on industrialized farms. That, to me, seems like the worst-case scenario in terms of sustainability and health.

    A concept like Meatless Mondays is kind of hokey, but it makes a point about this very thing. Curbing meat consumption — no matter what the source of the meat — doesn’t harm anyone in my view, except maybe the big industrial farmer. I think that type of choice benefits the small farmer, since when people treat any food as precious, they tend to be more invested in how it’s acquired. I believe this is the point you and Holly and others have made here about what hunting has done for you — made the food sacred, in a way.

    I’m not a big fan of Michael Pollan, but even he, the neo hog hunter 🙂 — talks about using meat as a condiment, not as a main course. If people did, in fact, treat meat this way, they wouldn’t be hunting except as Tovar does, for subsistence. They wouldn’t have to buy nearly as many products of the slaughter from farms. And, if one isn’t allergic to eggs the way I am, unfortunately, a person could substitute a fair number of meat-protein meals with a source like humanely-raised eggs (issues of what constitutes “free range,” notwithstanding). I grew up in Europe in a family of limited funds, and meat was, indeed, a precious commodity. It certainly wasn’t served everyday, let alone at every meal.

    One thing we haven’t addressed here — which further complicates the diet issue — is toxicity in the food chain. If you opt to eat some animal products but want to stay lower on the food chain — say eat just mollusks (you know, the nervous system argument) — you’re most likely ingesting large amounts of industrial contaminants and mercury. At the opposite end of the food chain, you have top-level eaters whose tissues contain the very same contaminants, magnified. Large fish — well, most fish, actually — bear this burden, too. You all know about commercially raised meats and antibiotics and so forth, which is one of the reasons some of you hunt. If one is eating for health (and that should obviously be a reason to eat!) ideological choices are always problematic and rarely conflict-free in terms of reconciling one’s heart to one’s plate.

    But the reason I keep coming back here is that I appreciate most of you seem to be grappling with those very same issues, from a different point on the spectrum.

    • Tovar says:

      Ingrid said, “when people treat any food as precious, they tend to be more invested in how it’s acquired.” I completely agree. I also agree that Americans don’t need to eat as much meat as they do.

      I’ve always figured that, given the ratio of humans to wildlife in modern America (e.g. roughly 10 people to every 1 white-tailed deer), there’s no mathematical way that wild meat could comprise a substantial part of the meat consumed by Americans. But if people reduced their overall meat intake considerably, I guess it could comprise a larger proportion.

      Yes, toxicity is an important issue. When I started fishing again, it saddened me to realize how thoroughly the poisons we’ve produced (in local waters, methylmercury from combustion of fossil fuels and waste west of here) have infiltrated the food web. The state health advisory on fish isn’t reassuring, especially for mothers and children. Likewise, cadmium buildup in deer liver would encourage me to steer clear even if liked the flavor, which I don’t.

      By the way, lest anyone get the impression that I’m some kind of food saint, I ought to mention that I most emphatically ain’t. While I eat very little soy and don’t buy industrial meat at the grocery store or eat at McDonald’s, I do, for example, eat wheat—given my Italian heritage and my wife’s, pasta and bread remain part of our diet. I also drink coffee and tea, cook with olive oil, etc, etc. I like to procure food locally, being mindful about what I eat and how that impacts earth and animals, but I’m no purist. So no one should hold their breath waiting for me to launch some American dietary satyagraha.

  8. Eric Nuse says:

    I’m just back from a 2 week 230 mile canoe trip in Quebec. Being in the brush that long and working that hard puts food into clear perceptive. Food is energy. Without it you don’t make the portage or across the lake into the wind. Everything tastes better and you eat way more without feeling stuffed. And when you get some fish to augment the dried stuff it tastes and feels like heaven. I even ate and enjoyed some mussels, it helped to put lots of salt (scraped from a moose mineral block-we had run out of regular) and hot sauce.
    Bottom line is if you work hard and eliminate the processed stuff- your body knows what it needs and your brain will figure it out. Layer on top what we know about living lightly on the earth (and be willing/able to work and pay for it) and you should come up with a pretty workable diet and way of living.

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