Shaw (1856-1950), Gandhi (1869-1948) and Vegetarianism
Dr. P. S. Sri
“Animals are my friends . . . and I don’t eat my friends.”
“While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?” --- G. Bernard Shaw
“To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body.”
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” --- Mahatma Gandhi
George Bernard Shaw and Mahatma Gandhi were, without doubt, two of the most outstanding personalities of the 20th century. While Shaw’s genius and wit shone in the dramatic presentation of thought-provoking ideas, Gandhi’s moral principles of truth and non-injury came thrillingly alive in his satyagraha or truthful non-violent aggression against British rule in
Shaw genuinely admired Gandhi. When Gandhi attended the Second Round Table Conference in March 1931 in
Gandhi too liked Shaw. “I think he is a very good man,”(4) he said and then paid tribute to G.B.S. as “a Puck-like spirit and a generous ever young heart, the Arch Jester of Europe.” (5) Later, after reading The Black Girl, he commented: “In everything of his that I have read there has been a religious centre.” (6)
It is interesting and educative, therefore, to set side by side the strict adherence of Shaw and Gandhi to vegetarianism and the accompanying philosophies of their lives.
Shaw became a convert to vegetarianism in his early twenties, after listening to a lecture by H.F.Lester.(7) He remained a staunch practitioner of vegetarianism till the very end of his life and attributed his good health to his vegetarianism. He found it not only economical but also aesthetically more satisfying.(8) Vegetarianism also played a significant role in his spiritual development. It was the natural, the inevitable outcome of his evolving humanitarianism. “A man of my spiritual intensity,” he stated, “does not eat corpses.”(9) He firmly believed that vegetarianism would elevate the quality of human beings. “Life is offered to me on condition of eating beefsteaks. . .” he wrote, “But death is better than cannibalism.” (10)
Gandhi confessed in his autobiographical The Story of My Experiments with Truth that he had tried meat-eating to become strong like the British and then given up meat-eating altogether. (11) When he came to England for higher studies in his twenties, he came armed with a vow he had made to his mother, a vow that helped him persist in his vegetarianism despite various vicissitudes in London.(12) He practised vegetarianism, because it was economical and pure, till the very end of his life, carrying it even to the extent of denying himself cow’s milk. He embraced the philosophy of vegetarianism, which he hailed as the harbinger of “true civilization,” (13) for he found this claim to be in perfect harmony with his Hindu way of life.
In our current world of exploding populations, shrinking resources and widespread hunger, the vegetarianism of these two great idealists – one a dynamic thinker and the other a unique political activist – no longer seems a fad; rather, it is an inspiration that points the way to the resurrection of our planet earth and to the salvation of the human soul.