There has been a veritable binge of fasting these last couple of months: Medha Patkar, Uma Bharti and Baba Ramdev have all undertaken a fast close on the heels of Anna Hazare. The man they are all emulating is, of course, that champion faster, Mahatma Gandhi, who once wrote back wryly to Sabarmati ashram from prison: ‘My fasts are a daily affair now, and should cause no worry.’
Gandhi’s fasts seem to have begun as experiments in diet and as religious observance, and gone on to widen their moral ambit in South Africa. In 1914, some students and a teacher at the Phoenix ashram apparently breached rules by—of all things—eating pakodas. Gandhi went on indefinite fast, and the teacher who had previously denied wrongdoing confessed the next day. Gandhi writes: ‘Had I not taken the vow, I would not have tasted pure love as I did; there would have been no speedy discovery of truth and the poor children would not have been proved innocent as they actually were.’ Then, a resident of the ashram deceived Gandhi, was forgiven, deceived him again, and Gandhi embarked on a 14-day fast. By the time he returned to India, he seems to have been using the fast regularly to encourage reflection in the people around him. His diary for 1915 shows several entries to this effect. June 1: ‘Noticed falsehood among the boys. And so started a fast.’ July 17: ‘Ba washed Deva’s dhoti. Seen doing so. Told a lie. Could not control my anger. Went at her. Vowed to fast for 14 days if she should wash anything of Deva’s, even a handkerchief.’ September 11: ‘Started a fast because Vrajlal had smoked.’
Gandhi’s first use of the fast for a larger cause came during the 1918 Ahmedabad mill-hands’ strike. Some of the workers were reluctant to take up manual labour during the strike, and said they were starving. Gandhi started a fast to express solidarity and encourage the workers to persist with their satyagraha. The intention was expressly not to force the hand of mill-owners. A leaflet issued the next day states: ‘It is necessary to understand the motive and significance of Gandhiji’s vow to fast. The first thing to remember is that this is not intended to influence the employers. [. . .] If this becomes a common practice for securing rights, it would be impossible to carry on the affairs of society.’ Gandhi wrote to his son Devdas: ‘I look upon that fast as the best thing I have done so far. The peace which I knew at the time of that fast was no mere human experience.’
Gandhi’s fasts came in two flavours: conditional and unconditional. He considered the conditional fasts ‘lighter’ because they could be broken easily from the outside by agreeing to certain terms. The unconditional fasts forced introspection on others and made them squirm and plead while Gandhi grew frail. In this latter category was his fast for communal harmony in 1924. His statement read, ‘Nothing evidently that I say or write can bring the two communities together. I am therefore imposing on myself a fast of 21 days commencing from today. [. . .] It is both a penance and a prayer.’
These fasts were strongly rooted in Gandhi’s spiritual beliefs. He brushed away concerns for his life, saying it was only the body that died. He managed to create a near mystical union of his self, his work and the larger world. “If I were practising non-violence to perfection,” he said to Mahadev Desai during his 1924 fast, “I should not have seen the violence I see around me. [. . .] The object of the previous fasts was limited. The object of this is unlimited, and there is boundless love at the back of it. I am today bathing in that ocean of love.” Some of his subsequent fasts followed from instructions delivered by voices—“within or without I cannot say”—that woke him up in the middle of the night.
All this, depending on one’s propensity for matters spiritual, is either profound or profoundly kooky. But Gandhi retained a pragmatism, even canniness, when it came to making his fasts effective. In Yerwada jail, Gandhi began a fast in support of a co-worker who was himself fasting in another jail for not being allowed to work beside untouchables. That morning he addressed a letter to the IGP of Poona, Colonel Doyle, conveying the gentlest of threats. He wrote that he was receiving a particularly large number of visitors, and that ‘the visitors are bound to notice the weakness that must overtake me even today and they are bound to inquire about the reason. I shall be unable to conceal the truth from them and yet I have no desire whatsoever that they should know anything about the unfortunate contretemps between [the] Govern- ment and myself. For I am hoping that the Government will recognize the utter reasonableness of my request.’
What might Gandhi have said to today’s fasters? We cannot be sure, but we do know what his usual advice was when people consulted him about fasting for a cause—don’t. “Fasting is a very special method,” he said in an interview, “and nobody can fast unless there is a definite special call for him to do so.” In a letter to Ramdas Gandhi, he wrote: ‘It should also be remembered that no one is to fast in mere imitation of my action. [. . .] Everybody cannot hear the inner voice as a matter of course. What one hears may be only a semblance of the inner voice or in fact the voice of the ego. [. . .] We cannot always recognise whether it is the voice of Rama or Ravana. Very often, Ravana appears in the garb of a sadhu and he looks like Rama.’
Like today’s fasters, Gandhi too was accused of blackmail. In 1932, K Kelappan started a fast unto death to have the Guruvayur temple opened to untouchables. Gandhi felt Kelappan had not given sufficient notice to the temple trustee, the Zamorin of Calicut, and asked Kelappan to suspend his fast for three months. With the Zamorin not cooperating, Gandhi decided to join Kelappan if the fast were to resume. Opposed to the fast were the Sanatanists or no-changers, who accused Gandhi of coercion.
And unlike today’s fasters, Gandhi responded to questions and criticism with cogent interviews, articles and letters. He stated his conditions with lawyerly precision: “The fast will begin on January 2 next if, before that date, the Guruvayur temple is not opened to Harijans on the same terms as it is open to the caste Hindus in general; but the fast will be postponed, if it becomes clear that the temple-going Hindus in the neighbourhood are opposed to the temple-entry of Harijans or if it is clear that although everybody is willing to open the temple to Harijans, there is a legal difficulty that cannot be overcome before January 2, next.” Gandhi wrote in a letter, ‘In laying down a condition one should exercise discretion and self-restraint, and I believe that I have done so in the present instance.’ He answered charges of coercion by declaring that the fast was only going to galvanise people who were already in favour of reform, but were ‘sluggish’. If the majority of temple-goers were against the reform, a fast would be unsupportable and other means would have to be employed to change their outlook. A referendum was carried out by volunteers to judge if a fast was warranted, and those in favour of reform were found to be in the majority. The fast itself was postponed indefinitely due to legal complications. But the attention directed to the issue eventually resulted in the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 that freed access to all temples in Travancore.
For the few who might end up going the distance, Gandhi offers practical advice. In an article for Young India, titled ‘The Physical Effects of Fasting’, he wrote about the importance of rest, how to overcome the faster’s distaste for water, and how to return to food and activity after the fast. He also recommends: ‘Think of anything else but the fast.’
We also know that Gandhi did not want a spectacle created around fasting. He wrote to Kelappan, ‘Fasting by you, if it comes, must not take place on the public road. It must be in a house or a hut. There can be no public exhibition of you, whilst you are under fast.’ And one piece of advice given to Kelappan feels relevant in light of the gung-ho contemporary faster: ‘Of course you will cheerfully resume your fast if it becomes necessary. But we must strain every nerve to prevent its resumption.’
Much of Gandhi’s charisma and moral force came from his absolute belief in a capital-T Truth. This was the engine that powered satyagraha—truth insistence —and imparted credibility to fasting as a means of peaceful resistance. It was the firmness of Gandhi’s vows that made his unconditional fasts such a fearsome prospect and a powerful tool. He would very likely not have approved of promises to undertake token fasts, or even the breaking of such promises. He certainly would not have endorsed name-calling, backroom-dealing or the making of empty placatory statements to the media. In his self-stated capacity as “inventor of the weapon of fasting” all these might even have led him to embark on a long, unconditional fast.