Called “a half-naked seditious fakir” by Winston Churchill, one of his bitterest critics, Mahatma Gandhi managed to change the world in more ways than one. But what constituted Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? Was it just his grit and determination? Now, for the first time, the Mahatma’s personal health records have been made public that reveal he was as prone to illness as anyone else and suffered for a long time with high blood pressure. And yet, he managed to “make his life his message” as he said famously and also worked tirelessly with leprosy afflicted patients to fight the stigma.
Well-preserved in the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s health files have now been published for the first time in the book “Gandhi and Health @ 150” by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and released in Dharamshala by the 14th Dalai Lama who said the Mahtma’s philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence) and mental hygiene are very relevant even in the 21st century.
The health files reveal that he weighed merely 46.7 kilograms and his height was five feet five inches or 165 centimetres as recorded in 1939. This gave him a body mass index of 17.1 – which, according to current estimates, means an “underweight” individual. These days, for an individual with those stats, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare would suggest: “try to eat more and eat the right kinds of nutritious foods as you are underweight. It may also be useful to visit your doctor for a regular health check-up.”
But it’s nothing short of remarkable how with that kind of bodyweight, Mahatma Gandhi led the massive non-violent movement which gave India its freedom.
The health records also reveal that the Mahatma suffered from several serious ailments which included contracting malaria three times in 1925, 1936 and 1944. He was operated for piles and appendicitis in 1919 and 1924. He also suffered from pleurisy – inflammation of the tissues that line the lungs and chest cavity – when he was in London. His experiments on his own diet are legendary and his act of undertaking long fasts sometimes led to his health condition deteriorating to almost “near death”.
But how healthy was the heart of this man who preached non-violence and forgiveness? His electro-cardiogram (ECG) records of 1937-1940 show normal characteristics with some changes. His record of 1939 says “no evidence of coronary insufficiency” but as cardiologist Dr Balram Bhargava, currently director general of the ICMR, writes in the book “the comparative records showed that his ECG was normal in all respects except slight myocarditis which was negligible given Gandhi ji’s age. His cardio-vascular degeneration was arrested”.
What is remarkable is how the Mahatma survived and maintained a level of calmness despite the high blood pressure that came to afflict him since as far back as 1927 with a high of 220/110 on February 19, 1940.
A few months later, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Dr Sushila Nayyar, who later also became India’s health minister, “my blood pressure continues to remain high hence I took three drops of sarpagandha”.
But the possible key to maintaining his equanimity is also revealed in the 166-page collector’s item. “Gandhi ji used to walk around 18 kilometres every day. During campaigning from 1913 to 1948 he walked around 79,000 kilometres, which is the equivalent to walking around the Earth twice,” the book says.
It also reproduces Mahatma Gandhi’s horoscope which shows he was born at 7:45 am on October 2, 1869 in Gujarat’s Porbander. “Venus, Mercury and Mars in ascendant… gives him a great fighting spirit, popularity, truthfulness, soft spoken… the stars also signifies – the Great Mahapurush Yoga, with great passion, self-belief and ability to connect with masses,” it says.
One very interesting conundrum in the Mahatma’s life was how he vowed not to drink cow’s milk, says Dr Abhay Bang, a co-editor of the volume and Director of the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health at Gadchiroli in rural Maharashtra.
According to the trained physician who grew up in Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram, the freedom icon said “it is my firm conviction that man need take no milk at all, beyond the mother’s milk that he takes as a baby”. But Dr Bang says, once after a very severe bout of dysentery, on a suggestion by his wise wife Kasturba Gandhi, he started taking goat’s milk.
That Gandhi disliked medicines and liked to keep modern doctors at bay is well documented and he himself practiced nature cure and naturopathy as healing solutions and experimented heavily on his own body using “earth and water” treatments.
But then that was Mahatma Gandhi, a man of very firm but simple convictions.
The editorial of the book penned by Union Minister for Health JP Nadda along with ICMR scientist Rajni Kant and the director General of ICMR Balram Bhargava reads: “it is quite possible that some solutions Gandhi jihad back then may surprise today’s generation, but his philosophy towards life, and healthy living continues to remain relevant. His belief in the almighty and the influence of Rama-Nama along with his experiments with nature cure for treating various diseases, would probably look unacceptable today, but during that time this may well have been quite effective when modern tools and technologies were not available to people… but our fight against emerging health issues such as lifestyle related non-communicable diseases could be handled by adopting the Gandhian philosophy.”