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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  In memory of Gandhi’s encounters with bio-hacking
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In memory of Gandhi’s encounters with bio-hacking

Some people have a capacity for ordeals and need to understand their bodies through trauma

Gandhi was in pursuit of the perfect diet; he discovered the power of uncooked vegetables long before salads grew famous, he was an early prophet of soya beans; he drank goat milk, went to places with a goat.Premium
Gandhi was in pursuit of the perfect diet; he discovered the power of uncooked vegetables long before salads grew famous, he was an early prophet of soya beans; he drank goat milk, went to places with a goat.

He was the kind of man who could dissuade people from calling him “Mahatma" without making them laugh. What created an added aura around him was that he could do extreme things to his body, some of which were not called “intermittent fasting" then. More than once, Mohandas Gandhi fasted for 21 days, surviving only on water and perhaps a bit of salt and lime. Once, he almost died. “Government bulletins prepared Indians for news of his death," Time magazine reported. There was a sacrificial quality to his fasts. But then he probably liked fasts. Some of them were surely ordeals, but he probably liked ordeals too. He brought to his politics something that came easily to him but which others found daunting.

In his time, Gandhi was a puzzling person and he belonged to a country where puzzling people who went without food were allotted noble reasons and consecrated as saints. Usually, such saints don’t complain, but this man denied he was one. Yet, what else could people do other than helplessly adore him as a spiritual being? But now, we can get a closer glimpse of his personality because our present is filled with ascetics who do extreme things to their bodies and are not great souls.

The present clarifies the past. And what it clarifies is that Gandhi was a bio-hacker. To the extent it was technologically possible in his time, he did things to his body, listened and tweaked, and went on experimenting with himself. He did not perform “experiments with truth," for the whole point of an experiment is that one does not know the truth. What he did was use his capacity for ordeals to toy with his own body. It was not always pleasant. As is the fate of all bio-hackers, Gandhi suffered from diet-induced gloom, headaches and fevers.

He was in pursuit of the perfect diet; he discovered the power of uncooked vegetables long before salads grew famous, he was an early prophet of soya beans; he drank goat milk, went to places with a goat. He practised sexual abstinence not by fleeing women, but by testing his resolve in close proximity.

Silicon Valley today has millionaires who don’t look anything like Gandhi, but they fast for days, monitor through devices every small thing food does to their bodies, stand for hours because sitting is decadence, and hold pleasure inferior to pain. Like Gandhi, they are able to convert themselves into labs because they have a capacity to endure ordeals, even enjoy some of it. If they had taken this capacity for pain to fight for a cause in another time, or even today, they would be called saints. Just like hallucinators of today were celebrated as seers in another time.

Across time, cults sprang from men who pushed their bodies to the limits. In Gem in the Lotus, a captivating book about “the seeding of Indian civilisation," Abraham Eraly talks about the time when Siddhartha, the son of a tribal chieftain and one of the best documented ancient public figures, gives in to a long nagging desire to abandon the good life. He goes to live in a forest. His baffled father sends a priest after the boy to persuade him back. “Religion is not wrought out only in the forests," the priest tells the boy, “The salvation of ascetics can be accomplished even in a city." It didn’t work.

Siddhartha, on his way to becoming the Buddha, interviews the bio-hackers of his time, who were known as sages. One of them tells him, “By the path of pain they (the sages) eventually attain happiness—pain , they say, is the root of merit." In the pursuit of pain, young Siddhartha, “… plucked out my hair and beard, and kept the practice up. I always stood, refusing to sit down. I was a squatter on my heels, upon a bed of thorns…The dirt of many season gathered on my body… I lived even on my own excrements. To such extremes did I go… as to live on filth for food…"

Despite all this, he doesn’t attain ‘enlightenment,’ something people down the eras have pretended to understand. In pursuit of this phenomenon, Siddhartha begins to starve. All through the ordeal, he documents the reactions on his body.

That is very Gandhi, very Silicon Valley. Siddhartha starves so much that, he says, when he presses his navel, he feels his spine. When he eventually became the Buddha, he was quite a spectacle. He walked in a shroud of numerous austere monks. Many people tried to imitate him, as later humans would imitate Gandhi. What the imitators did not grasp was that pain is a talent; those who seek it are made that way, and they are very few. They rate it higher than pleasure. If you take out the rumour of philosophy from this, it would merely be a mental state.

Gandhi’s son Harilal took fine digs at his father’s asceticism. In an article by the Swedish writer Zac O’Yeah, I found this comment by Harilal: “I cannot believe that a salt-free diet or abstinence from ghee or milk indicates strength of character and morality…" Of millions of Indians who undertake long fasts, Harilal wrote, “…barring a few exceptions, they possess no sterling virtues."

The ordinariness of ascetics is another thing the present clarifies. Silicon Valley’s fitness bros, for instance, suffer for a very material reason—to extend their youth by decades.

And so it has been for centuries. Some people have a capacity for ordeals and a need to understand their own bodies through trauma; often, they are misunderstood and overestimated; then millions who ail from normalcy attempt to ape them and suffer without deriving any pleasure from it.

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Published: 01 Oct 2023, 08:02 PM IST
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