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A Band of Vegetarian Missionaries – Mahatma Gandhi

Prof. Dr. Yogendra Yadav

Senior Gandhian Scholar, Professor, Editor and Linguist

Gandhi International Study and Research Institute, Jalgaon, Maharashtra, India

Contact No. – 09404955338, 09415777229


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A Band of Vegetarian Missionaries – Mahatma Gandhi


It was in England that I read in Mrs. Anna Kingsford's Perfect Way in Diet that there was a colony of Trappist in South Africa who was vegetarians. Ever since that I had wished to see these vegetarians. The wish has at last been realized. At the outset, I may remark that South Africa, and particularly Natal, is especially adapted for vegetarians. The Indians have made Natal the Garden Colony of South Africa. One can grow almost anything on the South African soil, and that in abundance. The supply of bananas, pineapples and oranges is almost inexhaustible, and far greater than the demand. There is no wonder that the vegetarians can thrive very well in Natal. The only wonder is that in spite of such facilities and the warm climate, there should be so few vegetarians. The result is that large tracts of land still remain neglected and uncultivated. The staple articles of food are imported when it is perfectly possible to grow all of them in South Africa; and in a vast territory like Natal, there is much distress among a small population of 40,000 whites all this, because they will not take to agricultural pursuits.

Another curious but painful result of the unnatural mode of living is that there is a very strong prejudice against the Indian population who also number 40,000. The Indians, being vegetarians, take to agriculture without any difficulty whatsoever. Naturally, therefore, all over the Colony, the small farms are owned by Indians, whose keen competition gives offence to the white population. They are following a dog-in-the-manager and suicidal policy in so behaving. They would rather leave the vast agricultural resources in the country undeveloped, than have the Indians to develop them. Owing to such stolidity and shortsightedness, a Colony that can easily support double, or even treble, the number of European and Indian inhabitants, with difficulty supports 80,000 Europeans and Indians. The Transvaal Government has gone so far in their prejudice, that the whole of the Republic, although the soil is very fruitful, remains a desert of dust. And if the gold mines could not be worked from any cause, thousands of men would be thrown out of employment and literally starved to death. Is there not here a great lesson to be learnt? The flesh eating habits have really tended to retard the progress of the community, and, indirectly, to create division among the two great communities which ought to be united and work hand in hand. There is also this striking fact to be noticed that the Indians enjoy as good a health as the Europeans in the Colony, and I know that many doctors would be simply starving if there were no Europeans, or their fleshpots, and that by their thrifty and temperate habits, both attributable to vegetarianism, Indians can successfully compete with Europeans. Of course, it should be understood that the Indians in the Colony are not pure vegetarians.

They are practically so. We shall see presently how the Trappist of MaryAnn Hill, near Pinetown, is a standing testimony to the truth of the above remarks. Pinetown is a little village, situated at a distance of 16 miles by rail from Durban. It is about 1,100 feet above the sea leave, and enjoys a beautiful climate. The Trappist monastery is about three miles distant from Pinetown. My companion and I walked to Marian Hill, as the hill; or rather the cluster of hills, on which the Abbey is situated, is called. It is a very pleasant walk through the little hills all covered with green grass. On our reaching the settlement, we saw a gentleman with a pipe in his mouth, and we at once knew that he was not one of the brotherhood. He, however, took us to the visitors' room, where a visitors' book was kept. It appeared from the book that it commenced from 1894, and there were hardly twenty pages filled up. Indeed, the mission is not at all known as it ought to be. One of the brotherhoods came up and bowed very low. We were offered tamarind water and pineapples. After having refreshed ourselves, we accompanied the guide to the various places he took us to. The various buildings one saw were all substantial red-brick buildings. All was quiet; the silence was broken only by the noise of the instruments in the workshops or the native children. The settlement is a quiet little model village, owned on the truest republican principles. The principle of liberty, equality and fraternity is carried out in its entirety. Every man is a brother, every woman a sister. The monks number about 120 on the settlement, and the nuns, or the sisters as they are called, number about 60. The sisters' cloister is about half a mile from the brothers'. Both the brothers and the sisters observe a strict vow of silence and of chastity.

No brother or sister may speak except those who are allowed to by the Abbot, who is the head of the Trappist in Natal. And those are only allowed to speak who have to go to town to make purchases or to look after visitors. The brothers are dressed in long robes with a black piece of cloth in front and on the back. The sisters wear red clothing of the simplest style. None seemed to wear socks. A candidate for the brotherhood has to make a vow for two years and, till then, is called a novice. After two years, he may either leave the cloister or make a vow for life. A model Trappist gets up at 2 a.m. and devotes four hours to prayer and contemplation. At six, he has his breakfast, which consists of bread and coffee, or some such simple foods. He dines at twelve, and makes a meal of bread and soup, and fruits. He sups at six in the evening and goes to bed at 7 or 8 p.m. The brothers eat no fish, flesh or fowl. They discard even eggs. They take milk, but in Natal we were told they could not get it cheap. The sisters are allowed meat four days in the week. Asked why they put up with such an anomaly, the obliging guide said: “Because the sisters are more delicate than the brothers.” Neither my companion, who is not almost a vegetarian, nor I could see the force or logic of the reasoning. Certainly, both of us were very much grieved to hear the news which was a surprise to us, for we expected both the brothers and the sister to be vegetarians. They take no intoxicating liquors except under medical advice. None may keep money for private use. All are equally rich or poor. We saw no wardrobes, chests of drawers, or portmanteaus, although we were allowed to see every inch of the place. They may not leave the limits of the settlement, except those who are permitted to do so on business. They may not read newspapers and books that are not religious. They may not read any religious books but only those that are allowed. It is this hard austere life that caused our friend with the pipe in his mouth, whom we first met, to remark in reply to a question whether he was a Trappist ”No fear, I am anything but a Trappist.” And yet the good brothers and sisters did not seem to consider their lives to have fallen on hard places.

A Protestant clergyman said to his audience that the Roman Catholics are weakly, sickly and sad. Well, if the Trappist is any criterion of what a Catholic is, they are, on the contrary, healthy and cheerful. Wherever we went, a beaming smile and a lowly bow greeted us, whether we saw a brother or a sister. Even while the guide was descanting on the system he prized so much, he did not at all seem to consider the self-chosen discipline a hard yoke to bear. A better instance of undying faith and perfect, implicit obedience could not well be found anywhere else. If their repast is the simplest possible, their dining tables and bedrooms are no less so. The former are made on the settlement, of wood, without any varnish. They use no tablecloths. The knives and spoons are the cheapest to be had in Durban. Instead of glass-ware they use enameled things. For bedrooms they have a large hall (but none too large for the inmates) which contains about 80 beds. Every available space is utilized for the beds. In the Native quarters they seem to have overdone it in point of beds. As soon as we entered the sleeping hall for Natives, we noticed the closeness and the stuffy air. The beds are all joined together, separated by only single boards. There was hardly space enough to walk. They believe in no colour distinctions.

The Natives are accorded the same treatment as the whites. They are mostly children. They get the same food as the brothers, and are dressed as well as they themselves are. While it is generally said, not without some truth, that the Christian Kaffir is a failure, everyone, even the wildest sceptic, admit that the mission of the Trappist has proved the most successful in point of turning out really good, Christian Natives. While the mission schools of other denominations very often enable the Natives to contract all the terrible vices of the Western civilization, and very rarely produce any moral effect on them, the Natives of the Trappist mission are patterns of simplicity, virtue and gentleness. It was a treat to see those saluting passers-by in a humble yet dignified manner. There are about 1,200 Natives on the mission, including children and adults. They have all exchanged a life of sloth, indolence and superstition, for one of industry, usefulness and devotion to one Supreme God. On the settlement there are various workshops blacksmiths’, tinsmiths’, carpenters’, shoemakers’, tanners’, etc., where the Natives are taught all these useful industries, in addition to the English and the Zulu languages.

Here it may be remarked that it speaks volumes for the high mindedness of the noble settlers that, although almost all of them are Germans, they never attempt to teach the Natives German; all these Natives work side by side with the whites. At the sisters’ cloisters, they have the ironing, sewing, straw hat manufacturing and knitting departments, where one can see the Native girls, dressed in clean costumes, working assiduously. About two miles from the Abbey is situated the printing department, and the flour mill worked by a waterfall. It is a huge pile of building. There is also an oil machine, which is worked for pressing the oil from monkey nuts. It is needless to mention that the above mentioned workshops supply the settlers with most of their requirements. They grow many kinds of tropical fruits on the farm and the settlement is almost self-supporting. They love and respect, and are in turn loved and respected by, the Natives living in their neighborhood who, as a rule, supply them with the converts. The most prominent feature of the settlement is that you see religion everywhere.

Every room has a Cross and, on the entrance, a small receptacle for holy water which every inmate reverently applies to his eyelids, the forehead and the chest. Even the quick walk to the flour mill is not without some reminder of the Cross. It is a lovely footpath. On one side, you have a magnificent valley through which runs a small rivulet which murmurs the sweetest music, and on the other, little rocks whereon are carved the various inscriptions reminding you of the scenes of the Calvary. The valley is wholly covered with a green carpet of vegetation, studded with beautiful trees here and there. A lovelier walk, or lovelier scenery, could not be well imagined. The inscriptions carved in such a place cannot fail to produce a grand effect upon the mind. They are carved at such regular intervals that no sooner has one completed one’s thoughts on one inscription than another meets one’s gaze.

The walk thus forms a continuous exercise for calm contemplation, unmarred by any other thoughts, or outside noise and bustle. Some of the inscriptions are: “Jesus falls a first time”; “Jesus falls a second time”; “Simon carries the Cross”; “Jesus is nailed to the Cross”; “Jesus is laid in his mother’s lap”, etc., etc.. Of course, the Natives, too, are chiefly vegetarians. Although they are not prohibited from taking flesh or meat, they are not supplied with any on the settlement. There are about twelve such settlements in South Africa, most of which are in Natal. There are in all about 300 monks and about 120 nuns. Such are our vegetarians in Natal. Though they do not make of vegetarianism a creed, though they base it simply on the ground that a vegetarian diet helps them to crucify the flesh better, and though, perhaps, they are not even aware of the existence of the vegetarian societies, and would not even care to read any vegetarian literature, where is the vegetarian who would not be proud of this noble band, even a casual intercourse with whom fills one with a spirit of love, charity and self-sacrifice, and who are a living testimony to the triumph of vegetarianism from a spiritual point of view? I know from personal experience that a visit to the farm is worth a voyage from London to Natal. It cannot but produce a lasting holy impression on the mind. No matter whether one is a Protestant, a Christian or a Buddhist or what not, one cannot help exclaiming, after a visit to the farm: “If this is Roman Catholicism, everything said against it is a lie.” It proves conclusively, to my mind, that a religion appears divine or devilish, according as its professors choose to make it appear. 



The Vegetarian, 18-5-1895 

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