Culture

Explain Your Letter: That Time We Claimed That Gandhi Drank His Own Pee

Gandhi
Gandhi did not drink his own urine, despite an article published in Newsweek in 1995 claiming as much. Jason Katzenstein for Newsweek

Welcome to "Explain Your Letter," a feature wherein we choose an interesting letter published in Newsweek decades ago and track down its writer to ask for an explanation of what he or she wrote. This installment stars Arun Gandhi, a self-described "peace farmer" and direct descendant of Mohandas Gandhi.

In the summer of 1995, Newsweek published a short and sweet (err, salty) trend piece about a new fad: drinking urine.

Gandhi An article published in the August 21, 1995, issue of Newsweek. Underlining ours. Newsweek archives

Only one problem: Gandhi most likely didn't drink urine. There's scant evidence to suggest that the Indian leader actually took part in the urophagia practice, despite the urban legend that persists. Thankfully, Arun Gandhi, a self-described "peace farmer" and the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, wrote in to correct the record:

I was surprised to read in the Aug. 21 issue of NEWSWEEK that my grandfather, Mohandas Gandhi, drank his own urine. It was not a therapy he believed in or advocated. The person you have in mind is the late Morarji Desai, a follower of Gandhi's and a onetime prime minister of India.

Arun Gandhi
Founder and Director, M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
Memphis, Tenn.

That letter was published in the September 18, 1995, issue of Newsweek. Twenty years later, we contacted the younger Gandhi to talk about the time he was published in our magazine informing the country that his grandfather didn't drink pee.

Do you remember sending us this letter?
Not really. I can put it in context. I don't know what article appeared in Newsweek. It probably was, I think, something to do with my grandfather drinking urine, which was not right. He never did that. It was Morarji Desai who did.

Were you angered by that assertion?
Not angered. Amused. Many people have attributed all kinds of things to my grandfather. Sometimes they're right, and sometimes they're absurd. This was one of the absurd situations.

Where did that rumor start?
It's possibly because Morarji Desai, who was the prime minister for a while in India, was also a follower of Gandhi. A lot of people in the West associated the two. Maybe a person came to a conclusion that he might have learned it from my grandfather. He [Desai] used to drink his urine every day. And he attributed his long life to drinking urine. But my grandfather never did.

What are the most upsetting falsehoods that people have attributed to your grandfather?
Well, in more recent times, people have said that he was a racist. There have been books written about him, taking quotations out of context. Quotations from his writings. They're just trying to paint him into something that he really wasn't. If we look at his writings, judge his writings about 100 years ago by today's yardsticks, then we can say that he was racist. But those were acceptable during that time. In South Africa, for instance, the black people were regarded by everybody as cattle, just as 60 or 70 years ago African-Americans were known by the word. He was a young lawyer, and he just came into South Africa. The first people that he met in prison, when he launched his campaign, were these African convicts. His remarks about them and his prejudice against them were in that context. But when you take it out of that context and say that he was a racist today, it is wrong.

He called his life story The Story of My Experiments With Truth. That was the title of his autobiography. And he continued to experiment with truth. When he realized that this was wrong and that this was derogatory, he changed his attitude. He befriended the African leaders and worked for the emancipation of the African people too. When historians distort history, it is a little bit annoying.

You do public speaking about your grandfather. How would you describe your mission?
I was fortunate among all the grandchildren to have had two years with him between the ages 12 and 14. The last two years of his life, I lived with him. During that time, he taught me some very valuable lessons. Because I grew up in South Africa and suffered a lot of prejudice, I was really angry and wanted eye-for-an-eye justice. Because I was oppressed and even beaten up by African people, as well as whites, I was angry towards both sides. That's when he taught me that anger must be used intelligently and constructively and not abused. He taught me how to channel that energy of anger and devote ourselves towards eradicating these kinds of prejudices instead of fighting violently against them.

I felt that I needed to share it with others and hopefully make them understand what his philosophy of nonviolence is. One of the things that I found lately was that most people think that his philosophy of nonviolence is just a weapon of convenience that we can use in certain circumstances and not others. It was not a weapon of convenience. It was a mode of personal transformation. What he said was that if we understand nonviolence and believe in it and incorporate that in our life, only then can we practice it effectively. We can't selectively practice it when we want to and discard it when we don't want to. All of these things, we need to understand and know.

Like yesterday, somebody was interviewing me, and he asked me, "Is nonviolence relevant today?" I told him that nonviolence is based in love, respect, understanding, compassion, all of these positive attributes. If we can say, "All of these positives attributes are not relevant today," then God help us! Then we are not progressing towards civilization. We are regressing and going towards savagery. 

Do you remember having this letter appear in our magazine?
I've written several letters over the years to several magazines. I can't say that I remembered it. It just came into my mind when I saw your message. 

How old are you?
Eighty-two.

Do you plan to continue speaking about your grandfather's work and carrying on his legacy?
Yes. As long as I can do it, I will do it. When it becomes impossible, then we'll see what the situation is. Right now, I'm blessed with very good health. I have the energy and desire to go. That's why I call myself a peace farmer. I go and plant seeds of peace and understanding and harmony all over and hope that some of those seeds will germinate and we'll have more peace-makers than war-makers.