A Guide to Health/Part 1/Chapter 3

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A Guide to Health  (1921) 
Mohandas K. Gandhi, translated by A. Rama Iyer
S. Ganesan pages 14-25

Chapter III


Of the three things that are indispensable for the subsistence of man,—namely, air, water and food—the first is the most important. Hence it is that God has created it in such large quantities as to make it available to all of us for nothing. Modern civilization, however, has rendered even fresh air somewhat costly, for, in order to breath fresh air, we have to go out of towns, and this means expense. The residents of Bombay, for instance, distinctly improve in health in the air of Matheran or, still better, of the Malabar Hills; but they cannot go to these places without money. Hence, in these days, it would be hardly true to say that we get fresh air gratis, as we used to in the old days.

But, whether fresh air is available gratis or not, it is undeniable that we cannot get on without it. We have already seen that the blood circulates over the body, returns to the lungs, and after being purified, starts on its round again. We breathe out the impure air, and take in oxygen from the outside, which purifies the blood. This process of inspiration and expiration goes on for ever, and on it depends man's life. When drowned in water we die, because, then we are unable to let out the impure air in the body and take in pure air from outside. The divers go down into the water in what is known as a diving bell, and they take in fresh air through a tube which leads to the top. Hence it is that they are able to remain under water for a long time.

It has been ascertained by experiments that no man can live without air for as long as five minutes. We often hear of the death of little children, when they are held so close to the bosom by ignorant mothers as to make it impossible for them to breathe.

We should all be as much against the breathing of impure air as we are against the drinking of dirty water and the eating of dirty food; but the air we breathe is, as a rule, far more impure than the water we drink or the food we eat. We are all worshippers of concrete objects; those things that can be seen and felt are regarded by us as of far greater importance than those which are invisible and intangible. Since air belongs to this latter class of objects, we fail to realise the evil wrought by the impure air that we breathe. We would think twice before eating the leavings of another man's food, or drinking out of a cup polluted by another man's lips. Even those who have not the least sense of shame or repugnance would never eat another man's vomit, or drink the water which has been spat out by him; even those who are dying of hunger and thirst would refuse to do it. But, alas, how few of us realise that the air we inhale is so often the impure and poisonous air which has been exhaled by others, and which is surely no less objectionable than a man's vomit! How strange that men should sit and sleep together for hours in closed rooms, and go on inhaling the deadly air exhaled by themselves and their companions! How fortunate for man that air should be so light and diffusive, and capable of penetrating the smallest holes! Even when the doors and windows are closed, there is generally some little space between the walls and the roof, through which some air from outside manages to get in, so that the inmates of the room have not to breathe exclusively poisoned air. The air that we exhale mixes with the air outside, and is rendered pure again by an automatic process that is always going on in Nature.

Now we are able to understand why so many men and women should be weak and diseased. There can be absolutely no doubt that impure air is the root-cause of disease in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred. It follows that the best way of avoiding disease is to live and work in the open air. No doctor can compete with fresh air in this matter. Consumption is caused by the decay of the lungs, due to the inhaling of impure air, just as a steam engine which is filled with bad coal gets out of order. Hence doctors say that the easiest and the most effective treatment for a consumptive patient is to keep him in fresh air for all the 24 hours of the day.

It is, of course, essential to know how we can keep the air pure. In fact, every child should be taught the value of fresh air, as soon as it is able to understand anything. If my readers would take the trouble to learn the simple facts about the air and would put their knowledge into practice, while teaching their children also to do the same. I shall feel immensely gratified.

Our latrines are perhaps most responsible for rendering the air impure. Very few people realise the serious harm done by dirty latrines. Even dogs and cats make with their claws something like a pit wherein to deposit their fæces, and then cover it up with some earth. Where there are no lavatories of the modern approved types, we should also do likewise. There should be kept ashes or dry earth in a tin can or an earthen vessel inside the latrine, and whoever goes into the latrine should, on coming out, cover the fæces well with the ash or the earth, as the case many be. If this is done there would be no bad smell, and the flies too will not settle on it and transmit the filth. Anybody whose sense of smell has not been wholly blunted, or who has not grown thoroughly accustomed to foul smells will know how noxious is the smell that emanates from all filthy matter which is allowed to lie open to the weather. Our gorge rises at the very thought of fæces being mixed with our food, but we go on inhaling the air which has been polluted by such foul smell, forgetting the fact that the one is just as bad as the other, except that, while the former is visible, the latter is not. We should see that our latrines are kept thoroughly neat and clean. We abhor the idea of our cleaning the latrines ourselves, but what we should really abhor is the idea of making use of dirty latrines. What is the harm in ourselves removing the filth which has been expelled from inside our own body, and which we are not ashamed to have removed by others? There is absolutely no reason why we should not ourselves learn the work of scavenging and teach it to our children as well. The filthy matter should be removed, and thrown into a pit two feet deep, and then covered up with a thick layer of earth. If we go to some open place, we should dig a small pit with our hands or feet, and then cover it up, after the bowels have been evacuated.

We also make the air impure by making water at all places indiscriminately. This dirty habit should be given up altogether. If there is no place specially set apart for the purpose, we should go to some dry ground away from the house, and should also cover up the urine with earth.

The filth should not be cast into very deep pits, for, in that case, it would be beyond the reach of sun's heat, and would also pollute the water flowing underneath the earth.

The habit of spitting indiscriminately on the verandahs, court yards, and such like places is also very bad. The spittle, especially of consumptives, is very dangerous. The poisonous germs in it rise into the air, and, being inhaled by others, lead to a spread of the disease. We should keep a spittoon inside the house, and if we have to spit when out on the road we should spit where there is dry dust, so that the spittle may be absorbed into the dust and cause no harm. Doctors hold that the consumptive should spit into a spittoon with some disinfectant in it: for, even if he spits on dry ground, the germs in his spittle manage to rise and spread into the air along with the dust. But, in any case, there can be no doubt that the habit of spitting wherever we please is dirty as well as dangerous.

Some people throw where they like cooked food and other articles, which decay and render the air impure. If all such rubbish be put underground, the air would not be made impure, and good manure, too could be obtained. In fact, no kind of decaying matter should be allowed to lie exposed to the air. It is so easy for us to take this necessary precaution, if only we are earnest about it.

Now we have seen how our own bad habits render the air impure, and what we can do to keep it pure. Next we shall consider how to inhale the air.

As already mentioned in the last chapter, the air is to be inhaled through the nose, and not through the mouth. There are, however, very few persons who know how to breathe correctly. Many people are in the pernicious habit of inhaling through the mouth. If very cold air is inhaled through the mouth, we catch cold and sore throat. Further, if we inhale through the mouth, the particles of dust in the air go into the lungs and cause great mischief. In London, for instance, in November, the smoke which issues from the chimnies of great factories mixes with the dense fog, producing a kind of yellew mixture. This contains tiny particles of soot, which can be detected in the spittle of a man who inhales through the mouth. To escape this, many women (who have not learnt to breathe through the nose alone) put on a special kind of veil over their faces, which act as sieves. If these veils are closely examined, particles of dust can be detected in them. But God has given to all of us a sieve of this kind inside the nose. The air which is inhaled through the nostrils is sifted before it reaches the lungs, and is also warmed in the process. So all men should learn to breathe through the nose alone. And this is not at all difficult, if we remember to keep our mouth firmly shut at all times, except when we are talking. Those who have got into the habit of keeping their mouth open should sleep with a bandage round the mouth, which would force them to breathe through the nose. They should also take some twenty long respirations in the open air, both in the morning and in the evening. In fact, all men can practise this simple exercise and see for themselves how rapidly their chest deepens. If the chest be measured at the beginning of the practice, and again after an interval of two months, it will be seen how much it has expanded in this short period.

After learning how to inhale the air, we should cultivate the habit of breathing fresh air, day in and day out. We are generally in the most pernicious habit of keeping confined to the house or the office throughout the day, and sleeping in narrow rooms at night, with all doors and windows shut. As far as possible, we should remain in the open air at all times. We should at least sleep on the verandah or in the open air. Those who cannot do this should at least keep the doors and windows of the room fully open at all times. The air is our food for all the twenty-four hours of the day. Why, then, should we be afraid of it? It is a most foolish idea that we catch cold by inhaling the cool breeze of the morning. Of course, those people who have spoiled their lungs by the evil habit of sleeping within closed doors are likely to catch cold, if they change their habit all on a sudden. But even they should not be afraid of cold, for this cold can be speedily got rid of. Now-a-days, in Europe, the houses for consumptives are being built in such a way that they may get fresh air at all times. We know what terrible havoc is wrought in India by epidemics. We should remember that these epidemics are due to our habit of defiling the air, and of inhaling this poisonous air. We should understand that even the most delicate people will be benefitted by systematically inhaling fresh air. If we cultivate the habit of keeping the air pure and of breathing only fresh air, we can save ourselves from many a terrible disease.

Sleeping with the face uncovered is as essential as sleeping in fresh air. Many of our people are in the habit of sleeping with the face covered, which means that they have to inhale the poisonous air which has been exhaled by themselves. Fortunately however, some of the air from outside does find its way through the interstices of the cloth, else they should die of suffocation. But the small quantity of air that gains entrance in this way is altogether inadequate. If we are suffering from cold, we may cover the head with a piece of cloth, or put on a night-cap, but the nose should be kept exposed under all circumstances.

Air and light are so intimately connected with each other that it is as well to speak a few words here on the value of light. Light is as indispensable to life as air itself. Hence it is that Hell is represented as completely dark. Where light cannot penetrate, the air can never be pure. If we enter a dark cellar, we can distinctly perceive the smell of the foul air. The fact that we cannot see in the dark shows that God has intended us to live and move in the light. And Nature has given us just as much darkness as we require in the night. Yet, many people are in the habit of sitting or sleeping in underground cellars, devoid of air and light, even in the hottest summer! Those who thus deprive themselves of air and light are always weak and haggard.

Now-a-days, there are many doctors in Europe who cure their patients by means of air-bath and sun-bath alone. Thousands of diseased persons have been cured by mere exposure to the air and to the sun-light. We should keep all doors and windows in our houses always open, in order to allow the free entrance of air and light.

Some readers may ask why, if air and light are so indispensable, those who live and work in cellars are not visibly affected. Those who have thought well over the matter would never put this question. Our aim should be to attain the maximum of health by all legitimate means; we should not be content merely to live anyhow. It has been indubitably established that insufficient air and light give rise to disease. Dwellers in towns are, as a rule, more delicate than those in the country, for they get less air and light than the latter. Air and light, then, are absolutely indispensable to health, and every one should remember all that we have said on the matter, and act up to it to the best of his ability.