"A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, or the by-products of slaughter"
Vegetarian Society

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Vegetarian History in a Nutshell

Mention vegetarian cuisine and some people picture a group of aging hippies kneeling cross-legged around a communal dining table, helping themselves to carrot sticks dipped in yogurt or a chickpea salad. While it's true that vegetarianism became trendy in the 1960s, its origins date back much farther.

Famous Vegetarians in History

The Greek mathematician Pythagoras was a vegetarian - vegetarians were called Pythagoreans up until the 1800's. So was the poet Percy Shelley. However, the vegetarian movement didn’t really begin gaining momentum in the western world until the mid-nineteenth century. Leading figures of the American group included feminist Susan B. Anthony and Bronson Alcott, father of writer Louisa May Alcott.

Across the Atlantic, Sylvester Graham, best known for creating the graham cracker, was one of the leading figures in Britain's vegetarian movement. George Bernard Shaw, never one to shy from the spotlight, was a vocal proponent of a meat-free diet:

"It is nearly fifty years since I was assured by a conclave of doctors that if I did not eat meat I should die of starvation." (Vegetariana: A Rich Harvest of Wit, Lore, and Recipes, by Nava Atlas)

The late 1800's saw the attempt to bring these societies together in the formation of the Vegetarian Federal Union. Its successor, the International Vegetarian Union, was formed in 1908, and remains active today.

In Asia, the tradition of not eating meat extends back much farther - its origins can be traced to eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Buddhism and Vegetarianism

There is a common belief that all Buddhists are vegetarians. In fact, this is not true. The argument for Buddhists following a vegetarian diet stems from two basic principles. The first is a belief in reincarnation. Buddhists believe that after death, the soul of a human may inhabit an animal; therefore, it naturally follows that they would abstain from killing animals for food. However, the prohibition is really more against killing animals than eating meat per se, so it would still be permissible to eat an animal that died accidentally.

The second argument for vegetarianism comes from the prohibition against harming any living thing which is at the core of the Buddhist philosophy. This principle is expressed by Buddha in the Udana:

"My thought has wandered in all directions throughout the world. I have never yet met with anything that was dearer to anyone than his own self. Since to others, to each one for himself, the self is dear, therefore let him who desires his own advantage not harm another." (Cited in Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, by Edward Conze)

Since killing an animal obviously causes it harm, it would seem only natural that practicing Buddhists would adhere to a vegetarian diet.  However, there are two problems with applying this principle in the everyday world. First, it is impossible for humans to go through their daily routines without causing some damage to the world around us. Conze notes that every time we wash our hands "we kill as many living creatures as there are in the whole of Spain." I once saw a fascinating film illustrating the amount of death and destruction that is brought about by the simple act of turning on a water sprinkler. Furthermore, at least one branch of Buddhism requires monks to beg for food, and to eat everything they are given. This includes meat (with a few restrictions).

Today in China, monks generally avoid eating meat except when compelled to do so, and many lay Buddhists follow a vegetarian diet as well. However, some Buddhists do eat meat. In any event, it's interesting to note that there is evidence the Chinese were following a non-meat diet even before northern Indian monks brought the Mahayan branch of Buddhism to China between 25 - 60 A.D. In A Vegetarian Sourcebook: The Nutrition, Ecology, and Ethics of a Vegetarian Diet, Keith Akers notes that abstinence from meat was an ancient Chinese tradition; as with modern day vegans, the Chinese often avoided wearing clothing made from animal products.

  • A Vegetarian Sourcebook: The Nutrition, Ecology, and Ethics of a Vegetarian Diet, by Keith Akers, 1983.
  • Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, by Edward Conze, Harper & Row, 1975.
  • Vegetariana: A Rich Harvest of Wit, Lore, and Recipes, by Nava Atlas, Little, Brown and Company, 1984, 1993.

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