Veganism – A Philosophy and Lifestyle – A Brief History

Note from Editor!

While Jainism places great importance on non-violence, the fundamental idea of Veganism is essential to think about in the present day. Jain Avenue Magazine is a magazine publishing important ideas for practitioners of Jainism—this month, a veganism expert. Ms. Ruchika Chitrabhanu has prepared an issue on veganism as guest editor, which is holistic and very useful for practitioners—looking forward to hearing your views on the new Jain Avenue experiment. We are very grateful to Ms. Ruchika Chitrabhanu and all the authors of this issue who have covered these three dimensions of Tattva, History, and Practice, giving a sense of completeness.

Dr. Sejal Shah (Ph.D.)

In India, veganism is a debated subject. Both vegetarianism and veganism take their roots in the moral belief that humans have no right to exploit or harm animals. Then why should a vegetarian  now adopt a vegan lifestyle? Like any other social justice movement, vegetarianism paved the way for veganism. Ahimsa is dynamic in action, making veganism relevant in our lives today.  I hope you read this edit with an open mind and reflect on it. I hope you find it convincing that veganism is not a “cult” a “fad” or a “conspiracy” but an extract from the ancient principle of Ahimsa.

Veganism is seen as a recent and Western phenomenon. Little do we know that it has evolved over centuries in various names and forms. Non-violence and animal rights are beliefs and movements that have evolved, under the guidance of philosophies like Jainism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, or philosophers like Pythagoras in the West, with the common belief that no living being should be harmed. Vegetarianism was born from vegetarians, the movement of vegetarianism grew across continents from time to time. As the practices followed to derive animal foods became evident, independent thinkers raised their voices and opposed its consumption. Like in 1806, Dr William Lambe and Percy Bysshe Shelley, both vegetarians, were among the first Europeans to publicly oppose eggs and dairy products on ethical grounds. According to Dr Lambe, a plant-based diet could cure “everything from tuberculosis to acne.” In India, eggs were anyway not part of the vegetarian diet. Fast forward to the 20th century when the word vegan came into existence. The term “vegan,” a derivative of the word “vegetarian,” was proposed in 1944 by British animal rights activist Donald Watson, yes, a Westerner, who was inspired to become a vegetarian at the age of fourteen after witnessing the slaughter of a pig on his uncle’s farm. Eighteen years later, understanding that dairy production was unethical, he stopped consuming them. He co-founded the Vegan Society in the United Kingdom with like-minded people.

But before this term was coined, our very own father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was aspiring to lead a vegan life. But Gandhi consumed goat’s milk, so how was he vegan? Well, here’s a brief history:

Gandhi’s lifelong passion was Nutrition and a dive into his book “Moral Basis of Vegetarianism” shows how the man was ahead of his time.

According to Nico State, author of the book Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet, healthy eating was always a part of his life. Gandhi was highly influenced by Henry Salt and his book, A Plea for Vegetarianism (1885), in which Salt wrote that even dairy products were completely unnecessary. Despite being born into an ascetic vegetarian family, Gandhi admitted that it was this book that made him an ethical vegetarian. In 1912, Gandhi came across an article that showed “Phooka” as a normal practice in dairy farms. Phooka (cow blowing, doom dev) was a procedure used in many countries in which air was forcefully blown into the vagina (or sometimes anus) of a cow to make it produce more milk. For Gandhi, what he ate was important and on the Tolstoy farm in South Africa, he and his friend, Herman Callenbach, made a commitment to abstain from milk. Both men believed that milk was not necessary for the human body and often had harmful health effects. Soon, he mastered the production of homemade almond milk.

After six years, a near-fatal illness, and a lack of medical research, Gandhi was told to take goat’s milk. “Really speaking, for one who has given up milk, even though at the time of taking the vow only the cow and the buffalo were in mind, milk should be taboo. All animal milk has practically the same composition, though the component proportions vary in each case. So, it may be said to have kept merely the letter, not the spirit, of the vow.” Gandhi felt guilty for life because of hair-splitting reasoning.

He was convinced that:

“ In the limitless vegetable kingdom,

there is an effective substitute for milk,

which every medical man admits  has its drawbacks and which is designed by nature not for man but for babies and young ones of lower animals.”

Young India 22-8-1929

Gandhi constantly worked with scientists to find an equivalent to dairy and its products from a plant origin. In February 1929, African American scientist, and friend George Washington Carver outlined a special diet including whole wheat flour, corn, fruit, and milk made from either soybeans or peanuts. With this plant-based diet, Gandhi hoped to bring greater health, strength, and economic independence to India. Gandhi strongly felt that peanut and soy milk would be more economically sustainable in an agricultural land like India, apart from being healthier options. He certainly did not want India to consume dairy, which was harmful to health and inflicted violence. He inquired about the potential for plant-based milks and soy proteins, but these were not widely developed in India then. Along with other unexpected events unfolding, his dream could not be fulfilled.

At the same time, Donald Watson was shaken by the events of World War II and saw the vegan movement as the “salvation of mankind.” The vegan pioneers saw a connection between humans’ tyranny toward each other and towards animals. “Perhaps it seemed to us a fitting antidote to the sickening experience of war and a reminder that we should be doing more about the other holocaust that goes on all the time.” By that, he means the holocaust perpetrated by humans against animals. In 1951, the term “Vegan” included diet and lifestyle, defining it in its manifesto as  “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.” Sounds similar to Ahimsa?

“Factory farming” had started extensively in the West and did not escape the eye of various conscious people, including Peter Singer, who then wrote a book on “Animal Liberation.” As people in the west protested for animal rights, factory farming was initiated in India with The White Revolution, where the output of the dairy would be multiplied by optimizing the use of the cows. With time, the cows started becoming redundant for the industry within a few years, and this naturally paved the way for the beef and leather industries. With globalization, consumption of animal products like dairy, honey, leather, and more has increased exponentially in the last couple of decades.

Unfortunately, the holocaust for the animals continues today, disguised in the life of a vegetarian and openly in the life of a meat eater.

Over the decades, doctors like Neal Barnard, Dean Ornish, John McDougall, Michael Greger, and T. Colin Campbell argued that a diet based on animal fat and animal protein was the major cause of diseases. Research by scientists supports the fact that meat and dairy production are among the worst culprits when it comes to the production of greenhouse gases and the loss of biodiversity. Simultaneously, various animal organizations in India and the West exposed the cruelty in procuring animal products.

For a Jain, this is not new. Mahavir said that in addition to meat, butter, honey, and alcohol, dairy products such as milk, curd, and ghee are passion-promoting.

Thankfully, the term “vegan” has been instrumental in raising awareness about animal cruelty throughout the world. More and more people are standing up for the voiceless, either for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. It looks like the message of Ahimsa preached by Mahavir is spreading across the globe.

About Author

Ruchika Chitrabhanu

Ruchika Chitrabhanu is a proud Jain and passionate vegan.

Spreading veganism through The Earthen One, Ahimsafest,  The Jain Vegan Initiative, World Vegan Vision is her goal.