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Ancient and Modern Vegetarian Movements

Updated on March 24, 2015
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Prejudice against vegetarians

I have been a vegetarian since the age of 13. In 2014, I started changing my vegetarian to a vegan diet. As most vegetarians and vegans, I always try to make moral nutrition decisions and I constantly think about whether it is okay or not to eat any animal products at all. For many years, I supported the point of view that being a vegan and saying no to all animal-derived products cannot be healthy. This is also the thought that the society we live in imposes on us. The most common belief is that you need milk to have healthy bones, animal proteins to get Vitamin B12 and meat to be strong. However, after doing a lot of research and studying of publications by prominent scientists on veganism and vegetarianism, I started to be convinced that the abstention from any kind of animal products is actually health-promoting.

In the society we have created and live in, it is hard to go against the mainstream when it comes to nutrition. We are influenced by the media, by our upbringing and education and of course by the general public opinion. Depending on the country you are from, meat is an essential part of everyday nutrition. If you decide to become a vegetarian or a vegan, of which the latter is an even more difficult path to take, you decide to isolate yourself in a way from community. Only 1% of the world population follows a vegetarian diet, which excludes India where most people are vegetarians, and just about 0.1% are vegans. This means if you decide to become a vegetarian you are always going to be the special one, the one who only eats salad and the one who is said to suffer from nutritional deficiencies when in reality, your blood values are perfectly fine. At least this is what most meat eaters believe.

I have become used to being the special one. Being special in an odd way doesn’t have to be negative. Only because you are not doing what all the others are doing doesn’t mean what you are doing is wrong.

Vegetarianism is actually not a modern phenomenon. Vegetarians have always existed although they did always represent a minority group. There were always secluded people and groups who promoted vegetarianism as a healthy lifestyle and believed that animals should not be slaughtered for their meat.

The history of vegetarianism

Our ancestors who were hunters and gatherers only ate meat as a supplementation to their diet which mainly consisted of plants such as nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.

The first known societies to consciously decide to abstain from meat consumption were the ancient Greeks. Pythagoras is one of the best-known vegetarians from those times. He believed that animals have souls just like human beings and that an animal can be reincarnated as a human and the other way around after death. Pythagoreans, however, lived in a society in which the slaughtering of wild animals by gladiators was celebrated and animals were used for entertainment and nutritional purposes. People consuming a meatless diet had to hide their nutritional preferences for fear of persecution. Plato stated that vegetarian diets are healthier and require less land to produce in comparison to livestock breeding. During the Roman Empire, vegetarianism survived and the poet Ovid and the philosopher Seneca were vegetarians. When Rome collapsed and Christianity spread across Europe, ideas of vegetarianism were replaced by the thought that animals do not possess a soul which in the general Christian belief justifies the consumption and exploitation of animals and the use of products made from what they produce. Christians believed that animals were placed on earth to create a convenient lifestyle for humans. Today, the majority of Christians still believe this. There were isolated groups of vegetarians such as the Benedictines, the Trappists and the Cistercians. Between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, a philosophy called Manicheanism advocated the respect of animals and fought against animal slaughter. The church considered them to be fanatics and loathed and persecuted them. The Bogamils, which belonged to a vegetarian sect and lived in the territory which is now Bulgaria were burned for heresy due to their nutritional affinities in Medieval Europe in the 10th Century.

Pythagoras was a vegetarian

During the Renaissance period, vegetarianism did not find acceptance and one of the few prominent figures who publicly refrained from a meat diet was Leonardo da Vinci who loathed the murdering of animals.

In Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Brahinanism, Zoroasterianism and Jainism, abstention from meat was a central idea. Members of these religions believed that all life forms have to be respected and violence against them should be avoided. Buddhism has always promoted compassion to all living beings. It is believed that Pythagoras who lived at the same time as Buddha was influenced by Eastern teachings. The Indian king Asoka who was in power between 264-232BC converted to Buddhism and ended the slaughtering of animals. His kingdom became vegetarian.

Vegetarianism only reappeared in the 18th and 19th century when the Darwin theory changed the common belief that animals are principally different from humans. It was revealed that humans are actually much closer related to animals than originally thought. The first works about vegetarianism were published my Leo Tolstoy and Percy Byysshe Shelley who supported a vegetarian diet. Shelley was convinced of the health benefits of a vegan diet and recognized that resources were not used efficiently in livestock production and are one of the reasons of famines in needy societies. Different Christian groups such as the Bible Christian Church of which some members later founded the Vegetarian Society in 1847 started a vegetarian movement, stating that vegetarian diets are healthier than meat-based diets and in order to do God’s work well, a vegetarian diet was required. They also believed that the church’s teachings of mercy should include animals.

In the 20th century, famous figures such as George Bernard Shaw and Mohandas Gandhi promoted vegetarianism. During World War II, the British were encouraged to grow their own fruits and vegetables to sustain themselves. In the mid to late 20th century, social transformations and movements such as the influence through Eastern philosophy and religion, the concern over the environment and the respective implication of livestock breeding, health concerns, peace movements, the heavy criticism of factory farming which appeared after the war and a redefinition of the human’s role on Earth eventually made way for the modern age of vegetarianism.

Vegetarianism today

It becomes clear that vegetarianism is not a new phenomenon and there were always isolated groups and people promoting a meatless lifestyle. For moral, religious and economic reasons, vegetarianism always appeared and reappeared in history and is at present finding more and more practitioners. As we become more aware of the effect of livestock breeding on the greenhouse gas effect, the fact that we are cohabitating the Earth with millions of other intelligent creatures and that it is our job to live sustainably and not destructively, more and more people are turning to vegetarianism or veganism to show their support and their comprehension of the issue.


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    • mosesadewo profile image

      mosesadewo 4 years ago from 17224 Billings Drive, Carson, CA 90746

      This article is one of the most comprehensive and foundamental researches I have about this topic, tracing the genesis of vegetarianism and veganism to their present day acceptance by more people, while many regard abstainers with harmless suspicion. I embrace vegetarianism, for health reasons, since eating animal fat seems to be chiefly the source of excessive infammation in our body, which blocks the passage of insulin into our cells, where it energizes our whole body. Eating vegetable-based diet , 3 times daily, is the way I am winning the war against diabetes, but I still fall short of becoming a complete vegetarian, despite the healing power og practising vegetarianism. Thanks for sharing a great content.

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 4 years ago from Lohmar

      thank you ausmedus. Yes, you should consider being a vegetarian, it is easier thank you think and there are many great recipes!

    • profile image

      wilson 4 years ago

      Besides the vegetarian culture is still the "vegan" (they remove any and all animal products from the menu), which is spreading around the world. It would be interesting uabrir a topic for this, too. Thanks for the article. Wilson. bwnb@pop.com.br

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 4 years ago from Lohmar

      Thank you for your comment mosesadewo. Indeed, animal proteins cause excessive inflammation in our body and also inhibit the absorption of many vital vitamins such as Vitamin B12. Many people suffer from a lack of vitamin B12 only because they are eating too much food that contains animal proteins.

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 4 years ago from Lohmar

      I do intend to publish more on vegan topics as I am trying to become a vegan myself. It is a hard transition from being a vegetarian to becoming a vegan though. I have found that it is very hard to find vegan products as our food culture is excessively based on animal proteins

    • Louisa Rogers profile image

      Louisa Rogers 4 years ago from Eureka, California and Guanajuato, Mexico

      This is very informative-- I never knew much of the history of vegetarianism. When I first stopped eating meat around 1979 or so, it was much more difficult than it is now. At least where we live (Northern California), there are many alternatives to meat and it is no longer considered odd. I am not a strict vegetarian. I do eat fish occasionally, and after reading The China Study, I cut back on dairy. I don't miss meat at all, and I think my not eating it is one reason why I'm very healthy. Voted, up, useful, interesting.

    • profile image

      Fred 4 years ago

      Sorry, but I realized long ago being vegan is the only ethical way to go. Especially with the advent of factory farming which makes life even worse for the animals now. As far as friends, relatives, co-workers go... I'm right and they are wrong so why should I care what they think? Thirty year vegan and proud of it too. Fred

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 4 years ago from Lohmar

      True Louisa, there are nowadays many alternatives to meat and if we are creative enough, we can create great meals full of aroma and nutrients.

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 4 years ago from Lohmar

      True, milk cows don't have a great life either and are being exploited for the resource we need for basically everything. We can use milk made of plants though, they are a healthy and tasty alternative.

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      Fred 4 years ago

      As a thirty year vegan- in excellent health thank you- I say ignore all the experts who say you need (animal) milk, eggs, honey. Nearly all the "experts" are on someone's payroll promoting their interests and not yours.

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 4 years ago from Lohmar

      Thank you for your comment Fred, I am glad you made positive experiences as a vegan. Yes, the food industry is just too powerful and influential and they use all means to manipulate consumers.

    • GoForTheJuggler profile image

      Joshua Patrick 3 years ago from Texas

      While I support those who choose to live a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, I feel obligated to point out one very important piece of information. It's not meat that is causing health problems among the majority of the world's population (a lie that the vegan industry is guilty of implying)... it's the obscene amount of processed and sugar-filled foods that are scientifically formulated to be as addictive as the highest grade narcotics.

      That being said, my fellow omnivores can benefit from eating smaller portions of read meat, larger portions of fruit and veggies, and eating more fish, chicken, and turkey.

    • Electro-Denizen profile image

      Electro-Denizen 3 years ago from Wales, UK

      I enjoyed reading this hub. Interesting looking at vegetarianism from a historical perspective. There is a much better understanding now about wide scale cattle rearing being destructive to the environment - even at the UN they speak about the need to switch to or expand on plant based diets. So many meat myths will have to be debunked.

      Being hardened to the idea of animal slaughter is like a rite of passage according to a study at Bristol uni, UK. And of course, this links in with the idea that eating meat makes a person really strong or 'tough' somehow. This is all wrong. Which is why quite few top athletes are mostly vegetarian or vegan e.g. Carl Lewis, Scott Jurek. Slaughtering one's own animals might make someone 'tough', but most wouldn't touch meat at all if they visited an abattoir.

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 3 years ago from Lohmar

      I agree, there are even some top triathletes who live off of a vegan diet. Which doesn't mean that you can only be a top athlete if you stick to a vegan diet of course. But it isn't impossible either. And yes, our nutrition is closely linked to the environmental impact which is why each and everyone of us should reconsider their eating habits. Having meat only once a week instead of every day is a healthy change.

    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 3 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      This is an awesome hub, it is not only interesting and useful, it is a definite page turner. Well done and I am in agreement with you.

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 3 years ago from Lohmar

      Thank you loveofnight :)

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