Vegetarianism is the theory or practice of living solely on vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts. It is practiced for moral, ascetic or nutritional reasons
In Western society today meat in many different forms is readily and economically available, yet the current trend shows a growing number of voluntary vegetarians around the world. In the United States, roughly 3 to 4 percent of the total populations are considered vegetarian. The origins of modern day Vegetarian philosophy and its influences can be traced back nearly three thousand years. . Most vegetarians are people who have understood that to contribute towards a more peaceful society we must first solve the problem of violence in our own hearts. So it’s not surprising that thousands of people from all walks of life have, in their search for truth, become vegetarian. Many well known influential philosophers have both preached as well as practiced its inherent advantages.
The earliest archeological data we have that suggest a voluntary partial vegetarian diet is the Old kingdom of Egypt. There are hieroglyphic inscriptions, which suggest the avoidance of eating some animals. The priests avoided eating pig for its lack of cleanliness, and cow for their belief that it was sacred mainly did this. This is believed to been practiced as early as 3000 BC. There are few historical sources on the practice of abstaining from meat in ancient Egypt, but we do know it directly influenced the beliefs held across the Mediterranean in Greece.
Pythagoras was born off the coast of Turkey on the Island of Samos in the 6th century BC. He is most famous for his well-known proposition about right angle triangles, known as the Pythagorean theorem. Having spent time in Egypt and Babylon, much of his main philosophical teachings are a combination of ideas expressed in the places he traveled to.
Pythagoras preached the soul as being abstract and immortal. A soul is within all living creatures, and therefore all creatures, man or beast deserve to be treated compassionately. The soul was said to pass between lives into different living creatures. Therefore in eating the flesh of an animal, one could be eating the flesh of a deceased cousin. This was somewhat revolutionary for a world in which religious ritual was centered on animal sacrifice. He also believed in the concept that an eternal world which was revealed to the intellect through continuous ascetic routines rather then the senses.
For two hundred years following Pythagoras death a religion made up of followers of his teachings persisted. As a religious practice of it dissipated, but the teachings were responsible for influencing the likes of Plato and Socrates.
Plato frequently makes reference to the migration of souls across species lines. This is in no way a proof that he himself was a Vegetarian, but it does show that one of western philosophies premier philosophers had a regard for animals with certain sensitivity.
In Plato’s Republic, there is a documented dialogue between Socrates and his student Glaucon. Socrates points out that the eating of animals causes one state to go to war with the other. Cattle were considered great wealth, and states would fight with each other to obtain cattle. Meat was valued as such a luxury that men were willing to die for it. Socrates suggested that the consumption of cattle is somewhat gluttonous rather then of necessity. He suggests refraining from meat would lead to a world with less conflict and greater opportunity for peace.
Another great Greek philosopher was Theophrastus. A contemporary of Aristotle, his writings clearly state that if plants and vegetables are abundant there is no need to eat meat. Theophrastus speculates that people only began to eat meat when crops were destroyed in war.
The Bible, arguably the most influential document for western philosophy, speaks of a world that begins with a euphoric harmony in which all walks of life are vegetarian.
? And God said, behold I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed, to you it shall be for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for food, and it was so.?
(Genesis 1, 29- 30)
The author suggests that in a perfect world, or the Garden of Eden, it is not necessary to eat meat. All animals and humans alike were satisfied upon eating herbs and vegetables alone. This world of food chain harmony comes to an end several chapters later. In the eight chapters between the quotes and ten generations between Adam and Noah, Man sins and perverts the world. God destroys every living creature in the world except those on Noah’s ark.
?God blessed Noah and his sons? The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, in everything that moves on earth and in all the fish of the sea; in your hand they are given. Every moving thing that moves on earth shall be food for you?
(Genesis 9, 1-4)
The ability to eat meat is awarded to Noah, as well as the ability to be at the head of the food chain. The wording of the apparent edict is clear in stating that this is a blessing given to man. Why was it that in the utopia like Garden of Eden every creature was an herbivore, but after the flood man is blessed with ruling and eating all animals?
This blessing from God is obviously a consolation prize. Man was unable to live harmonically in a world where all creatures are peaceful. It is as if God realized man was not capable of existing in a world of herbivores, and God corrected his original intent. The bible clearly portrays an ideal Garden of Eden perfection in which man is not able to live. Man shows an inability to live in that world and is blessed with beef and dominion to enable him to thrive in a less then perfect world.
Many of the influential documents and philosophers of eastern thought were strict practitioners and preachers of vegetarianism. Religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all developed a non-flesh eating doctrine into their set of practices.
The early ritual practices of Hinduism, roughly 1500- 600 BC, were focused around animal sacrifice. This period is known historically as the Vedic period, named after a series of sacred Hindu texts known as the Vedas. After 600 BC in the Upanishadic period, the teachings of Hinduism began to radically change and the old Vedic rituals were scarcely practiced.
What is virtuous conduct? It is never destroying life, for killing leads to every other sin. (Tirukural 312, 321)
The purchaser of flesh performs Hinsa (violence) by his wealth; he who eats flesh does so by enjoying its taste; the killer does Hinsa by actually tying and killing the animal. Thus, there are three forms of killing: he who brings flesh or sends for it, he who cuts off the limbs of an animal, and he who purchases, sells or cooks flesh and eats it — all of these are to be considered meat-eaters. (Mahabharat, Anu 115.40)
The preceding quotations are excerpts from Hindu Upanishadic texts. The texts clearly demonstrate the importance of abstaining from eating meat to reach higher spiritual knowledge.
There are several reasons for Hindus practice of vegetarianism. The fundamental is known as the Dharmic law of reason. Ahimsa, the law of noninjury, is the Hindu’s first duty in fulfilling religious obligations to God and God’s creation as defined by Upanishadic scripture. The Spiritual Reason is that food is the source of the body’s chemistry, and what we ingest affects our consciousnesses, emotions and experiential patterns. If one wants to live in higher consciousness, in peace and happiness and love for all creatures, then he cannot eat meat, fish, shellfish, fowl or eggs. By ingesting the grosser chemistries of animal foods, one introduces into the body and mind anger, jealousy, anxiety, suspicion and a terrible fear of death, all of which are locked into the flesh of the butchered creatures. For these reasons, vegetarians live in higher consciousness and meat-eaters abide in lower consciousness.
Buddhism began with the birth of Buddha in 566 BC. Buddha condemned all killing, war and aggression. All animal sacrifice was banned, and the trading or selling of animal carcasses was outlawed. Buddha and his first disciples were beggars and were not able to practice vegetarianism. Several centuries after his death, it was taught that to encourage mercy and compassion in ones self, all Buddhist should avoid eating meat. The Dali Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, encourages vegetarianism to his people today.
For both Buddhists and Hindus alike, being vegetarian is an act of piety not poverty. It is considered essential for self-purification, as well as the development of an ethical, merciful and compassionate self.
In the modern philosophical era, Leo Tolstoy an influential Russian writer and philosopher was an advocate of vegetarianism.
? By killing man suppresses in himself, unnecessarily, the highest spiritual capacity-that of sympathy and pity towards living creatures like himself, and by violating his own feeling becomes so cruel.? (Letter to Mrs. C.P. Farrell)
?A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.? – On Civil Disobedience
Tolstoy has mentioned a new linguistic twist on to an ancient Eastern philosophy. Cruelty has been introduced. Many contemporary vegetarians today, will not eat meat because of its inherent cruelty and immorality. This is not as controversial as abortion or mercy killing yet, but it has become a moral issue on randomly selected issues.
Tuna fish cans all over America are stamped with a ? Dolphin Safe? emblem. At first the consumer is comforted in thinking he has only sponsored the killing of a Tuna fish, but not the murder of a friendly little dolphin. This is an absurd statement. Why not save the Tuna? Why is the average consumer concerned with the life of a dolphin and not a Tuna- fish?
I believe the case of the dolphins, is a first step towards a higher awareness of the immoral practice of carnivorous eating by humans. It took centuries for Democracy to develop, and it will take years for modern society as a whole to recognize the inherent cruelty in unnecessarily killing animals for food. Steps have been taken to make sure animals are stunned before slaughtered, but this is in no way a justification for killing them.
?I do not regard flesh-food as necessary for us at any stage and under any clime in which it is possible for human beings ordinarily to live. I hold flesh-food to be unsuited to our species. We err in copying the lower animal world – if we are superior to it.? ? (Mahatma Gandhi, his Mission and Message)
Gandhi, the first man to fight a large-scale war with non-violence was the world’s moral voice in the first half of the twentieth century. He repeatedly spoke out against eating meat, maintaining that human beings have a greater moral standard then the rest of the animal kingdom and should act accordingly.
I share the conviction with many earlier philosophers both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western that in the future the human race will reflect upon its meat eating practice remorsefully, and claim overcoming it as another step in the development of a humane species.
1) Spencer, Colin The Heretics Feast, A History of Vegetarianism. London: University Press of New England
2) Dombrowski, Daniel A. The Philosophy of Vegetarianism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
3) Hill, John Lawrence The Case for Vegetarianism. Lanham, Maryland : Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.