A History Of Veganism Around The World
Image Credit: India has always had veganism | Pexels

India has a long history of vegetarianism, and even veganism (even though it wasn’t until 1944 that the term was coined) for a long time. The world is taking to it in increasing numbers. Veganism is of course an extreme form of vegetarianism, so that means no animal products whatsoever. Veganism is, more often than not, not concerned only with diet. Vegans also eschew animal products in other aspects of life as well, whether it is clothing, furniture, or accessories that may have been made from animal products. That means no leather, no wool, no pearls, and even no ivory-keyed pianos.

Going animal-product free can be the one choice we can make to curb the rate of climate change, some climate activists argue. And therein lies the biggest controversy about it. But that is not the subject of this article. In this piece, we are more interested in finding out how the movement began and how it is slowly but surely taking hold across the world, especially among the upper middle classes the world over.

The idea of avoiding flesh is an old one. Ancient Indian and Eastern Mediterranean societies have a storied history of flesh avoidance. Akhenaten, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, refused to accept animal sacrifice as he considered it a violation of the Aten god's gift of life. Dating back to 1300 BC, Akhenaten was dedicated to the vegan principle of not causing any injury to animals. Around 500 BCE, Pythagoras of Samos, a Greek philosopher and mathematician, was the first to write about vegetarianism. Not only is he remembered for his theorem about right triangles, but he also encouraged compassion for all creatures, including humans. He is believed to have said, "Alas, what wickedness to swallow flesh into our own flesh, to fatten our greedy bodies by cramming in other bodies, to have one living creature fed by the death of another!" Additionally, adherents of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism were advocates of vegetarianism, believing that humans should not cause suffering to other animals. There was the Japanese Emperor Tenmu who banned the consumption of meat from cows, horses, dogs, chickens, and monkeys, and this ruling led to a ban on eating meat in Japan that lasted 12 centuries.

The practice of not consuming any animal products didn't quite take off in the Western world, even though it would gain some attention during health fads and spiritual revivals. Ephrata Cloister, an extremely religious group established in Pennsylvania in 1732, supported both vegetarianism and abstinence from sexual activity. Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian thinker in the eighteenth century, thought that animal misery was just as important as human misery and compared the notion of human superiority to racism. Kellogg’s corn flakes, for instance, were born out of the need to promote vegetarianism as a lifestyle, which includes celibacy. 

Veganism is still associated with its moral underpinning | Pexels

In 1847, the first vegetarian society was started in England. Three years later, Rev. Sylvester Graham, the creator of Graham crackers, joined forces with the American Vegetarian Society. Graham was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and his supporters, known as Grahamites, followed his rules for a moral life: vegetarianism, temperance, abstinence, and frequent bathing.

 It was in November 1944 that British woodworker Donald Watson declared that because vegetarians consumed dairy and eggs, he would establish a new term named "vegan" to explain those who didn't. Tuberculosis had been identified in 40% of the dairy cows in Britain the year prior, and Watson used this to his advantage, arguing that it demonstrated the vegan lifestyle safeguarded people from contaminated food. Three months after devising the term, he issued a detailed description of how it should be pronounced: "Veegan, not Veejan," he wrote in his new Vegan Society newsletter, which had just 25 subscribers. By the time Watson passed away at the lofty age of 95 in 2005, there were over 500,000 vegans in the world. That number has since only grown.

While vegetarianism is usually seen as a diet choice, veganism has not managed to break away from its moral underpinnings. Veganism is still seen as a moral movement, and that may also explain some of the backlash it receives from people who are decidedly not vegan or vegetarian. The overwhelming feeling from them—as documented by many videos on YouTube and expressed in op-eds—is that vegans are militant about their choice and that their moral groundedness is a cause of severe vexation. While for a majority of people, going vegan is rooted in the principle of causing no harm to fellow living beings, there is also a growing ecological angle. Some people claim that veganism is the diet of the future and that the future of the Earth may actually depend on us becoming vegan. As one report claims, "Animal agriculture is behind many of the most damaging environmental crises, from climate breakdown and water pollution to deforestation and desertification." Credible institutions like Oxford University, Harvard University, and the United Nations are all saying the same thing: "To preserve a healthy, habitable planet, we need to eat plant-based."