The (Pagan) History of Vegetarianism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 29, 2006 — 1 Comment

The Literary Review takes a look at Tristram Stuart’s new book “The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India”. While the book concentrates mostly on the 17th and 18th century, the reviewer takes time to look briefly on classical sources and how interactions between India and the Western world have been shaping vegetarian ideals as early as the sixth century BCE.

“Although the word “vegetarian” was not coined until the 1840s, as long ago as the sixth century BC Pythagoras propounded a theory of immortality that entailed the transmigration of the soul between living creatures – and thus the immorality of eating the flesh of any of them. Pythagoras was thought to have encountered this theory while travelling in Egypt, to which country it was believed to have been introduced by philosophers from India. His doctrines were later advocated by such philosophical giants as Socrates, Diogenes and Plato and would become a seminal part of the Hellenistic philosophical tradition. Pythagoras may not have visited India himself, but Alexander the Great certainly did; and when Alexander arrived in Taxila (now in Pakistan) in 326 BC and encountered Brahmin, Jane and Buddhist ascetics (he called them “gymnosophists”) who also believed in reincarnation and non-violence and therefore did not eat meat, the link with (if not “the Discovery of”) India was confirmed. Just as this evidence of an early and exotic provenance lent credibility to Greek philosophy, so the existence of a culture that had survived – even thrived – for so long on a meat-free diet has inspired the vegetarian movement ever since.”

The books author (who is not a vegetarian himself) says that the motivations to become vegetarian haven’t changed too much.

“People decide to be vegetarian for the same reasons now as 2,000 years ago – it is good for their health and they don’t like the idea of killing animals.”

In our modern era, the issue of meat is still a contentious one. While there are between eight and twelve million self-described vegetarians in America (and around 4 million in the UK) the lifestyle choice still raises the hackles of defensive meat-eaters. Some of this is due to some shrill extremists who garner more press than the quiet majority, but I would argue that even more is due to an aggressive meat industry that intends to hold on to its market share at all costs.

I think these issues cut right to the core of Pagan religions that claim to live closer (or in harmony with) to the land. It is an issue of not only if we do or don’t eat meat, but how we treat our livestock (and how that livestock affects our environment). It goes beyond simply being “thankful” to divine powers for our food and instead making conscious decisions on how we interact with life on this planet. My personal veganism is simply how I choose to manifest that change within myself, an alternate (and equally valid) road is taken by people like Dave Haxton – a Heathen farmer who raises and provides naturally raised organic dairy products and meat to his community.

No matter how we choose to effect a more responsible lifestyle it is becoming clear the issue can’t be ignored for much longer. We can’t go on the way we have been going on without serious repercussions for our children and future generations down the line.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • JQ

    Thanks for the post, as a pagan and a Quaker I have a hard time understanding how it is not one of *the* big issues of being of either faith – think about how we eat effects the planet. Whether you choose the vegan/vegetarian route to address it or the organic meats and dairy only approach is not of interest to me, so much as that we are looking at this huge, important question as spiritual people. How can you blithely celebrate harvest rituals and ignore that the cycle of sacred agriculture and animal husbandry is being desecrated and supported by the the very way you chose to eat?