International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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38th IVU World Vegetarian Congress

Dresden, Germany

Sunday July 27 - Sunday August 3, 2008

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European Vegetarians from the 17th Century onwards and the Hindu/Jain influence.

 - Nitin Mehta 

"The Bloodless Revolution", written by Tristram Stuart is an amazing book tracing the History of the Vegetarian movement in Europe from 17th Century. My paper to be read at the World Vegetarian Congress in Dresden, Germany, on 31 July 2008, is based on the book.

Between 16th and 18th Century a fierce debate took place in the Western world around meat eating. During the Civil War in 1642 between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians the latter used vegetarianism to articulate their dissent from others! Thomas Tryon in the 1680s said that his fellow Englishmen would achieve spiritual enlightenment, health, longevity and peace if they adopted the vegetarianism of the Brahmins. At the same time European travellers to India came to understand the doctrine of Ahimsa and non violence towards all living beings.

In the 1590s the Dutch traveller to India, John Huygen Van Linschoten wrote in his best selling travelogue Itinerario (The Journey) that the Banians (Jains), ‘kill nothing in the world that has life, however small and useless it may be’. Even the Mogul emperor Akbar (1556-1605) was immensely impressed by Jainism and forbade the killing of animals and fish and discouraged meat eating for up to 6 months a year. Philosophers such as John Evelyn, Sir Thomas Browne and Sir William Temple recognised that Indian vegetarians proved that people could live happily on fruit and a vegetarian diet.

The impact of Indian vegetarianism influenced a shift away from the Bible’s mandate of unlimited dominion. It triggered a review of European morality. Three of Europe’s greatest philosophers, Descartes, Gassendi and Francis Bacon all advocated vegetarianism. Descartes sadly is also responsible for the terrible abuse of animals that has taken place in Europe as he proclaimed that animals did not feel pain. He was a vegetarian for health reasons. The economist Adam Smith stated that meat was an unnecessary luxury.

By the end of the 18th Century vegetarianism was advocated by doctors, moral philosophers and political activists. During the culture of radical innovation that started in the late 18th and early 19th Century—generally known as Romanticism, Hindus became the object of veneration, Sanskrit texts were translated and according to Voltaire the Hindu treatment of animals represented a shaming alternative to the viciousness of European imperialists. John Oswald, who arrived in India in 1782 as a soldier, was so impressed with the Hindu doctrine of Ahimsa that he declared that only Hindus extended compassion to all living beings. On returning from India he immersed himself in the French Revolution to put right the, ‘injustice’ of human society. Rousseau started a back to nature movement; poet Shelly joined a network of nudist vegetarians!

Indian philosophy through Ahimsa and vegetarianism has shaped thoughts over the past 400 years. When Alexander the Great reached India in 327 BC he was surprised to find that the Indian idea of immortality of the soul and the doctrine of vegetarianism had been advocated in Greece by Pythagoras and Socrates. The belief was growing that Greek philosophical tradition owed its origins to India. According to Sir William Temple (1628-99), Indian philosophers were the originators of the Greek ideas from vegetarianism to eternity of matter. Marco Polo wrote that the Brahmins (Hindus) don’t eat or kill any creature even a fly, because they have souls.

The 16th century Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa was astounded that the Indians would pay money to the Moors to buy worms and birds and set them free. He noted that even lice were looked after and special people were allotted to the task of feeding them with their own blood! The Europeans were flabbergasted to find that in India even animals that were not useful were never killed and that people would buy captive birds and then free them. In 1594 an English traveller, Ralph Fitch, wrote that there were animal hospitals in India and sheep, goats, dogs, cats and birds all are kept and looked after, even the lame and old ones. Hindu vegetarianism began to be seen of a higher moral value then the European Christian tradition. ‘Turkish Spy’ the diaries of a Ottoman spy called Mahmut who was operating in Paris from 1637 to 1682 declared India as the only, ‘ Publick theatre of justice towards all living beings’. Only Hinduism he wrote had preserved what was a universal law of compassion to animals.

According to Reverend John Ovington who travelled to India in 1689, ‘Vegetarianism made Indians less cruel, healthy and spiritually and mentally more quick and nimble. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) believed that Hindus had an unbroken chain of natural wisdom which was as old as Abraham. In the 1660s English philosopher John Locke attributed great part of diseases in England to eating too much animal flesh and too little bread! French philosopher Rousseau (1712-18) believed that mothers of infants should abstain from meat to preserve the purity of their milk for their infants. He believed that children’s instinctive preference for vegetarian foods proved that meat is not natural to men. Rousseau’s writings generated a whole generation of children who were educated in vegetarian laws of nature.

Rousseau’s vegetarianism was further espoused by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1733-1814). He said, ‘It is from India that our arts, sciences, laws games and religions originate. It is there that Pythagoras the father of Philosophy went to search among the wise Brahmans the elements of Physics and morality. It is from there that he brought the idea of vegetarianism’. Sir William Jones (1764-94), the greatest pioneer of Orientalism in the 18th Century, concluded that Pythagoras and Plato derived their sublime theories from the sages of India, he too abstained from meat while in India. Voltaire (1649-1778), was a great admirer of Hindus. He contrasted the vegetarian diet and philosophy of Ahimsa with, ‘blood letting in Western civilisation’.

The French Philosopher Valady, under the influence of Englishman Robert Pigott, became a radical vegetarian. In 1788 he wrote to his sister that, ‘all illnesses and weaknesses were due to improper and unnatural habit of eating meat’. The children of pure vegetarian parents were he observed, ‘immune to small pox, toothache, and had soft animated humour’! In France the vegetarian radicals came close to the centre ground of radical politics.

In England the Druid priest David Williams said that evil could be eradicated from the world by adopting the Hindu idea of compassion to all creatures. James Graham (1745- 94) advocated a vegetarian life style for good health and compassion to animals. Eminent republican historian Catherine Macaulay advocated compassion to animals and this idea was incorporated by Mary Wollstonecraft in her book titled ‘Vindication of Rights of Women’. In 1790 scores of these radicals were put in London’s Newgate prison which became a melting pot of radicals and vegetarians. Henry Symonds, a vegetarian radical, linked up with Manchester based vegetarian pro-democracy publisher George Nicholson (1760- 1825) and published an anthology of vegetarian writings. Nicholson’s writings brought the many different vegetarian groups together.

By 1815 the London radicals had linked up with hundreds of Christians in Salford who gave up meat eating in 1809 at the instigation of William Cowherd (1763-1816). John Stewart (1749-1822) and John Oswald both advocated Indian vegetarianism. John Ritson (1752-1803) was the most famous vegetarian in London. He propagated the idea that human beings were not the only special species on the planet. He said meat eating had turned man from a docile herbivore to a universal destroyer. Ritson proposed that Europeans should emulate the Hindus. His work, ‘An essay on abstinenance from animal food’ advocated Republicanism, Vegetarianism and Atheism!

In 1812 Percy Shelley, his wife Harriet Westbrook and Dr.William Lambs moved to John Frank Newton’s vegetarian community in Bracknell, Berkshire. Dr Lambs published findings which conclusively proved that vegetarian diet was the only healthy diet which prevented many diseases. Newton claimed that, ‘the most ancient priests the peaceful Brahmins possibly held the secrets of the world’s past and the future’. Shelley identified meat eating as a primary cause of violence and observed that revolutions in France and elsewhere failed because people continued to make themselves into ferocious meat eaters! For Shelley meat eating was the Pandora’s Box that introduced savagery into the world and vegetarianism was the key with which it could be locked away again. Shelly believed that even ferocious animals could be tamed.

Benjamin Moseley believed even Tigers could be rendered utterly harmless by being raised on a vegetarian regime. On arrival in New Zealand in 1773 Captain Cook and his crew found small birds that had never seen humans before came close to them without any fear. It did not take the birds long to learn that humans are best avoided. For Shelley, Lambs and Newton this confirmed claims by Plutarch, Gassendi and innumerable others that humans did not have a carnivorous anatomy. Were mankind predatory in appearance then animals would instinctively avoid them. Shelley saw Hindus as prime exemplars of how vegetarianism made people gentle.

In Germany, Edward Baltzer started a vegetarian movement in 1860. By the late 19th Century, London had vegetarian restaurants and into this milieu arrived Gandhi in 1888 to study law. Gandhi saw vegetarianism as a bridge that could unite East and West. Gandhi was converted to the vegetarian cause after reading Henry Salt’s ‘Plea for Vegetarianism’.

What Gandhi perhaps did not realise was that the ideas of Vegetarianism and Ahimsa that he picked up in London, had their origins in India!


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