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World Vegan Day and the Deep History of Mercy

7 mins

Once veganism was considered a radical, almost bizarre lifestyle. Today it is the subject of reasoned debate, nutritional analysis, and peer-reviewed scholarly papers. Add to all that our current age of wall-to-wall visual documentation—endless clips of animals acting curiously, happily human when freed from bondage, or reunited with loved ones. Here we have an opportunity for reflection. And more. 

Table of Contents

"..two women there I'd never seen before were very busy boiling an enormous amount of water, one pan after another, on the fire. What was all this about? It wasn't long before the business of killing one of the pigs began..."

- Donald Watson

Veganism—as it's come to be called—often presents in the western world as a kind of earnestly progressive new idea; a hipster product of the California coast, maybe, where mercy-commandos perform nighttime lightning raids on chicken farms (whose liberated prisoners are not always visibly grateful). With World Vegan Day upon us, the time seems right to have a look at veganism's origins, modern and otherwise.

Concerns About Animal Welfare are Ancient

In fact, what we now call veganism is ancient in its origins. As a matter of recorded history, veganism dates back at least to the idea of “ahimsa”, the moral position that doing harm to living things is inherently wrong.

This trendy-sounding ethical position was codified right around the year 1000 BCE—nearly 3,000 years before tie-dye and bell-bottoms.  

The idea became refined and woven into the religious doctrines of Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.

The Vedic Sanskrit text called Yajurveda contains the fairly straightforward and embraceable message, “..may all beings look at me with a friendly eye, may I do likewise, and may we look at each other with the eyes of a friend.”

Life is Everywhere and Merits Protection

The Jains may hold the most acutely ”life-conscious” belief system of the aforementioned spiritual faiths. Jains hold that bad karma is directly linked to harming living things. To avoid bad karma, Jains take the philosophy of "protecting life" to its difficult zenith -- a pointillist practice of non-violence. The Jain's acutely “harmless” approach to daily existence is about working consciously through every waking moment of existence to safeguard life.

Jains are known to wear surgical masks in the presence of gnats or other small flying insects, in order to avoid inhaling one of the tiny creatures, for instance.

Jains avoid sweeping the floor for similar fear of harming an insect. And Jains don’t eat root vegetables. No root vegetables? What is this nutty practice about?

Pretty straightforward—the root is what gives the plant its life. Jains practice what might be called a "severe" vegetarianism, bent on preserving the life of the plant that is offering up its constituent parts for our nourishment. The Jains are concerned that a plant not have its own life taken when providing nourishment to further our lives.

By eating vegetables that grow above ground and leaving the root mechanism of the plant whole and intact, practitioners of this faith (who are said to number about 5 million globally) have found a way to have their plant and eat it, too—that the plant may carry on with the business of its own life even as it provides nourishment to another.

In other words, this is “life-driven veganism” based principally not on human health, or economic benefits, or natural resource concerns, but merely on the idea of all Living beings remaining alive until nature herself turns the wheel and restarts the cycle. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe in reincarnation -- and in the meantime, traverse this mortal coil as respectfully and tenderly as humanly possible. 

Modern Veganism

In a modern context, a deliberate approach to Veganism (and the term “vegan” itself) can be traced to a gentleman in the UK named Donald Watson. As a youth, Watson had an epiphany, but not one of joyous enlightenment.

Watson had made many visits to his uncle’s farm as a boy. There, and in his hometown of that day, the youthful Watson had always noted with warm curiosity the specific working roles of the various animals.

"As a little boy living in a town, I was surrounded by interesting animals. There was the big Shire horse, who pulled the plough.

There was a horse of lighter build that pulled the trap, which in those days was the
equivalent of the modern motor car, which took my granny into local markets
to sell her butter and eggs." 

Young Watson thrilled at the useful and interesting roles these companionable animals played in his village. It all seemed of a piece. Mostly.

"The cows 'gave' milk, the hens 'gave' eggs, the rooster was a useful 'alarm clock', and the sheep 'gave' wool. I could never understand what the pigs did - all the other animals 'gave' something, but I couldn't for the life of me see what the pigs 'gave'. Just that they seemed ­such friendly creatures, always glad to see me.

"Well, the day came when I came downstairs for breakfast, and there were two women there I'd never seen before, and they were very busy boiling an enormous amount of water, one pan after another, on the fire. What was all this about?

"It wasn't long before the business of killing one of the pigs began. No attempt was made to keep me away from the scene. I just went there, full of interest, to see what all this was about. And I still have vivid recollections of the whole process from start to finish, including all the screams, of course..."

The experience so rattled him that at 14 years old Watson gave up meat eating, and some 18 years later ditched dairy, too. When as an adult he gathered together a group of like-minded vegetarian thinkers, veganism as a moral philosophy — and as a word — was born.

Vegetarians Lobby for Veganism

In 1944, Watson arranged a meeting with five other "non-dairy vegetarians", as they called themselves. One of them, a woman named Elsie Shrigley, is credited with having had the decisive conversations with Watson that would lead to the creation of the Vegan Society. She and Watson were already members of the Vegetarian Society at that time.

In August of that year, Shrigley, Watson and several other members of the UK's Vegetarian Society had asked that organization to initiate "a non-dairy vegetarian” member section, as many vegetarians at the time were expanding their ethical concerns to include animal procurement of dairy products as well. 

The Vegetarian Society politely refused the request, suggesting that “ …the (Vegetarian) Society must devote all its energies in the direction of the abolition of flesh eating. The proposed group would be freer to function as an independent body… “

Vegan Society Launched

It wasn’t long before Shrigley joined Watson and others to enthusiastically form the nucleus of what would become the Vegan Society — effectively launching the vegan "movement" in the mid-twentieth century. Initially calling themselves ‘non-dairy vegetarians’, the newish and impassioned group cast about for a less clunky new word to describe their ethical position. Several awkward ideas were floated, including ‘Dairyban’, ‘Vitan’, and the slightly scary-sounding ‘Benevore’. 

Ultimately, the word Vegan was coined by Donald Watson and his wife Dorothy – in part by taking the first three and the last two letters of vegetarian.

The definition of Veganism has undergone many permutations through the years.

Initially , in ’49, Vegan Organization member Leslie Cross noted that the society lacked an actual working definition of veganism. Cross suggested this:

“Veganism is the principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man”. Later, this was clarified as, "The object of veganism is described as "seek(ing) an end to the use of animals for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man”.

Today the Vegan Society's official definition of veganism is somewhat expanded and includes an environmental component:

"Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Flexitarianism and the New Approach to a Vegan Lifestyle.

Today, veganism and vegetarianism cohabit more easily with meat-eating, but not because the ethical considerations are gauzier or less concrete than they have been. On the contrary, the idea is to make veganism seem less an outlier "philosophy" and more an approachable, healthy, and sensible way of life.

veggie burgers these days are not the unappetizing freaks they used to be..

An idea (if not an actual movement) called “flexitariansm” seeks to make the pivot away from industrial meat production — and all its ecological, public health, and  moral ramifications — easier to adopt and less militant in its pitch. "Flexitarianism" is clearly a portmanteau of the words "flexible", and "vegetarian", and as a matter of practice is a kind of vegetarianism with allowances for meat eating.

Flexitarianism puts the Meat or No Meat question on a continuum, removing it from the unyielding realm of the understandably impassioned animal rights advocate. As a result of flexitarianism, people are drawn in surprising numbers to experiment with vegetarianism — on their own terms, and at their own pace.

Flexitarianism is Approaching New Normal Status

A poll by the farmer's market chain Sprouts concluded that more than half of Americans aged 24-29 years-old self-identify as 'flexitarians'.  

Flexitarianism encourages folks to both follow their own feelings and intellects,  do their own research, and to apply learnings to a calibrated approach to personal dietary change. As is often said, "the perfect is the enemy of the good". Even partial awareness of the issues surrounding meat production is a positive . 

Watson's Legacy: Veganism Normalized

Polling and research giant Nielsen reports that grocery sales of plant-based foods intended to replace animal products grew 53% over the last two years, with  a 43% increase in households that purchase meat alternatives. Something is stirring in the human culture.

Where once veganism was considered a radical, almost quasi-religious position to take, today it is the subject of reasoned debate, statistical reporting and scholarly, peer-reviewed papers. We can thank Donald Watson and his determined compatriots; a group who turned personal horror into an embraceable new way of seeing. 

Donald Watson lived to age 95, passing in 2005. Two years before passing he was as spritely and rambunctious as ever.

"At 93," he said in 2004, "and never having taken medicines—orthodox or fringe— I am proof that after a weak childhood in a meat-eating family, veganism works!"

Seeing animals as other than objects is enlightenment; whatever one does with the revelation. Have a look. Life does transcend the food chain. 


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