A vegetarian ideology was practiced among religious groups in Egypt around
3,200BC, with abstinence from flesh based upon karmic beliefs in reincarnation.
Abstention from meat was central to such early philosophies as Hinduism, Brahinanism, Zoroasterianism and Jainism. Vegetarianism was encouraged in the ancient verses of the 'Upanishads' and also mentioned in 'Rig Veda' -- the most sacred of ancient Hindu texts. Pivotal to such religions were doctrines of non-violence and respect for all life forms.
Famed philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras encouraged vegetariamsm. While wishing to avoid animal cruelty, he also saw the health advantages a meat-free diet. Pythagoras viewed vegetarianism as a key factor in peaceful human co-existence, putting forward the view that slaughtering animals brutalised the human soul.
Other notable Ancient Greek thinkers favoured a vegetarian diet. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all advocated a 'natural' life that did not involve animal cruelty.
Pythagorean ideals found very limited sympathy within the brutality of Ancient
Rome, where many wild animals were murdered at the hands of gladiators in the
name of sport and spectacle. Pythagoreans were despised as subversives, with
many keeping their vegetarianism to themselves for fear of persecution.
However, vegetarianism was to spread throughout the Roman Empire from the 3rd to 6th centuries among those influenced by Neo-Platonist philosophy, a progression from the teachings of Plato.
Vegetarianism has always been central to Buddhism, which enshrines compassion to all living creatures. The Indian king Asoka (who reigned between 264~232 BC) converted to Buddhism, shocked by the horrors of battle. Animal sacrifices were ended as his kingdom became vegetarian.
The Essenes were an ancient Jewish sect from the second century BC, who reacted against the excessive animal sacrifices of the day.
Early Christianity brought with it ideas of human supremacy over all living things, but several unorthodox groups did break ranks.
Practiced between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, Manicheanism was another
philosophy against animal slaughter. These non-violent vegetarian ascetics were
painted as fanatical deviants, feared, loathed and frequently persecuted by
the established church.
The vegetarian Bogamils were burned at the stake for heresy, against the paranoid backdrop of Mediaeval Europe in the 10th Century. There was a fervent 'anti-heretic' tone to most of Europe during this dark period and many innocents perished. However, two notable vegetarians escaped -- St David, Patron Saint of Wales, and St Francis of Assisi.
During the early Renaissance period, an open vegetarian ideology was a rare
phenomena. Famine and disease were rife as crops failed and food was short.
Meat was largely a scarce and expensive luxury for the rich. It was during this
period that there was to be a rediscovery of ancient classical philosophy.
Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic thought would once again become influential in Europe.
With the bloody conquest of 'new' lands, new vegetables were introduced into Europe, such as potatoes, cauliflower and maize. This had a beneficial effect on health, helping to prevent such things as skin diseases which were then widespread.
With the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century there emerged a new appraisal of man's place in the order of creation. Arguments that animals were intelligent feeling creatures were voiced and moral objections were raised as there was an increasing distaste for the mistreatment of animals. Amongst western religions there was a re-emergence of the view that, in fact, flesh consumption was an aberration from God's will and the genuine nature of humanity.
During these days, slaughter methods were extremely barbaric. Pigs were flogged to death with knotted rope to tenderise the carcass and hens were slit at the mouth, hung up and left to bleed to death.
Famous vegetarians of the period included the poets John Gay and Alexander Pope, royal physician Dr John Arbuthnot, penal reformer John Howard and creator of the Methodist movement John Wesley. Great philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Locke all questioned man's inhumanity to animals, and Paine's extremely influential 'The Rights of Man' (1791) raised wider animal rights issues.
Noteworthy vegetarians of the 19th Century included romantic poet Shelley, who became vegetarian in 1812. He was fervent in his renunciation of meat consumption, convinced of the healthy advantages a meat-free diet could offer. Shelley also added a political dimension to the cause of vegetarianism by pointing out the inefficient use of resources. Meat was still at this time the habitual reserve of the privileged and Shelley cited meat production as a reason for food shortages among society's most needy
The influence of radical Christianity in the 19th Century was to give the cause of vegetarianism great impetus in Britain and the USA. Such groups were vegetarian fundamentalist Christians, with large congregations made up of the newly urbanised poor.
Representatives were to venture away from Britain and vegetarian communes were evident in the USA in the 1830s, practiced among such groups as the Seventh Day Adventists. A notable practitioner of this religion was Dr John Harvey Kellogg, preacher and inventor of the famous breakfast cereal.
By the 1880s vegetarian restaurants were popular in London, offering cheap and nutritious meals in respectable settings.
At the turn of the 20th Century, British public health was still in a poor state, with high levels of infant mortality and widespread poverty. The Vegetarian Society sent food parcels to mining communities during the General Strike of 1926 -- vegetarianism and humanitarianism have always been closely linked.
Any history of vegetarianism would be incomplete without mentioning the contribution made by Gandhi, who wrote extensively on the subject. Vegetarianism was central to his life and was informed by the ascetic life of his mother Putlibai, Jainism, his politics and, of course, Hinduism.
Because of general food shortages during WW2, the British were encouraged
to 'Dig For Victory' and grow their own fruit and vegetables. A near vegetarian
diet sustained the population and the nation's health was to improve vastly
during the war years.
In the 1950 and '60s, the general public became increasingly aware of the truth behind intensive factory farming, introduced following the war. Vegetarianism also appealed to mid 1960s counterculture, as Eastern influences permeated Western popular culture.
During the 1980s and '90s, vegetarianism was given major impetus as the
disastrous impact humanity was having upon the Earth become more apparent. Environmental
issues dominated the headlines and were for a time foregrounded in politics.
Vegetarianism was rightfully seen as part of the process of change and conservation
More recently, issues such as livestock imports rallied opposition from many 'ordinary' people from all over the UK. Very real health concerns were raised when it was realised that some flesh foods were infected with such diseases as 'Mad Cow Disease' (BSE), Lysteria and Salmonella. Since the 1980s, popular conscience had anyway become focussed on healthy living and there was the realisation that food was very important in this. Consequently consumption of meat has plummeted, as many millions of people in the West have turned to vegetarianism as a safe and healthy alternative.
The history of vegetarianism has consisted of an amazing diversity of characters and events. Vegetarianism has been evident in cultures all over the world and a largely vegetarian diet has sustained humanity for many thousands of years -- for moral, religious and economic reasons.
With the global population growing and resources stretched, vegetarianism shows the way forward into histories yet to come.