It’s not so long ago that George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), called vegetarianism an affront to ‘decent people’ and the obsession of the ‘food crank… out of touch with common humanity’. It was, he thought, a symptom of the hijacking of the socialist cause by ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England’. Of course, times have changed, and even if not a majority view, being a vegetarian in the West is no longer a fringe belief. As my friends sometimes say: ‘At least you’re not a vegan’.
Orwell’s opinions would have struck the common humanity of South Asia — where hundreds of millions of perfectly normal people were (and are) strict vegetarians — as absurd. Vegan and vegetarian ethics may still be considered highly idealistic in Western cultures, but in many parts of Asia, they are but recent manifestations of a long-standing human quest: to lessen the suffering of animals and express our power through self-restraint rather than self-indulgence.
Fifteen hundred years ago, the great Chinese emperor Wu, of the southern Liang dynasty, made philosophical arguments about the immorality of exploiting animals for human pleasure, urging temperance and clemency towards them. He was inspired in turn by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who had a change of heart after ravaging the east-Indian republic of Kalinga in 260BC. Horrified by the death toll waged by his own army and tormented by the memory of Kalinga, he accepted Buddhism, abjured violence, abolished the slave trade (although not slavery) and dedicated his reign to overhauling cruel customs.
Ashoka’s laws, the first of their kind, extended the state’s protections to animals. They banned blood sports and outlawed the ritual sacrifice of animals. ‘Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice,’ declared one of his major edicts, inscribed on a rock in Gujarat. It went on to explain that, where once ‘hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day’ in Ashoka’s own kitchens, now only ‘two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always’. ‘And in time,’ it promised, ‘not even these three creatures will be killed.’
Unlike Ashoka, Emperor Wu had no spectacular feats of bloodshed for which to atone: his reign (464-569CE) was notably stable and prosperous. Rather he was inspired by Buddhism, emanating from India, which was spreading rapidly through China. Although it was becoming institutionalised as a religion, its essence was a radical charter for social reform and spiritual renewal. The Buddha himself had rejected God, condemned religion as an exploitative racket and urged his followers to honour the living. Influential monks in China now began expanding this injunction to include animal life. Unlike the Hindu clergy, who restricted public access to liturgical ideas, Buddhists took their convictions to the laity, and there are captivating accounts of ordinary Chinese people, spurred on by the sermons of the monk Zhiwen, freeing their animals and burning their fishing nets.
Wu convened conferences and wrote and circulated essays. He invited criticism from ministers and monks. And then, at the peak of his power, he embraced Buddhism, becoming the first ruler of his realm to forsake flesh in his diet. He banned capital punishment and urged his subjects to renounce meat, to give up hunting and fishing and butchery, and to adopt compassion and abstemiousness — not as a rejection of human supremacy, but as its highest affirmation.
In sixth-century China, Wu’s imperial kitchen is said to have created seitan, known in the West today as ‘mock meat’. ‘Mock’ animals started to be used in ceremonial sacrifices. With the ascent of the Sung dynasty 400 years later, seitan became, according to H T Huang, the favoured food of the period’s literati. It was even extolled in verse by the poet Wang Yen: ‘It has the colour of fermented milk/ And a flavour superior to chicken or pork.’
Wu and Ashoka did not immediately realise their ambition to eliminate the suffering of animals, yet they helped to make the idea of vegetarianism itself respectable and indeed conventional, at least in much of India. When Mohammed Akbar, the mightiest emperor to rule India since Ashoka, said plaintively in the 16th Century that he wished meat eaters ‘would have satisfied their hunger with my flesh, sparing other living beings’, he was honouring that very longing.
Europe, of course, was a different matter. Pythagoreans may have practised a meat-free diet in ancient times, but Christianity did not promote the virtues of refraining from eating animals (except as a form of monastic ascetic practice). Convinced that meat was vital for good health, Europeans travelling to India from the 16th century on were astonished to find a highly sophisticated civilisation with an ethic of non-violence towards animals. Some discovered, to their amazement, hospitals given over entirely to the care of animals. Ralph Fitch, an English merchant who travelled through the subcontinent in the 16th century, recorded that Indians ‘will kill nothing’.
Hearing such travellers’ tales, Voltaire praised Indians as ‘lovers and arbiters of peace’, enthusing about their treatment of animals and bringing eastern culture into the mainstream of intellectual debate at home. In his epistolary novel, The Letters of Amabed, Voltaire mocked the incongruities of Western high culture through the eyes of a young Indian visitor to court. ‘The dining hall was clean, grand and tidy… gaiety and wit animated the guests’, the visitor observes, only to find that ‘in the kitchens blood and grease were flowing. Skins of quadrupeds, feathers of birds and their entrails piled up pell-mell, oppressing the heart, and spreading contagion’.
Not all were impressed with vegetarian ethics, however. In the 17th century, the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher had launched an attack on Indians (and Chinese and Japanese) for eating, as he phrased it, ‘nothing from a living animal’, a practice he saw as un-Christian. He blamed their ‘abominable’ behaviour on a ‘very sinful Brahmin imbued with Pythagoreanism’ — the Buddha presumably.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/mercy-toward-animals-runs-deep-in-asian-cultural-traditions