The Vegan Option is a UK podcast and radio show hosted by BBC trained radio producer Ian Mcdonald. Not to brag, I was a listener long before I got the chance to meet Ian. I enjoyed episodes on veganism in science fiction, some in-depth explorations of social science and biology and some controversial topics such as vegan cats and the ‘veganess’ of palm oil before it was cool. It’s no big deal, I’m just saying. The point is, The Vegan Option appealed to me because of it’s rational approach to serious topics and its friendly host.
The ambitious project I’m talking to Ian about today is his series on the history of vegetarianism, a fifteen part radio program that will cover thousands of years—and miles—to document our movement’s epic past.
Ian funded the production of Vegetarianism: the Story so Far through Kickstarter. Here’s a short video of him introducing the project and requesting support. Even though the campaign has ended, the video is still worth watching for a glimpse inside the infamous duvet studio.
Now the first and second episode of Vegetarianism the Story so Far are available to listen to, and we eagerly await the next installment. While we wait I was excited to ask Ian a few questions about the project.
Hi Ian, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about your radio program. So first, what inspired you to dig into the history of vegetarianism?
It was a story that needed telling and that hadn’t been told in audio. The full history of vegetarianism had been on the back-burner as something to cover in The Vegan Option. (Actually, the back-burner literally exists. It’s a page at All Our Ideas where listeners can vote on new episodes.) And the more I examined it, the more I realised it was a lot more than just a couple of episodes.
So out of that, came a plan to crowdfund the expenses for something really ambitious - a (hopefully) landmark series that will really stand the test of time. I knew that doing the story justice actually involved going to some of the places where the story unfolded, so that I can really bring the generation-by-generation struggle for animals to life.
Can you give us a rough timeline of the events that you cover in the series so we can appreciate the scope of your project?
It’s the full story of the idea that humans should spare other animals, from pre-history to the present. And it follows all kinds of incarnations of that idea through history - the “ahimsa” of iron age Indian philosophers, the ascetic fasting of Christian monks, and organised vegetarianism in modernity. It’s an awfully big story.
In the first episode of the series you travel to India to speak to scholars about some of the first adherents to a vegetarian diet. What was your experience of travelling and eating in India like?
I think the most powerful moment was when I came back to the UK and I saw a street with some restaurants in it, and I realised the signage didn’t all say whether it was “vegetarian” or “non-vegetarian”. India is great for vegans. There’s a little bit of explaining - I had the multilingual vegan passport with me* - but that’s no different to the UK. And there’s an awful lot more food in India.
Even if a place used butter ghee in everything, the south Indian vegetarian dishes are almost all vegan. Not just the standard dahl and rice with side dishes, but also the idli with sambar (soup) for breakfast; the dosas, the fried savour doughnuts, the coconut chutney.
Okay. I’m hungry now.
Many vegans are probably familiar with the term Ahimsa, but don’t fully understand its context. Can you give us an overview of the concept and explain why it is so important?
Well, “ahimsa” is a word that took several centuries to emerge, and then got used in different contexts (and languages) for two thousand years, so there are going to be nuances in how different people use it. I sent some test versions of the show out to get some responses, and listeners were confused by the fact that different guests pronounce it in different ways.
Prof Richard Gombrich dissects it as a (“not) + “hims” (“to strike”). Which is typically Buddhist - for them intention is what matters. And some others do trace its etymology to a word meaning killing. Jain philosophy, on the other hand, cares more about whether you actually do harm. It’s possible they use it more literally, but I haven’t checked. (Learning to stop myself from checking everything has been an important skill.)
The usual English translation is “non-violence”, which I’ve kept to when summarising. I’d use it to describe why I was vegan long before I looked into the proper context. There just wasn’t a good enough word in English. But “non-harm” is a closer translation - it describes an aspiration to not hurt others rather than the way it’s used in the west, as more of a political pacifism.
In the Jain, Buddhist and Hindu traditions that you explore it seems vegetarianism arose from a spiritual source—a belief in reincarnation and souls. How does that contrast with your approach to veganism?
When I became vegetarian, my assumptions still reflected the body-soul dualism of my Roman Catholic upbringing. I was very much working though agnosticism and figuring out my values and beliefs; not eating animals was, at first, a provisional decision to err on the ethical safe side.
So I was muddling through. I’d read the autobiography of Mohandas K Gandhi, which was a frank exploration of his own spiritual muddling through, so the idea of ahimsa did inform my own muddling. And though I remain tentative and agnostic about the bigger questions, my evidence-based view of the world forced me to shed the self-serving superstitions of speciesism and see a world of minds, human and animal.
Although we think of the Śramaṇas - the Jains and Buddhists and others - as a “spiritual” movement now, I think we need to imagine the time. They lived in an inexplicable world, and they were trying to reject the ad hoc superstitions of Brahmin ceremonies in favour of something more logically consistent. In western terms had as much in common with Plato and Socrates as they did with the mysticism of - say - the Orphic mystery religions. (They’re in episode three.)
But despite that, amazingly, there was a fully atheist and materialist school of thought - the Lokayatas - at the same time as the best-known teachers of Jains, Buddhists, and Ājīvikas. The Buddhist scriptures quote the Lokayata teacher saying of humans “The four bearers take his dead body away; till they reach the burning ground, men utter forth eulogies, but there his bones are bleached, and his offerings end in ashes. … Fools and wise alike, on the dissolution of the body, are cut off, annihilated, and after death they are not.”
You start the first episode right at the beginning of human history. We hear from James Serpell who theorizes that some early human hunting rituals developed as a way to manage or dispel the guilt of killing an animal. Can you explain this idea and if you find it convincing?
He put out a convincing argument that it’s there in some surviving hunter gatherer cultures, at least. From my research there seem to be a wide range of beliefs that hunter gatherers have about their prey animals; in one case that if they’re not hunted, the spirits of the herd will feel ignored and the herd will go away. So it’s in their interests to be hunted!
But it seems perfectly logical to me for a hunter to worry about the feelings of the prey.
You’re in a hunter-gatherer band. You see personhood in the thunder and the wind as well as other animals, because you’re human, and humans tend to see everything as a social interaction. As well as being a predator, you also know what it’s like to be prey - both to tiny insects and apex predators like big cats. (Omnivores who boast about being top of the food chain, as if it were their personal achievement, forget this. Humans are not top of the food chain. Ecologically, we are a mid-rank predator who cheats.)
So you need to deal with the possibility of prey taking revenge. And if you believe in life after death, you’ve got to deal with the possibility of prey taking revenge afterwards.
It doesn’t require that much intelligence to consider that other animals don’t want to be eaten. But it does require a certain level of resource to be able to make a positive choice not to eat them.
Even if early humans were ambivalent about the act of killing animals, it wasn’t until around the 5th century BCE that vegetarianism arose. Do you have any insight as to why these ideas emerged when they did?
These are mysterious movements that appear already-vegetarian out of the mists of history. For example, we don’t know how exactly when the Jains became strictly vegetarian - whether that was centuries before the life of Mahavir, or even centuries afterwards. And the Orphics, being a mystery religion, make a point of leaving us clueless what was going on in the Thracian wildlands.
Some historians talk about an “axial age” in which urbanisation, writing, and a money-based economy came together to support an intelligentsia that could discuss questions of philosophy - not just in India and Greece, but also the hundred schools of China and the prophets of Israel.
Whatever ethics are put into expression and practice in the ancient world, they only become part of history when someone writes them down - and the writing survives. So the history of vegetarianism cannot begin until someone is passing their story down, either by recitation or (preferably) writing. And then it has to survive to the present - through the decay of palm-leaf manuscripts in the warmth of India, and the dark ages of Europe.
In the first episode you encounter a few contradictory perspectives on the history of Jainism. As a PhD with a background in science how did you deal with the somewhat messy and ‘open to interpretation’ nature of historical research?
Science can also be messy and open to interpretation! But covering the controversies of early Indian religion, I had to step back a bit more and let the experts speak for themselves, as long as I could explain them. “Due impartiality” meant reflecting a range of opinions but leaving the audience in no doubt where secular historians stood.
But with science, I am more able to “call a story”, and report a finding.
The early Greek proponents of vegetarianism, like Pythagoras, were also informed by a belief in reincarnation. How do their ideas differ from the early vegetarians in India?
I think, sadly, the absence of ahimsa doctrines. The Pythagoreans initially share many of the same concerns - such as not eating your relatives - but without the same obvious concern for other animals in earliest sources. But that does seem to change quickly.
Eventually your series must ‘come home’ to the UK and discuss the origins of the modern vegetarian and vegan movement. Do you see this phase of vegetarian history as an expression of enlightenment values and what if any values remain constant in the movement today?
The very early movement is quite the opposite - it’s very much an expression of reactionary Romantic values - they owe inspiration to Percy Bysshe Shelley and other Romantic poets, as well as mystical Christian figures like Boehme.
Politically, they’re also very much of the enlightenment - the Salford vegetarian Bible Christian Church was also involved in liberal causes like the abolition (of slavery) and civic works like libraries and graveyards. The chair of the meeting that set up the Vegetarian Society was also the first MP to speak in Parliament against the death penalty. And the café where a handful of activists met in 1944 to set up the breakaway Vegan Society was also the headquarters for the Women’s Freedom League, the main feminist organisation.
That kind of intersectionalism is definitely still happening today.
Your program is about the history of vegetarianism. What do you anticipate being the future of vegetarianism?
Well that is the spoiler, isn’t it? I’m not sure. Ask me again in a year!
Thanks to Ian for taking the time to talk to us about the project. If you’re interested in listening to Vegetarianism: The Story So Far you can find the first two episodes on the SoundCloud page, in your favourite podcast client via The Vegan Option’s feed, or on The Vegan Option website. Or, if you really can’t wait, the teaser and the first two episodes can be played directly below.
Teaser: A Vegetarian Animal Rights Protest in Iron Age India?
Episode One: Ahimsa
Episode Two: The Midde Path
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