Updated: May 26, 2022
“Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without the science that I’ve discussed, that something terribly wrong is happening. Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it in a dark place in our memory – disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own”
– Jonathan San Foer, Eating Animals
I travelled around Southeast Asia, Nepal and India within my first six months of adopting veganism. In many places, particularly Nepal and India a menu was divided into ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ options. This gave me the impression that ordering from the ‘non-veg’ options made one part of the ‘out-group’. Indeed this is a population of people who are mostly Hindu, don’t eat meat and believe cows are holy. I had curries in India I still dream about.
Spirituality is a term closely associated with religion, of which the “big five” world religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I studied these in my first year at university but I have recently started personal study into what various religions say about food choices.
Hinduism: As mentioned, vegetarianism is an integral part of most schools of Hinduism although there are a wide variety of practices and beliefs that have changed over time. Some sects of Hinduism do not observe vegetarianism/veganism.
Jainism: is an ancient Indian religion of which the central tenet is respect towards all living beings. One of the three main principles of Jainism is ahimsa (“non-violence”). Read more on ahimsa in my blog What is Jivamukti yoga?
Hare Krishna: Hare Krishnas are all vegetarians and some are vegan. They serve free vegetarian meals, every Sunday wherever they have a group, anywhere in the world.
Buddhism: Modern Buddhist attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by school and location. In China and Vietnam, monks typically do not meat. In Japan or Korea some schools do not eat meat, while most do. In Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia Buddhists do not practice vegetarianism. Whilst there are no accurate statistics, it has been estimated that worldwide about half of all Buddhists are vegetarian. The Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying “I’m a Tibetan monk, not a vegetarian.” Yep…
Taoism: Taoism is the oldest religion in China, of which yin-yang thought began as an attempt to answer the question of the origin of the universe. Veganism (with the inclusion of oyster products) is commonly practiced by Taoist monks and some followers of Taoism.
Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam): Vegetarianism is not promoted by mainstream authorities although in all these faiths there are sub-groups and denominations actively promoting vegetarianism on religious grounds. Most Jewish religious feasts such as Sukkot and Pesach (Passover) has a ritual slaughter – meat is commonly the centrepiece of the feast – whilst some grains and legumes are abstained from. Despite this one can be both a Jew and a vegetarian.
The Torah (and Genesis 1:29-30 in the Bible) records God as saying: ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.’ So Judaism teaches that vegan was the original, and presumably ideal, diet for humans. A non-meat diet harmonises with the Jewish mitzvoth requirements ‘bal tashit’ (not destroying), ‘shmirat haguf’ (defending our bodies) and ‘tsa’ar ba’alei chayim’ (being kind to animals). Several chief rabbis are strict vegetarian, as well as the Jewish intellectual genius Albert Einstein.
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security” —Albert Einstein
Christianity has the largest religious following in Australia, so I spent some time on it. In Christianity there is great diversity in beliefs about food choices. Some Christians believe in “fruitarianism” a subset of raw veganism, originating from the belief that Adam and Eve had this diet (fruits, nuts and seeds) before “the fall” when sin and death came upon the world. Other Christians may subscribe to lacto-vegetarianism described in 1 Corinthians 3:2 “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready”. In my view, most Australian Christians follow a standard diet, promoted by Australian society and culture. It seems Christians often overlook Gods message within the first thirty lines of the Bible (Genesis 1:29-30) and cite later passages within the Bible that imply man’s domination over animals and “permission” to eat them. But it appears that Christian theologians are rediscovering the links between our dietary and spiritual choices. Many are arguing that vegetarianism and veganism is the diet most compatible with Christian values like mercy and compassion. Anglican priest and Oxford professor Andrew Linzey, Ph.D. argues that “to stand with Jesus is to … honor life for the sake of the Lord of life … to stand for Jesus is to stand for active compassion for the weak, against the principle that might is right.”
The following excerpt is from the Christian Vegetarian Association:
Proverbs 12:10 teaches, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast,” and Psalm 145:9 reminds us that “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” The Bible describes God’s concern for animals (Exod. 23:5; Matt. 10:29, 12:11–12, 18:12–14) and forbids cruelty (Deut. 22:10, 25:4). Animals praise God (Psalms 148:7–10, 150:6) and are present in eternity (Isa. 65:25; Rev. 5:13). Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful” (Matt 5:7), yet no mercy is shown for nearly all farmed animals. Should the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) – treat others as you would like others to treat you – guide how we treat animals?
Seven Day Adventists: The most prominent of the vegetarian-oriented Christian groups is the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church. Its founder and prophet Ellen White, was vegetarian; the church officially promotes lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, though fewer than half of its members practice it, whilst other branches practice veganism. These religious food choices originate from the idea of food being an integral part of healing the mind, body and spirit.
Pantheism: Pantheism is the belief that all reality is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing God. Pantheists thus do not believe in a distinct personal or anthropomorphic god. Although there is no doctrine or imperative for pantheists, their reverence of the natural world would probably encourage them to adopt a vegan diet, in view of the environmental arguments in favour of it.
Spirituality as a term has largely been bastardised. I recently learnt of the term spiritual materialism, which was coined to describe mistakes spiritual seekers commit in equating spirituality into an ego building endeavour, as ego development is counter to spiritual progress. New age bookstores and wealthy lecturers on spirituality might be used as an attempt to build up a list of credentials or accumulate teachings in order to present oneself as a more realised or holy person. Learning of spiritual materialism got me thinking about how my community and culture interprets and responds to vegan values and beliefs.
I recall being in New Zealand with Patrick a few years ago. Anyone who has been to Queenstown on the South Island is familiar with Ferg Burger – a burger joint with God-like status. My approach to veganism has always been that it is liberating, not restrictive, so I will often eat at places even when there is only one thing on the menu for me to eat. With time I have found that I can do this and still feel content and abundant. It so happened that this was the case at Ferg Burger, I had one option, an incredibly tasty burger called Holier than Thou. Reflecting on this, I believe that most people see vegans as having or even pretending to have more spiritual credentials, which I personally don’t believe to be the case.
Is Veganism a Religion?
Will Tuttle, author of The World Peace Diet and as far as I can see, the spokesperson of spiritual veganism, thinks veganism is a religion, or at least will soon be recognised as such. Indeed ethical veganism is legally recognised in some states of America as a religious or personal freedom. One may abstain from consuming animal products on spiritual or religious grounds as one is repulsed by the concept of ingesting suffering, anger, death and disease. Or, like me, as one's veganism deepens over time, one begins to adhere to veganism as a spiritual practice and discipline.
“Just as there are stages in the spiritual life of people on a spiritual path, there are stages in our practice of veganism as a spiritual path… We begin with what I refer to as the shallow vegan stage, where we are shaky in our understanding of vegan philosophy and practice, and have a lot to learn. If we are able to survive this vulnerable first stage, we arrive at the second stage, which is the stage typically that I refer to as the angry vegan and/or the closet vegan. Though we’ve learned and absorbed enough to be able to live in a healthy way as vegans in our culture, because we are in such a small minority, we find ourselves often angry, outraged, and disappointed by the attitudes and actions of our neighbours, or we are afraid of being rejected, and become closet vegans. Beyond these stages lie the more psychologically and spiritually satisfying stages that I refer to as deep veganism” – Will Tuttle
My personal study for this piece has taken me to some weird and wonderful corners of the internet and taught me a few terms I have never heard of, one of which is devotional veganism.
“The following doctrine of Devotional Veganism lays out the universally recognisable life principles of Devotional Veganism that we know and live by with conviction and devotion.
All living beings have inherent value and shall be given due consideration
Participation in or contribution to or facilitation of the following, which are recognized as bad, shall be conscientiously avoided:
Harming a living being
Exploiting a living being
Adversely affecting the wellbeing of a living being
Doing to a living being that which the living being would want not done to self
A follower of this doctrine may refer to Devotional Veganism as the person’s religion and refer to self as a Devotional Vegan. The religion of Devotional Veganism is about what Devotional Vegans know and live by, and not just about veganism as a diet and/or lifestyle. Not all vegans are Devotional Vegans. Not all Devotional Vegans are vegans (but most usually are). A Devotional Vegan is not forbidden from following other religions in addition to Devotional Veganism as long as they adhere to the principles of Devotional Veganism if and when there is a conflict in the religions.”
Spirituality is something I have historically intellectualised. But there are no words that could ever describe the feeling in my heart when I am reading religious scriptures, walking through a mosque in India, reading scientific literature about the vastness of the Universe, sitting in worship at a church, on my yoga mat with sweat dripping off my body, or walking home from work into the sun, smelling the flowers and being aware of myself in time and space. I am of the belief that regardless of whether you identify with a religion or not, whether you identify yourself as having a relationship with a personal God, nature, the Universe or Ferg Burger; whether you are a human or a non-human animal – we are all spiritual seekers, all imperfect, all sacred.
Thanks for reading,
References and Resources
The World Peace Diet – Will Tuttle, Ph.D
The Compassionate Animal: An Interfaith Guide to the Extended Circle of Compassion – Barbara Gardner
Christianity and Vegetarianism from Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA): http://www.all-creatures.org/cva/honoring.htm
God, Christianity and Meat: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-freston/religion-vegetarianism-_b_3874652.html
Why I am a Christian Vegan: http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2013/november/why-im-christian-vegan.html?start=2
Why it Matters That Ontario Legally Recognized Ethical Veganism: http://www.care2.com/causes/why-it-matters-that-ontario-legally-recognized-ethical-veganism.html
Veganism in world religions: http://vegan.wikia.com/wiki/Religion
Is Veganism a Religion: https://www.idausa.org/veganism-religion