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.
Europeans read with amazement about hospitals given over entirely to the care of animals
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.
‘The moral progress of humanity, Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1892, ‘is always slow’ and Kircher’s intolerance seems to eclipse Voltaire’s openness in the food debates of our own, secular age. If the skin and entrails in the royal kitchen of Voltaire’s fancy are capable of disgusting us, what of factory farms? I am puzzled by the lack of outrage. The occasional book or documentary film; pleas by writers such as the Anglican priest Andrew Linzey and the American journalist Matthew Scully; scattered protests by activists: all of these vanish before the colossal budgets spent to make the slaughter of animals on an industrial scale appear perfectly acceptable.
In 2009, a Gallup poll found that 96 per cent of Americans believe ‘that animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation’. But it’s hard to see this as anything but paradoxical when the dispensability of animal life is so central to the American food system. A theoretical attachment to the idea of animal rights does not mean that we recognise the essential point: that animals have the desire to live and we, being superior to them, have the agency to recognise it and the potential to honour it.
It is one thing to proclaim yourself indifferent to animal rights altogether. Such a person does not pretend to care. I am much less sympathetic to those who attempt to reconcile animal rights and meat-eating by proclaiming themselves ethical, organic carnivores — who only eat ‘humanely’ slaughtered animals. Especially repellent is the way meat-eating is glamourised among food writers and celebrity cooks. When the author BR Myers surveyed the writing produced by some of our most revered gourmets he revealed a remarkable lack of concern about the brutal reality of animal slaughter. In her memoir Blood, Bones and Butter (2011), the chef Gabrielle Hamilton wrote: ‘It’s quite something to go bare-handed up through an animal’s ass and dislodge its warm guts.’ The food critic Jeffrey Steingarten vividly detailed the 20 long minutes it took four men to kill a pig, while British chef Fergus Henderson revels in eating the whole pig, Nose to Tail. It’s not difficult to find this almost lascivious approach to handling fresh meat and animal organs: it is ubiquitous in cookery shows on television, the recipes and columns in Sunday newspapers, and in the advertisements that reach us through every medium.
Against a backdrop of such carnage, tossing a haughty epithet at McDonald’s or eating only the flesh of ‘ethically raised’ animals barely registers as tokenism
Some food writers even argue that it would be irresponsible to allow livestock varieties to die out, and this would be the consequence of a vegetarian revolution in eating habits. This is cruelty masquerading as concern. It’s an argument Matthew Scully heard frequently as he travelled through America to research his book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (2002). ‘The worst thing you can do in North Carolina,’ a farmer told Scully when asked why he wouldn’t free his pigs, ‘is leave animals in the cold.’ It seems to me that the worst thing you can do to pigs is to raise them for slaughter and keep them in intensive factory farms along the way.
More than 53 billion land animals will be slaughtered this year to feed our appetites. Against a backdrop of such carnage, tossing a haughty epithet at McDonald’s or eating only the flesh of ‘ethically raised’ animals barely registers as tokenism. Vegans have decided that the only acceptable response is to give up all animal products. We can ridicule them, but for all the apparent severity of their philosophy, they give expression to our finest instincts. The truth is, nobody now needs to eat meat, wear fur or use animal products in order to survive. We treat animals the way we do because we can.
In the summer of 2004, Americans across the US observed the centennial of the late great Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer’s writing, rooted firmly in the Hasidic traditions of pre-war Poland, transcended its origins and brought, as the Swedish Academy said when it awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978, ‘universal human conditions to life’. But in event after event in 2004, Americans succeeded in applauding Singer while neglecting the central concern of his life, the only subject that ever became his ‘religion’: our treatment of animals and the self-deceptions that sustain it.
No other writer or activist in the 19th or 20th century, not even Gandhi or Tolstoy, was as deeply affected by the condition of animals as Singer. It’s a theme that permeates his entire oeuvre: almost every one of his major characters is either a vegetarian or is about to become one. Take Herman Broder, the Holocaust survivor and irrepressible roué in the novel Enemies, a Love Story (1966). When offered a rooster, he refuses: ‘For some time now he had been thinking of becoming a vegetarian.’ Singer wryly draws attention to the irony of our most intimate rituals, in which human suffering and emancipation are memorialised over the flesh of tortured animals. ‘A fish from the Hudson river or some lake,’ he writes, ‘had paid with its life so that Herman should be reminded of the miracles of the exodus from Egypt. A chicken had donated its neck to the commemoration of the Passover sacrifice.’
One commemorative event, in Pennsylvania, did remind participants of ‘Singer’s strict vegetarian diet’, but the philosophical underpinnings of his choice were left unexamined. It was liable to be seen as a simple dietary preference, a personal quirk. But as Janet Hadda reminds us in her biography Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life (1997), ‘his determination not to eat flesh was connected to post-Holocaust feelings of revulsion against human cruelty, misuse of power, and disregard for life.’ She continues: ‘During the crucial years of the Holocaust, Bashevis came to believe that, by eating meat, he was condoning the killing of innocent living things.’ Singer himself explained that seeing ‘how little attention people pay to animals, and how easily they make peace with man being allowed to do with animals whatever he wants’ brought him ‘misery’. It ‘exemplified’, in his eyes, ‘the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right’. This is probably why in ‘The Letter Writer’, a short story published in 1968, Singer described the reality of animals as ‘an eternal Treblinka’.
Such a comparison is unthinkable to many. At the time of his centennial in 2004, Singer was damned by Allan Nadler, director of Jewish Studies at Drew University, for eating blintzes and dreaming of ‘Polish whores and Yiddish devils’ while others were ‘fighting Nazis with the partisans in the Lithuanian woods’. But Singer, whose mother and younger brother perished in Soviet labour camps, was not belittling the Holocaust: he was invoking it to cast light on humanity’s capacity to commit limitless atrocities against the powerless, without so much as wrinkling its own exalted self-image.
The extraordinary technological leaps of our own time have confirmed human dominance over the natural world as never before. But, as Isaac Bashevis Singer taught, this is at best a fragile insurance against unreason, and technological progress has never prevented us from plunging abruptly into chaos and carnage. Humans have always shown immense capacity for destructiveness, but also for reform and restraint. We should strive to temper our dominion with mercy and compassion. To insist on this, as some in our midst do, is not to hate humanity. It is to urge a more empathetic manifestation of our authority in hope that, by becoming responsive to the suffering of those over whom we have the power of life and death, we may escape our primordial propensity for violence altogether.