In May 1891, the London Vegetarian Society held a meeting in Portsmouth. Present were not just English, but also two Indian members, T.T. Majumdar and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, both students of law in London. For Gandhi, later one of the leading figures in the Indian independence movement, membership in the London Vegetarian Society was a formative experience. It allowed him to discover vegetarianism as an ethically motivated choice and integrate it into a philosophy of non-violence. The encounter was not a singular instance. It was part of a larger entanglement between European vegetarianism and India.
In order to buttress what was then a fringe lifestyle, vegetarians in Europe made frequent reference to meat abstention in other parts of the world. Particularly the figure of the “merciful Hindoo”, as John Oswald, author of one of the first tracts on vegetarianism, put it in 1791, loomed large in the vegetarian imagination. In India, by contrast, interest in European vegetarianism only developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Vegetarianism itself could look back on a far longer tradition. In Hinduism, many animals were revered as divine, most of all cows, whose meat was anathema to any pious Hindu, while the use of their products, including their excreta, was enjoined for human use and purification. Vegetarianism, which excluded meat and eggs and sometimes garlic and onion, but included dairy products and occasionally fish, was influential in the Brahmin elite, the Jain and Parsi communities. Widows and students were likewise expected to embrace it. Muslims, lower caste individuals, and people without caste affiliation (Dalits) were rarely vegetarians. Because of their consumption of meat, they were considered morally and physically impure. But vegetarianism also changed over time. During the colonial era, the consumption of meat became a symbol of muscular nationalism for parts of the Western-oriented Indian elite. Some castes striving for upward social mobility turned to vegetarianism. Moreover, vegetarianism and militant cow protection assumed center stage in an emerging Hindu nationalist movement.
In the context of these developments, vegetarianism acquired new meanings and new rationales. In part, these came into effect through personal encounters and networks. Again, the example of Gandhi in London is instructive. One of the sources through which Gandhi acquired knowledge about Western vegetarianism was the Theosophical Society, an esoteric community whose belief system merged aspects of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other faiths. While Gandhi encountered their teachings in London, they had established themselves in India in the late 1870s, where they also attracted some Brahmins and Parsis. Many theosophists practiced vegetarianism, and some founded vegetarian associations with Indians in the late 1880s, a time that also saw the formation of a Hindu nationalist movement. Despite their divergent traditions, British and Indian vegetarians active in these organizations found common ground on a number of issues. Many of them were critical of colonial rule, advocated sexual restraint and abstention from alcohol. Apart from these personal encounters, vegetarian organizations in India and in England entered into contact via correspondence, affiliations, and exchange of literature.
Thus European and Indian vegetarianism came to be entangled not just on a personal, but also on a discursive level, most obviously by the use of the term “vegetarianism” by Indian authors. Writings on vegetarianism, whether European or Indian, drew on a variety of sources both religious and scientific. Apart from the Bible and the teachings of Buddhism, European authors referred to the traditions of Hinduism, which had often been conferred to them either through Theosophical sources or through the very specific perspectives of members of the Brahmin elite. Indian authors, too, often drew on Western interpretations of Hindu religious writings, including Theosophical ones. They also made occasional reference to the Bible and the Qur‘an, attempting to show that Hindu religious norms were applicable to all religions.
But even in India, religion alone was no longer considered a sufficient basis for vegetarianism. Thus Indian authors resorted to Western sources to emphasize similarities in the anatomy of human beings and “vegetarian” animals. They made reference to Western medicine to argue that the consumption of meat caused illnesses such as cancer. They quoted research from the new science of nutrition to show that human beings needed less protein than assumed. At times these appropriations were rather inventive, as when Justus von Liebig, inventor of beef extract, was turned into an ardent advocate of vegetarianism. At their most creative, Indian authors insisted that the ideas of Western science had already been propagated by the anonymous authors of the Indian vedas. Most notably, this was asserted for two branches of science central to vegetarian discourse in both Western and Indian writings: evolutionary and racial theory.
Although vegetarianism in India was not a matter of choice to the same extent as in Europe, both European and Indian authors harboured utopian visions. The consumption of meat was thought to increase individual and collective propensity towards alcohol, sex, and aggressiveness, weaken a nation’s “collective body”, and, ultimately, give rise to wars and colonialism. Abstaining from meat, on the other hand, would bring about a peaceful and healthy society. It would help create a new “race”, a better version of humankind. Some European authors even referred to this new branch of humankind as a “higher caste.” Hence parts of vegetarian discourse were related to the new field of eugenics, and more specifically “positive” eugenics: improving humankind, or parts of it, through selection before birth. Who, then, was to be excluded in the process of selection? Hardly surprising, those who indulged in meat, and particularly those who practiced apparently more cruel forms of slaughter. Indian authors tended to point towards Muslims, European authors towards Jews. Both availed themselves of the same form of ritual slaughter: cutting animal’s aortae in order to fully bleed them before slaughter, a practice actually meant to lessen animals’ pain. Muslims and Jews, therefore, were rarely extolled as models when authors on vegetarianism pointed towards foodways in other parts of the world. In India, Muslims were actively campaigned against by parts of the cow protection movement, some of whose adherents did (and do) not hesitate to attack and even kill Muslims or Dalits suspected of consuming or selling beef.
It was thus not as coincidental as it might seem at first that a young Indian student of law in Britain entered the London Vegetarian Society, that he successfully shaped vegetarianism as a symbol of the Indian independence movement, and that he became a central figure to vegetarians worldwide. What is more surprising is that European vegetarians in India lent their knowledge to emerging communal tendencies, and that a movement associated with equality and non-violence also had tendencies towards hierarchy, exclusion, and aggression. In India, these may be observed until the present. Under the government of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Muslims and Dalits are discriminated against increasingly in the name of cow protection, a development recently culminating in the lynching of a sixteen-year old Muslim boy on the end of Ramadan on a train from Delhi – a crime that gave rise to an India-wide grassroots movement in which Hindus and Muslims protested side by side against communal violence.