The words vegan and vegetarian may look similar.
Both begin with ‘veg’ and end with ‘an’.
Some people do actually think those words mean the same.
But they have very different meanings.
Vegetarian refers to a diet that omits animal flesh but may include animal by-products such as dairy and eggs. Some people who may not know about the vegan diet may also use the term vegetarian to describe a fully plant-based diet.
Vegan or veganism is a philosophy or lifestyle that excludes all forms of animals as commodities as far as is possible and practicable.
A Brief History of Vegetarianism
History is important because it teaches us about the past. And by learning about the past, you come to understand the present, so that you may make educated decisions about the future.
Jainism in Ancient India
Spiritual teachers in Jainism advocated ahimsa (the principle of nonviolence) and Jain vegetarianism (spiritually motivated diet) around the 8th century BCE.
Jain vegetarianism essentially excludes all animal products except dairy. But even so, dairy animals in ancient India were well-cared for and not killed.
Jains also do not consume root vegetables like potatoes and onions. They believe that a tuber’s ability to sprout is seen as a characteristic of a higher being. Moreover, tiny organisms are injured when the plant is pulled up. Jains regard small animals as highly as big ones. Some monks were not even allowed to walk on the grass so as to not hurt small insects.
The Orphius and Pythagoras in Ancient Greece
Vegetarianism was also practised in ancient Greece, particularly by the followers of Orphism.
The Greek philosopher Pythagoras—creator of the Pythagorean Theorum—may have advocated for strict vegetarianism. However, there’s no recorded evidence as his life was very private.
Buddhism in China
During the Song Dynasty in China (960 – 1279 CE), Buddhists cuisines created and popularised meat analogues that are available today i.e. tofu, seitan and konjac.
Buddhists have been known to abstain from eating meat especially during religious occasions, but not all are vegetarians.
The origins of Buddhist vegetarianism is not so clear but there are records dating back to 257 BCE.
Vegetarianism in Europe
What’s interesting to note is that the earliest recorded vegetarians mostly lived in Asia and the Mediterranean. There seems to be little to no concept of a vegetarian diet in the West prior to the 13th century.
The Christianization of the Roman Empire nearly erased the concept of vegetarianism in Europe and other parts of the world except for India. But it revived during the Renaissance period.
Vegetarianism then became widespread in the 19th century, especially in Europe.
In 1847, the Vegetarian Society was formed in the UK to promote meat-free diets.
Interestingly, the founding members were also part of the Bible Christian Church with a belief in a meat-free, ovo-lacto vegetarian diet as a form of temperance (voluntary self-restraint).
How Veganism Came About
a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
Vegetarianism is mostly about diet and largely spiritually motivated.
Veganism is centred around the non-exploitation of animals in all forms. So it’s not just a diet, but a lifestyle that does not consume animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
You may hear of people who go vegan for their health or the environment.
This is because veganism not only benefits the animals but also our health and the environment. Some consider this as the positive “side effect” of veganism.
Veganism may have sprouted in the 20th century. But it might have already been practised within Buddhism.
Different Buddhist sects practice vegetarianism in different ways. So there might have been Buddhists who practised the vegan diet many thousand years ago.
But since animals back then were treated relatively better than they are now, there wasn’t really a cause for veganism.
However, there was one prominent philosopher who was outspoken about animal rights.
Al-Ma’arri: One Of The Earliest Known Vegans
Al-Ma’arri (973 – 1057 CE) was an Arab philosopher, poet and writer. He advocated social justice and lived a secluded, ascetic lifestyle—opposing all forms of violence. In his later years, probably after much study and observation, he chose to give up consuming meat and other animal products.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs; for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this;
and wish that I Perceived my way before my hair went gray!
Clearly, this was a vegan and animal rights sentiment.
But back in his day, it was known as moral vegetarianism.
Types of Vegetarianism
We now know that vegetarianism has its roots in religion and spirituality. Few like Al-Ma’arri practised moral vegetarianism which is modern veganism with principles based on nonviolence and animal rights.
The following is a brief summary of the different kinds of vegetarian diets that are prominently practised.
Spiritually Motivated Vegetarians
Jains do not eat animal products except dairy. They also don’t eat root vegetables such as potatoes and onions. Mushrooms and yeasts are a no-no as well, as their growth conditions are deemed unhygienic.
Most Buddhist Vegetarians practice a meat-free, ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. One sect from Taiwan also excludes vegetables in the allium family i.e. onion, garlic, scallions, leeks, chives and shallots.
The Sattvic Diet is a vegetarian diet based on Ayurvedic principles. It’s popular among yoga enthusiasts. The diet includes dairy and honey but excludes over-stimulating and “weakening” foods such as eggs, alliums, durians, fermented foods, fried foods, and caffeine.
Vegetarian Diet Classification
These are the broad types of meat-free, vegetarian diets:
Vegan: No meat, dairy and eggs
Ovo-lacto: Includes dairy and eggs; no meat
Ovo: Includes eggs; no meat and dairy
Lacto: Includes dairy; no meat and eggs
It’s interesting that the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan” were coined by Britons.
Jain vegetarians may not have called themselves vegetarian as they may have a different word in their language. I’m curious as to why they include dairy in their diet. But I assume that it has got to do with their religious practice.
I was also surprised to find out about Al-Ma’arri who was a staunch vegan in the 11th century!
Back in those days, there may not have been much cause for veganism considering factory farming did not exist.
But as Al-Ma’arri observed, animals were being used and eaten in his time and he saw the pain that such actions caused. I wonder what his vegan diet was like and where he got his B12.
I used to think that the term “vegetarian” should exclusively mean a fully plant-based diet, like what veganism is. The word itself derives from “vegetables” and “agrarian”. So eggs and dairy shouldn’t even be in the picture.
But there’s really no point in arguing about this when there are other terms available. At this point, I’ve come to appreciate the distinction of veganism from vegetarianism as more than just a diet.
Vegetarianism represents the different kinds of diet that are meat-free. By this definition, veganism is under the umbrella of vegetarianism in terms of diet. However, veganism can be a standalone category as it’s not merely a diet but a lifestyle upholding animal rights while benefiting our health and that of the environment.