In May 1891, the London Vegetarian Society held a meeting in Portsmouth. Present were not just English, but also two Indian members, TT 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 were rarely vegetarians. Because of their consumption of meat, they were considered morally and physically impure.

Gandhi at the Vegetarian Society in London in 1931. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 centre 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.

Common beliefs

Despite their divergent traditions, British and Indian vegetarians active in these organisations 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 organisations 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.

The Cow as Mother of all Deities. Credit: Ravi Varma Press, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 Quran, 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 emphasise 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.

Inventive appropriations

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 changes in lifestyle. This would automatically render obsolete and inferior those who did not embrace this reformed lifestyle.

Who, then, were these groups? 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 not hesitate to attack and even kill Muslims or Dalits suspected of consuming or selling beef.

Elite, upper caste values

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. European vegetarians’ conflation of India with Brahmin values was not all that surprising, either. Brahmin elites were among the most powerful cultural intermediaries in colonial knowledge production in India.

Although Western vegetarians were often critics of social hierarchies, advocating women’s rights, democracy (rather than monarchy), and social reform in terms up “uplifting” working-class people, they clearly saw themselves as a moral elite. They would form the core of a new humankind; they would be the ones to wean members of the working class off their alleged immoral lifestyle. At the same time, Western vegetarians embraced positions often ridiculed by the majority of society.

No wonder some of them approved of the caste system in which, according to Brahmin views, vegetarians were at the top while meat eaters appeared to be at the very bottom. Despite these exchanges, vegetarianism in Europe and in India continued to be embedded in different contexts.

The exchange of knowledge between actors in both parts of the world did not lead to a congruent or coherent body of knowledge. Exchange was not the only aspect of this encounter. Misunderstandings occurred. Certain parts of knowledge did not travel. Nonetheless, actors continued to be in contact. When the International Vegetarian Union finally organised its first congress outside Europe in 1957, it took place in India.

Julia Hauser is a professor at the University of Kassel, Germany.

This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared on Food, Fatness and Fitness: Critical Perspectives.