For millennia, abstaining from animal flesh has been an aspect of a variety of religions. However, the word "vegetarianism"—to describe a self-conscious diet of grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, with or without eggs and dairy products—is only 150 years old. Since the 1960s, the substantial growth of vegetarianism has been related to the emergence of new religious movements or the discovery and reclamation of established religious practices that highlight vegetarianism. Traditionally, religious reasons for adopting vegetarianism include asceticism; belief in reincarnation; respect for all beings; a belief that meat-eating causes "heaviness" in the body, impeding one's spirituality; and an ethic of nonviolence.
The idea of ahimsā (nonviolence) influences the practice of vegetarianism in Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Only Jainism requires it as a practice, but it has been followed extensively by Buddhists and to a more limited degree by Hindus. Many Americans, influenced by the example of Mahatma Gandhi's life, embraced vegetarianism. Others, influenced by the music of the Beatles and George Harrison, gravitated to Hinduism and in its law of karma found a motivation for vegetarianism. Recent interest in Yoga has fostered vegetarianism as well. Besides serving vegetarian foods, Yoga centers may promote vegetarianism as essential to the practice of Yoga because texts such as Patanjali's Yoga Sutras recommend ahimsā.
Distinctly American religious groups took a different route to vegetarianism. For example, the Seventh-day Adventists were influenced by the nineteenth-century American health movement. When Ellen G. White revealed that she had received a divine message extolling vegetarianism, she set in motion the development not only of a religious tradition of abstinence (approximately 50 percent of current Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarian) but also vegetarian food industries, whose products—meat analogues—are now widely available. Other American influences on the growth of vegetarianism include the anti–Vietnam War movement of the 1960s (some antiwar activists began to regard eating meat as a form of carnage); Dick Gregory's activism (which incorporated vegetarianism into the civil rights movement's nonviolent ethics); the emergence of a feminist spirituality movement in the 1970s (featuring vegetarian and ecofeminist sensibility); a concern about world hunger (galvanized by Frances Moore Lappe's 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet); and the 1990s straight-edge music scene, which actively promotes veganism (a totally vegetarian diet). Each of these demonstrated the interweaving of the political and spiritual in fostering a new dietary ethic.
Finally, spiritually motivated vegetarianism has included revisiting established religions such as Christianity and Judaism and rediscovering their vegetarian elements. In the numerous books they have written on the topic since the 1960s, Jewish and Christian vegetarians argue that their traditions require abstention from meat, pointing to Genesis 1:29 and other biblical sources that show that vegetarianism is the ideal state.
American exposure to vegetarianism has often occurred through vegetarian restaurants run by religiously associated groups such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Yogi Bhajau's Healthy-Happy-Holy (3HO) organization, Buddhist societies, Seventh-day Adventists, and other Christians (one restaurant was simply called Genesis 1:29), as well as "Buddha's Delight," a staple in Chinese restaurants. In addition, health concerns, environmental issues, the existence of "factory farms"—which have industrialized the rearing of animals for their flesh—and the 1987 book that highlighted these issues, John Robbins's Diet for a New America, have been credited with the growth in the number of vegetarians. During the 1990s, these reasons for vegetarianism have prompted reactions against many formal religions that are viewed as conservative and regressive about vegetarianism. Instead, for many individuals, vegetarianism and veganism may displace an established religion in that they feature their own forms of conversion, revealed experience, and mores.
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Carol J. Adams