Plant-based Populations

The Mahatma Gandhi chose vegetarianism based not solely on his cultural heritage but also on his beliefs about humanity and moral strength. He said: "I do feel that spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants." For Gandhi, what began as a vow to his vegetarian mother to abstain from eating meat evolved into a deep understanding about human will, ethics, religion and health.

While some choose a plant-based diet for health or environmental reasons, deeply rooted spiritual beliefs tie vegetarianism to several world religions and cultures. Preceding Gandhi's meatless mission were ancient historical figures like Pythagoras of Samos and Gautama Buddha, who stated that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion."

Although several modern interpretations of a vegetarian lifestyle exist today (from solely avoiding meat and/or sea animals to extreme veganism that excludes all animal products and by-products), for many, vegetarianism's origins lie profoundly in religion, spirituality and nonviolence (or ahimsa in India) toward animals.

Food and Faith in Ancient India

Religion and vegetarianism are strongly tied to faiths originating from ancient India. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism are three examples of Eastern religions that encourage or mandate that devotees follow a vegetarian diet.

Hindus and Buddhists are not universally vegetarian, but major paths in both faiths consider it ideal. Evident throughout Hindu text is a strong respect for animal life. Cows are particularly revered and even identified in certain scriptures as the mother of all civilization. The esteemed cow provides milk and dairy foods, transportation and religious inspiration to millions of Hindus in India. Some sects like the Hare Krishnas, abstain from eating meat, fish and fowl, as well as vegetables like onions, garlic and mushrooms; since these foods grow underground they're "in the mode of darkness (ignorance)" and therefore deemed undesirable.

Although there are no clear distinctions between forbidden and allowed foods, the primary figure of the Buddhist faith, Gautama Buddha, was one of the earliest prominent historical figures to speak about vegetarianism. Today, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary among the major branches or schools of Buddhism. The Mahayana schools are most commonly vegetarian, believing Buddha insisted his followers abstain from eating meat and fish. The Theravada and Vajrayana schools (which includes Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Shingon) do not consider this a necessary practice.

Jainism is one of the world's oldest religions with one of the strictest faith-based diets. Jains consider ahimsa the most essential principle of their religious duty and hold it wrong to harm or kill any living being. Any act of violence (himsa) or the support of acts that kill or injure is believed to create harmful karma. Therefore, vegetarianism is an expected practice for all Jains. Like Hare Krishnas, Jains also exclude garlic, onion and some may even avoid potatoes and other root vegetables.

In the spirit of ancient Indian culture and tradition, some practitioners of yoga, like Hatha and Ashtanga, follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. The sattva diet is based on sattva guna (prime qualities of nature), which encompasses qualities of harmony, purity and balance. This traditional diet — rich in fresh, organic produce and whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds — is considered harmonious with nature and helps conserve natural resources. Ideal foods in a sattva diet include fruits that have fallen from trees and milk from "happy" cows.

Vegetarianism and Abrahamic Religions

The world's largest religious groups include those originating from Western Asia: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Historically, vegetarianism among these faiths has not been promoted into mainstream practice, but groups within each faith do practice it. The Bible Christian Church and Seventh-day Adventist Church advocate vegetarianism based on religious grounds and their holistic views about life and humankind.

Based on some interpretations of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, Adam, Eve and all creatures were instructed to eat plant foods and live in harmony with the animals. The Torah describes vegetarianism as ideal, but God also allowed meat to be eaten after the devastation caused by the Flood. Some vegetarians argue this permission to eat meat was temporary because the Flood wiped out all plants; some omnivores interpret this as permanent permission to eat meat and do so without ethical or spiritual objection.

Whether motivated by a respect for humans, faith, compassion for animals or concern about Earth's resources, following a diet that minimizes or omits meat or animal products is far from a passing trend: Vegetarianism holds a long and diverse history spanning millions of years. Cultures around the world have worked to preserve the integrity, historical and faith-based meanings to such diets. For millions, choosing foods has little or nothing to do with health or maintaining a diet. Rather, it has everything to do with preserving a culture, a religion or a faith, simply embodying a way of life.

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Christy Wilson
Christy Wilson, RD, is a health and nutrition writer, recipe developer and nutrition consultant. Based out of Tucson, AZ, she is a nutrition counselor at the University of Arizona and at a local HIV clinic where she also teaches a monthly cooking class. Read her blog and recipes at and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.