Wellbeing & Veganism: Spiritual wellbeing

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In this latest article in our wellbeing and veganism research programme, Researcher Network member, Tani Khara, explores how religion and spiritual beliefs are major factors influencing our relationship with animals and our diets.

Throughout history and across cultures, plant-based eating and the rejection of meat have been ingrained in tradition. This article begins by providing a historical overview of plant-based practices in Eastern and Western cultures and the philosophies that underpin these practices. It then discusses contemporary views towards plant-based practices and finally concludes with some thoughts for the future.

Historical plant-based practices

Many Eastern faiths tend to view human beings as being in a continuum with other life forms. This has implications for dietary practices. For example, Hinduism, with a history extending for thousands of years, highlights man’s symbiotic relationship with nature. It has several teachings which emphasize plant-based diets because it advocates ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence towards all forms of life.

Hindus - like Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists - believe in reincarnation and karma which is the principle of cause and effect. Based upon deeds carried out in this lifetime, “Individuals can be reborn as animals, human beings or insects”. In addition, some tenets of Hinduism also claim that a meat-eater, in their next lifetime, may face the fate of being eaten by the animals consumed in this lifetime.

Jainism, which shares several beliefs with Hinduism, believes that “the entire universe is alive”. It highlights the transmigration of souls across living beings and thus advocates a plant-based diet that causes minimal harm to sentient lives. Buddhism similarly encourages plant-based eating as some tenets claim that the killing of animals for food causes pain and suffering.

In contrast to these Eastern beliefs, some Judeo-Christian teachings proclaimed that humanity was closer to the divine and that animals were placed on earth to serve human beings. As part of these beliefs, there was a continued effort to also label plant-based eaters as heretics during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, there were Judeo-Christian teachings that similarly emphasized compassion towards animals. In some aspects of early Christian theology, humanity’s role was defined as caretaker of the natural world. For example, St. Francis of Assisi highlighted that animals are brothers and sisters to humanity (Sorrell 1988; Bekoff 2010). Similarly, the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ refers to the life-blood and spirit of animals, and hence shedding their blood is believed to carry “grave cosmological and spiritual risks”.

In addition, there are similarities between Hindu and Orthodox Christian beliefs which advocate an abstinence from meat during the fasting period because otherwise “meat consumption during OF (Orthodox Fasting) would be an obstacle to the body’s self-control, abstinence from passionate desires and pleasures, humility of the flesh and curbing of inborn sexual appetite; in other words, it would be contrary to the purposes of OF, not only for monks but every Orthodox Christian”.

Contemporary practices across cultures

Today in Eastern cultures, such as India, a plant-based diet is still considered to be at the top of the food hierarchy. In turn, meat is deemed to have physically and spiritually “polluting” characteristics.

While some aspects of Western culture have traditionally favoured a meat-heavy diet, this is changing for environmental, health and ethical reasons. In addition, reflecting historical practices, there are contemporary Western views that consider a plant-based diet to be a holistic lifestyle that encompasses all aspects of health and wellbeing. Thus, a plant-based diet is not only concerned with animal welfare, health, and environmental benefits but also with improved equality between the sexes, reduced aggression, and spiritual benefits. To this point, Charles Camosy in a recent article titled ‘Should Christians eat meat?’, argues that “ factory farms are morally reprehensible institutions, particularly from a Christian perspective. If we care about justice, we Christians should not only refuse to support factory farms with our money, we should work to undermine the values and social structures that make it possible for them to function and flourish in the first place”.

Looking ahead

Moving forward, it is important to create a future that continues to emphasize empathy and the recognition of our interconnectedness. This is also reflective of these words by Gandhi - spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants.


The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.


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