Many people are unaware that there is a word for followers of a fully compassionate way of life. It is the term “vegan.” Although some people who are familiar with vegan practice think of it as something new or extreme in many ways, just the opposite is true.
Throughout human history there have been people who have attempted to live as harm-free as possible, but there was no particular name for their lifestyle until about sixty years ago. The word “vegan” was coined in England in 1944 by Donald Watson who, along with several other members of the Vegetarian Society in Leicester, wanted to form an alliance of nondairy vegetarians as a subgroup. When their proposal was rejected, they created their own organization. To name themselves, they came up with the word “vegan” (pronounced VEE-gn, with a long “e” and hard “g”) from the first three and last two letters of “vegetarian” because, as Donald Watson explained, “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.”
In late 1944, The Vegan Society was established, advocating a totally plant-based diet excluding flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, and animals’ milk, butter, and cheese, and also encouraging the manufacture and use of alternatives to animal commodities, including clothing and shoes. The group argued that the elimination of exploitation of any kind was necessary in order to bring about a more reasonable and humane society. From its inception, veganism was defined as a “philosophy” and “way of living.” It was never intended to be merely a diet and, still today, describes a lifestyle and belief system that revolves around a reverence for life.
In 1960, the American Vegan Society was born in the United States, founded by Jay Dinshah. It wholly embraced, and continues to embrace, the principles of its British predecessor, advocating a strictly plant-based diet and lifestyle free of animal products. In addition, the American Vegan Society promotes the philosophy of “ahimsa,” a Sanskrit word interpreted as “dynamic harmlessness,” along with advocating service to humanity, nature, and creation. In other words, in order to practice veganism, it is not sufficient to simply avoid specific foods and products; it is necessary to actively participate in beneficial selfless action as well.
When we understand the origin of the term and the guiding principles established by the founders of the vegan movement, we see that, although inspired by vegetarianism, vegan living encompasses far more than one’s diet. In fact, to be a full member of the American Vegan Society, one must not only be vegan in diet but must also exclude animal products from one’s clothing, cosmetics, toiletries, household goods, and everyday commodities.
Omitting animal products from one’s life is a passive action. It does not necessitate asserting oneself, it merely involves avoidance. In order to actually implement and realize “ahimsa,” we must engage the “dynamic” part of “dynamic harmlessness.” Therefore, to fully apply the vegan ethic, not only are vegans compelled to do the least harm, they are obliged to do the most good.
Being vegan is at once complex, challenging, and rewarding because each element of a vegan’s life is chosen with conscious awareness. All options are weighed in terms of achieving the highest good possible. This is not to say that vegans are “perfect” or that “perfection” is even attainable or desirable. This is an imperfect world and we are an imperfect species. However, aspiring to do our best, to ceaselessly reach for compassionate solutions, to strive to attain justice for all life – human and non-human – to live honestly and respectfully, and to lovingly care for our Earth, are far more realistic and reasonable pursuits than dwelling on impractical issues of perfection.
When people choose veganism, they make an ethical commitment to bettering themselves and the world around them. This is a pledge not to be taken lightly, as it requires us to seriously examine all facets of ours lives. Certainly, animal-free food, clothing, and cosmetic choices are a paramount part of becoming vegan. However, when we delve more deeply into its essence, we see that a vegan outlook extends far beyond the material and tangible. Vegan perspectives permeate our relationships, spiritual beliefs, occupation, and pastimes. As a result, there are few areas of life that the vegan ethic doesn’t touch or influence to one degree or other.
Becoming vegan is a process. Rarely does someone convert to complete veganism overnight. More typically, people transition to a vegan lifestyle, generally altering their diet first and then gradually replacing their clothing, cosmetics, and incompatible habits with more serene, compassionate options. Many vegans eventually change jobs in order to align their livelihood with their beliefs. Some become activists on behalf of animals, social justice, peace, or the environment; do charitable work; adopt children; take in homeless animals; reduce their material consumption; or any number of other benevolent, selfless acts.
There is no end to the vegan journey. Vegans are perpetually challenged to do more, to strive higher, to see and understand more clearly, to be more loving and humble. This is the gift of veganism. It is a guide for compassionate living. It is the path of honoring our roots, our planet, all life, and ourselves.