In the west, a diet free of meat is often regarded as a modern lifestyle. But vegetarian and vegan diets stretch right back into ancient history, and were often adopted by radical and world-changing figures.
Lao-Tzu and Confucius - Opposite Traditions, Similar Diets:
Two of the most influential Chinese philosophies arose around the 6th century BC. While very different in their ways of thinking, both sought to reform the society in which they lived, to encourage a radical renewal in the lives and thinking of those around them.
Taoism, founded by Lao-Tzu, encouraged followers to flow with the rhythms of the world and to respect nature. With its live and let live approach, this led naturally to a meat-free diet, turning away from all forms of violence.
Confucianism, on the other hand, was a courtly philosophy. Based around living by explicit rules of behavior, it was a more rigid philosophy than Taoism, one aligned with human achievement rather than oneness with nature. Yet Confucius himself may have been vegetarian, and is traditionally said to have encouraged the use of chopsticks as a less violent eating tool than the knife.
The Original Buddha:
Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, embedded compassion towards all living things within his belief system. He challenged the idea that a peaceful person could eat a diet based on violence against living creatures.
Buddha's teachings were a challenge to those around him. He taught pacifism in an era when political strength still lay in the sword, and a peaceful relationship with nature just as men were seeking to enforce their will on the world. Even today, his message remains a radical one, and one reason why vegetarianism is so popular in Asia.
The Pythagorean Diet:
The Greek Pythagoras is famous for more than just his triangular theorem. His work was the foundation for much of the mathematics that followed. He was one of the first to teach that the world was round. He treated women as equals in his discussions, despite living in a society of deeply entrenched sexism. And he taught that slaughtering animals for food damaged the human soul. Such was his abhorrence of violence, and belief that it could not be compartmentalized, that he reportedly said that as long as men kept massacring animals, they would also keep killing each other.
Many other Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle and possibly Socrates followed Pythagoras's attitude towards meat, and for centuries vegetarianism and veganism were referred to as the Pythagorean diet.
So remember next time someone challenges your choice of diet, the foundations of western thought, as well as many of the greatest philosophies of the east, were founded by people who refused to eat meat.
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