Living: The Path of Compassion
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,
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.
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Jo Stepaniak
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