Ancient philosophers inspire Renaissance thinkers to challenge the old hierarchy of man over beast.
Episode 9: Renaissance
Old medieval certainties are cracking under the combined assault of new sciences and rediscovered classics. It’s an age when “natural philosophers” combine scientific discovery with philosophical treatises, and when their Republic of Letters transcends political boundaries in the name of free thought.
It’s the age of Descartes, whose mechanical philosophy dismisses animals as “automatons”. But rivals like Gassendi suggest that animals have more in common with humans than he thinks. Ian traces the trail from Paris to the Mughal Court and back to the medical schools of the Enlightenment. He discovers the forgotten story of how Christian mythology, early anatomy, classical thinkers, and Indian medicine came together in respected medical schools that taught students to prescribe a vegetable diet.
VegHist Ep 8: Contacts. Indian Sufism, Bhakti, Akbar, Portuguese Christianity, and Gaudiya Vaishnavism
When conquerors who profess Islam or Christianity rule over Indian vegetarians, the conversations about food ethics go both ways.
Episode 8: Contacts
Ian discovers the ecstatic dancing and singing shared by Sufis and Hindus – including westerners singing Hare Krishna in London’s main shopping street. In Delhi, he finds out about the inquisition that started with European antisemitism and ended with Indians being forced to eat beef.
And in the royal city of Agra, he visits a shrine built to commemorate a conversation about religion and vegetarianism between a Jain saint and the Mughal emperor Akbar. He uncovers the fascinating story of this heretic emperor who advocated vegetarianism.
At the halfway point of this 15-part history of vegetarianism, the traditions of East and West come together. From hereon, it’s all one story.
VegHist Ep 7: Heresies. On Chinese Buddhists, Cathars, Bogomils, Islam, and Manichaeans. With Vincent Gooseart, John Arnold, Jason BeDuhn, and Ven. Chueh Yun; at the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple, in London
In the Middle Ages, three very different monastic orders spread from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, surrounding themselves with lay believers and challenging the norm of meat-eating.
Episode 7: Heresies
A string of religious groups across medieval Eurasia shared one common belief: that this world was a terrible place; and to escape its cycle of rebirth and redeath you needed to be ordained into a pure life, abstaining from violence. They all have some level of abstention from flesh, up to and including a vegan diet. But they all face suspicion.
Discover why the “good men” of the Cathars and Bogomils eschewed sinful flesh, why the men and women of the Manichaean Elect followed a vegan diet, and how the monks and nuns of Buddhism were shamed by their layfolk. And how a vegetarian culture spread throughout east Asia.
Ian joins a Chinese Buddhist congregation in London for its full moon service. He discovers how Buddhism not only spread across China, but made vegetarianism part of Chinese culture. He discovers a war against pescetarian heretics in Europe, the medieval Chinese horror stories that encouraged kindness to animals, and visits his local Tofu maker.
VegHist Ep 6: Hinduism. On Indian Vegetarianism, Vaishnavism, Satvik, and Mahayana Buddhism; with Sanjukta Gupta, Deepak Anand, and Ranjan Garavu; at Ananta Vasudeva Temple, Bhubaneswar and Nalanda Mahavihara
In the first millennium CE, Indian vegetarianism advances from an ascetic fringe to a mainstream high-status lifestyle.
Episode 6: Hinduism
How did vegetarianism permeate Indian society? Ian tracks the changes in India’s religious life during the first millennium, following the vegetarian strands of the tapestry that we now call Hinduism.
Ian travels to a temple to Vishnu in eastern India to understand the importance of vegetarianism to his worshippers. He talks to theologians and historians in Oxford and Delhi about the factors that caused the change. He uncovers heated arguments about vegetarianism and animal advocacy in the leaves of India’s sacred texts. And he explores the medieval Buddhist monastic university of Nalanda, in the company of a lecturer from its modern namesake.
As the British public make their biggest decision in a generation, Ian asks Kerry McCarthy MP about the potential impact of Brexit on animals.
Vegan MP on EU Referendum
In this special short extra edition of the Vegan Option, Ian catches up with longstanding vegan MP, and main official opposition spokeswoman on farming and the environment, Kerry McCarthy. How does she think animals would vote? (And, for that matter, how will Ian?)
VegHist Ep 5: Flesh and Spirit. On Egyptian monasticism, Early Christianity, Plutarch, Neoplatonism, and Manicheansim; with David Grummet, Nicholas Baker-Brian, Michael Beer, and Fr. Abouna Yostas St. Athanasius
In the eastern Roman Empire, several faiths and philosophies agree on one thing; that you need to eschew flesh to live a life of the spirit.
Episode 5: Flesh & Spirit
Not all Romans celebrated pagan sacrifices or the bloodthirsty arena. Some Romans followed the semi-mythical vegetarian Pythagoras, or neoplatonist philosophers who preached a vegetarian contemplative life.
In the melting pot of Jewish mythology, Greek philosophy, and the worship of Jesus many forms of Christianity emerge. Some of them advocate vegetarianism. The lost world religion of Manichaeanism took ideas from India and was led by a plant based priesthood that would last a thousand years.
Alexandria in Egypt is the epicentre of many of these contemplative movements. Ian visits a valley in Yorkshire that still echoes with the traditions of the ancient Egyptian desert – the Coptic Christian monastery of St. Athanasius. He discovers why the monks pursue that life, what it means to them, and how they maintain some of the original vegetarian traditions of the Egyptian desert fathers.
VegHist Ep 4: Ashoka. On India’s animal advocate Buddhist king and the spread of the śramanas; with Bharati Pal and Suchandra Ghosh; at the Kalinga rock edict, India
In the largest ancient Indian empire, at the height of its power, its Buddhist king advocates for animals in his edicts, and tries to change India for good.
Episode 4: Ashoka
In the fourth century BCE, the śramaṇa movement (anti-violence anti-ritual ascetics) has produced three religions: the vegetarian Jains, the freegan(ish) Buddhists, and the mysterious (and now vanished) Ājīvikas. The Mauryan Empire is absorbing almost all of the subcontinent, from present-day Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal.
At its height in the middle of the third century BCE, the king – Ashoka – has edicts carved in stones and columns across the realm. Alongside the rulings and propaganda you might expect, his edicts oppose the slaughter and abuse of animals.
Ian travels to the Indian Museum in Calcutta to speak with historian Dr Suchandra Ghosh. And he visits a hillside that looks down on the battlefield that – King Ashoka says – turned him way from violence forever, and where Ashoka erected an edict that still stands today.
VegHist Ep 3: Pythagoreans. On the Cults of Orpheus and Pythagoras in Ancient Greece; with Hugh Bowden, Michael Beer, John Wilkins, and Armand D’Angour
In Ancient Greece, vegetarianism belongs to a secretive subculture – amongst the mystery religions of Orpheus and the musical mathematical cult of Pythagoras.
Episode 3: Pythagoreans
The Greek philosophers knew about vegetarians. But they were part of cults associated with the mythical figure of Orpheus, and the guru of harmony and number – Pythagoras. The people who introduced the concept of reincarnation into Greece.
In the British Museum, Ian talks to Hugh Bowden, the head of the classics department of King’s College London and mystery religion specialist. There, Prof Bowden examines what its artefacts of Greek life and death tell us about attitudes to animals. Including – some suspect – an Orphic pocket guide to Hades.
VegHist Ep 2: The Middle Path. On Siddharta Gautama, and Buddhism; with Rev Varasambodhi Thera, Peter Flugel, and Richard Gombrich; at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India
Ian travels to the tree where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment, and explores the paradox of his early followers’ attitudes to vegetarianism.
Episode 2: The Middle Path
Of the many monks of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha, only one has become a global household name. Buddhism will spread ahimsa to the ends of the earth, and inspires many millions of vegetarians today.
And yet the oldest Buddhist texts seem to portray the Buddha eating meat. Hear commentary from theologians from both vegetarian and meat-eating interpretations of Buddhism, the insights of world-leading historians, and a dramatisation of the moment in early texts where vegetarian Jain activists clash with Buddhist meat-eating.
VegHist Ep 1: Ahimsa. Mahavir, the Jains, and other śramaṇas; with DN Jha, James Serpell, Richard Gombrich, & GC Tripathi; at Veerayatan, Rajgir, India
In the Ganges plain in Northen India in the middle of the first millennium BCE, the idea of “ahimsa” – non violence – emerges.
Episode 1: Ahimsa
Ian visits the intellectual hub of iron age India – the Kingdom of Magadha. He discovers a subculture of vagabond philosophers that developed two world religions; and the vegetarian order of monks and nuns who became the torchbearers of ahimsa.