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Alternatively, follow this link to hear Ep 5: Flesh & Spirit and read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Sound effects: carts and crowd noises. The city of Rome. Ancient music from a stringed instrument.]

Seneca [actor reading]:

I shall not be ashamed to tell you what ardent zeal Pythagoras inspired in me.

Ian McDonald:

It is the first Century. Seneca is a playwright and politician, looking back on his youth in Rome. When Seneca was a teenager, an epic wherein Pythagoras pleads for vegetarianism, “Ovid’s Metamorphoses”, was all the rage.

Seneca:

I was imbued with the teaching, and began to abstain from animal food; at the end of a year the habit was as pleasant as it was easy.

Ian:

Seneca’s education would have also included philosophers like Epicureans, who preached that happiness lies in the modesty of desires, and many of whom were vegetarian too.

[Bell rings; ancient music continues]

Seneca:

Some foreign rites were at that time being expelled, and abstinence from certain kinds of animal food was set down among evidence of the superstition.

Ian:

Seneca’s probably talking about a persecution aimed at Jews. Romans viewed foreign rites with both fascination and fear.

And as still happens to young vegetarians today, Seneca met with family opposition.

Seneca:

So at the request of my father, who did not fear prosecution, but detested philosophy, I returned to my previous habit.

Ian:

Young Seneca experiences the factors that clash over vegetarianism in the Roman empire – pagan philosophers and mystics inspired by Pythagoras, Greek gods, and those exotic eastern cults. Including Persian Manichaeans with their plant-based priesthood, Judaism, and Christianity.

[Men chanting and cymbals]

Ian:

To discover vegetarian traditions that survive from this era, I visit an Egyptian Coptic monastery whose monks periodically follow a vegan diet.

And I chart the fight for the soul of Rome, and how close pro-vegetarian faiths came to winning it.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

Vegetarianism: The Story So Far. With me, Ian McDonald. Episode 5, Flesh and Spirit.

[Theme music ends]

Ian:

By the first Century, there are reputedly vegetarian groups of Jewish monks and nuns called Essenes and Therapeutae. These are ascetics, leading a disciplined life. They avoid meat because they think it self-indulgent, not out of concern for animals. This monastery is in Egypt, near the Roman Empire’s second city and intellectual hub, Alexandria.

[Ancient music starts to play]

Philo [actor reading]:

They lay self-control to be, as it were, a foundation of the soul to rest upon, on which to build up other virtues.

The table too is kept pure from blood. The food laid on is bread with salt as seasoning, sometimes flavoured with hyssop herb as an extra relish for the daintier appetites.

Ian:

Dr David Grummet is a Christian theologian who has published on the ideas around diet and asceticism. He came into the Resonance FM studio, and I asked him about the Essenes and Therapeutae.

Dr David Grummet:

Well, taking those groups together, these kinds of radical ascetic groups who are not eating meat, they are not even eating animal byproducts probably. So they have a strict vegetarian / water diet. Why are they doing this? Well …

Ian [to Grummet]:

So they are vegan?

Grummet:

They are vegan, yes. And in being vegan, they are following in a tradition that’s present in the Old Testament. Not in terms of the history, people being vegan for the whole of their lives, but going through particular periods of strict abstinence, times of year when people would abstain from certain foods.

Ian [as narrator]:

Those traditions live on in Orthodox Christianity. Fortunately for the travel budget, the prayers of Coptic Egyptian monks also echo in a remote valley in my own native Yorkshire.

[birdsong]

Ian [to Yostas]:

Father Abouna.

Father Abouna Yostas St Athanasius:

Welcome.

Ian:

Nice to meet you.

Yostas:

Nice to meet you too. Ian?

Ian:

Yes.

Yostas:

Yes, right [laughs]. And I’m Father Yostas.

[sound of door opening]

Yostas:

Here you are, have a seat.

Ian:

Thank you.

[as narrator]:

The monastery of St. Athanasius is a low redbrick building with just a single coptic cross embedded in the stonework.

[to Yostas] What were the Hebrew, Old Testament fasting traditions?

Yostas:

In the first… at the beginning of the… God created Adam and Eve. They were just eating, like, vegetarian stuff. They don’t eat meat and stuff. Till I think Noah came, and they started to eat meat.

Ian [as narrator]:

Remember, Hebrews and Christians share this idea of a vegetarian Golden age with pagans; it’s part the rhetoric of the Pythagoreans.

Yostas:

So fasting and the prayer is the most important things we have to do in our lives. Because it’s like, prayer bring us back to in the relationship with God.

And fasting to control our bodies by little things which we have in the front of us, but give us automatically by the grace of God, the control to other things which is more harder than food.

You remember when, in Daniel in the Old Testament…

Ian [as narrator]:

In this story, Daniel & his fellow Israelite princelings in exile in Babylon forswear the royal meats.

Yostas:

Kingdom foods which is so delicious, so beautiful. And they only need the vegetarian seeds, and vegetarian seeds.

Ian [as narrator]:

And still physically outshine the omnivorous locals.

Yostas:

Because they were the most stronger people by the seeds and vegetables.

Ian [as narrator]:

For Father Yostas, it’s all about fasting and prayer. But it’s also a lot easier to keep Jewish food laws in a pagan society if you avoid meat. Pagan slaughter isn’t just not kosher, it could be positively idolatrous.

And 1st Century Jews who adopt Christianity seem to have a similar issue.

Grummet:

We have the early church traditions. We know that there are questions over eating meat. Certainly, in Paul’s letter to the Romans and his first letter to the Corinthians, it’s clear that different dietary habits and expectations within the nascent Christian church were causing problems.

Ian [as narrator]:

Paul of Tarsus who spearheads the spread of Christianity beyond Judaism, writing to Christians in Rome, he tries to make peace between vegetarians and meat-eaters.

Paul of Tarsus [actor reading]:

For, one with strong faith may eat all kinds of food, while another who is weaker eats only vegetables.

Let not those who eat meat look down on those who do not, and those who do not eat meat must not judge those who do; for God has accepted them.

Ian:

These could be ethical vegetarians, but they’re probably Jews who are avoiding Roman meat. Same as Daniel in the old testament.

Grummet:

So when you had these Jewish Christians and formerly Gentile Christians sitting down around a single table to share a meal, you had disputes breaking out. And we know how important dietary customs and rules are for group identity.

Ian [as narrator]:

In 70 Common Era, after a couple of failed revolts, the Temple in Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of Judaism, is destroyed. Some Jews suggest that without temple sacrifices, truly kosher meat is impossible. But Rabbis counter that vegetables were offered at the temple too, so the same applies there.

To the east, the Ebionites, vegetarian Jewish Christians, reminiscent of the Essenes, persist at least into the 2nd Century. In their Gospel, Jesus is explicitly vegetarian, saying…

Gospel of the Ebionites [actor reading]:

I came to abolish sacrifice, and if you do not cease from sacrificing, the wrath of God will not cease from you.

Ian:

The mainstream gospels, on the other hand, have Jesus kill pigs and fish. But early Christian tradition does have other major figures following a plant-based asceticism.

Grummet:

There were traditions around some apostles, particularly James. It was believed that he might have had an extremely ascetic lifestyle including being vegan as we call it today.

Obviously John the Baptist is perhaps the key figure that we think of, when we think of asceticism in the New Testament. And he was probably the figure, more than any other, who was held up as an example to the developing tradition of hermits within Christianity.

Ian [to Grummet]:

So tell me about the hermit tradition.

Grummet:

Well, from the 2nd Century or so, there seem to have been a people who felt it was their specific Christian call to go into the desert, into the wilderness to spend a life in prayer and contemplation, relying to the absolute minimum extent possible on the wider world.

Yostas:

We want to flee, not from the world, but towards God.

Ian [as narrator]:

In the small monastery chapel, colourful painted icons of saints surround us.

[to Yostas] So, he looks like a proper hermit.

Yostas:

Yes, he is. Saint Onuphrius the Hermit, or Anchorite.

Ian:

Why hair down to his shoulders and a beard down to his toes?

Yostas:

It’s only because they have no clothes. God give him this very heavy hair, to cover all his body.

Ian:

His fulsome beard.

Yostas:

Yeah. And he was eating only the dates of the palm trees.

Ian:

The classic idea of the Anchorites, eating not just a diet with no animal products, but a diet that’s incredibly restrictive.

Yostas:

Some of the saints, the monks, start to fast like a whole day with no food at all. And they expand it to three days, and some of them expand it for one week. So they, like, eat one meal every one week. But the main thing, as I mentioned, it’s for the sake of God.

Grummet:

These were celebrities. These were people who led incredible lives that other people wanted to know more about.

Ian [as narrator]:

Some desert hermit stories explore fellowship with animals.

The story of Abba Theon [actor reading]:

His food consisted of garden herbs, and they said that he used to go out from his cell by night and mingle with the wild animals of the desert, and share with them the water he found.

Grummet:

Yes, in the Syrian tradition, in particular, monks eating with the animals, evoking perhaps a return to Eden, harmony between humans and animals, but also perhaps looking forward to some future condition of harmony.

The story of Abba Theon:

The footmarks which appeared by the side of his abode were those of buffaloes, and goats, and gazelle, in the sight of which he took great pleasure.

Grummet:

It seems that a lot of them, particularly in Egypt, around somewhere like Alexandria, were actually highly literate. They were reading a variety of religious texts, probably Christian scriptures, Jewish scriptures, and also sort of Gnostic, mystical texts. So they were influenced by a variety of traditions and texts.

Ian [as narrator]:

Christianity still has fuzzy boundaries and diverse voices. Some Christian voices, like Clement of Alexandria, actively advocate strict ascetic vegetarianism.

Clement of Alexandria [actor reading]:

But if any one of the righteous does not burden his soul by the eating of flesh, he has, unlike the Pythagorean dream of the reincarnation of the soul, a rational reason.

Ian:

That’s the classic Pythagorean argument that if you’re not vegetarian you might accidentally eat your reincarnated relative. But even when Clement talks about rules that protect animals, they’re only to encourage a habit of compassion to humans. They’re…

Clement:

Training man to gentleness by what is beneath him, by means of the irrational creatures.

Ian:

But one pagan philosopher does make a directly ethical case.

[Ancient music starts]

Plutarch [actor reading]:

Nothing puts us out of countenance, not the charming beauty of their form, not the plaintive sweetness of …

Ian:

Plutach, in late 1st Century Greece, could be a modern ethical vegetarian.

Plutarch:

No, for the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being.

Ian:

I visited Michael Beer, who researched the ancient world’s food taboos at Exeter University, and asked him about Plutarch.

Michael Beer:

A priest of Apollo, in Kyrenia, which is in… which is obviously ruled by Rome at that stage, he’s written huge numbers of works including biographies of famous Romans, philosophical works. So he’s somebody that is very, very prolific and has a high religious ranking in his community.

Ian [to Beer]:

Apollo is the god linked to Orpheus, who is then linked back to the Orphic movement.

Beer:

Absolutely. And of course if the so-called birthplace of Apollo, which is the island of Delos in the Cyclades. Delos is particularly known for having bloodless sacrifices. There are no blood sacrifices on Delos.

And Plutarch is a writer that actually talks about vegetarianism in terms of the effect on the animal. He writes three works. And in all those works, he argues that it’s not natural or kind to kill animals for food. And this is in contrast to all the other writings we have on vegetarianism in the ancient world, which always stress the effect on the eater, not on the eaten.

[Ancient music]

Plutarch [actor reading]:

You call serpents and lions savage, but you yourselves by your own foul slaughter, leave them no room to outdo you in cruelty. For their slaughter is their living, yours is a mere appetiser.

Ian [to Beer]:

It’s amazing that there’s this almost lone voice arguing for vegetarianism. And he’s one of the major writers of the time.

Beer:

Absolutely. I was surprised when I did some research on this that he is so outspoken about the cruel methods of killing animals, using them in food. He argues for their superiority in intellect in certain cases, the fact that animals should be respected. He talks about the fact the humans are not naturally suited to eating meat.

Plutarch:

He has no curved beak, no sharp talons and claws, no pointed teeth.

Beer:

So it’s not natural for humans to eat meat. And that is a very radical position.

Ian [as narrator]:

In the 200s, a new movement emerges, building on Plutarch, and the Pythagoreans. The mystical Neoplatonists see Pythagoras as the inspiration for Plato, and see this world as an imperfect copy of a Platonic ideal.

Beer:

You have writers like Porphyry and Iamblichus, who both refer to Pythagoras as being as a sort of a founder father. And they are particularly interested in the life of the intellectual who wishes to have a contemplative life. And they espouse vegetarian philosophy.

For those people who wish to commune with the divine, they see meat eating as an impediment, almost anticipating some of the concerns of early Christians, the body being something that weighs you down, and soul is desperate to connect with the divine.

They are explicit in saying that it’s not for everyone. They are saying that if you are a soldier, or you are involved in manual labour, or if you are a politician, which could possibly mean that if you are integrated in society, they you shouldn’t be a vegetarian.

[Ancient music]

Porphyry [actor reading]:

With the Indians being distributed into many parts, there is one tribe amongst them divinely wise.

Ian:

Porphyry cites vegetarian holy men from across the world – from the Essenes of the Middle East, to the Brahmins and Sramanas of India.

Porphyry:

But the sacred laws of nations and cities appear to have ordained for sacred men purity, and to have forbidden them animal food.

Ian:

Porphyry was scathing about Christians, and he promoted as an alternative to Jesus a 1st Century miracle-working Pythagorean called Apollonius. But these flesh-shunning ascetics – whether they label themselves Christians, Essenes, or Neoplatonists – are actually following very similar lifestyles. David Grummet.

Grummet:

Christianity was probably pretty syncretistic in the early centuries.

Ian [to Grummet]:

Taking in ideas from all over.

Grummet:

Yes, yes, taking in ideas from different places. In a monastery you would’ve had people with a range of beliefs reading a variety of texts. Taking dietary discipline seriously was probably one of the things actually that brought them together. These groups of monks, of anchorites, of hermits, whatever you want to call them, were drawn together partly by a common set of practices as much as a common set of beliefs.

Ian [as narrator]:

Porphyry goes further than other neoplatonists. His book advocating vegetarianism includes ethics as well as asceticism. And in the late 3rd Century, he deals with some of the same questions people are asking me about my veganism today.

[Ancient music]

Porphyry:

To compare plants with animals, is doing violence to the order of things. For the latter are naturally sensitive, and adapted to feel pain.

Ian:

Just one more.

Porphyry:

If God fashioned animals for the use of men, how do we use flies, lice, bats, beetles, scorpions and vipers? If we define things in terms of our use, we have to admit that we were generated for the sake of the most destructive animals such as crocodiles.

Ian:

In the 3rd Century, while Neoplatonism emerges in the West, over in Persia, the Jewish mythology of the Gnostics is becoming the foundation of a forgotten world religion and its plant-based priesthood: the Manicheans. To discover more, I got on a coach to Wales.

Nicholas Baker-Brian:

My name is Nick Baker-Brian. I’m a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, specialising in early Christianity, with particular specialisms in Manichaeism, the Manicheans.

Ian [to Baker-Brian]:

Where did the Manicheans come from?

Baker-Brian:

So we take the Manicheans to be followers of Mani. Mani himself is from, in fact the capital city of Mesopotamia at the time, it’s the Persian empire which owes something to its Persian-ness, but also to its Greekness. So it’s a kind of hybrid empire effectively, in which you have a competing variety of religious traditions.

Ian [as narrator]:

A late 3rd Century inscription announcing a religious crackdown proscribed not just Western groups like Jews and Christians – but familiar names from India too.

[to Baker-Brian] So he lists Hindus. What word does he use for Hindus …

Baker-Brian:

Ah, the Brahmins.

Ian:

So it’s not Brahmins and Śramaṇas.

Baker-Brian:

Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

Ian:

He uses the same formulation as Ashoka: Brahmins and Śramaṇas.

Baker-Brian:

Yeah. [laughs] Which is fascinating, yeah.

Ian [as narrator]:

Śramaṇa, remember, is the Indian umbrella term for Buddhists, Jains, et cetera.

[ancient music]

And Manichaeanism takes influences from East and West.

Baker-Brian:

So even the Jains for example, I think, are much more prominent as an influence on early Manichaeism than the Buddhists probably were.

Ian [to Baker-Brian]:

So who was Mani?

Baker-Brian:

He came from a relatively well-off family. He was taken by his father to a religious community. And was, I guess you could say, educated or indoctrinated as a live-in resident of this religious community.

Ian:

A monk.

Baker-Brian:

Effectively, yeah. We’re sort of talking about a type of monastic life. This community is clearly following the rule of Elchasi.

Ian [as narrator]:

A 2nd Century Jewish Christian ascetic and the self-proclaimed prophet who founded this sect. Mani rebelled.

Baker-Brian:

So there are a couple of episodes where Mani goes out with one of the elders of the Elchasite community, to harvest figs from a fig tree. The elder of the community starts to reach up and pull the fig off the tree, and Mani says, you know, “stop! the tree is in pain,” effectively, “can you hear the tree weeping?”. And this then leads to a dispute between Mani and the elder about effectively what we call religious animism.

Ian [to Baker-Brian]:

Like the Jain belief in single-sensed beings.

Baker-Brian:

Yes, and this raises the issue of Eastern religious influence on the Manicheans. On Mani in particular.

Ian [as narrator]:

So he breaks away from the Elchasites and ultimately presents a new religious movement to the king.

Baker-Brian:

And he ends up at the royal court in front of Shapur the first. And he offers Shapur a book. And this book of wisdom is full of effectively Jewish-Christian mythology, drawn from non-canonical Jewish Christian traditions. For example, the book of Enoch where there is this kind of universal war between the giants and the sons of men.

So he says ”I am a prophet“. Okay. ”Previous prophets,“ and he lists them, okay, ”Buddha, in the East, Zoroaster, in Persia, and Jesus in the West. These were all my predecessors,“ effectively. I’m paraphrasing slightly now. But he’s saying, ”these are all my predecessors, and they brought much wisdom to the world at various points.“

Ian [as narrator]:

Mani develops this mythology into the proverbial Manichaean struggle between good and evil.

Baker-Brian

So that’s an innovation in a sense, because goodness always sort of precedes, or predates the emergence of evil.

In Mani’s mythology, these two things are co-eternal. They’ve existed from eternity, at the same point. And they’re locked in a universal cosmic war. And in this process, bits of good are lost in this battle, and those are souls. And they’re sort of incarnated in the world, in flesh, in matter, in vegetable matter. So everywhere.

Ian [as narrator]:

Which can only be liberated in the pure bodies of the ordained Manichaean elect.

Baker-Brian:

So for example, Manichean elect, the ordained, were not expected to lie. They had to be pure of mouth and pure of thought. They couldn’t involve themselves in any violence whatsoever. So we’re talking about the elect as vegetarians, very possibly as vegans.

Ian [to Baker-Brian]:

They’ve made themselves into pure, spiritual factories.

Baker-Brian:

Effectively, that’s what they are.

Ian [as narrator]:

As with the Neoplatonists, and the Essenes, no person of the spirit can eat flesh. As with the Indian Śramaṇas, the ordained do the spiritual heavy lifting, and the lay people earn merit by supporting them.

Baker-Brian:

So the elect couldn’t harvest food, because that would be a sin, effectively. Now the hearers, or the lay-people could harvest the food, but they did so with some spiritual cost to themselves, which in the donations of the alms, the food to the elect, the elect then forgave the hearer, the sin of harvesting the food.

Ian [as narrator]:

Although the lay people weren’t necessarily vegetarian, they too have a calendar of fasts. They might have involved periodic vegetarianism like the other groups – we don’t know.

Baker-Brian:

What’s interesting is that Mani himself was an active missionary. We know that Mani himself sent out missionaries both to the East and to the West. So there’s a very well-attested mission to Egypt.

Ian [as narrator]:

There, Manicheans might be seen as a Persian variety of Jesus-venerating vegetarian ascetic. David Grummet.

[to Grummet] To what extent is Manicheanism a rival to Christianity, to what extent a heresy within it?

Grummet:

That’s a difficult question. To answer it, I guess we need to look at how the notion of Christian orthodoxy developed. And it’s not really until the 4th Century that we have the sense of an emerging Christian orthodoxy that is different from the teaching of competing faiths such as Manicheanism.

Ian [as narrator]:

Manicheans and Christians are persecuted together. In Persia, religious toleration drops away and Mani dies imprisoned. At the turn of the 4th Century in Rome, the emperor Diocletian, a traditionalist pagan, tries to extirpate them both.

[to Baker-Brian] Like the persecution under Tiberius, that put paid to the vegetarianism of Seneca, he’s attacking Manicheans and Christians alike.

Baker-Brian:

Yeah, for the same reason. They’re effectively… it’s reducible to a kind of ethnic thing. They’re non-Roman, really.

Ian [as narrator]:

The next sole emperor, Constantine, supports Christianity. Father Yostas.

Yostas:

You know that after the time of persecution finished, and the people were running to shed their blood for Christ. And when this time finished they started to go everywhere to give their lives to God in another way, which is monasticism. The monasteries were full of monks.

Ian [as narrator]:

Constantine organises a council to settle Christian doctrine. And the monasteries’ patron saint plays a big role. In the small monastery chapel, Father Yostas pays his respects.

[to Yostas] When you walked in, you kissed the relics. They’re bundled in red-embroidered cloth.

Yostas:

Yes.

Ian:

But those are relics of…

Yostas:

Saints.

Ian:

Saints.

Yostas:

One of them is Saint Athanasius.

Ian [as narrator]:

In 4th Century sense, Athanasius is important because he has tremendous control of Alexandria and the environs around Alexandria. And Alexandria is an extremely important city for the Manicheans in the West.

Yostas:

And the thing that I should mention also, he defended the faith against heresy on the 4th Century. And he did a council at the time called Nicaea Council at 325.

Ian [as narrator]:

It sets the first Christian creed, and Athanasius is the champion of the winning side.

Yostas:

All the churches all over the world believe in this creed.

Baker-Brian

He’s very keen to streamline Christian theology, Christian orthodoxy. To develop a Christian orthodoxy for Egypt. In a sense you could say taking off the ascetic edges, you know, reducing the opportunities for extreme ascetics like the Manicheans to be acceptable in the eyes of the Church.

Ian [to Baker-Brian]:

So in some ways he’s the beginning of the end of this vegetarian monastic tradition within Christianity.

Baker-Brian:

Yeah, I think you could argue that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Grummet:

Strict abstinence became associated with these heretical groups who were performing it – not for biblical reasons, or to emulate Christ – but more to do with superstitions around, for instance, with the Manicheans, like particles being imprisoned within matter.

Ian [as narrator]:

The year after the great persecution ended, a church meeting in Ancyra set this test for Christian clergy.

Council of Ancyra [actor reading]:

Those clergy, priests, and deacons who abstain from eating flesh shall taste it; and afterwards, if they wish, may abstain. But if they disdain it, and will not even eat vegetables cooked with flesh, but disobey the rules, they are to be dismissed.

Baker-Brian:

This is likely to be a test to expose any crypto-Manicheans. I mean, this is what we find in some of the later anathema formulas for example, where people are required to renounce their real or imagined attachment to the Manicheans. You do find tests, meat tests, diet tests.

Ian [as narrator]:

Over the course of the 4th Century, Athanasius’ type of Christianity slowly advances. The last non-Christian emperor is in the 360s – Julian, a neoplatonist who was probably vegetarian.

Most of our knowledge of the Manichaeans comes from an intense young African teacher of rhetoric who adopts it in the 370s.

Baker-Brian:

And it’s interesting, the Manicheans came fairly early in his life, and was catalysed by a sort of youthful interest, youthful energy, passion, for knowledge, for wisdom. And he developed quite an attachment to the Manicheans in this period. And it lasts, roughly speaking, for 10 years.

And then something happens. Something seismic happens in his religious makeup, and he begins to renounce his commitment to the Manicheans. He doesn’t just renounce his commitment, he begins writing, and he writes extremely strongly-worded criticism of all aspects of Manichean thought and practice.

He’s particularly interested in Manichean diet, because he thinks it’s ludicrous, effectively. So he attacks their vegetarianism, he attacks the principles underlying the vegetarianism…

Augustine of Hippo [actor reading]:

Your abstaining from the slaughter of animals and from injuring plants is shown by Christ to be mere superstition.

Baker-Brian:

He attacks the Elects approach to diet. So for example, he says that the elects would gorge themselves to the point of gluttony rather than share any food with a beggar.

Ian [as narrator]:

It’s the logical conclusion if only the elects can liberate souls from plants.

Grummet:

Once Augustine became Christian, he was anxious… he was at great pains to distance himself from Manichean practice. So he really went too far the other way, probably.

Augustine:

For we see and hear by their cries that animals die with pain. Man, however, disregards this in a beast, with which, not having a rational soul, we have no community of rights.

Ian:

He becomes not just a priest, not just a bishop, but one of the leading Christian theologians of all time.

Grummet:

Augustine was strict with his own diet, but in terms of general prescription, the only thing he said was that Christians should not eat food that had been sacrificed to idols.

Ian [to Baker-Brian]:

If Augustine hadn’t been a Manichean before he became a Christian, would Christianity have spent the next millennium being any more tolerant or accepting of vegetarianism?

Baker-Brian:

Very possibly. Very possibly. I think what you find is that Augustine is not wholly successful in that regard. Because you do see the emergence in the 10th Century onwards of a type of Christianity which the Manicheans represented. So I’m thinking for example in relation to the Cathars.

Ian [as narrator]:

We’ll catch up with them, and the eastern Manichaeans, in episode seven.

Grummet:

With the growth of monastic communities, you really have a shift in emphasis within asceticism from these extreme heroic observances more towards something that was manageable and not too disruptive.

Ian [as narrator]:

Organised monasticism needs rules. At the turn of the 5th Century, monk John Cassian brought those of Egyptian-style monasticism to Europe.

Yostas:

Saint John Cassian took all his teachings from Egyptian monks. He went to the monasteries to take, like, the nectar of every flower in Egypt. He took lots of teachings, and he brought his books. And he came back again to the Western community.

Ian [as narrator]:

At first those rules preserve some of that ascetic vegetarianism.

[to Grummet] When I look at the details of the rules…

Pachomius’s rule in the 4th Century had monks vegetarian unless they were ill, abstaining from flesh entirely. Benedict laid down an exemption only against quadrupeds. Kind of the red meat / white meat distinction again.

You get the impression already the asceticism is getting weaker.

Grummet:

It seems no one’s entirely clear why Benedict refers to quadrupeds, i.e. four-footed animals. Is Benedict drawing on this tradition from the Old Testament of blood being an issue? Also there is this sense that four-footed animals, they literally stand on the ground alongside us. They share the land with us. So they are closer to us.

Ian [as narrator]:

That sixth century rule of Benedict dominates western monasticism. But the Eastern church still preserves some of those ancient fasts.

Yostas:

Even nowadays, we have some of the [unclear], the monks, who is living without eating any meat, any chicken or any meat at all. This is their will to do it. And, but, it’s not the rules of the church that all the Christians, all the Coptic have to do it. We do it about 200 days a year, fasting days, and 55 is vegan, and the rest is, was fishy stuff.

Ian [as narrator]:

And those traditions also survive at one of my favourite food stalls.

[murmuring voices, as at a market]

Elizabeth Hailu:

My name is Elizabeth Hailu. I’ve been trading in Brick Lane Market since October 2006. We have Ethiopian vegan food.

Ian [as narrator]:

Ethiopia joined the Coptic Church roughly when Rome did, and Ethiopia has its own vegan cuisine to fit those orthodox fasts.

Hailou:

It’s a very thin pancake type of bread. So we eat it will all our sauces. The spinach, the soya, the green lentil and the aubergine. They’re all traditional.

Ian:

This episode is a battle that we, the vegetarians, lose.

[people chanting during Ethiopian Orthodox Service at St. Mary of Tserha Sion, London]

But the ideas of Porphyry and Plutarch will be rediscovered in the renaissance, and other Christian attitudes towards animals will return.

Even as vegetarianism retreats in the West, it advances in the East. Next episode, we discover how vegetarianism in India goes from the ascetic fringe to status symbol.

With the music of Robb Masters and Michael Levy, and the acting of Jeremy Hancock and Yasserr Shabann.

I’m Ian McDonald. Full credits and more information at Veg Hist dot org.

END EPISODE 5

This transcript was posted December 4th 2017, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter. The featured image is an early papyrus fragment of the non-canon Gospel of Judas.

Read transcript of Ep 4: Ashoka

Brahmi Inscription

Alternatively, follow this link to hear Ep 4: Ashoka and read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[fade in, with devotional music playing in the distance]

Dr Bharati Pal:

… in Gujarat, in Maharashtra, in Andhra Pradesh, in Bihar, all… in Uttar Pradesh, in all parts of India.

Ian McDonald:

And in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pal:

Yeah, Pakistan, Afghanistan, [?] Shabazgarhi …[fade under …]

Ian [as narrator]:

This is Dr Bharati Pal, inscriptions expert at the Orissa State Museum in eastern India, talking about the edicts of a ruler called Ashoka. India’s written history begins with these proclamations, carved into boulders and pillars across the breadth of the subcontinent.

Pal:

In every place of India is rock edicts is found, and that is the Brahmi script is the mother of all Indian script. From all the script is derived from this Brahmi script.

Ian [as narrator]:

It’s the 3rd Century BCE. The preachers of philosophies of non-violence – Śramaṇas like Mahavir and the Buddha – have become part of India’s oral traditions. And independent kingdoms and republics like this one, Kalinga, face absorption into an empire.

We’re here because this edict of Ashoka, on the Dhauli hillside, looks down on the valley where his imperial army, white banners glittering, came to crush this stubborn province.

[sound vehicles in background]

Ian [to Pal]:

We’re right next to the road up the hill to the temples and the shrines that have been erected on this spot by Buddhists. I just want to get a sense of the Kalinga war, because we got the literary sources that say that this was the battlefield.

Pal:

Yeah.

Ian:

So, I…

Pal: [unhesitating]

And I have seen you that river Daya. It is said that one lakh* people are killed. [fades out] (*“lakh” = 100,000)

Ashoka Maurya [13th Major Rock Edict, actor reading]:

One hundred and fifty thousand were dispossessed, one hundred thousand were slain there and many more died otherwise.

Pal:

“… Many ladies lost their husbands. Many mothers lost their children.” These are all types of things described in these inscriptions. After that he became a changed man and he became a Buddhist.

Ian [as narrator]:

After this conquest, Ashoka rules perhaps one human being in three – the biggest empire in the world, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Bay of Bengal.

Pal:

In northwestern frontier and Pakistan it is written in Kharosthi script – in Greek, in Greek script, in Aram, is Aramaic script. There are four languages’ [whose] script is used by Ashoka.

Ian [as narrator]:

Buddhists also credit this changed man with turning Buddhism from a minor philosophy into a proselytizing religion.

His proclamations advance the cause of animals – in them he creates animal hospitals, bans slaughter, and opposes their use as food.

So this episode, we discover when an animal activist was the most powerful man on earth.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

Vegetariansm: The Story So Far, with me Ian McDonald. Episode four, Ashoka.

[Theme ends]

[Noise of foot traffic echoing inside a hall]

Ian:

The Bihar State Museum. We’re in the capital of Ashoka’s Mauryan empire, the city of Pataliputra, in the old kingdom of Maghada, where our story began with philosophers like the Buddha and Mahavir preaching the concept of non-violence, ahimsa.

Here, back in the late 4th Century, around 324 BCE, Ashoka’s grandfather defeats the ruling dynasty and takes over the kingdom.

Maghada already controls north India. King Chandragupta expands this south and west. He makes war on the successor of Alexander the Great, who surrenders Greek India – now north-east Pakistan and Afghanistan – in exchange for five hundred elephants.

So the Mauryan empire spreads out from Maghada, from the heartland of these ascetic movements – the Śramaṇas – Jains, Buddhists, et cetera. So what did the Mauryan period mean for these movements?

Prof. UC Dwivedi:

We have no images of Buddhism or Hinduism of the Mauryan period. And this is the only surviving known religious figurine.

Ian [as narrator]:

Professor UC Dwivedi, emeritus director of the Bihar State Museum. By the way, “Bihar”, the name of the modern Indian state, is another reminder that we’re in the Śramaṇa heartland, because it means “monastery”.

In the main gallery Professor Dwivedi is showing me the remains of a statue of one of the Jain enlightened teachers – perhaps Parshwa or Mahavir.

Dwivedi:

You see this headless and legless, unfortunately this torso of the Jain Tirthankara. This image is made in round, of Chunar sandstone. And the polish noticed on this image…

Ian [as narrator]:

The polish on this sandstone torso still shines millennia later.

Dwivedi:

Because this polish is noticed all in the Mauryan period. Neither before, nor later on. Most probably it was product of the rulers of that time, and… [fades out]

Ian:

This Jain statue from the exclusive royal quarry is a physical reminder of Mauryan support for these monastic ascetic movements that are associated with abstention from flesh.

By now, some Brahmins – the hereditary priesthood who maintain rituals, ancient verses, and animal sacrifices – are getting in on the asceticism. King Chandragupta supports a Brahmin monastery, and remember monasteries were a Śramaṇa idea.

And the Greek diplomat who arranged that treaty describes Brahmins as following vows of bloodless purity during their apprenticeship.

Megasthenes [from “Indika”, actor reading]:

They abstain from animal food and sexual pleasures, and spend their time in listening to serious discourse, and in imparting their knowledge to any who will listen to them.

Ian:

But that’s only training. When that’s over…

Megasthenes:

They eat flesh, but not that of animals employed in labour. They marry as many wives as they please, with a vow to have numerous children.

[sounds of vehicles, voices and insects on Indian road]
Ian:

These sramana ideas spread out from their Magadha heartland along the trade routes the empire creates. The first to spread are the fatalistic now-vanished mysterious Ājīvikas whom I mentioned in episode two; and the strictly vegetarian Jains.

[Market sellers calling out]

Ian:

Fruit and vegetable sellers in the bazaar in Puducherry in the Tamil south of India.

Jainism takes root amongst traders. Trading and commerce are compatible with Jainism’s strict principles of non-violence. And it spreads far.

Our sources on King Chandragupta’s last years are Jain; and they say he renounced the empire he had built to become a Jain monk in the south of India.
And at the end, they say, as a devout Jain monk he fasted unto death.

[Market sellers calling out; car horn]

Dr Suchandra Ghosh:

Because we know Chandragupta going to southern Karnataka, becoming a Jain, dying in… starving to death in Shravanabelagola. Though so Karnataka was very much within Chandragupta’s .. thing.

Ian [as narrator]:

Dr Suchandra Ghosh lectures on the Ashokan edicts at Calcutta University. She met me in the city’s Indian Museum. Just inside from one of central Calcutta’s busiest roads, visitors are greeted by its prized exhibit, a lion from a pillar of Ashoka.

[murmur of voices in a busy building]

Ian [in Calctta]:

A massive stylised lion sitting up and facing forward. Atop an upturned lotus.

[narrating]:

The lion is made of the same polished Mauryan sandstone as the Jain statue.

Ghosh:

This is actually a Chunar sandstone. It is from, there was this quarry at Chunar. So this was the place…

Ian [to Ghosh]:

Right in the middle of north India.

Ghosh:

Absolutely. And the middle of the Ganges valley, part of the Ashokan empire. And from there the stones were being brought… the pillars were made and these pillars were all monolithic pillars. Single stone pillars. And they had these capitals on them.

Ian [as narrator]:

The throne passes to Chandragupta’s son and then – Buddhist texts say after a bloody succession struggle – his grandson, Ashoka. And for the first time in this story, we hear an Indian figure not in the oral traditions of followers and rivals, but in his actual words.

Ashoka [from Pillar Edict 7]:

Wherever there are stone pillars or stone slabs, there this Dharma edict is to be engraved.

Ian:

Ashoka takes over an empire that covers the whole subcontinent bar the southern tip, and, close to its heart, by the Bay of Bengal, this stubborn province called Kalinga.

Pal:

Kalinga was a very prosperous and powerful country. It is a country of warrior peoples. In our all the Purana, Upanishad, Mahabharata, Ramayana.

Ian [as narrator]:

The ancient epics.

Pal:

Understand that Kalinga is a country of warrior peoples. Many warriors are there.

Ian:

Ashoka defeats the Kalingas in the eighth year of his reign. His edict here is now protected by a small concrete hut. Beside it, an elephant carved in relief steps out of the stone.

Pal:

This is the best carving elephant in Kalinga.

Ian [to Pal]:

The best carving of an elephant in Kalinga.

Pal:

Yeah, yeah, in Kalinga.

Actually in this spot he says after this Kalinga war, the horrors of the Kalinga war is not mentioned here.

He look after the welfare of his subject and he allows that like my own children, he looks all… [fades out]

Ashoka [Kalinga Edict 1]:

All men are my children.

What I desire for my own children, as I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the other, that I desire for all men.

You do not understand to what extent I desire this. Perhaps some of you do understand, but even they do not understand the full extent of my desires.

[murmur of voices in a busy building]

Ghosh:

And he did not want the people of Kalinga to read about those things.

Ian (to Ghosh):

Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Ghosh:

[laughs] Yeah, that’s true. But he was definitely moved after the Kalinga war, after seeing the bloodshed and the killing that occurred in the war. So Buddhism of course had a very strong impact on Ashoka, on his change of his personality.

Ian [as narrator]:

Folk stories and Bollywood movies picture a dramatic battlefield conversion.

[horns start blowing softly]

Ian:

Ashoka himself confesses to monks a more gradual process that started before his coronation.

Ashoka [from Bairat Minor Rock Edict]:

It is now more than two and a half years since I became a lay Buddhist, but till now I have not been very pious.

Now, a year and somewhat more since I have visited the order, I am pious.

[horns change to a lower note]

Ian:

The Buddhist legends tell of a cruel angry man, who killed thousands of Ājīvikas when offended, won over to peace by an erudite monk at court, and redeemed by his patronage of the Buddhist order. A Sri Lankan text called the Mahavamsa, the great chronicle, ends:

Mathura Buddhists [from Ashokavadāna – female actor reading]:

He had become known as “Ashoka the fierce”. By this act he became “Ashoka the righteous”.

Ian:

But Ashoka himself leaves no doubt of the deep impact of Kalinga.

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 13]:

After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods turned to a pious study of the Dharma, a love for the Dharma and for instruction in Dharma.

Ian:

Ethic, or right conduct.

Ashoka:

Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for his conquest of the Kalingas. For Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the slaughter, death and dispossession that takes place when the unconquered are conquered.

[Dr Pal speaks in an Indian language, presumably Odia]

Ian:

The archeological survey of India let Dr Pal and me in to take a look at Ashoka’s message for the officials and commoners of Kalinga.

[Indian traffic in background. A metal door clangs open and shut]

Ian [to Pal]:

So, how radical was this edict?

Pal:

Actually this is a revolutionary nature, because it is for give us some ethics, principles, and…

Ian [as narrator]:

The edict is the hut’s fourth wall: twice as tall as we are, and five yards or meters wide.

Pal:

Actually line one or two is written here. Yeah. Here is written Dharmalipi. Dharma means – that – is ethic principle, moral principle.

Ian:

[says at same time as Pal] Moral principle.

[continues] This, that I am touching with my hand here – is the ethical code.

Pal:

Ah, yeah, this is the Dharmalipi. Ah, yeah. This is the ethical principle, Dharmalipi.

Ian [as narrator]:

The edict begins…

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 1]:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has caused this Dharma edict to be written.

Ghosh:

Ashoka never used the grandiose titles. He never called him[self] Maharaja, or Maharaja Diraja*, he was just Raja Ashoka. He was just King.

(*Maharaja=”Great King”, Diraja=”Royal”)

But that he was from Magadha, “Magadha Raja” he says, when one point of time, in one of the inscriptions.

Ian [to Ghosh]:

Mainly he calls himself Piyadasi.

Ghosh:

Piyadasi, Devanampiya Piyadasi. Beloved of the Gods and beautiful to look at.

Ian:

And modest too.

[Ghosh laughs]

Ian [as narrator]:

This is the very next sentence.

Ashoka:

Here, no living beings are to be slaughtered and sacrificed.

[murmur of voices in busy building]

Ian [to Ghosh]:

What really stands out in the ancient world is this ruler saying, “be kind to animals, be nice to animals,” and boasting of how few animals his kitchen killed.

Ghosh:

Absolutely. This is unique. I think this is unique.

You do not have this kind of things.

And then he talks about that all people, [Prakit] ”Save munise pajā mamā“, that ”all people are my children“.

And then he talks about, not only of the human world, but he thinks about the animal world, which is very striking. And one thing which we have to take note is that he drastically reduces the killing of animals for cooking in his kitchen.

And then he also… but all this he did not do at one go.

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 1] :

Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, many hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry.

But now, with the writing of this Dharma Edict, only three creatures – two peacocks and a deer – are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, even these three creatures shall not be killed.

Ghosh:

This non-slaughter of animals was a strong ambition that Ashoka had. And therefore we have this in his edicts, also in when he is preaching dharma. So one of the features of dharma is non-slaughter of animal beings.

Ashoka [from Major Rock Edict 1]:

It is good to not kill living beings.

Ian [as narrator]:

He obviously didn’t turn the continent vegetarian, but his edicts include protection laws for species and habitat, including off seasons for hunting.

Ashoka [in Pillar Edict 5]:

Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are pregnant or nursing are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old.

Ian:

He outlaws the worst cruelties of animal farming.

Ashoka:

Animals must not be fed to animals.

Ian:

So far, it’s been the Jains making the running for animal advocacy. But even if these proclamations were honoured more in the breach than the observance, including animals in his public works breaks new ground.

Ashoka [various readings running one after the other]:

I have had numerous watering-places built for the…

Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of man and beast…

… established two types of medical treatment, medical treatment for humans, and medical treatment for animals.

[murmur of voices]

Ian:

In a future episode and almost two thousand years, we’ll discover how animal hospitals – like this one in northwest India – will astound European travellers.

By the way, that royal curry you’d find perfectly recognisable – dal made of lentils and chickpeas, vegetables like squash, cooked with onions and garlic, in ghee – milk fat – or perhaps coconut oil in the south.

But are those few animals killed for curry for Ashoka or for others? Was he, by the standards of today, let alone the Jains of the Iron Age, vegetarian?

Ghosh:

So, there are indications when he stops killing animals, when he stop… [laughs] asking the fisherman not to fish, then naturally he is turning into a vegetarian.

So these are implied, but as a student of history, I cannot categorically, blanketly say that he is; that Ashoka became a vegetarian.

Ian [as narrator]:

If you remember, at the western edge of the Himalayas and Ashoka’s empire, in the Greek Indian territories, in a city called Alexandria then, and Kandahar now, his edict stands translated into Aramaic and Greek, with the Greek idiom for vegetarianism.

[softly played lyre]

Ashoka [Kandahar Edict]:

And the king abstains from animate beings. As do the other men.

And all the king’s hunters and fishermen have stopped hunting.

Ian:

Of course, the truly sceptical could question the rigour of the translation from the King’s Own Prakit into Greek. But that edict is the oldest object in the world to mention vegetarianism.

By the way, archeologists only discovered it in 1957. And it disappeared from the Kabul museum during the 1990s Afghan civil war, presumably looted.

So what is the dharma, the ethic, that this Buddhist king has promulgated to his empire of millions?

With all his praise of non-killing and animal protection, they are advocacy pamphlets carved in rocks and sandstone.

But he’s also trying to hold an empire together with a national ethos encompassing respect for teachers, elders, and gurus of all religions.

In the Indian Museum Calcutta, Dr Suchandra Ghosh.

[noise of busy building]

Ghosh:

This idea of dharma was not just Buddhism, it was a way of life, it was a political philosophy. And through those ideas he was trying to make dharma a cementing factor for the entire subcontinent over which he was ruling.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 11]:

And it consists of this: proper behaviour towards bonded servants and hirelings, respect for mother and father, generosity to friends, companions, relations, Brahmins and Śramaṇas, and not killing living beings.

Ghosh:

But what Ashoka did was that by his dharma he could consolidate his empire.

So he chose actually those things from Buddhism which are also very common to our day-to-day life. And like for example, even now, our parents tell us that you have to be respectful towards the elders, you have to be respectful towards your teachers. You should treat your servants equally.

But apart from that, when he was talking about Buddhism he never said – he said that there are Brahmanas and Śramaṇas in my country. And he never discriminated between the Śramaṇas and the Brahmanas.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 13]:

There is no land, except among the Greeks, where these two groups, Brahmins and Śramaṇas, are not found.

Ian [to Ghosh]:

So, he tried to re-mould society and an empire with his personal, political, Buddhist-informed sense of dharma. How well did he do?

Ghosh:

So he… the idea of dharma that he had, he was trying to have officers known as Dharma Mahamatras to go into different places. The only duty was that they should go and preach dharma.

Ashoka [Pillar Edict 7]:

My Dharma Mahamatras are concerned with diverse good works amongst the ascetics and householders, amongst all sects.

Ghosh:

He was trying to have a kind of society where everybody will be under the spell of dharma, which was a little, ah, little, um…

Ian:

Sounds a little bit like political officers in the Socialist Union.

Ghosh:

Yeah, and [laughs] absolutely. And then, this is not accepted that all the people will think in the same tune. And what is important is that the Dharma Mahamatras, they went very categorically to different places.

Ashoka [Pillar Edict 7]:

Some were ordered that they should be busy with the affairs of the Buddhist order.

I have also ordered that some should be busy with the affairs of the Brahmins and the Ājīvikas; that some be occupied with the Jains.

Ian [as narrator]:

This list confirmed that these three specific movements – the Buddhists, Ājīvikas, and the vegetarian Jains – have now emerged from the many philosophies of a few generations earlier.

And again, one imagines that this army of Dharma Mahamatras also helped Ashoka make India and her traditions more vegetarian – but we don’t know.

Before we picture a vegetarian utopia, we should bear in mind that we’ve only got Ashoka’s side of the story. As well as speaking softly, he does carry a stick. For example, his rule doesn’t reach into India’s vast forests. So to the tribes within he says:

Ashoka [in Major Rock Edict 13]:

They are told that despite his remorse Beloved-of-the-Gods has power when needed, so that they may be ashamed of their wrong and not killed.

Ian:

Ashoka praises a “victory by dharma” over one by conquest.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 13]:

Now it is victory by Dharma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best victory.

Ian:

But some scholars take this as a threat. It was terrible what happened to Kalinga. Wouldn’t you prefer a victory by dharma?

He’s a politician. But I do find it hard to read the frankness in these messages, and through the hubris, not hear a passionate man who wants to change the world.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 5]:

To do good is difficult. One who does good, first does something difficult.

Ian:

The Dhauli and Kandahar edicts mark far reaches of Mauryan power. But what of the lion capitals over the pillars in the Magadha heartland?

[to Ghosh] … and back in the day, this stood atop a pillar with the seven edicts on it. The kind of condensed version for the core empire.

Ghosh:

Right. When we look at the pillar edicts, we find that he talks about mostly about dharma. And he talks about, that he had gone for these 256 nights, he had spent on the pilgrim[age]s.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 8]

In the past, kings used to go out on pleasure tours, during which there was hunting and other entertainment.

But ten years after Beloved-of-the-Gods had been enthroned, he departed for the place of enlightenment and thus instituted Dharma tours.

Ghosh:

These pillars, the seven pillars of Ashoka, most of them relate to sites having some kind of association with Buddhism. This is actually from Rampurva. This is a very important site.

Ian:

Where the Buddha is said to have discarded his princely robes as he embarked on his life as an ascetic. There are pillars at Vaiśālī and Mahabodhi, too.

But it’s Ashoka’s efforts to spread Buddhism beyond his frontiers that has the most impact on vegetarianism. Even accepting the form of Buddhism he spread wasn’t veggie, he creates the beachhead from which later Mahayana Buddhists will reach across Asia.

And when he talks of attaining victory by dharma, one assumes his diplomacy comes packaged with Buddhism.

Ashoka [Major Rock Edict 13] :

And it has been won here, and on the frontiers, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, and beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule; and in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas and as far as Sri Lanka.

This victory has been won everywhere, and it gives great joy – the joy that only victory by Dharma can give.

[murmur of many voices in noisy building]

Ian (to Ghosh):

But what about his contribution to the spread of Buddhism, to the spread of the idea of ahimsa and not killing?

Ghosh:

Of course, he is… Ashoka will always be remembered as somebody who tried to spread Buddhism, not only in our country but in other places.

For example, even now, I was, in January I was in Myanmar, and I found, the archaeologists, they were showing me places where they said that Sona and Uttara had come from Ashoka.

Ashoka had sent them with the peepal leaf, to spread Buddhism.

So in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, outside India, you have the spread of Buddhism which began with Ashoka and which was carried on with other rulers also. So this spread of Buddhism was definitely one of his agenda – if we go by the textual references, like the Divyavadana and Ashokavadana. But these are all Buddhist texts.

Ian:

The Ashokavadana is the light of Ashoka…

Ghosh:

Yeah.

Ian:

From a very positive Buddhist point of view.

Ghosh:

Right, right.

Ian [as narrator]:

Ashoka didn’t retire to a monkhood like his grandfather. He reigned for less than forty years. After his lifetime, he becomes a legend. In the Mahavamsa, for example, he miraculously builds shrine mounds – stupas – for the Buddha’s remains all over India, overnight.

Mahāvamsa [female actor reading]:

From those seven reliquaries of old the Mauryan took away the relics of the sage, and built on this earth in one day eighty four thousand stupas, resplendent as the morning clouds.

Ian:

In the stories, he sends evangelists, founds monasteries, and holds a major Buddhist council. This begs the question of whether Ashoka strengthens vegetarian ideas within Buddhism, and again we can but guess. But he definitely hopes his dharma will last.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ashoka [Pillar Edict 7]:

It has been engraved so that it may endure as long as my sons and great-grandsons live and as long as the sun and the moon shine.

[car horns and murmur of many voices]

Ghosh:

Everything changed after Ashoka.

So he was… his successors we know the empire crumbled.

His successors were also did not have that kind of understanding of his dharma. Perhaps he was too ahead of his time.

And later on when we have Brahmanical rulers, you have horse sacrifices, Ashvamedhas. Post-Ashoka, there was not much of impact of his idea of non-slaughter of animals, or ahimsa.

Ian [as narrator]:

If he failed to change India, he transformed Buddhism. I asked two of the experts in Buddhism from earlier episodes. In noisy Delhi University, Professor KT Saroa.

Prof KT Saroa:

Well, we as students and teachers of Buddhism believe that Ashoka was only second to the Buddha.

If Ashoka wasn’t there, possibly we wouldn’t have Buddhism at all. Actually he’s the one who brings Buddhism into life as an institutionalised religion.

Ian [to Saroa]:

Because he funds the institutions.

Saroa:

Yes.

Ian :

[as narrator] And in his home in Oxford, Professor Richard Gombrich.

[to Gombrich] Did it have a permanent effect, or was it just a tide that went out and then was…

Prof. Richard Gombrich:

Look at how much of the world is Buddhist. Of course it had enormous permanent effect. Ashoka then became very important to especially the Buddhists in history, as, if you like to use the expression, the Golden Age.

There was once this great Buddhist king, and, you know, through history – it happened in Cambodia, it happened in China and so on – people said, “I’m going to be Ashoka, I’m going to be like Ashoka.”

He first he pushes up into Nepal, and then they go further and so on. And of course much of the, most of the Buddhism got to China from India via Central Asia. And there were Buddhist kingdoms in Central Asia.

Ian [as narrator]:

Ashoka himself passes utterly into myth, until in the 19th Century a British Indologist manages to decipher the Brahmi script on the pillars, and rediscovers this lost king of a united India.

The capital from the column at Sarnath, the first sermon, is much more ornate.

[Murmer of voices in museum]

Ghosh:

[her voice fades in and out] …and he was knowns as the lion of the …

Ian [as narrator]:

Suchandra Ghosh and I walked up stone steps to the Indian Museum’s replica.

Ghosh:

And when Ashoka was… this pillar was built so you have the dharma chakra, you have the lion, you have the bull. So there are, is a connection with Buddhism.

Ian [to Ghosh]:

So what I’m looking at, I mean it’s… even if I had no interest in vegetarian history, I would know this symbol very well because of every single note I’ve been paying every single taxi driver with.

Ghosh:

Yeah.

Ian:

It’s taller than me, has lions facing out in four parallel directions, over…

Ghosh:

An upturned lotus.

Ian:

And in between you have a wheel and some animals.

Ghosh:

Yeah, which is, which represents the dharma chakra, the righteousness. So, it was actually to show that kingship, the strength of the kingship, the lions were used. And lions also if you see it in a different way, lions also were symbolical representation of Buddha.

Tourist:

Excuse me ma’am, take photo.

Ghosh:

Oh, they want to take a photo.

Ian [as narrator]:

To modern Indians, this lion capital that Ashoka had erected to mark the first preaching of the Buddhist dharma is simply the emblem of the Republic of India. For Dr Pal in Dhauli, Ashoka is now a patriotic inspiration.

Pal:

That non-violence principle is the best principle that we have getting independence of India in 1947.

This principle of Ahimsa, of non-violence, it is adapted by our father of nation, Mahatma Gandhi. We have accepted it is our principle for getting independence against the British.

[car horn]

This is the revolutionary message from the Ashokan inscription.

Ian [as narrator]:

As we’ve heard, the Mauryan empire crumbles under Ashoka’s heirs. The next dynasty brings back the Vedic Brahminical horse sacrifice, and there are apocryphal stories of persecution of Buddhists.

But Buddhist Greek kingdoms do persist in the footsteps of Alexander through the 2nd and 1st Centuries BCE to the days of Caesar Augustus.

And – whatever impact Ashoka had on India – Buddhism is on the road that will ultimately carry its pro-vegetarian Mahayana form across east Asia.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Ian:

Śramaṇa ideas about vegetarianism travel west, too, to the Mediterranean.

Next episode, we enter the religious struggles to succeed the retreating Gods of Olympus. Where ideas about vegetarianism are definitely part of the argument.

This episode was sponsored by Kickstarter Backers Menka & Ajay Sanghvi to whom I’m very grateful. Nimi Hirani of the Philosophy Club Ahmedabad gave me great help with production. With the music of Robb Masters, the voices of Sandeep Garcha, Jeremy Hancock, and – as King Ashoka Maurya – Vinay Varma.

Follow on facebook and twitter dot com slash veganoption. There’s more to find out at theveganoption dot org.

[Theme ends]

Finally, if you like this series, and I’m guessing you do if you’ve listened this far, please do help get the word out. Review on iTunes or your podcast provider, share it on Twitter and Facebook, blog about it, and tell your friends. It takes months of unpaid work to put this series together, so if you think it’s too good to keep it to yourself, let everybody know. Thank you so much for listening.

END EPISODE 4

This transcript was posted November 29 2017, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter. Featured image of Brahmi script on the Pillar Edict at Lumbini CC-BY Ananda Joti.

Read transcript of Ep 3: Pythagoreans

Writing in Greek on gold leaf

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Chatter, doors, steps]

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Read transcript of Ep 2: Middle Path

Burmese writing in pattern

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Tibetan horns. Buddhist chanting]
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Read transcript of Ep 1: Ahimsa

Alternatively, follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

[Indian music, broadcast over small tinny speakers]

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"The Vegan Option Vegetarianism: The Story So Far - A Radio History