Ahimsa Grove

Ahimsa Grove is a resource for vegan pagan living. It will include personal experiences and musings, recipes, shopping tips, vegan ethical and dietary considerations, and ideas for pagan practice including spells, rituals, and herbcraft.

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With Harm to None

Cooped up at home, feeling nostalgic? Jump in my vegetarian time machine and take it back. Way back. I wrote and delivered this sermon for a contest held by the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry. I had to pare it down for delivery time, but enough of the history section includes "Pagan" vegetarian forebears that I think it deserves a spot here. Also included are modern reasons for a plant-based diet, such as personal health and environmentalism. For more info on the Unitarian Universalist Society (which also includes a covenant for UU Pagans), check out https://www.uua.org/.




 With harm to none:

            It might surprise you, as it did me, to learn that dietary and lifestyle choices that involve limiting or removing animal products as much as possible are not a new-fangled fad. They seem to go back just about as far as people do. Since we have a written and philosophical record, these types of lifestyle commitments have been called Pythagorean, Vegetarian, Food Reformist, Vegan, and simply, plant based.

The reasons that folks have had for engaging in these commitments have certainly varied. Yet, there is one umbrella-concept that I have found to link them all, to a certain extent. This is the concept of harmlessness; which may be better understood as, least possible harm. I want to introduce harmlessness as a core concept before I go into historical movements.

            In the Sanskrit traditions, the term for harmlessness is “ahimsa.” This means, “injury to none.” This type of moral baseline is present in most religions in some form. The “golden rule” of “do unto others as you would have done unto you” is effectively a commitment to least harm, if we presume that most of us desire personally to avoid pain and suffering.

            You may be thinking that harmlessness is impossible, so it’s foolish to make it a moral compass. It is helpful to realize that “harmlessness” is really meant to be more of an ethical ruler. It’s a tool through which those so choosing can commit to measuring our daily choices. To make this clearer, Zoe Weil, author director of the humane education institute in Surry, Maine, has started calling it MOGO: Most Good (and least harm). If we think about harmlessness more as “do the least harm that you can,” it changes the concept considerably.

            It’s important when practicing harmlessness (or “least harm”) not to be hung up on perfectionism. Perfectionism, in fact, causes harm because it becomes a barrier to the practice.

Think about the ramifications of perfectionism if we applied it to “the least harm” in our driving. Virtually all of us ride or drive in vehicles all the time, even though we know that vehicles cause harm. Many of us have been in accidents. Some of us have unintentionally caused accidents. All of us at least know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are accidents. Yet, we don’t give up our practice of least harm. We don’t simply shrug and say, “accidents are inevitable so I may as well run that red light.” We don’t treat the crowded store parking lots on Black Friday like a game of bumper cars, smashing into our competition left and right. If we did, we probably wouldn’t have our licenses (or our freedom) for very long. So, we acknowledge the lack of perfection in our vehicular practice of harmlessness, but we continue to do it. It’s a societal commitment we’ve all made because we don’t want to do harm and we don’t want to be harmed by others.

            What we eat is always present in our lives. We make dietary choices for ourselves and our dependents multiple times every day. There have always been teachers and authors thinking about this.

            Pythagoras, for instance, is the namesake for one of our earliest identified practices of plant-based lifestyle. He lived way back around 800 BCE, and he advocated eating plants as well as avoiding animal derived clothing like wool and leather. His beliefs were grounded in a religious conviction known commonly as the “transmigration of souls.”

Transmigration of souls simply implies that the individual soul may (and probably will) be incarnated in a non-linear fashion through multiple species. In other words, you may be a person in one life and an ox in the next. This colors how a believer in transmigration is going to treat oxen! Philostratus wrote that Pythagoras “had a certain secret wisdom that enabled him to know, not only who he was…but also who he had been; and I saw that he approached the altars in purity, and suffered not his belly to be polluted by partaking of the flesh of animals….” Or, as Ovid said in book fifteen of Metamorphoses, which deals almost entirely with diet:

            “…everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what is was. Therefore, lest your piety be overcome by appetite, I warn you as a seer, do not drive out by impious slaughter what may be kindred souls, and let not life be fed on life….”

Pythagoras and his torchbearers also believed that plant-based eating was what the original primordial humans would’ve done before suffering and predations, which some call “sin,” had entered the human experience. We’re talking way, way back before known history, in the age of great myths and legends. Beliefs about this are summarized within the concept of the “Golden Age.” In these mythological origin stories, life on earth began with no violence or predation. No one ate anyone else, and no one had to toil or endure hardship to acquire food. All good things are provided in paradise. The fruit and nuts of plants was the most perfect (harmless) source of food. In Metamorphoses Ovid elaborates:

But that former age, that we call golden, was happy with the fruit from the trees, and the herbs the earth produced, and did not defile its lips with blood. Then birds winged their way through the air in safety, and hares wandered, unafraid, among the fields, and its own gullibility did not hook the fish: all was free from trickery, and fearless of any guile, and filled with peace. But once someone…, stuffed his…belly with fleshy food, he paved the way for crime. 

The important thing to remember about Golden Age ideas on diet is their belief that killing animals and eating their flesh is both symptomatic of suffering and causes suffering. You will see this idea present in the later eras of plant-eating reform. 

Many of the Western Classical philosophers who informed our modern culture adopted the diet of Pythagoras along with his other ideals. Some of these writers and thinkers throughout history included Ovid, Plato, Hesiod, Plotinus, DaVinci, Milton, and Rousseau.

As Western society moved into a more industrial age, those who carried Pythagorean ideas forward became additionally concerned with issues like environmental destruction and food inequality. As populations got bigger and production methods got mechanized and massive, the problems associated with animal agriculture began to snowball. This is by no means a new phenomenon, though the consequences are becoming harder to ignore.

An unlikely source for documentation of this historical progression is the rather notorious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, an advocate of free-love and anarchy who was known by his Eton classmates as “the mad heretic.” Shelley was a vegetarian and his diet approached modern definitions of veganism as he avoided dairy and eggs in addition to meat.

Meant as a reader’s key for his epic poem, “Queen Mab,” which was a Golden Age poem echoing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shelly wrote a Pythagorean treatise he called “Vindication of Natural Diet.” Influenced by the classical era writers he’d studied; he discussed the social justice considerations of plant-based eating when he said:

“The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter, consumed in fattening the carcass of an ox, would afford ten times the sustenance, un-depraving indeed, and incapable of generating disease, if gathered immediately from the bosom of the earth. The most fertile districts of the habitable globe are now actually cultivated by men for animals, at a delay and waste of [food] absolutely incapable of calculation. It is only the wealthy that can, to any great degree, even now, indulge the unnatural craving for dead flesh, and they pay for the greater license of the privilege by subjection to [many] diseases.”

What Shelley was summarizing are problems with animal agriculture that people today are figuring out yet again, with the gun of climate change being pressed with urgency and malice to our collective head. He says that farming animals is less sustainable than feeding plant crops directly to people. He says that plant-diets are generally healthier for people. He says that cruelty to animals (intentional or not) is harmful to the human psyche (or soul). Finally, he says that animal agriculture creates food inequalities by using our agricultural resources to produce higher-priced animal products that are only accessible to wealthier demographics.

It is chilling to think that he first published this in 1813. If he felt that too much of the world was taken up by animal agriculture, imagine what he would think today!

Shelley, at the cusp of the Industrial era, paved the way for later activists and writers who would add plant-based eating to their overall lifestyle. Those calling themselves “food reformers” in the nineteenth century were also reformers in causes like abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Alice Walker would later reflect this intersectionality of issues when she, a vegetarian, wrote: “Animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than blacks were made for whites or women for men.”

Food reformers resonated with the “Golden Age” beliefs about animal foods increasing violence and predation in the humans who ate them. For instance, suffragettes who ate plants suggested to one another and the broader culture that flesh-eating increased both interpersonal and sexual violence in families. They argued that prepping carcasses and cooking animals was both ghastly and time-consuming for women.

When you understand how classical philosophy connected flesh-eating and domination, including sexual domination, you get how women would see vegetarianism as a matter of personal health and even family planning. Carol J Adams wrote a book on these and related subjects called “The Sexual Politics of Meat.

Not long after Shelley wrote his plant-eating tract, certain protestant ministers in America like William Metcalfe and Sylvester Graham were tying plant eating to piety from the pulpit. In the 1830’s the Presbyterian minister, Graham, developed “the Graham system” of plant-based eating. He was one of the early writers to coin the term “vegetarian,” which was in use by the 1850s. He was emulated in the early twentieth century by Seventh Day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the founder of plant-based sanitariums as well as the Kellogg cereal empire. His wife, Ella, wrote a vegetarian cookbook in 1893 entitled, “Science in the Kitchen.”

Coming directly out of progressive religious communities, plant-based food reform was tied into the broader work of folks like John Milton, Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonardo Tolstoy, Alice Paul, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. British suffragettes of the Women’s Social & Political Union even ran a string of vegetarian bed and breakfasts in order to feed themselves on the activism circuit while raising money for the cause. Radical suffragettes in England from this and other groups documented their efforts and, in many cases, their successes in advocating for vegetarian diets in their jail cells. Maude Joachim, after doing a stint in the infamous Holloway prison in 1907, recorded this fact in her memoirs, saying:

Dinner is supplied in two tins. In the deeper one lurks two potatoes in their skins; in the shallower, are an egg, and some cauliflower or other vegetable. Many of us are always vegetarians, and acting on expert advice, others are so [for a time], for the meat supplied is so generally disliked.”

Soon, the term in vogue was “vegetarian” and many folks eating plants lost the thread between their diets and the ancients like Ovid and Pythagoras. Then as now, vegetarianism served as an umbrella term to cover a huge spectrum of individual practices. A vegetarian (especially a strict vegetarian) may avoid all animal products. Another vegetarian may avoid only red meat. This confusion is part of what led some to invent the term, vegan, and split off from the Vegetarian Society of England in the 1940s. To reframe things and invite other folks interested in doing the same, founder Donald Watson defined his new practice of veganism as follows:

 “The word ‘veganism’ denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose….”

            Now that we understand harmlessness as a measuring stick for ethical choices, the original definition of “veganism” should be clear. The language about doing what “is possible and practical” reflects the measuring stick of what we deem to be “least harm.” As Zoe Weil says, we can seek to choose the best of several imperfect options when we use what she calls the three v’s: our Voice, our Vote, and our Veto. The choices we do make matter, and so do the choices we reject. Like Gandhi, she is talking about non-participation in harm.

            A message that connects every generation of plant eaters is the belief that all life is connected, and therefore harming others hurts the self. This is borne out in the current era and in our immediate risk due to climate change. Increasingly, we are realizing the threat, and are striving to offer a future of least harm to children and grandchildren yet to come.

            Most folks currently practicing a plant-based lifestyle do so at least partially for environmentalist reasons. The issues are much the same as they were when Percy Shelley warned us against them in 1813. Yet, as is logical, the problem has grown much worse with time.

Animals raised for our plates eat tons of plants before they are slaughtered. These crops take up a lot of land and water. If you think about how many tons of feed it takes to fatten up animals from birth to slaughter, this should make sense. Raising their food, raising the animals, trucking them to slaughter, trucking them to processing, trucking them to markets, and keeping them fresh while they sit on market shelves are all processes with high carbon footprint and high water-use footprint. Based on a United Nations study, adopting vegetarian diets would cut food-related emissions like these by 63 percent and vegan diets would decrease them by 70 percent.

Feed crops for animals also encourage the concept of “monoculture,” meaning the growing of only one crop in a large area. This harms biological diversity. As we remove their habitats, wild species go extinct. A 2002 study from the Smithsonian Institution stated that every minute, seven football fields worth of land is bulldozed to make room for animal agriculture.

Similarly, a University of Oxford study found that, if everyone stopped eating meat and dairy, global farmland use could be reduced by 75 per cent. That’s an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined. 

Climate change is in the news and in our daily lives more and more every day. Youth activist and environmentalist Greta Thunberg has spoken in her emphatic and earnest way about convincing her parents to go vegan by telling them they were “stealing her future” if they ignored climate-based science around the importance of diet.

If you’re sold on increasing your plant-based choices by any measure, you may be wondering how to start. The good news is, you certainly already eat plenty of plant-based foods. Leaning into those existing habits and figuring out easy ways to expand them is a great strategy.

Take an inventory of your favorite plant foods. Common examples are peanut butter and jelly, corn chips and salsa, oatmeal, three-bean chili, French fries, pita and hummus, olives, pickles, popcorn, fruit, or nuts. How can you expand your vegan options by making slight adjustments? Perhaps having pasta with veggie marinara sauce while holding the meat and dairy. Perhaps making your cocoa, tea or coffee with a plant-based creamer. The good news is, this is a time when transitional vegan foods are available everywhere. Vegan cheeses, meats, milks and more are becoming readily available. Being a plant-based eater isn’t hard once it’s become a habit. Once we’ve added the amount of plant-based food that we’re aiming for, and we know how to acquire and prepare them, it becomes as easy as any other eating routine.

Big companies with the budget and skill set are turning out great-tasting products that are available even in some fast-food franchises like Dunkin and Burger King. Plant milks are available at most major coffee chains. These choices aren’t available because of some corporate mogul’s whims. The businesses are responding to the market demands of plant consumers. As we use our Voice, our Vote and our Veto, the businesses that used to laugh plant eaters off are now scrambling to compete for our cash. These may seem on the surface like limited individual choices. Yet, when you look at the world as an intricately interdependent web of life, you begin to see the power of even small-seeming acts.

Speaking of the interdependent web of life, there is a specifically Unitarian Universalist resource that supports you in your practice of most good and least harm. This is the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry. They describe themselves as a group of concerned Unitarian Universalists and friends who desire to express their faith, in part, through their compassion towards all beings.

The sermon contest that this group offers is named for Albert Schweizer, who considered other animals often in his writings. He prioritized spreading the message of harmlessness and compassion when he said, “We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do…. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it.”

In the effort to spread this message, the UUAM has offered this contest. The group offers online newsletters that include news from nation-wide chapters, ideas for worship as well as activism, and plant-based recipes. When you go out to coffee time and fellowship, we’ll have a few copies of the UUAM newsletter available. We’ll also be serving a range of plant-based treats. Some are specialty items that vegans can now find locally due to consumer activism, like several varieties of vegan cheese. Others are the everyday items or accidentally vegan items I’ve mentioned.

I hope I’ve conveyed here that eating plant-based food is empowering as we face the urgent matter of climate change. It may even give us hope that the Golden Age of humankind is ahead of us instead of behind. Percy Bysshe Shelley believed this and believed that a plant-based diet would help us get there. He summarized our hope for a future Golden Age in book eight of Queen Mab:

No longer now the winged habitants,

That in the woods their sweet lives sing away,

Flee from the form of man; but gather round,

And prune their sunny feathers on the hands

Which little children stretch in friendly sport

Towards these dreadless partners of their play.

All things are void of terror: man has lost

His terrible prerogative, and stands

An equal amidst equals: happiness

And science dawn though late, upon the earth;




1)     Walters, Kerry S., and Lisa Portmess. Religious Vegetarianism: From Hesiod to the Dalai Lama. Albany: State U of New York, 2001. Print.

2)    Tuttle, Will M. The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony. New York: Lantern, 2005. Print.

3)    Weil, Zoe. Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life. Atria Books, New York, 2009. Print.

4)   Thompson, Mark. Vintage Vegetarian Cuisine: Early Advocates of a Vegetable Diet and Some of Their Recipes, from 1699 to 1935. Seasonal Chef Press, 2014.

5)    Williams, Howard, and Carol J. Adams. The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-eating. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2003. Print.

6)   Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Henry S. Salt, and William E. A. Axon. A Vindication of Natural Diet. London: F. Pitman, 1884. Web.

7)    Spencer, Colin. The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. Hanover, NH: U of New England, 1996. Print.

8)   Smithsonian Institution. "Smithsonian Researchers Show Amazonian Deforestation Accelerating." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 January 2002.

9)   Leah Leneman. “The awakened instinct: vegetarianism and the women's suffrage movement in Britain,” Women's History Review, 6:2, 271-287. 1997, print.

10)                       Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum, 1990. Print.

11) Springmann, Marco, et al. “Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Cobenefits of Dietary Change.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 18 Mar. 2016, www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/03/16/1523119113.full.

12)                        A Fast and Cheap Way to Reduce Climate Disruption by 2017 While Preparing to Feed All in 2050.” Global Ecological Integrity Group; Chair: Professor Laura Westra International Conference, Univ. of British Columbia, Liu Center, Vancouver, B.C. 27 June – 3 July 2010; Robert Goodland: RbtGoodland@gmail.com. Draft last revised: 28 June 2010: https://awellfedworld.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/GoodlandUBC-06-28-10.pdf



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Leslie earned her Master of Divinity Degree at Vanderbilt University and is a Wiccan Priestess, Ordained Interfaith and seeking ordination through the Temple of the Feminine Divine in Bangor. Her column in SageWoman, “Child of Artemis,” deals with women and our relationship with animals. Leslie considers herself a cultural worker, dealing with issues of violence and oppression as they impact humans and other species. She has worked at a rural domestic violence prevention program since 2001 and is a board member on VegME, Maine’s vegan advocacy group.  


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