I realize my definition of veganism might differ from someone else's, and also, people might not have a clue what veganism is!
Before defining veganism, let’s start with vegetarianism. Being veg has a lot of different forms in the US and in India. In the US, if someone says, “I’m vegetarian,” it’s safe to say they don’t eat meat. But they still eat eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products unless they specify otherwise. They also likely wear leather and use products from animals as part of daily life. There are different types of vegetarians, however, that deviate slightly from this overall definition. Here are a few of the different types as explained by the University of Missouri:
Lacto vegetarians: It’s almost the vegetarian definition described in the intro paragraph, but they do not eat eggs.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: It’s a fancier label for “vegetarian.” They eliminate meat, but include dairy and eggs into their diet.
Pollo vegetarians (pronounced POI-yo vegetarian): Inclusive of poultry/winged foul, dairy, and eggs. Animals acceptable to a pollo vegetarian are chicken, turkey and duck. I’ve never met a pollo vegetarian in the States, probably because few people can reconcile “vegetarian” with “but I still eat chicken.”
Pesco vegetarians: Inclusive of fish, dairy, and eggs. My sister is actually a pesco vegetarian. Since the age of 6, she prescribed to vegetarianism as outlined above, but for the past year or two she’s included fish into her diet. People have many reasons for doing this; a primary one is to receive omega fatty acids not as easily found in plant sources. There’s also the argument that fish don’t have the same nervous systems as mammals, thereby mitigating the pain and suffering felt by the creature. For the record, I personally don’t subscribe to this belief (nor endorse it!) and have no problems with ingesting plant sources for my omega fatty acids.
Total vegetarians: these types eliminate all animal products from their diet. If their food ever had a face, be it fluffy and cuddly or insect-like with antennas, they don’t eat it: honey, milk, eggs, mutton… all off the list. This is very similar to veganism (definition coming shortly), but they do not include the lifestyle component. So, a total vegetarian might still wear leather.
Veganism: all of the definitions above are strictly related to diet. Veganism, however, relates to diet AND lifestyle. Vegans are total vegetarians, meaning we include no animal products in our diet. This includes obvious items like meat, but also more subtle ingredients like foods with gelatin. Gelatin is excluded because it is made from the lining of cow’s stomach. A list of these subtle ingredients can be found here.
Furthermore, we abstain from using and wearing products derived from animals when possible. More clear examples are cosmetics: these products often have animal secretions in them, and they’re tested on animals. Buying plant-based products that haven’t been animal tested is the vegan thing to do. Likewise, vegans do their best to abstain from wearing wool, leather handbags, and silk. They also avoid owning items from animals, like ivory, leather couches, and silk curtains.
I say vegans avoid animal products, “when possible” because it’s very easy to use animal-derived items thanks to their ubiquity in society. If you drive a car, for example, or sit on bus seats, you partake in using animal products. Bus seats are often made from leather, and cars include animal products from the tires to the rubber lining of the exterior. If you take pills, the gelatin caps are not vegan. Any medication likely included animal testing in order to bring it to the market, making it non-vegan.
Because it’s impossible to stay away from using animal products 100 percent of the time, I explain in my about my veganism page that the better goal than 100 percent veganism is striving to do the least harm 100 percent of the time.
This is my definition of veganism, and the one likely shared by anyone in the West. The label “vegan” actually came from the British in the 1944. A man named Donald Watson coined the term to include people who adhered to the lifestyle outlined above. He was also the founder of the Vegan Society. The word “vegan” was not known to the world before this man.
Though the word “vegan” only came about in the 1940s, societies who practice the lifestyle mentioned above have existed for hundreds—no, thousands—of years… especially in India. Abstaining from animal products in diet and lifestyle is not a new concept.
How people implement veganism in their day-to-day life is very specific to the individual and to some extent, their cultural conditioning. I don’t want to use terms like “western veganism” and “Indian veganism” in this blog because I like to think our guiding principles are the same, if not always the way we act on them.
This brings me to another critical point about veganism: it is a convenient label used to describe related behaviors and attributes; it should NOT be used to dictate them. As an example, I received an antique ivory carved wooden box from my mother-in-law as a sort of wedding gift. She received the box for her wedding and it was clearly near and dear to her. Was I going to turn it down, explaining how I’m vegan and can’t accept it? Of course not! It would be disrespectful and she’d probably regard the word “vegan” to mean close-minded, rude, and untraditional. Considering my goal is to promote this lifestyle as a viable, compassionate way of life, restricting myself to the “vegan” label is one of the more surefire ways of sabotaging myself from achieving these things.
How Indians have practiced veganism as a result of their own cultural upbringings are things I’m still learning and reading about. If anyone wants to give me resources, do a guest post on here, etc, I’m VERY open to the suggestions! I would love to highlight the bridge between India’s rich, long history of vegetarianism and the vegan movement today.
On that note, I can see how Indians could be a little irked at the complete glossing over of their history and how it’s built and shaped veganism. I was reading this TIME article discussing the history. One teeny-tiny paragraph mentioned its links to Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism… only to then continue on to the Greeks (which were hardly vegan-faring people). Another strong example of western vegan privilege.