Even passionate carnivores like myself happily turn vegetarian in India. Indian vegetable recipes are so exquisite and endlessly varied that they make meat seem boring and vulgar. Even a humble item like dal (lentils) comes in numerous recipes, which change radically as one moves across the country. Unfortunately, the menu of the average British curry house does not reflect this variety, and vegetarians who have never been to India can have no idea of what they are missing.
This ignorance, Tristram Stuart's massive and magnificently detailed history of radical vegetarianism suggests, is paradoxical, for vegetarianism took hold in the West only after European travellers discovered that most Indians lived happily on vegetarian diets. Like all travellers' tales, European reports of Indian vegetarianism were partial - they did not appreciate that only Hindus were vegetarian, but not all of them and not under all circumstances.
For all their flaws, these accounts led to some serious soul-searching in the land of roast beef. The 17th-century dissenter Thomas Tryon hailed the Hindu reverence for life, declaring that the Brahmins of India represented "the purest remnants of the paradisal tradition left on earth". Tryon's vegetarian philosophy found many followers, including Benjamin Franklin and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Indian connection was respectfully noted. Even Isaac Newton, who may not have been exclusively vegetarian, declared that reports about the sages of India had convinced him that "Mercy to Beasts" was a divine commandment "from which Europeans had long since apostatised".
Not every emerging rationale for vegetarianism had much to do with India. Some Christians claimed that Adam and Eve, before their Fall, never ate meat. Philosophers like Rousseau endorsed vegetarianism because they wanted humans to live in tune with nature. Many anatomists argued that flesh-eating creatures had sharp, pointed teeth whereas humans' were more like the broad and blunt teeth of herbivores: God had not designed humans to eat meat.
Medical men recommended meatless diets for less lofty reasons. George Cheyne, a celebrated 18th-century physician, was perhaps the earliest "diet doctor". Grossly obese in younger days, Cheyne learnt of the virtues of an abstemious life from mystical texts. Resorting to milk, seeds and roots, he quickly lost some of his surplus pounds and became an enthusiastic advocate of "low diets". A prolific writer and busy practitioner, Cheyne claimed that meat damaged the nervous system and forced his wealthy, overweight patients to switch to vegetables.
One of those patients was his publisher, the novelist Samuel Richardson. His famous heroines Pamela and Clarissa were dedicated vegetarians and lived very well on modest quantities of "bread, butter, water, tea, milk, salad, toast and chocolate".
Jane Austen derided Cheynesque diets in Emma but even she admitted that "composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton". Shelley went much further and in his 1813 Vindication of a Natural Diet blamed meat for turning humans into brutes. "It is impossible, had Buonaparte descended from a race of vegetable feeders, that he could have had either the inclination or the power to ascend the throne of the Bourbons," he asserted. Greatly attracted to India, Shelley, in his 1817 poem The Revolt of Islam, imagined a Hindu revolution whose leader proclaims, "Never again may blood of bird or beast/ Stain with its venomous stream a human feast."
Vegetarianism became more of an organised movement in the 19th century. The Vegetarian Society was established in 1847 and had more than 2,000 members by the end of the century. George Bernard Shaw was an enthusiastic member, but even more famous in the long run was an Indian student called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who served as the Secretary of the Bayswater Vegetarian Club from 1888 to 1891. For Gandhi, vegetarianism and non-violent dissent provided "an antidote to the malaise of Western civilization", but vegetarianism alone has never been a guarantee of any virtue. It was central to the Nazi crusade to extirpate "Judaeo-Christian anthropocentrism" and Adolf Hitler was the strictest of vegetarians.
Subsisting on vegetables might not make us better people, but eating less meat is essential for other reasons. "The world's remaining forests," Stuart points out, "are currently being destroyed to make way for grazing and for the cultivation of soya beans. The bulk of these nutritious pulses are used to feed animals which end up on the dinner plates of the affluent West and, increasingly, China." Whatever we might think of vegetarianism as a philosophy, we must eat less meat if we want the human species to survive.
The Bloodless Revolution is a wonderful book, crammed with original research and written with verve, wit and passion. The most enthralling work of cultural history I have read in years, it brings out the political, ethical and environmental implications of our dietary choices without any preachiness. I do wish, though, that Stuart had been a bit more adventurous in tracing the practical aspects of his tale. The 17th-century "discovery" of Indian vegetarianism was incomplete - Europeans learnt from Hindus that it was possible to live without meat, but not how to produce enticing dishes from leaves, roots and grains.
Western vegetarianism continues to suffer as a consequence. Bean salads, nut roasts, or macaroni and cheese could not satisfy too many people with functioning taste-buds for too long. If we really want everybody to eat less meat, instead of lecturing them on environmental ethics we should teach them ways to cook vegetables more appetisingly. Adopting authentic Indian vegetarian recipes would not, of course, lead to a meat-free world, but by making vegetarianism the tastier, sexier option, it could well reduce our obsession with flesh. Who, after all, would want a stringy steak (or, for that matter, a greasy lamb bhuna) if he could have grilled aubergine mash, ridge-gourds in poppy seed paste, or topshe fish curry instead?
Chandak Sengoopta is reader in history at Birkbeck College, London, and the author of 'Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting Was Born in Colonial India' (Pan)Reuse content