Dr. Ian McDonald, The Vegan Option


ian-mcdonaldIan McDonald is a BBC-trained radio producer who started The Vegan Option because he wanted to do baketivism for the brain – really interesting radio that just happened to be vegan. He’s taking sabbatical from paid employment to record interviews with world-leading experts, pore over esoteric research in the British Library, and travel to the places where the story unfolded – including the length and breadth of India – to bring the story to listeners. The UK’s leading art radio station, Resonance FM, broadcasts “Vegetarianism: The Story So Far” on the first Tuesday of each month. This 15 part story is approaching its conclusion, to be broadcast on June 6, 2017. You can discover The Vegan Option, including Vegetarianism: The Story So Far, at http://theVeganOption.org/.


Caryn Hartglass: I think we are ready to bring on my next guest, who is actually my first guest in the day. I’m really happy that he had the chance to join us a little early. So let me bring him on.

Dr. Ian McDonald is a BBC trained radio producer who started The Vegan Option because he wanted to do [] for the brain. Really interesting radio that just happened to be vegan. He’s taking sabbatical from paid employment to record interviews with world leading experts, poured over exoteric research in the British Library, and traveled to the places where the story unfolded, including the length and breadth of India, to bring the story to listeners.

The UK’s leading art radio station Resonance FM broadcasts Vegetarianism: The Story So Far on the first Tuesday of each month. This fifteenth part story is approaching its conclusion to be broadcast on June 6, 2017. You can discover The Vegan Option, including Vegetarianism: The Story So Far, at theveganoption.org. Ian McDonald, welcome.

Ian McDonald: Thank you for that incredible introduction, Caryn.

Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. Well, you sound pretty incredible and I’m really, really honored to have you join me today. Thank you, and thanks for coming on a little early.

Ian McDonald: My pleasure.

Caryn Hartglass: But I think we have plenty to talk about. (chuckles)

Ian McDonald: Oh goodness, thousands of years of history. I remember one of my guests, Renan LaRue, who wrote the French language history of vegetarianism, called it “twenty-five centuries of debate.” And the challenge of the series has always been what to leave out—

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that’s fascinating.

Ian McDonald: —from the orgiastic, vegetarian, heretical cult of 1790s Massachusetts, to the Manakeean’s lost world religion, the Aajeevikas, the rivals to Boud—this is have gone to the wayside and seemed from what we know to be very pro-vegetarian themselves—it is really an incredible and mostly unknown story. Even the fact that people are beginning to relearn to celebrate Pythagoras, not so much for the hypotenuse of the square is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares of the other two sides, as for his contribution to vegetarianism. But there is a whole wealth of background to the story of people trying to spare animals from the dinner table.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, this is very exciting, and I know that throughout history—we’re talking about history—for example, many of the minority groups or the groups that aren’t in power, their history tends to get lost in general. And to empower those people, hearing their history is one important piece. So it’s important for vegetarians and vegans to hear our history and empower us to know how long (chuckles) this has been going on, and connect with all of those who came before us.

Ian McDonald: Yes, that’s really important and, although there are some times vegetarianism has the upper hand, the oldest living surviving document to mention vegetarianism is, or was, the edict of Ashoka in Kandahar in present day Afghanistan. Ashoka was an emperor of India in about third century B.C., and his empire stretched from modern day Bangladesh to modern day Afghanistan. Fascinatingly, if you talk to somebody about a Greek-Buddhist kingdom, it sounds like something out of an alternative universe.

Caryn Hartglass: (laughs)

Ian McDonald: But it actually happened, where the Greek worlds and the Indian worlds overlapped at the furthest reaches of Alexander the Great’s conquests in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. And so, there was an edict in Aramaic Greek in Kandahar. Ashoka was saying amongst other things, that this great emperor, the way he told his story, turned away from violence at the end of his bloodiest battlefield and boosted how few animals the Sikhans slew because of the ways things are phrased in different languages.

It’s the one in Kandahar that actually says the king “abstains from animate beings.” It actually uses the clear Greek idiom for vegetarianism, and it just happens to be Greek because it’s a Greek-Buddhist kingdom. All the rest are in local languages. They’re usually in the king’s language, the prakrit that the king would have spoken. But this one is in Greek, so we know it says vegetarian. That’s actually not a subordinate culture, that’s actually something that was put in place by the most powerful man on earth.

Because he had the power to write it down, it survived—until, of course, the Greek is on the other foot and it disappeared from the Kaval Museum during the Afghan Civil War. Just think that that stone lasted for two thousand years; it was discovered in the 1960s. Once modern humanity actually dug it up again, it lasted barely a lifetime.

Caryn Hartglass: No. (chuckles)

Ian McDonald: Certainly, you get the less powerful people’s story as well. Often, vegetarianism is the voice of the political radicals.

One of the first people to condemn slavery in English is the merchant and diet guru of the late seventeenth century Thomas Tryon, who actually had houses not far from where I’m talking to you from in East London. Anyway, he was the first vegetarian diet guru. He tried to take some of the Greek works that were being printed and make some of these intellectual works more accessible in terms of practical farming, medical advice for people. But he also propagated vegetarianism. He was also against slavery. This type of progressive ideology has long been part of the vegetarian movement.

One of the things that brought vegetarians together at the end of the eighteenth century in Britain—again, I’m a little bias towards the places that I can get to in a fifteen minute walk—is because what’s happening in the 1790s? French Revolution.

America has just had a democratic revolution and the French one is far bloodier. But the radicals are on their side. They’re infused by the spirit of Thomas Paine. There was a particularly radical vegetarian of the French Revolution that Thomas Paine turned to, who was particularly bloodthirsty when it came to repressing. The people weren’t revolutionary enough until Thomas Paine turned to him and said, “I fear that you have had so little meat that your thirst for blood can only be sated by human blood now.“

Caryn Hartglass: (laughs)

Ian McDonald: (chuckles) But what the British government always does with radicals, it seems, is to put them in prison together. And then they always form a movement.

So this happened in London, where a lot of the radicals who were sympathetic to the French Revolution; they were in suspicion; they were there for these “terrible things” like democracy, so they were in and out of Newgate Prison and brought the same crowd with publishing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft and The Cry of Nature by Joseph Ritson—which is a early radical appeal for vegetarianism and spare animal suffering. In fact, Joseph Ritson kind of became the nasty militant vegetarian that other people would compare themselves to. “Yes, we’re vegetarian, but we’re not rancy like Joseph Ritson.”

Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)

Ian McDonald: So often there’s this radical progressive element. You can see that in English Civil War, you can see that in the French Revolution, you can see that in American politics with many of the abolitionists.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes.

Ian McDonald: There’s the settlement in Kansas, the Octagon Settlement, where the vegetarian society really froze itself into trying to settle Kansas and make it a free state rather than a slave state. Has its own settlement. There are people from that vegetarian settlement in Kansas that take up arms, that go around, trying to kill as many slavers as possible. There are others who are pacifist and conflicted.

Henry Clubb, who is originally British, comes to America. He helps with the vegetarian movement. He takes over the vegetarian Bible Christian church. But his answer to the American Civil War, to the cry to abolish slavery, is to say, “I will not carry a gun, but I will enlist.” And he’s a quartermaster, and he actually takes a bullet for the United States, so the story goes. It’s stopped by his naturalization papers. It just happens to hit the wallet.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, that’s funny. That’s fascinating.

Ian McDonald: Yeah, our predecessors are definitely part of that strand.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, so it sounds like you’ve got thousands and thousands of stories. You mentioned when you were talking about the Greek… what was it, Pakistan, did you say before?

Ian McDonald: Pakistan, Afghanistan.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. One of the difficulties is language. We certainly see it with religion where the religion changes as the interpretation of the documents are translated. People can translate things in the way they understand them or the way they want to see them. Very often, language cannot be exactly translated from one to another to get the meaning, and I imagine that it’s the same with vegetarianism.

I remember Rynn Berry, another vegetarianism historian, who would tell the story of the word for fish that could have also have meant “plant meats,” mushroom and other things, in terms of whether Jesus ate a vegetarian diet or other things. It’s fascinating.

Ian McDonald: It’s fascinating, but when I raised that example with a scholar of the New Testament—

Caryn Hartglass: Yes.

Ian McDonald: —well, he’s mainly talking about these fascinating early Christian vegetarian groups—he said that one: in the context, the very obvious interpretation to that is fish, but he said, yes, Rynn Berry was right. That’s not a different interpretation, but also more importantly, the Gospel of John uses a different word, which is not so ambiguous. It’s kind of hard to support an entirely vegetarian interpretation of the “loaves and fishes” story, although of course the implication is that he manifested them out of the midst of nowhere which is ethically different than killing them.

Caryn Hartglass: Mm.

Ian McDonald: We’re dealing with the tradition of Jesus, that we can know that the quite recent actor that would have been in his lifetime. It’s still certainly, although more traditional, two other ideas that are interspaced.

Caryn Hartglass: So how do you do your research and put things together? Do you speak a lot of languages?

Ian McDonald: I don’t. There’s a lot of relying on other people. I know that in a lot of places I’ll look at two different translations. I’ll try and look at the group of words. There’s an example of a reading of Indian scriptures which I want to take a look at and I wonder how to interpret it. I was actually able to have a quick email exchange with an academic who was in the midst of translation of the text; he knew the section of the text. So you do get people who very, very graciously—these are people who are expert historians in that particular area and I just happen to be intersecting their interests.

In terms of the interviews, it will be a question of finding out in what area and then discovering who is researching it. So I looked up who had written papers about the Ebionites, who are an early Christian/Jewish group. Interestingly, before Christianity and Judaism had entirely diverged, particularly in present day Syria and Iraq, there seemed to be a lot more groups of vegetarian Christians.

Caryn Hartglass: Mm.

Ian McDonald: So I was mainly interviewing that particular guest about that. But I had the chance to ask them about what about that translation of the “loaves and fishes“ story.

Yes, it really is a live issue. In the case of Ancient Greek work, I compared translations but I also looked at the Greek to make sure that I was translating the idiom “abstains from animate beings” in the same way in all the texts. So it was consistent, and so that people could follow the facts that it was this idiom, this way of saying vegetarian. And it is so fascinating as a subject.

There is an early translation of The Laws of Manu where an early Victorian translator in the late nineteenth century really impressed me by managing to translate a pun from Sanskrit so that it still worked in English.

Caryn Hartglass: Amazing.

Ian McDonald: Honestly, you have to be in awe of these people.

But sometimes I found out. Sometimes I had a reference—in the case of one of the gurus that kind of stuck between Islam and Hinduism in Punjab, in the sixteenth century, there was a line of his that suggested and implied vegetarianism but it was all bent on how you translated it. I was able to talk to an expert in the area and actually it was no, it doesn’t; it probably is a condonation of antique rituals without actually being condonation of all meat eating, the way that people sometimes condemn factory farming without condemning meat eating in principle.

There are so many hiccups in translation, and in some cases, I haven’t been able to use something because it doesn’t exist in translation. (chuckles) There’s only appraising of it.

Caryn Hartglass: Sure. Is there one place in the world that’s been more vegetarian-friendly over history?

Ian McDonald: India is the obvious answer. But within India, that shifted. There seems to have been an emergence of vegetarianism as an ideal in the late first millennium BCE, but specifically the idea is Ahimsa. People have written contested papers on where exactly the hymns have came from, on which strands of Iron Age India religious thought it came from. For a lot of these, I’m digging in the burst of research that was done in the 1950s and 1970s. And I’m very lucky that one of them was translated from German.

Caryn Hartglass: Mm.

Ian McDonald: But—and—continent— [sputtered connection]

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, Ian, let’s just take a moment here because you’re breaking up and I want to be able to hear.

Ian McDonald: Oh!

Caryn Hartglass: Oh! There you are. (chuckles) I didn’t really hear anything you just said. It was kind of garbled. But can we talk a little bit about The Vegan Option? Because right now, you’re almost finishing it up; there seems to be fourteen episodes right now. How did you choose the episodes, what to talk about, and what are some things that we can hear? I haven’t delved into this yet, but looks like it is some very interesting material.

Ian McDonald: Well, The Vegan Option has the overarching— [sputtered connection]

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, unfortunately, you’re still breaking up, Ian. So… Ian!

Ian McDonald: Oh dear!

Caryn Hartglass: We’re breaking up, so let’s just take a minute or two break—

Ian McDonald: I’m going to be talking about performance—

Caryn Hartglass: —so we can get the Internet to kind of line up and hear you clearly, okay? We’re going to take a quick break.

[musical interlude]

Ian McDonald: Can I…?

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so I’m going to—

Ian McDonald: Hello!

Caryn Hartglass: Hello, Ian. It’s amazing that we’re to communicate this way from so far away, at same time, have our listeners listen in from everywhere. But it’s not always perfect and I hope we can hear a little bit more about you. So I was asking you about The Vegan Option and your fifteen episodes that we can listen to at theveganoption.org.

Ian McDonald: So there’s a whole host of episodes about different topics that still—[sputtered connection] lamb meat and hear about cat meat and, kind of in the background, I didn’t—[sputtered connection]—and that vicious acts of—

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, Ian, you know what? We’re going to have to pick this up because we’re really can’t hear you right now. And I really think it’s unfortunate because you really do have a lot of interesting information to hear, but perhaps we can reconnect shortly. Right now, it’s not working out. What a day!

Ian McDonald: I will—

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, if you can work something out in the studio where we can hear you better, we’ll bring you back on. So, it’s been quite a day here at It’s All About Food, hasn’t it? Maybe the meat-eating gods are working to (chuckles) keep us from sharing such important information.

But the good thing is, if you want to hear more about Ian McDonald and vegetarian history, theveganoption.org—fourteen episodes. I said before I haven’t listened to any of them, but they look really fascinating.

You know, we don’t hear enough about vegetarian history, and we can learn so much from what has come before us. It’s fascinating; it’s inspiring to learn about vegetarianism that took place in the Middle Ages, for example. I mean, who knew, right? Hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago—it’s just incredible. We have a lot more in common with our ancestors than we know.

And that’s because I think there’s something inherent in humans. We can go in many different directions; some of it is in our DNA, some of it is how we are brought up. If we’re brought up with violence, if we’re brought up not in the most nurturing, secure environment, we’re going to respond to that in a negative way, very often.

But I do believe that we do have this inherent compassion and kindness in us. When we are surrounded by love and treated with love, we want to give that love back to everyone. That includes not just humans but non-humans.

And when you get it, pow! you see everything. You see the way the world can work and work well. It doesn’t always happen, but I like to use food as the crack in the door. When we discover that we don’t need animals to survive, then we open the door to see that we don’t need to exploit anything to live well and survive. And then we can bring a lot of beauty to the planet. I would really like to know how other people in our history have understood this concept and how they have manifested it. So I find the history fascinating.

Let’s see, how are we doing with Dr. Ian McDonald? Are we—?

Ian McDonald: You tell me.

Caryn Hartglass: Ah-ha! He sounds crystal clear!

Ian McDonald: I just hung up again and called back again.

Caryn Hartglass: Excellent, okay! Sometimes just logging on is what will do it. Okay, let’s get back to theveganoption.org and your fifteen episodes.

Ian McDonald: So, yes. After I done a lot, I was considering maybe a two or three passer on the history of vegetarianism. And then I realized: when I began to research it, it was far bigger and more interesting than I had considered. It really needed to be an ambitious series.

So I put together a Kickstarter so that I knew that my expenses were going to be funded. I took a sabbatical for paid employment so that I had the time to do it, and tackled this astounding story, talking to the experts, going to places in India—because India is so important to the story.

I think you asked me: where is really important? The answer has to be India. If I were to pick one point on Earth, it would be the Ganges Plain in what’s now the state of Behar in north India. The state’s very name, Behar, is based on the Buddhist word for “monastery,” where in the Iron Age, there was this community of wandering holy men and women begging for alms and exchanging ideas like reincarnation and non-violence.

And from there, in the form of Judaism and Buddhism, the idea spread throughout India. It was, at the same time, maybe because of inspiration, people started talking about vegetarianism in Ancient Greece. But really, so much of the inspiration for vegetarianism, including modern European vegetarianism, comes from India and can be traced back—as far as we’ve got records of any kind—to those wandering philosophers in the Iron Age Ganges Plain.

Caryn Hartglass: And what’s the plan? Once these fifteen episodes are completed, they’ll be accessible at theveganoption.org for us to listen at any time?

Ian McDonald: Absolutely. Hopefully, it’ll be a resource that will be valuable to vegetarians for many years to come. People will just be able to know where we come from, what our story is, and learn it during the commute or doing the chores.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so what have you learned from this experience that you can bring with you into the future?

Ian McDonald: I should think the sense of continuity, the sense that if somebody says, “But plants though?” I know I can tell them that it’s not new because vegetarians had to deal with that during the Roman Empire.

Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)

Ian McDonald: There’s a certain perspective on disagreements within, between activists, to see how many of these have happened before. And simply the fact that people act as if vegetarianism is invented in the 1960s, let alone veganism, when actually not only was organized vegetarianism a product of the Victorian age, but there have been vegetarians for two and a half thousand years—at least, and probably longer.

Caryn Hartglass: Of all the stories that you’ve learned, is there a favorite or one that surprised you the most?

Ian McDonald: I think the orgiastic vegetarian cult in 1790s upstate Massachusetts is kind of a favorite just because it is so weird. I’m honestly very surprised about how much comes from not just India generally, but from this area that’s so small that you could walk across in a day. This really specific region of north India that gave birth to Judaism and Buddhism.

And also the extent to which people make the same comments every time, whether it’s, “You’re not a vegetarian if you’ve had mock meat” (which turned up in China) or expecting the people should be aesthetic. But also the fact that there was a religion with a vegan priesthood that lasted for a thousand years.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow, that is something.

Ian McDonald: There was a proper world religion. Priesthood is not exactly the right word. And how helpful academics are happy to be if you just want to call them and ask them questions. It’s… really good.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow, that’s fantastic. We have only a couple minutes left, and I want to know about you! How did you become a vegan?

Ian McDonald: I was growing up asking myself the usual questions about real life and all that. And into the mix I read Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and his arguments for vegetarianism seemed kind of compelling.

I kind of thought, well, I was going back into student halls and they had a form to fill in: do we feed you vegetarian food or meat? And I’m like, “Well… I’m not that bothered.” And if animals have souls—because I was raised a Roman Catholic and I thought in that way—it’s probably quite important. It’s like, “Best to them. It’s not much to me so I’ll go vegetarian.”

So I was vegetarian in a very non-committed kind of way, and that slowly developed into veganism. My parents kind of teased me—well, my mother and her mother mainly—that I really wasn’t being consistent because of what happens to dairy cows and cocks. And so if I was going to be consistent, I should be vegan.

Caryn Hartglass: Mm.

Ian McDonald: But, of course, that was kind of a dare because they didn’t know any vegans. Nobody knew any vegans. It was like (chuckles)—

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that’s funny.

Ian McDonald: —nobody was going to do that!

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that’s funny how they call you on things and it makes you reflect, makes you even better. We have just a few seconds left so, Dr. Ian McDonald, thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food. I think we all need to visit theveganoption.org and learn more because we weren’t able to get it all today, but we can get it all on theveganoption.org. Thank you for your work. This is really fascinating. I really appreciate you finding me and me finding you.

Ian McDonald: Pleasure to be on the show.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, thank you. That was Dr. Ian McDonald, and I’m going to say his website one last time: theveganoption.org.

I also want to remind you go to responsibleeatingandliving.com and you can find all those events I was telling you about. There’s the Healthy Eating Power Hour; that’s tonight and I hope you register for that. And there are other events that are starting on June 1.

Okay, thank you for listening! I’m Caryn Hartglass, this has been It’s All About Food, and have a delicious week.

Transcribed by HT, 6/11/2017


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