International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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37th IVU World Vegetarian Congress
Goa, India, September 10-16, 2006
Healthy Lifestyle - Vegetarian Way!

The Fabulous Fifteenth
how India transformed IVU in 1957
by John Davis, IVU webmaster and historian

Many western vegetarians visiting India today have a strange sense of 'coming home', often feeling more in tune with Indian culture than their own. But it wasn't always like that.

The earliest written evidence we have about ideas of living on a plant-based diet go back almost 3,000 years. The reports seem to appear around the same time in both Greece and India, though how far back the ideas went, or whether there was any exchange between these cultures, is impossible to tell. Both groups were primarily what we would now call 'lacto-vegetarians', including some milk products with their plant foods, but they were headed in very different directions.

The Greek vegetarians were always a minority and the rise of the Christianity eventually brought persecution, often of a violent nature, to any 'heretics' who dared to differ from the established Church. In India it couldn't have been more different - all the major religions either encouraged, or even required, their followers to respect all creatures, particularly by not eating them.

By the 18th century many Europeans were actively reviving the teachings of the ancient Greek vegetarians, especially Pythagoras, often referring to themselves as 'Pythagoreans'. Many enlightened Christians began to be more outspoken about respecting other species, and the long process had begun of undoing almost two thousand years of Church promoted animal abuse.

In India the situation was, as always, the reverse. As the world became increasingly secular some of the younger generations began turning away from their religious beliefs towards a more 'western' lifestyle they saw from their British rulers, including flesh-eating. By end of the 19th century there were vegetarian societies in India promoting vegetarianism as an important lifestyle in its own right, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack of it. The first that we know of was the Punjab Vegetarian Society, founded in 1889 by Mr. Durga Prasad, and soon followed by others. But these societies remained relatively small and isolated, for the vast majority of Indians the question of what they ate remained an integral part of their religion.

Perhaps the most famous story from this time is that of an 18 year old law student, Mohandas K. Gandhi, who arrived in London in 1888 having made a vow to his mother to abstain from eating meat whilst in England. After many initial problems he found a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street, and whilst there also found a book: 'A Plea for Vegetarianism' by Henry Salt. As a result of Salt's arguments Gandhi decided to become a vegetarian from choice, not just to obey his mother. He joined the London Vegetarian Society, was soon elected to the committee and for the rest of his time in London wrote many articles for the Society's magazine, as well as being very nervous speaker at their meetings. At his farewell dinner before sailing home to Bombay in 1891, he referred to the Vegetarian Federal Union (VFU), a short-lived attempt to organise vegetarians internationally. His last reported words were that he hoped "a future congress of the Federal Union would be held in India." But it would be another 66 years, and nine years after his death, before a different international organisation fulfilled his wish.

Gandhi (front right) with members of the London Vegetarian Society in 1891
(photo copyright of

A 'European' Union

During this time organised vegetarianism had grown enormously in Europe. By the early years of the 20th century there was a Vegetarian Society in every country of the continent and they naturally wanted to work together. The early attempt by the VFU has been a very British dominated affair and effectively ended in 1901 when they fell out with the rest of Europe, and even many in Britain. Then in 1908 some of the leaders met in Dresden, Germany and founded the International Vegetarian Union, based on equal participation from all countries. But all Congresses were held in Europe, an offer from San Francisco, USA, for 1915 was turned down as being 'too far to go'.

Indian involvement with IVU was very limited for many years. We have a brief mention of an Indian delegate at the 1923 Congress, in Sweden, but nothing else. Meanwhile, of course, Gandhi was becoming world famous in his efforts to promote Indian independence through non-violent passive resistance. In 1931 he visited London to meet with government officials and, whilst there, demonstrated his solidarity with British vegetarians by addressing a meeting of the London Vegetarian Society, with his old friend and mentor, Henry Salt, at his side (see photo right).

After independence the Indian vegetarians began to take a more active role in IVU. The 1947 Congress received a message of goodwill from the Bombay Humanitarian League and Indians spoke at a post-congress meeting in London. There were references to Indians in reports of subsequent Congresses and they were now beginning to assert themselves, but the minutes of the IVU Executive Committee meeting, from May 1954, showed that even vegetarians were finding it hard to leave the colonial attitudes behind:

The secretary further stated that he had received an invitation to hold the 1957 Congress in Bombay but that the main IVU Congresses must be held in Europe out of loyalty to the nations who had built the IVU. He had however made tentative plans for a supplementary Congress to be held in Bombay to cater for countries of the Orient. This was receiving the support of Dastor Bode and local arrangements would be handled by the Bombay Humanitarian League which was a member of the IVU. The date to be late 1956 or early 1957. This plan was approved.

The invitation had come from Jayantilal N. Mankar of the Bombay Humanitarian League and he initially went along with this euro-centric decision. In 1955, four Indians were elected as IVU Vice-Presidents: Mr. J. N. Mankar, Mrs. Nehna Vakil, Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale and Mr. Magenlal Shah, but the plan remained to hold a 1958 Congress in Germany, to celebrate IVU's 50th anniversary since the first Congress in Dresden. However this had to be postponed at fairly short notice - and Mr. Mankar seized his chance to show what India could do.

The 'Fabulous Fifteenth'

The 15th IVU World Vegetarian Congress was held in November 1957, but visitors to the other fourteen had never seen anything like this. Instead of the usual one week in a single location the Indians spread the Congress over a whole month - and took it to Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Patna, Calcutta and Madras, a staggering achievement with thousands of miles between venues.

The President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, receives a presentation from the IVU General Secretary, Mr. Geoffrey Rudd, after speaking at the inaugural dinner in Bombay.

The average attendance at previous IVU Congresses had been a couple of hundred, but the marquee for the opening ceremony in Bombay had seating for five thousand and was addressed by the President of India. Similar numbers attended the other meetings, and whilst in Delhi the President invited foreign delegates to tea at the Presidential Palace.

Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale, a Member of the Indian Parliament as well as an IVU Vice-President eloquently summed up the significance of the occasion for Indian vegetarians in her speech to the opening assembly:

Questions have been asked as to the necessity of having a Congress such as this in India where vegetarianism is a well established way of life. It is true that some millions of our people do not eat meat. We have a larger proportion of vegetarians to the population in this country than anywhere else in the world. It is also true that our great Teachers as well as the ordinary men have accepted the superiority of vegetarianism to all other methods of supporting life. Therefore, we should be in a position to teach rather than be taught. Yet, strangely enough, at the present moment, we need friends from afar to help us to re-discover our ancient ideals and to put them into practice with a greater conviction and knowledge than ever before. In the recent past, India has had a system of education alien to this country, providing a definite break with our old traditions. As a result of this, a large number of people, especially among the young, even in families hereditarily vegetarian, do not know why they are vegetarians. Many of them consider it to be an outworn habit, born of an old-fashioned superstition. This lack of knowledge and proper education, whether in the home or in the schools, has led to a new materialistic attitude that is spreading all over India. In trying to keep in line with the rest of the world, we have come to believe that only by copying the Western outlook and by accepting Western scientific concepts can India achieve a place of distinction in a highly competitive world. Indians who hold such a belief have yet to discover that there are great pioneers in all countries, in all fields of thought, including science and medicine, who are presenting a new way based on harmlessness.

In a subsequent report Mr. Geoffrey Rudd, then the IVU General Secretary, wrote:

At the "Fabulous Fifteenth" Congress in India, when Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Patna, Calcutta and Madras staged public meetings and gave lavish hospitality to the touring delegates, we were entertained by Mr. Nehru, then Prime Minister, and Dr. Prasad, then President of the Republic, as well as by Governors of the States visited, Ministers of the Government and Maharajahs. Audiences numbering several thousands were frequent, and on some occasions loudspeakers relayed the talks into the streets.

It was clear that IVU would never be the same again. The most immediate impact was that a new type of role was created for Jay Mankar, as he became the IVU Regional Secretary for India and the East, and soon added his own treasurer with a local bank account to run IVU's activities in the region.

The German Congress was held in 1960 but, in the intervening three years, the IVU President and Past-President had died, and the Deputy President was unwell - missing his first Congress since 1923. All of which gives an idea of the average age of IVU leaders at that time! In the absence of an elected leader Mrs. Rukmini Devi Arundale was unanimously voted to chair all the sessions.

A truly International Union

The Americans quickly saw the oppurtunity to break the European domination and persuaded the Committee to appoint a Regional Secretary for the Americas. Initially this was all the Americas but later separated into north and south, and other continents soon had their own Secretaries too.

The next three Congresses were back in Europe as usual, but the Indians had shown how it could be done and in 1967 Mr. Mankar did it again. This one also toured the major cities, had a welcome from the President; a speech from the Deputy Prime Minister to an audience of 3,000 at the All-India Cricket Club; a gathering of 2,000 on Chowpatty beach, Bombay; and even an appearance by the Dalai Lama who was going through an all-too-brief vegetarian phase at the time.

Left to right: Smt Rukmini Devi Arundale, Shri Morarji Desai (Deputy Prime Minister of India), His Holiness The Dali Lama, Shri J. N. Mankar and Shri S. M. Mehta. Innauguration of the XIXth IVU World Vegetarian Congress, Mavlankar Hall, New Delhi, India. November 18th, 1967.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, with Brian Gunn-King,
IVU General Secretary, and his wife Margaret. During the 1967 Congress.

Group taken at the "At Home" given by the President of India, Dr. Zakir Husain, at his official Residential Palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, 1967.

One of the delegates mentioned in reports of the 1967 Congress was Jay Dinshah, an American of Indian origin who had founded the American Vegan Society in 1960. He saw the potential and, in 1975, organised the 23rd IVU Congress in Maine, USA, the first in North America. He created a stunning success, attracting 1,500 delegates, far more than ever seen in Europe, and the Congress became a launchpad for organised vegetarianism in the region.

The next Congress, in 1977, saw Jay Mankar setting up another vast series of meetings across India, but he was now 82 years old and sadly died a few months before the start of the event. Other Indians imediately rose to the challenge and the Congress went ahead with what was, by now, becoming a customary spectacular success: audiences of up to 1500 attended each lecture in every city.

IVU had, at last, become a genuinely global union as a direct result of the impact of the 'Fabulous Fifteenth' in India, 1957. Recent Congresses in Thailand, Canada and Brazil have built on that legacy, and we have so much more yet to come....

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