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Evolution and Hinduism
The theory of evolution by natural selection, proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th Century, is the bedrock of modern biological science. It is a scientific theory that explains how living things are related and change over time through the process of natural selection. It postulates that all organic life on earth – plants, animals, humans – have evolved over several generations, changing, modifying and adapting physically to best suit their environments and increase their chances of survival. I have found that this theory does not explain in full the human journey, and wondered whether what Hinduism tells us about evolution may help complete the story.
There’s more to evolution
The theory of evolution is well-accepted in the scientific community and I do not consider it to be wrong. What I was looking for were answers to a few questions about evolution that I didn’t find addressed by the theory.
- Where, when, and how did the living things come from and why?
- Where, when, and how did the universe come from and why?
- Who decides what kind of plants, animals, and other living things will inhabit the earth and why?
To me, evolution is a complex, multidimensional issue that falls not only in the realm of science, but also in that of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. While science may explain the physical aspect of evolution, philosophy can help us understand our intellectual evolution, psychology, our emotional and spiritual growth. Humans have evolved not just physically; there has been simultaneous evolution of the intellect and human consciousness.
To address my questions about the who, what and why, and how of evolution, I turned to three teachings of Hinduism:
- Nature is a manifestation of Brahman (or God), and humans are part of Nature as are other living things.
- Good karma sets you on a higher evolutionary path, while bad karma can lead to evolutionary regression. The way I see it, the theory of evolution is a linear process of evolution, almost on autopilot, until the emergence of the modern human being. That’s when the law of karma kicks in; a human being’s good karma will cause him/her to evolve into a higher being. Bad karma can cause one to fall lower in the food chain.
- The universe is created and stays for a finite period of time, but is ultimately destroyed. This process of creation and destruction keeps repeating itself eternally in a cyclical fashion.
A holistic view of evolution
My own research and reflection tell me that the Samkhya philosophy of Hinduism can answer many of my unresolved questions about evolution. The Samkhya philosophy does not negate the theory of evolution but encompasses other human evolutionary traits like the psychological, intellectual, and emotional growth of humans. So while the scientific theory of evolution focuses on the micro, the Hindu philosophies on evolution focus on the macro.
Samkhya and Advaita
The ancient Indian philosophy of Samkhya (enumeration) views reality as a dualism of prakriti (matter, or the known) and purusha (consciousness, or the aware). In the process of human evolution, the purusha bonds to prakriti, giving rise to the state of jiva or a living being. This bonding leads to the evolution of many human and natural characteristics like the intellect, the ego, the elements, organs of perception, and the mind.
The Samkhya philosophy, however, does not explain where purusha and prakriti come from. That’s where the Advaita Vedanta comes in handy.
Advaita Vedanta introduces the concept of Brahman, which is the Ultimate Reality that is impersonal, formless, unborn, eternal, immutable, and infinite, transcending the purusha and prakriti. It is the cause of all causes (sarva karana karanam).
So the theory of evolution, in conjunction with Samkhya and Advaita Vedanta philosophies of Hinduism, created for me a more holistic picture of evolution. The two approaches of studying evolution supplement rather than supplant each other.
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