Monday, October 10, 2011

Evolution in Hinduism


The reason why the Universe is Eternal,
Is that it does not live for Itself,
It gives life to others as it transforms,
And thereby lies the process of Evolution.

Change, they say, is the only thing Constant. All of us experience change in our life - our views take shape, thoughts mature, perceptions get molded, and if ever we sit and reflect, we wonder how it could be that we are so different from the way we were just a few years back!

Similar change in the life of our planet is evidenced by the process of Evolution. The current post deals with the 'Theory of Evolution' as proposed by the Biologist Charles Darwin and compares it with similar thoughts in the Hindu tradition.


Origin of Species

As discussed in the 3rd post (Creation by Brahma), our Universe required at least ten billion years of Evolution before life was even possible!

Yet, the formation of the Nuclear furnaces of our Stars was a slow but indispensable prerequisite for the generation of life. Even on our own planet, the process has only progressed by taking baby steps. After all, it took millions of years of trial and error to provide us with the backbone!


Evolution by Carl Sagan 



Evolution is indeed visible in the huge diversity of species on our planet. Many species like the Dinosaurs have come and gone and many new are being discovered every single day by Botanists and Zoologists. Today, most of us consider Evolution to be an undisputed fact, yet there was a time when the concept was brand new and quite controversial.

And the controversy began with one man - Charles Darwin. Darwin (1809-1882), was an English Naturalist, who wrote the immensely popular thesis Origin of Species in the year 1859 CE, thereby rocking the foundations of both scientific as well as religious world of that time!


Charles Darwin


What was stated in his book, went totally against accepted beliefs of the Church and Darwin had to face a lot of criticism for his revolutionary theory. Yet, it is by this theory alone, that we can understand the full purport of Evolution on our planet, and have it stored in the collective consciousness of Mankind today!

The spirit of adventure had gripped the imagination of most European nations at that time and there were expeditions organized from different countries to chart and explore the world around them. On one of these trips, our guy Charles Darwin landed at the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. These are a group of 12 disjointed atolls with the sea separating all of them, so that the flora and fauna in each is isolated from outside intervention.


Darwin's Voyage



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Darwin began to study the different species present there and to his surprise, observed huge variations in the species present in each of these islands!! In Darwin's own words,

"When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as a Naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent...

Darwin began to ask himself why some birds on these islands had beaks different from others, and why some turtles had upright necks while others had their necks pointed down! Could all these differences be a result of the ENVIRONMENT these animals lived in and the circumstances in which they had to obtain food?


A note from Darwin's Diary



Despite suffering badly from sea-sickness, Darwin wrote copious notes while on board the ship. He found that the mockingbirds from different islands of the Galpagos group differed in shape and color and collected 12 different species of finches from each of them!

He traveled throughout the world and collected specimens wherever the ship docked. The same were handed over to experts when he landed in his mother country for further analysis.. The research conducted on these specimens by various Anatomists, Ornithologists, Zoologists and Geologists, made the entire scientific world sit up and take notice of this radically NEW notion that Darwin had proposed.

Inspired by the geographical differences in the wildlife (past and present), Darwin finally conceived of the Theory of Natural Selection. Today, the 'Origin of Species' is a widely acknowledged classic, and Evolution is universally and casually accepted as a truth of life..


Stages of Evolution


Today, based on all the evidence available, scientists describe four zoological eras namely - Arshean, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and the Cenozoic which have led to the current plant and animal life on this planet.



Evolution in Hinduism

Ancient Indians believed that Life evolves only from pre-existing Life. As discussed in the 3rd post (Creation by Brahma), Hindu Creation closely follows actual appearance of elements in our Universe-

First appear the intangible substances followed by the tangible matter; followed by the immovable planets and landmasses; then the vegetation; birds, aquatics and animals; and finally the Higher species.

Taking an example from Hindu Philosophy, one of the most important concepts in Hinduism is of Sansaar/Samsara. All religions of Indian origin viz. Jainism, Budhism, Sikhism and the numerous other sects, believe in this concept and I'm sure most of you are aware of it as well. The concept is also known as the Transmigration of Soul, and refers to an endless cycle of re-incarnation that a soul must undergo in order to fulfill its Karma.


Transmigration of Soul through different Species





A soul takes birth in different species of life until it attains the form of a Human-being that enables it to strive for Nirvana. Compare this concept with the diagram above and you will immediately observe the similarity with Evolution!!

Another point to notice is the mention of  84 Lakh (8.4 million) different forms that a soul is obliged to take in order to reach a Human form which is remarkably close to the 8.7 million Eukaryotic species that scientists believe exist today!!


Different species are an evidence of Evolution


Sir John Woodroffe (1865-1936), Advocate General of Bengal and Legal member of the erstwhile Govt. of India, had the same revelation after the study of Sanskrit texts. He said and I quote,

"Ages before Lamarck and Darwin, it was held in India that man has passed through 84 lakhs births as plants, animals, inferior species and then came the ancestors of developed man existing today. The theory was an act of brilliant deduction in which observation may also have had played part!"

Is it just co-incidence or were the ancient Rishis actually aware of all the complexities of their environment around them?? While the above theory by itself may not be sufficient for some to believe in what I'm saying, I'll elucidate it further through an analysis of the order of Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu.


For the sake of the Neophytes, I'm listing the Ten Avatars below:


  1. Matsya, the Fish
  2. Kurma, the Turtle
  3. Varah, the Boar
  4. Narasimha, the Half-man/Half-lion being
  5. Vaman, the Dwarf
  6. Parashurama, Rama with the axe
  7. Rama, Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya
  8. Krishna, the Man-god
  9. Buddha, the Spiritual Master, and lastly,
  10. Kalki, expected to appear at the end of the Kali Yuga.


 

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It would be worthwhile to note that originally, there were 24 Avatars of the Lord listed in Srimad Bhagvatam. Why then, were only 10 selected by the Rishis for glorification? Furthermore, the order of the Avatars is NOT chronological! The actual order is as follows -  Varah, Narsingh, Kurma, Vaman, Matsya, Parshu-Raam, Raam, Krishna/Balrama, Buddha and Kalki.

To a student of Biology, it may be quite apparent that these incarnations bear a STARTLING resemblance to the Concept of Evolution! If you remember your basic science well, you may be able to spot the similarity yourself if you just sit and reflect on it a little. In the Dashavatar, we start with the aquatic Matsya, the Savior of the World; move on to the amphibian Kurma, the Support of the World; and follow it up with the Protector of the World, the terrestrial Varah.

Compare this with the diagram below to see how the current understanding of Evolution exactly matches this description. (The numbers in the image refer to millions of years ago (mya) that these animals had existed on our planet)


Evolution of Amphibians and Terrestrials from Aquatics
(Images courtesy Rima Chadha)



Now, the Eusthenopteron in the diagram above is a good example for demonstrating evolution. This particular animal looked and behaved like modern fish for all practical purpose, YET within its fins were  precursors of arm and leg bones of the four-limbed land animals!

To add weight to this Out-of-Water theory, we next have the Tiktaalik, a half-fish, half-amphibian animal discovered in the Canadian Arctic in 2004. This animal was a further step towards TERRESTRIAL life with early wrists and finger bones that allowed it to prop itself up and poke its head above the water!


Evolution through animation



There are also indications that the animal breathed both through gills (like the earlier Eusthenopteron), as well as by means of a lung-like structure like the later amphibian Ichthyostega! This is just one of the many example that confirm Paleontologists' theories about land-dwelling animals evolving from fish ancestors and co-relates well with the Dashavatar sequence of Kurma after Matsya.


Kurma Avatar of Lord Vishnu



If you are intrigued by this similarity between science and religion, wait coz there's more to come :o)

After Kurma, we have the Varah and the story of this incarnation has many sub-layers.. At one level, it signifies the next level of evolution moving from Water to Land while at a deeper level, it shows that Humans can not survive on the planet without the help of animals!

Lord Varah is followed by the half-man-half-lion Nar-singh signifying the development of Man from the beasts. The victory of Narsingh/Narasimha over Aasurik ambitions of Hiranyakshipu also signifies that Humanity can be born only if we manage to subdue our demonic tendencies!


Narsingh, the Man-beast who tames Asurik tendencies
 
Varaha, the savior of Earth

{Image courtesy - Vimanika Comics}
Dashavatar Volume 2


Scientifically, there are numerous specimens recording this development from 'Water to Land' and from 'Beasts to Man' and many so called Missing Links have been found to corroborate the same.

However, for our purpose, let us shift focus to a new animal that was spreading slowly out from the African heartland about 120,000 years ago. There was no evidence, as yet, that it would prosper or even survive on this world where so many mightier beasts had passed away. However, it DID survive and DID prosper enough to become the most populous and dominant species on this planet - this was the Human-being.

The Evolution of Humans from an ape ancestor is supported by DNA and fossil evidence of over 20 species of Hominids! The complete genomes of several primates have been sequenced and they provide ultimate proof of our relatedness to apes and other Primates.


Evolution of Early Man



Dryopithecus in the image above, was a common ancestor to humans as well as other apes, and walked on all fours. The next guy in the image, Australopithecus afarensis, retained remnants from his quadrupedal past (such as hind toes suited for climbing and a wrist joint indicating it could knuckle-walk).

However, its thigh bone, the femur, was shaped like that of the later Homo erectus to bear the stress of upright movement! In addition, both the proto-humans' femurs were also angled inward to help maintain balance on two legs, just like we do today.


Video showing skull changes from primates to modern Humans



Hindu mythology also finds the mention of these proto-humans in the form of the Vanars but that's a topic for a future post so I'll leave it at that for now. Thus, in the Dashavatar sequence, we first have the pygmoid Vaman followed by the fully developed but jungle-dwelling man represented by Lord Parashuram.

This stage represents Early Man who had started using tools and weapons and quite fittingly, Prshuram is the FIRST of the ten incarnations to posess primitve ARMS (Axe and Bow).


Parshuram represents Jungl dwelling man who used tools
 {Image courtesy - Vimanika Comics}


As the famous sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke describes - The stone club, the toothed saw, the horn dagger, the bone scraper - these were the inventions which the Early Man needed in order to survive and hunt.

No longer were they faced with starvation when their teeth became damaged or worn; even the crudest tools could add many years to their lives. And as their fangs diminished, the shape of their face started to alter; the snout receded, the massive jaw became more delicate, the mouth able to make more subtle sounds to enable Speech.

In using the Tools, their hands developed a dexterity found nowhere else in the animal kingdom permitting them to make still BETTER tools, which in turn helped develop their limbs and brains yet further. It was an accelerating, cumulative process; and at its end was the Modern Man.

Soon, mankind discovered Fire and Agriculture, and civilization began. Hence, next in the list we have the civilized man with a strong moral code - Shri Rama followed by Balrama, the Man-who-can-tame-Nature. In the image below, we can see the modern human represented by Shri Rama accompanied by the proto-human Vanars.


Maryada Purushottam Shri Rama


Next in line, Buddha, represents man with a spiritual drive and the need for infusing fresh thoughts in age-old traditions to keep religion and spirituality within the reach of the Masses.

The final Avatar, Kalki, refers to the techno-humanoid man of tomorrow wielding mechanical contraptions and riding the steed of fire perhaps hinting at the technological advancement yet to come, maybe somewhat similar to Arnold from one of my childhood favorites, the movie Terminator :o)

The 10 Avatars certainly represent much more than just the incarnations of Lord Vishnu and as we saw above, are an allegory for the Process of Evolution which is evident in nature and within our own beings as well.


Lord Vishnu and the Ten Avatars



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I hope I was able to suitably present before you another aspect of Science uncovered from the depths of the treasure trove of Hindu Mythology. I again bow down to the intellect of the ancient Rishis and culminate this post with the Dashavatar Stotra, translated from the Geet-Govind, and dedicated to the 10 glorious Incarnations of Lord Vishnu:

In the Great Deluge, You kept Vedas safe,
Like a ship undeflected, from its original course,
Hail Keshav in the form of Matsya,
Glories to Hari, Lord of the Universe!

On Your expansive back, You let the Mountain rest,
Like a Cosmic pivot, for churning the Ocean,
Hail Keshav in the form of Kurma,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

In the depths of Garbhodak, You kept Bhu-Devi safe,
Like a speck on Moon, she rested on Your tusks,
Hail Keshav in the form of Varah,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

On your mighty knees, You let the demon rest,
Like a leaf Hiranyakshipu lay, entire existence torn,
Hail Keshav in the form of Narsingh,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

In three steps subduing Bali, You kept Three worlds safe, 
Like a mountain spring, Ma Ganga washed Your feet,
Hail Keshav in the form of Vaman,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

On the land destroying tyranny; You let our anguish rest,
Like the cleansing sunlight, You rid us of the wicked,
Hail Keshav in the form of Parshurama,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

In the interest of Dharma; You kept All species safe,
Like the ten directions, were Ravan's ten heads spread,
Hail Keshav in the form of Shri Rama,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

On Your plough, wearing blue; You let the Yamuna rest,
Like the celestial clouds, garments adorned Your form,
Hail Keshav in the form of Balraam,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

In Kaliyug You opposed sacrifice; Keeping animals safe,
Like Your compassion, Your fame too shone,
Hail Keshav in the form of Buddha,
Glories O Hari, Lord of the Universe!

On Judgement day destroying Evil; You'll let their Souls rest, 
Like a comet, your sword trailing destruction,
Hail Keshav in the form of Kalki,
All Glories to Hari, Lord of the Universe!

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Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:
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