Mythic Evolution

Myth Theory 18 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday, Mumbai, 13 Sept 2009

This is a raging controversy in America. Was it God or random chance? Creation theory states that God created the world with all its diversity. Evolution theory states that random chance turned chemicals into genes and genes into organic life form, that mutated, and depending on natural selection over millions of years gave rise to the multitude of living creatures, from the amoeba to man.

The controversy began over a century ago when Darwin published his book “The Origin of Species” that claimed that humans had descended from monkeys! The idea seemed preposterous. He was condemned as a heretic and caricatured wherever he went.

There are those who argue that the Bible must not be taken literally. In the Genesis, inorganic materials are created first, then come the birds and fishes and only then man indicating an acknowledgment of evolution. Only the timescale is different. What is stated as days may refer to millions of years in human terms. This symbolic school believes that the story of Noah’s Ark indicates how natural calamities can destroy a whole race of beings, the dinosaurs, for example. The Original Sin, they say, is not historical but metaphysical: when man submits to passion rather than reason, causing disharmony in the quest for one’s own pleasure.

At the heart of the ‘origin of species’ controversy lies the ancient divide between mythos and logos, matters of faith and matters of reason. The battle lines were drawn with the rise of the scientific revolution about three hundred years ago in Europe. Religion condemned scientists as heretics. Scientists mocked religious leaders as superstitious power-hungry fiends. From Europe this divide spread, along with Imperialism to other parts of the world, India included.

The early students of scientific thought in India were mostly affluent upper caste men, what is called “Gentlemen” in English and “Bhadralok” in Bengali. The exposure made them uncomfortable with local rituals and beliefs. It fuelled the great Indian Renaissance of the 19th century with social reformers trying to redefine Indian culture along scientific lines, or rather along lines that were more acceptable to the Imperial Masters. This was when the Left wing arose – rejecting all religious beliefs completely, seeking to create a perfect society based on reason alone. In retaliation, the Right wing arose, rejecting everything that the Left proposed. Battle lines rose: scientific thinking was contemptuously labeled as ‘foreign’ and ‘Western’ by the Right, and celebrated as ‘modern’ by the Left.

In India, the story of Dasha-avatara gave many a reason for chauvinistic pride. Vishnu descends on earth first as a fish (aquatic), then as a turtle (amphibian), then a boar (terrestrial), then a man-lion (early man?) and only then human. The conclusion was: ancient Indians were scientific, and knew of evolution, even before Darwin. It became a matter of national pride. But what was overlooked was the details of the human avatars: there was Vaman (priest) followed by Parashuram (priest-warrior), then Ram (prince), then Krishna (royal cowherd and royal charioteer), then Buddha (hermit) and finally Kalki (invader, destroyer). This very obvious reference to the caste system was ignored by all, because it embarrassed all Indians, whether on the Left or Right.

Unlike the Bible, Hindus do not have a specific book. There are many scriptures and many stories of creation. The Upanishads states that Prajapati (the soul) chased a goddess called Shatarupa (matter), she-of-myriad-forms. She took the form of various female animals and he became the corresponding male; hence the biodiversity. The Puranas state that all creatures, gods and beasts included, are Kashyapa’s children by his many wives. Fishes from Timi, domesticated animals from Surabhi, wild animals from Surasa, birds from Vinata, snakes from Kadru, gods from Aditi, demons from Danu.

The oldest Hindu text, the Rig Veda, seeks the origin of species, in a radically different way. It asks why did evolution happen? A clue perhaps lies in the fundamental difference between animal and man. Humans, no thanks to the enlarged brain, can imagine possibilities beyond survival. They can rise beyond Pashu-prakriti, the nature of the beast. They want more than survival and domination and territory. They seek meaning. This is Purusha-artha, validation of human existence.

Evolution then, concludes the Veda, is psychological: moving from Pashu-prakriti to Purusha-artha. In Biblical terms, it is the return to Eden  after the Fall. Scientifically speaking, this happens only when man stops thinking about himself and starts thinking about others. Difficult but scientifically very probable.

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt G,

    A nice summary on evolution. A knock out punch on reference to the caste system (Could have given more weightage on that). Historical references state that during the reign of Chandra gupta from Mauryan dynasty in 320 bc, only then Caste hierachy reached its peak.

    Copying your quote for historical validation. “Evolution happens when man stops thinking about himself and starts thinking about others”

    Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan empire who is belived to the grandson of Chandra Gupta. His famous 13th rock edict says: ‘On conquering Kalinga, the Beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for when an independent country is conquered the slaughter, death and deportation of the people is extremely grievous to the beloved of the Gods and weighs heavily on his mind’. Ashoka converted to Buddhism, renounced war and devoted the rest of his reign to teaching non-volence to his subjects.

    The same non-violence from Mahatma Gandhi gave India Independence.

  • rajat

    Reminds me about Brahma’s day; i Google it and it says that Brahma’s day is about 4.32 Billion terrestrial years [Human year] then i search for earth age it is 4.54 billion year O_o .
    I can see theory of relativity and “twin paradox here “

  • Satish Gundawar

    How would you decode Samudra Manthan? Does it not signifies evolution?

  • Sushma

    Nice article. Just goes to show how Hinduism has space for every theory/thought.

    On a side note, the interpretation of the original sin is well and good but the sybolism indicates a different story to me. Adam & Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. I would interpret that submitting to reason and not passion. In my opinion this was a story that the Church, which wanted to be the only method for Salvation, put out as a lesson to those who do not blindly submit to God’s will (which is always dictated by what the Church says).

    I know it sounds like a conspiracy theory but a lot of symbolism incorporated in Christianity seems to be aimed at making Church the sole authority on God.

    Am curious about your take on this.

    • One can find a conspiracy theory to prove anything one wants….every institution and/or religion has good things and bad things…I choose to see the good things

  • Shankar Lal Soni

    I want to comment on your statement — “Evolution then, concludes the Veda, is psychological: moving from Pashu-prakriti to Purusha-artha.”

    There is no conclusion drawn in Veda regarding evolution. The conclusion in qustion is drawn by yourself.

    Moving from Pashu-prakriti to Purusha-artha is not evolution but progress achived by exercise of self restraint in pursuance of knowledge or action or devotion.

  • It is one of the most discussed topic with different belief system having differnt answers. Sometimes it is name of the game is to let others follow their own instinct and awareness will come to them only when they want to be aware.
    In terms of Evolution, I would imagine that Vishnu Puran has some theory. It states that Vishnu evolved from the sound OM and then he created other gods followed by man. May be that would be interesting to follow.


  • Karthikeyan

    Hi Devdutt,

    Can you elaborate on Kalki being a destroyer and invader.



  • Ramesh

    it might be silly question..but still curious to know .. is Buddha(aka siddharth) the nineth avatar?… I have seen in Dasavatharam movie that Balaram(Elder brother of Krishna) should be considered as eighth avatar and Krishna the nineth one ..Naradhar asked krishna “How come Balaram can be one of your avatar? he is rebirh of Adisheshan/Lakshman ” for that krishna replied “When I was Ram I give something whoever touched my feet. for e.g the dust in my feet touched the stone and it becomes agaligai, barathan touched my feet and i gave him Ayodhya for 14 years, similarly gave lanka to vibishanan.. but I didn’t give anything to Lakshman who served me for the whole life” thats why in the krishna avatar I want Lakshman to be my Elder Brother so that I can touch his feet and start my day and also gave him credit to be my eighth avatar”

  • I think there are two types of religions : those that say that God created the universe and those that say that God turned himself into the universe.

    The philosophical outlooks of these two are very different. The former are opposed to evolution (and change in general), whereas the latter argue for change and evolution in every natural object over time.

    It is for this reason that Hindu religions (and also Sufi religions of Islam) tend to look upon Darwin’s theory favorably without complaining too much. The seers of these religions obviously didn’t know anything about natural selection or the survival of the fittest, but they wouldn’t be too uncomfortable with the ideas of Darwin. On the other hand, those that believe in a creator God would have serious trouble with this idea indeed.

    The root of all Indian religions is the philosophy of Sāmkhya by sage Kapila. This philosophy is essentially a naturalist and atheist philosophical system. It argues about various levels of existence and how nature “evolves” across these levels.

    Various Hindu religions which germinated from Sāmkhya talk about the eternal path of evolution towards total bliss. Particularly the Vaishnavite religions present them in a clear order of incarnations of Vishnu. Similar ideas were expressed poetically by the Sufi saint Rumi. None of these is the same as biological evolution, but just the philosophical background that is conducive for such ideas.

  • sir,the article mythic evolution was interesting and scientific,there are many researches to prove that man was formed due to mutation and variation,DNA is unique for all from small micro to macro living beings but difference would be in organisation and well defined in case of Eukaryotes.But i have a small doubt regrading Reincarnation?? can you explain me???
    A small request can you write about scientific explorations in the vedas and upanihads………….

  • Susanz

    Dr Pattanaik, If you would be so kind, in a future article could you address the issue of Budha as the nineth avatar or provide a reading list that might assist with this question.

  • You you should make changes to the blog subject Mythic Evolution : Devdutt Pattanaik to something more specific for your content you make. I liked the blog post nevertheless.

  • Tanusree nath

    wonderful explanation………..