Evolutionary thoughts in Indian scriptures


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I don’t want to claim that our ancestors knew modern astrophysics or evolution—but this way of thinking was there

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We have witnessed an interesting comment by one of our ministers, a learned minister, that the theory of evolution is wrong, and that Charles Darwin was wrong. I think the origin of this comment is in blindly imitating the West, because both Hinduism and Buddhism have never taken a stand against the theory of evolution. In fact, there are several different versions of origins—origin of Earth, origin of life on Earth—in our ancient scriptures. Some of them are creationist, no doubt; but not all of them are creationist. Some versions have described the process of evolution not in detail, not mentioning that humans have descended from monkeys, but the basic thought of evolution that things are not created—they happen, they roll out. The concept that life evolved from non-living things, and one species can evolve from some ancestral species is very much there, and I will quote the Taittirīya Upanishad for evidence in this context. Taittirīya Upanishad has a very clear sequence of origin. It says

आत्मन आकाशः संभूतः। आकाशाद्वायुः।वायोरग्निः। अग्नेरापः। अद्‌भ्यः पृथिवी।पृथिव्या ओषधयः। ओषधीभ्योऽन्नम्‌। अन्नात्पुरुषः।स वा एष पुरुषोऽन्न्नरसमयः।

ātmana ākāśaḥ saṃbhūtaḥ            ākāśādvāyuḥ          vāayoragniḥ agnerāpaḥ adabhyaḥ pṛthivī     pṛthivyā oṣhadhayaḥ  oṣhadhībhyonnam  annātpuruṣhaḥ sa vā esh puruṣhonnarsamayah

[Taittirīya Upanishad. – 2.1.1]

It means that from the spirit came space, and here they stop talking about spirit. Then they say that from space came gases. Gases produced fire. Water was a result of fire. The Earth emerged out of water. On Earth, plants emerged. Plants made food. And from food, man was born.


Now, this is a sequence. And this sequence is very well and linearly described. What the sequence means is that things happened on their own—they were not created, they emerged, they arose, it is a process. And this is definitely not a creationist description; it is a description of evolution. So, two principles which have very clearly come out of this are: First, things were not created, they arose. Second, living things arose from non-living things. Plants emerged from the Earth. And plants gave rise to animals, which means that one species can arise from some other species. So, these principles are very clearly described there. Moreover, some interpreters of the Taittirīya Upanishad have called this sequence as utkrānti (उत्क्रांति), which is the word we use today, in Marathi (and Hindi), for evolution. So, this sequence has been interpreted as evolution by some interpreters of the Upanishads. The meaning is clear, but most Hindus, 99% or perhaps 99.9%, have never read the Upanishads. They don’t know that the evolution story is very much here (in the Upanishads), not in detail—I don’t want to claim that our ancestors knew modern astrophysics or evolution—but this way of thinking was there. The way of thinking in which the world changes with time, life changes, and species changes, has been very much there.


Ignorance is one of the reasons why some people think that evolution is a modern thought that was not a part of old Indian thinking. The other is clearly an influence of what has been happening in the United States for the last few decades— certain religious groups have taken a very overt and aggressive stand against teaching evolution in schools, and in many states either the curricula are modified or evolution has been completely removed. Now, some people are more eager to know what is happening in the US even if they do not know what is happening in India. There are people—there are sectors of people— who blindly copy the West. That seems to be the origin of this recent comment by the minister, and of any follow up to it, or any aggressive stand being taken like that. Now, if one believes in both Indian tradition as well as modern Indian Science, then there is no reason to support this comment.


Milind Watve is a Professor of Biology at IISER-Pune.

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Krishnaswamy Sankaran

This line of argument is not going to cut any ice with the ruling disposition. Nor is it a needed one. Of course, people in the past also thought and tried to make sense of what they saw. Some writings and ideas were taken up by organised religion here or elsewhere. Many ideas that were expressed were probably left out. In most cases, the writing is vague because we really do not know what they meant. The advantage of current day science is the reduction in vagueness and common terminologies to a large extent so people in one part of the world or time hopefully can understand what the other person in someother part of the earth or past was trying to convey. Let us try and stick to science as we know it and see that people first understand it and take on the world view that it encompasses. Harking back and pointing that it was there earlier in some vague form or the other will only help the religious fundamentalists grow.


A welcome note by Prof Walve and a very useful reference from the Taittiriya upanishad (yes most Hindus are likely not to have them, or completed a reading, but the pace and demands of modern life would give most time for a samhita, if at all).
The remark by minister Satyapal Singh about three weeks ago does I think have less to do with Darwin and more to do with Indic knowledge and enquiry, and the views which came out of such enquiry.
I have some acquaintance with systems (not the right word, it is more the socio-ecological contexts) of knowledge which it has now become commonplace to call 'traditional knowledge'. This acquaintance was possible because of sojourns in coastal western India, central Indian districts (Gond heartland) and north-east India. All have very powerful accounts of origin: of the cosmos, of the earth, of animals and birds, and of humans.
These accounts are in no way 'folklore' or 'tribal lore', as they have usually been labelled. I certainly don't think so. It would be unfair and selective to claim an affection for the very visible corpus of 'traditional knowledge' (especially medical, which has been plundered by the pharmaceutical industry) but to deny that view of origin/evolution are merely tales.