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