Hindu Views on Evolution

Hinduism includes a range of viewpoints about the origin of life, creationism and evolution. There is no single story of creation, due to dynamic diversity of Hinduism, and these are derived from various sources like Vedas, some from the Brahmanas, some from Puranas; some are philosophical, based on concepts, and others are narratives. The Rigveda mentions the Hiranyagarbha (“golden egg“) as the source of the creation of the Universe, similar to the world egg motif found in the creation myths of many other civilizations. It also contains a myth of proto-Indo-European origin, in which the creation arises out of the dismemberment of a cosmic being (the Purusha) who is sacrificed by the gods. As for the creation of the primordial gods themselves, the Nasadiya Sukta of Rigveda takes a near-agnostic stand, stating that the Gods came into being after the world’s creation, and nobody knows when the world first came into being. In the later Puranic texts, the creator god Brahma is described as performing the act of ‘creation’, or more specifically of ‘propagating life within the universe’. Some texts consider him equivalent to the Hiranyagarbha or the Purusha, while others state that he arose out of these. Brahma is a part of the trinity of gods that also includes Vishnu and Shiva, who are responsible for ‘preservation’ and ‘destruction’ (of the universe) respectively.

The fish avatara of Vishnu saves Manu, the progenitor of the existing human race, during the great deluge.

Many Hindu texts mention the cycle of creation and destruction. The Shatapatha Brahmana states that the current human generation descends from Manu, the only man who survived a great deluge after being warned by the God. This legend is comparable to the other flood legends, such as the story of the Noah’s Ark mentioned in the Bible and the Quran.

Hindus find support for, or foreshadowing of evolutionary ideas in scriptures. For example, the concept of Dashavatara can be seen as having some similarities to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The first incarnation of Vishnu in the form of a fish resembles the evolutionary origin of fish in the Silurian Period.

In a survey of 909 people, 77% of its respondents in India agreed that enough scientific evidence exists to support Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and 85% of God-believing people said they agree with evolution as well. According to the survey conducted by Pew Forum in the United States, 80% of Hindus agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth. However, in India, there were minimal references to Darwinism in the 1800s. Elements of Victorian England opposed the idea of Darwinism. Hindus already had present notion of common ancestry between humans and animals. The Hindu dharma believes that the gods have animal features, showing a theory that humans can be reborn again as animals or with their features.

Hindu creationism

According to Hindu creationism all species on earth including humans have “devolved” or come down from a high state of pure consciousness. Hindu creationists claim that species of plants and animals are material forms adopted by pure consciousness which live an endless cycle of births and rebirths. Ronald Numbers says that: “Hindu Creationists have insisted on the antiquity of humans, who they believe appeared fully formed as long, perhaps, as trillions of years ago. “Hindu creationism is a form of old earth creationism. According to Hindu creationists the universe may even be older than billions of years. These views are based on the Vedas which depict an extreme antiquity of the universe and history of the earth.

Creation myths

Hinduism is a conglomeration of distinct intellectual or philosophical points of view, rather than a rigid common set of beliefs. As a result, the Hindu texts do not provide a single canonical account of the creation; they mention a range of theories of the creation of the world, some of which are contradictory.

Rigveda

Main article: Rigveda

The Purusha Sukta of the earliest Hindu text Rigveda mentions Purusha, primeval cosmic being. Purusha is described as all that has ever existed and will ever exist. This being’s body was the origin of four different kinds of people: the Brahmin, the Rajanya, the Vaishya, and the Shudra. Viraj, variously interpreted as the mundane egg (see Hiranyagarbha) or the twofold male-female energy, was born from Purusha, and the Purusha was born again from Viraj. The gods then performed a yajna with the Purusha, leading to the creation of the other things in the manifested world from his various body parts and his mind. These things included the animals, the Vedas, the Varnas, the celestial bodies, the air, the sky, the heavens, the earth, the directions, and the Gods Indra and Agni. It is likely that this myth has proto-Indo-European origins, as it is similar to other myths found in the Indo-European cultures, in which the creation arises out of the dismemberment of a divine being (cf. Ymir of the Norse mythology).

The concept of Purusha is similar to the concept of Brahman described in the later texts. As for the creation of the primordial beings (such as the gods who performed the sacrifice of the Purusha), the Nasadiya Sukta states:

Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation’s day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.

— Rig Veda 10.129.1-7

Rigveda (10.121) also mentions the Hiranyagarbha (literally, golden embryo/womb/egg) that existed before the creation. This metaphor has been interpreted differently by the various later texts. The Samkhya texts state that Purusha and the Prakriti made the embryo, from which the world emerged. In another tradition, the creator god Brahma emerged from the egg and created the world, while in yet another tradition the Brahma himself is the Hiranyagarbha. The nature of the Purusha, the creation of the gods and other details of the embryo creation myth have been described variously by the later Hindu texts.

The early hymns of Rigveda also mention Tvastar as the first born creator of the human world.

Recounting the creation of gods, the Rig Veda does seem to affirm ‘’creatio ex nihilo’’. Rig Veda 10.72 states:

देवानां नु वयं जाना पर वोचाम विपन्यया | 
उक्थेषुशस्यमानेषु यः पश्यादुत्तरे युगे ||
बरह्मणस पतिरेता सं कर्मार इवाधमत | 
देवानाम्पूर्व्ये युगे.असतः सदजायत || 
देवानां युगे परथमे.असतः सदजायत | 
तदाशा अन्वजायन्त तदुत्तानपदस परि || 

1. LET US with tuneful skill proclaim these generations of the Gods,
That one may see them when these hymns are chanted in a future age.
2 These Brahmaṇaspati produced with blast and smelting, like a Smith,
Existence, in an earlier age of Gods, from Non-existence sprang.
3 Existence, in the earliest age of Gods, from Non-existence sprang.
Thereafter were the regions born. This sprang from the Productive Power.

Brahmanas

Main article: Brahmanas

The Shatapatha Brahmana mentions a story of creation, in which the Prajapati performs tapas to reproduce himself. He releases the waters and enters them in the form of an egg that evolves into the cosmos. The Prajapati emerged from the golden egg, and created the earth, the middle regions and the sky. With further tapas, he created the devas. He also created the asuras, and the darkness came into the being. It also contains a story similar to the other great flood stories. After the great flood, Manu the only surviving human, offers a sacrifice from which Ida is born. From her, the existing human race comes into the being.

Upanishads

Main article: Upanishads

The Aitareya Upanishad (3.4.1) mentions that only the “Atman” (the Self) existed in the beginning. The Self created the heaven (Ambhas), the sky (Marikis), the earth (Mara) and the underworld (Ap). He then formed the Purusha from the water. He also created the speech, the fire, the prana (breath of life), the air and the various senses, the directions, the trees, the mind, the moon and other things.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4) mentions that in the beginning, only the Atman existed as the Purusha. Feeling lonely, the Purusha divided itself into two parts: male (“pati”) and female (“patni”). The men were born when the male embraced the female. The female thought “how can he embrace me, after having produced me from himself? I shall hide myself.” She then became a cow to hide herself, but the male became a bull and embraced her. Thus the cows were born. Similarly, everything that exists in pairs, was created. Next, the Purusha created the fire, the soma and the immortal gods (the devas) from his better part. He also created the various powers of the gods, the different classes, the dharma (law or duty) and so on. The Taittiriya Upanishad states that the being (sat) was created from the non-being. The Being later became the Atman (2.7.1), and then created the worlds (1.1.1). The Chhandogya states that the Brahma creates, sustains and destroys the world.

Later texts

Main article: Puranas

An attempt to depict the creative activities of Prajapati; a steel engraving from the 1850s

Belief in evolution is among the Samkhya philosophy. In the Samkhya philosophy, evolution is symbolized by the Sanskrit term parinama. Many Hindu reformers compare this term and philosophy with Darwinism. The prominent Vivekananda, based most of his cosmological and biological ideas off of the Samkhya. The Samkhya texts state that there are two distinct fundamental eternal entities: the Purusha and the Prakriti. The Prakriti has three qualities: sattva (purity or preservation), rajas (creation) and tamas(darkness or destruction). When the equilibrium between these qualities is broken, the act of creation starts. Rajas quality leads to creation.

The later texts such as the Puranas identify the Purusha with the God. In many Puranic notes, Brahma is the creator god. However, some Puranas also identify Vishnu, Shiva or Devi as the creator.

In Garuda Purana, there was nothing in the universe except Brahman. The universe became an expanse of water, and in that Vishnu was born in the golden egg. He created Brahma with four faces. Brahma then created the devas, asuras, pitris and manushas. He also created the rakshasas, yakshas, and gandharvas. Other creatures came from the various parts of his body (e.g. snakes from his hair, sheep from his chest, goats from his mouth, cows from his stomach, others from his feet). His body hair became herbs. The four varnas came from his body parts and the four Vedas from his mouths. He created several sons from his mind: Daksha, Daksha’s wife, Manu Svaymbhuva, his wife Shatarupta and the rishi Kashypa. Kashypata married thirteen of Daksha’s daughters and all the devas and the creatures were born through them. Other Puranas and the Manu Smriti mention several variations of this theory.

In Vishnu Purana, the Purusha is same as the creator deity Brahma, and is a part of Vishnu. The Shaivite texts mention the Hiranyagarbha as a creation of Shiva. According to the Devi-Bhagavata Purana Purusha and Prakriti emerged together and formed the Brahman, the supreme universal spirit that is the origin and support of the universe.

The Advaita Vedanta states that the creation arises from Brahman, but it is illusory and has no reality. (Vivarta)

Hindu cosmological view

Main article: Hindu Cosmology

Many Hindu philosophies mention that the creation is cyclic. According to the Upanishads, the universe and the Earth, along with humans and other creatures, undergo repeated cycles (pralaya) of creation and destruction. A variety of myths exist regarding the specifics of the process, but in general the Hindu view of the cosmos is as eternal and cyclic. The later puranic view also asserts that the universe is created, destroyed, and re-created in an eternally repetitive series of cycles. In Hindu cosmology, a universe endures for about 4,320,000,000 years (one day of Brahma, the creator or kalpa) and is then destroyed by fire or water elements. At this point, Brahma rests for one night, just as long as the day. This process, called pralaya (cataclysm), repeats for 100 Brahma years (311 trillion, 40 billion human years) that represents Brahma’s lifespan.

Modern Interpretations of Scriptural archetypes

Most Hindus accept the theory of biological evolution. They either regard the scriptural creation theories as allegories and metaphors, or reconcile these legends with the modern theory of evolution.

Dashavatara

Main article: Dashavatara § Evolutionary interpretation

The order of the Dashavatara (ten principal avatars of the god Vishnu) is interpreted to convey Darwin’s evolution. British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane opined that they are a true sequential depiction of the great unfolding of evolution. Like the evolutionary process itself, the first avatar of God is a fish – Matsya, then comes the aquatic reptile turtle, Kurma, then a mammal – the boar Varaha, then Narasimha, a man-lion being, Vamana, the dwarf then the rest four are humans; Kalki is not yet born. Various thinkers and authors like Helena Blavatsky, Monier Monier-Williams, Nabinchandra Sen, C. D. Deshmukh have associated the Dashavatara with evolution.

Vanara

The Hindu epics mention an ape-like humanoid species called the vanaras.

The Sanskrit epics of the Hindus mention several exotic creatures including ape-like humanoids. Some Hindus see this as a proof of the historicity of their mythological characters and as support for the theory of evolution in their texts. The Ramayana speaks of the Vanaras, an ape-like species with human intelligence, that existed millions of years ago. According to the Ramayana alongside these ape-men existed modern humans. Thus, according to these ancient writings, the status of such creatures was a state of coexistence rather than evolution.

Hindu opposition to Christian creationism

While the Creation–evolution controversy has seen much debate in the US and other countries, it is an insignificant issue in India, because of its Hindu-majority population. Hindus are among many faiths that have expressed apprehension about efforts to teach Christian creationism in public schools in the US. One objection to the teaching of creationism based on the religious texts of a particular faith is that in a pluralistic society this can result in the imposition of one religion.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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