Found in Sanga, Sanga 2004.

Q. Darwin’s theory seems to make a lot of sense to most people. What are the Gaudiya Vaisnava objections to Darwin’s theories regarding the evolution of the human species?

A. Our main objection to Darwinian evolution is that it sees consciousness as a product of matter. We cannot agree with this proposal, nor does it make much sense in terms of verifiable evidence. Where do we see consciousness arising from inert matter and what scientific experiment can prove that this occurs? Our theory is that matter evolves from consciousness—the supreme consciousness. Otherwise, we acknowledge the evidence for some kind of evolution.

Hindus were evolutionists long before Darwin. Hindu scriptures teach that the various forms of life exist conceptually within God and evolve out of matter in conjunction with the desires of the karmically bound souls. In this way the material body evolves on the basis of the jiva’s desire or necessity. For example, when the desire or necessity to see arises in the jiva, the eye is manifest. Brahma is said to be the first soul and the repository of all the other jivas, who under his direction evolve upwards through aquatic life, to plant life, etc. Interestingly, Bhaktivinoda Thakura gave a lecture on the evolution of matter through the material mode of goodness at the British-Indian Society. He also analyzed the Dasavatara Stotram (Ten Incarnations of Visnu) in terms of evolution. In his view the dasavatara conception almost parallels the Puranic notion of life’s evolution from aquatic life upwards: Matsya (fish), Kurma (amphibian), Varaha (land animal), Narasinga (both animal and man), etc.

Q. In the scripture it says that after the universe is destroyed the souls that had inhabited it and were not liberated exist in an unmanifest state within Maha Visnu. Once the universe is again created, the souls are placed back in the material world in accordance with their material desires. Is it possible that souls who have the worst karma would be manifested first at the beginning of creation as single-celled organisms or bacteria and that other souls would be manifest later as suitable bodies were created to facilitate their karma? This would I think support evolution and scripture at the same time but I’m not sure if it’s right. What do you think?

A. This idea may have some merit as scripture says that souls at the dawn of creation begin at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder and gradually appear over a long period of time until the human form manifests. When humans appear the world is complete and set up in terms of its facilitating liberation. All these forms of life exist in potential within Maha Visnu and then in the mind of Brahma who puts the world together. But time as it is conceived of in evolutionary theory may be a problem here given the relatively short duration and nature of the yugas (Vedic ages). Therefore, it is difficult to validate or unify both positions in all respects.

Otherwise, citing the Padma Purana, Srila Prabhupada described evolution in terms that are somewhat compatible with your theory. In a letter to Hayagriva dated March 9, 1970, he wrote:

“We can take the idea from the tree—the tree grows gradually, and the different fruits, branches, and twigs gradually appear. Therefore it is to be understood that this planet has grown later on. Besides this we understand that although the planet was later on grown up, it was covered with water (pralaya payodhi jale) merged into the water after devastation. Then gradually it emerges from water. That we can experience, that gradually land is coming out of the oceans. Because of its being merged into water, it is natural to conclude that the beginning of life was aquatic. This is confirmed in Padma Purana that the species of life evolved from aquatics to plants, vegetables, trees; thereafter insects, reptiles, flies, birds, then beasts, and then human kind. This is the gradual process of evolution of species of life.”

Q. How does the theory of evolution coincide with the Vaisnava account of creation?

A. In brief, here is how creation occurs according to the scripture:

Visnu resides in the “causal ocean” consisting of innumerable jiva souls in seed form, all of whom are under the latent influence of their karmic desires left over from the previous world cycle. At this time the modes of material nature (gunas) are in a state of equilibrium. At some point a feeling arises within Visnu followed by an infinite vibration. This develops into an abstract idea and then into an actual thought, “I shall become many.” Thus the undisturbed equilibrium state of the gunas is activated by Visnu’s glance of life consisting of many jivas. Material nature is then galvanized by time and another world cycle is manifest.

This manifestation of the world is not technically a process of evolution in every sense because the cause of the world itself (Visnu) never undergoes transformation. The world manifests through successive emanations that result in the unfolding of matter to the point that it is suitable for the expression of the latent desires of the jivas. As matter develops downward from subtle to gross forms, the jivas develop from gross to refined subtle expressions of themselves through 8,400,000 forms beginning with aquatic life and culminating in human life. At the time in this process that humanity makes its appearance on earth, everything is in order for the jiva souls to meet their maker. At this point the world consisting of the jivas and matter—the marginal and external saktis of Visnu—becomes conscious of itself.

Unfortunately, this auspicious moment in cosmic history can take a turn for the worse for some souls. These souls think away their chance for liberation with sophisticated theories that deny their ties to a supreme consciousness, as does Darwinian evolution. There may be some truth to Darwin’s theory, but it has done at least as much to obscure the nature of the material reality as it has to reveal it.

Still, as much as it contains truth is as much as we are obliged to understand the scriptural account of the material reality in light of it. Certainly we are in agreement with the part of Darwin’s theory that says that the material world is a struggle for existence in which one living being is food for another (jivo jivasya jivanam)—survival of the fittest—but there is much more to the picture than this.

Q. What about the big bang theory or the idea that the universe is contracting and expanding. Do the scriptures have anything to say about those theories?

A. The Hindu scripturally-based notion of the world expanding and contracting in perpetual cycles with no beginning or end in time is not contradictory to modern scientific thinking. The same observations that support the big bang theory also support the theory that the so-called bang has no beginning in time and results in an expansion of the universe over trillions of years until it reaches a point of return and contracts, only to be expanded again ad infinitum. The astrophysicist Paul Steinhardt has put forth such a scientifically credible explanation called the cyclical universe theory, which seeks to explain recently uncovered flaws in the current theory of the origin and evolution of all known things.

Among other things, the big bang theory does not explain the “beginning of time,” the initial conditions of the universe, or what will happen in the far-distant future. In Steinhardt’s model, space and time exist forever, and the big bang is not the beginning of time but rather a bridge to a preexisting contracting era.

The cyclical universe theory has roots in even more complex ideas like the so-called superstring theory, which suggests there are as many as ten spatial dimensions, not just the three we know of. Several theorists believe that the seemingly inexplicable physics of a big bang and a big crunch, or subsequent contraction of the universe, might be explained with the aid of these extra dimensions, which are otherwise invisible to us. Such scientifically credible speculations about invisible dimensions leave room for rationally legitimizing the ontological reality of persons like Brahma and his lotus birth, who are otherwise thought of as merely mythological. Perhaps his chanting of the Gopala mantra can itself be construed as the big bang. After all, those in the scientific community who have embraced the superstring theory describe the world poetically as a concert of musical vibrations, a song in the mind of God.

In the course of Brahma’s work of creation under Krishna’s direction, which facilitates the conditioned souls, he simultaneously demonstrates the means for their deliverance by combining his desire for worldly interaction with the desire to follow Krishna’s direction. Through the medium of the kama-bija and Gopala mantra, Brahma dovetailed his desire for creation such that it was ultimately transformed into unmotivated love of God. Thus he engaged in gauna-bhakti, indirect devotion, with regard to his work of creation. In doing so, he teaches us that when our ordinary worldly activities are performed so that they are conducive to sadhana-bhakti, they do not implicate us further in karmic reactions. Moreover, they help to support the culture of love of God. Sri Jiva Gosvami describes this as tena isa-tyaktena visrstena. As Brahma became purified through engagement in gauna-bhakti, he proportionally took up mukhya-bhakti, or direct service to Krishna.

In Gopala-tapani Upanisad, Brahma describes how he saw the subtle form of the universal elements within the Gopala mantra. It should be noted that Brahma’s creation is a secondary creation in which he arranges the universal elements through the power derived from the Gopala mantra. The original source of the elements is Narayana.


One Response

  • ankur sethi


    Wow, great article. Thanks to Swami Tripurari for these wonderful explanations. I was distracted by all the Darwinist evolutionary ideas and it is refreshing to see these sober explanations.

    Would love to see more explanation on the soul and consciousness as it relates to single celled organisms and even viruses. Do virii have souls? It is a difficult question.

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