On Faith: Ancient Hinduism enlightens modern notions of evolution

Minneapolis, MN (August 24, 2011) - As a regularly featured blogger on the Washington Post/Newsweek's "On Faith" blog, Dr. Aseem Shukla, member of HAF's Board of Directors, has the opportunity to provide a Hindu viewpoint on various issues. Below is Dr. Shukla's latest blog. Please post your comments directly on the "On Faith" site by clicking here.
The presidential race of 2012, prematurely in full swing seems set to offer up a veritable cornucopia of “did he really say that?” quotes. Gov. Rick Perry, in just a week of campaigning offers up a Texas style metaphorical threat against Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, dismisses climate change and calls Social Security as nothing more than a “Ponzi scheme.” But in his tête-à-tête with a boy in South Carolina on evolution being “just a theory” with “gaps,” Perry is hardly guilty of a gaffe, and very much in consonance with core ideas of many in his political party and a broad swathe of American evangelicals who cannot reconcile their religious injunctions with Darwinian supposition.
It is the great burden of religious orthodoxy for those subscribing to the Abrahamic precept that God directly spoke to a single prophet and that message is unerringly transcribed in The Holy Book, to perpetually face the empirical advancements of science with distrust and fear. Entire schools of theology since the Enlightenment have been, and still are, it seems, occupied with confronting, disproving, or mitigating the fallout from the heretic contentions that the earth revolves around the sun, the Big Bang, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Once ancient books, transcribed as they are by mortals--albeit enlightened--are seen as literal words beyond interpretation to govern every mode of life, arguments ensue over what a “Judeo-Christian” society really is or what one governed by Sharia actually means.
So as the brilliant cover story in Christianity Today elucidates, theologians are working with three options towards reconciling science and Genesis: a) God created “mature, fully functioning creation in six literal days 6,000 years ago”; b) reject evolution but believe in the planet’s ancient origins; or c) intelligent design theory that a supernatural force guides the vagaries of nature rather than “natural selection.”
It is interesting that Hindu Americans largely recuse themselves from all of this angst over evolution. Indeed, cosmology, science, and the ancient Vedas--Hinduism’s sacred scripture--are eerily complementary. Lord Brahma, the Lord of Creation, often depicted as one of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, is described as creating the universe in an unending cycle over each of his days and nights. In his classic, Cosmos, Carl Sagan describes Hinduism’s agreement with modern science best:
"The Hindu religion is the only one of the world's great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long, longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang.”
If the Big Bang theory is posited to have occurred 13 billion years ago, Hindus would have no trouble at all agreeing that an Intelligent Designer, Lord Brahma, indeed guides the creation of the universe. Even more, Swami Vivekananda, one of modern Hinduism’s intellectual giants wrote in the early 20th century, whether an intelligence made the material world, or whether, as some scientists believe, the material world led to the creation of intelligence, does not much matter. For in his words, “Indian philosophy, however, goes beyond both intelligence and matter, and finds a Purusha, or Self, which is beyond intelligence, of which intelligence is but the borrowed light.”
And as to evolution, more than 2,000 years before Darwin rocked Christendom with his heresy, the Hindu Puranas described the “Dasha Avataras”--the ten Avatars, or incarnations, of Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu is said to assume an avatar at various periods in history to guide creation and preserve its eternal dharma--meaning that which is necessary to sustain and uphold. And so God is described in the earliest of creation to have taken the avatar of a fish, followed by a tortoise (amphibian), boar, half man-half lion, short human (scientists only recently found that early humans were likely short-statured), and then a warrior with an axe. The latter incarnations are the well known avatars of Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, and Lord Buddha as the most recent.
The Hindu and Abrahamic conception of time, human origins, and creation, then, are diametrically divergent. Hindus conceive of creation as part of an ongoing cycle of creation and destruction, with our current universe forming several billions of years ago, and God manifesting along the spectrum of evolutionary speciation when necessary.
An intelligent designer, of course, guides the mutations and selective adaptation that gives forth new species, but the designer is the creation itself and beyond it--hardly a supernatural being enthroned upon a cloud. Hindus and Perry agree then, on an intelligent force, but Perry and his fellow evangelicals, believe that Designer has only one messenger and one chosen people. And in their attempts to force the sermon from the pulpit to the lesson at the desk, they trample on Civics 101.
Perry's comment to the child in South Carolina that evolution is “just a theory” is scientifically false and intellectually incurious. Evolution is as much a theory as the Theory of Relativity or the existence of gravity. Perry has a problem with evolution because his understanding of his religion does not square with the advances of science. And his contention that in Texas they teach “both creationism and evolution” is false. In yet another classic example of ideological overreach, the previous head of the Texas School Board attempted to change the curriculum standards to include creationism but was promptly shown the door in the last elections. Just last month, science trumped again when the school board, despite its conservative majority, voted to keep evolution in the school curriculum, and creationism remains out.
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.