What Hindu tradition says about evolution

Subhash Kak
Subhash KakJan 22, 2018 | 12:05

What Hindu tradition says about evolution

There was an outcry in the Indian media last week when Satyapal Singh, minister of state for human resource development, reportedly said: "Darwin's theory (of evolution) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curriculum. Since the man is seen on earth, he has always been a man." He was speaking to reporters in Aurangabad at the All India Vaidik Sammelan.


He reportedly added: "Nobody - including our ancestors - has said they saw an ape turning into a man. No books we have read or the tales told to us by our grandparents had such a mention."

Indian scientists are shocked that the minister should speak thus against the idea of evolution which is fundamental to biology and medicine. How can the HRD minister be so ill-informed about science? This is all the more puzzling since he was a senior police officer before entering politics.

Was the minister merely trying to be nice to the traditionalists at the Vaidik Sammelan, and he has no strong views on the matter, and perhaps the HRD ministry is safe under his leadership?

My own thinking is that he is genuinely misinformed because, in reality, the idea of evolution (more general than Darwinian Evolution) is basic to all Indian thought, which is something that he does not appear to know.


The least he can do is to understand both modern evolution theory and Indian ideas on it and then see how the education system in India can help people know the history of Indian ideas as well as the foundations of modern science.


Indian ideas on evolution

The Sankhya is the Indian theory of evolution, which is supposed to apply both to the individual and the cosmos. In it, the basic entities are pure consciousness and materiality (nature). Nature has three constituent qualities (gunas) called sattva, rajas, and tamas, and as the balance between these three changes the universe evolves.

Out of the interplay of the five basic elements arise other principles (tattva): five subtle elements, five action senses, five senses of perception, mind, egoity, and intellect. The evolutionary sequence goes through many levels. The tattvas help in the emergence of life out of inert matter. The gu?as are not to be taken as abstract principles alone. Indian thought believes that structure in nature is recursive, and the gu?as show up in various forms at different levels of expression.

The texts imply that ingredients for the growth of life are available throughout the universe. Infinite number of universes are conceived, so each new one is created like a bubble in an ocean of bubbles. The tattvas are not discrete and their varying expression creates the diversity of life in and across leading different species.


Each sensory and motor tattva is mapped into a corresponding organ. Indian thought conceives of 8.4 million species, which is an impressive number, considering modern authorities estimate the number of extant species to be 4.5-10 million.

Physicist Erwin Schrödinger thought that the S?nkhyan tattvas were the most plausible model for the evolution of the sensory organs. A quote on evolution on earth from the thousand-year-old, encyclopedic Yoga Vasistha (YV):

I remember that once upon a time there was nothing on this earth, neither trees and plants, nor even mountains. For a period of eleven thousand years (4 million earth years) the earth was under lava… [Later] apart from the polar region, the rest of the earth was covered by water. And then forests enveloped the earth, and great asuras (demons) ruled. Then there arose great mountains, but without any human inhabitants. For a period of ten thousand years (almost 4 million Earth years) the earth was covered with the corpses of the asuras.

Indicating the presence of other animals while the giant asuras were on earth, YV suggests that man arose later. YV also speaks of minor ages of destruction on earth that correspond to the yugas.

The Indians believed that all life can be divided into three classes (Chandogya Upanishad 6.3.1): "In truth, beings have here three kinds of seeds, born from the egg, born alive, and born from the germ."

Given that it is also affirmed that life on other planets exists and that there was a gradual rise of life on the earth, it would appear that this implied a belief in a panspermia theory.

Why aren't Indian ideas on evolution known to educated Indians?

We see that Satyapal Singh did not need to deny evolution just to be on the right side of the remembered Indian tradition. The question then is: Why are the minister and other Indians ill-informed about their own sciences?

India is the only major nation where history of science is not integrated in the school and college curriculum. People pick up bits and pieces on it from a variety of sources, such as tangential references in religious texts, and other sources many of which are unreliable or plain wrong.

Superstitions arise in the absence of right knowledge and sunlight dispels darkness. A course on history of Indian science in colleges and universities will go a long way in presenting Indian scientific ideas to the next generation, and help people distinguish scientific ideas from mythology and fiction. The history of Indian science is not a politically divisive issue as it is not teaching religion or ritual. Why can't the HRD ministry take leadership on this issue?

Last updated: January 23, 2018 | 14:56
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