Hinduism and Evolution

115 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2019 Last revised: 5 Feb 2024

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Date Written: December 10, 2018


This paper explores various spiritual traditions of Hinduism from the evolutionary perspective. The term evolution in its contemporary usage is closely associated with Biological Evolution (BE). However, the paper uses the term ‘evolution’ in a more general sense to include not only BE, but also Cultural Evolution (CE), Axiological Evolution (AE), and in general any Developmental Evolution (DE) as a continuous process that develops over a long period of time with or without teleology.

The paper defines Hinduism as a meta-religion - a group of belief systems which originated, coexisted and interacted with each other in the Indian subcontinent with shared traits and common substrata. It then defines the contours of what is known as Shāstra - a corpus of Sanskrit texts which forms the basis of theological and philosophical traditions of Hinduism. The Shāstra corpus is divided into three groups: (a) Primary texts (Nigamas and Agamas), (b) Secondary texts (Smṛitis, Purāṇas, and Epics), (c) Philosophical texts based on primary and secondary sources, including the writings of some of the 19th-20th century protagonists of Hinduism. The evolutionary perspective of Hinduism is explored within and among these three groups with the admission that this particular approach though justified on the basis of sample selection, is incomplete for the very same reason. In this paper, AE is essentially karmic in nature and binds various Hindu belief systems together. The paper explores the relationship between AE, BE, CE, and DE along with their directionality. BE stands out due to its rationalist framework and absence of directionality.

It is unrealistic to expect complete uniformity of views in a meta-religion like Hinduism that gives space to plurality of beliefs. It is also unrealistic to find in Shāstra any explicit support to BE which originated in the 19th century of Common Era and which is being developed since then adding to its explanatory power.

The paper shows that the germinating ground for BE’s ‘common descent’ is available in the monist Upaniṣhads and pantheist hymns of primary texts. The secondary texts (Purāṇas) offer an interesting model of Dashāvatāras (10-incarnations) which is loosely isomorphic to BE. Though this isomorphism is ‘by accident’, it suggests that there is no inherent resistance to the gradual evolution of humans from the lower organisms due to the pantheist, nature worshiping substratum of popular Hinduism. Hindu axiology (AE) too supports such evolution on the karmic basis.

Among the huge corpus of secondary texts however, there are few socio-religious texts which sourced cultural memes of hierarchical patrilineal classes and purity of lineage. Although these memes did not exist in the primary source; and although Advaita - the apex theosophy of Hinduism advises the aspirant to shed off these memes for spiritual knowledge, they still exist and may resist the ‘common descent’ - the basic principle of BE.

The paper discusses Hindu theosophical systems which support cosmic DE. Non-sectarian systems among them offer ground to the ‘gradual development’ and ‘common descent’ of BE by following the monist, pantheist primary sources and the karmic axiology. This ground and the subsequent development is without any explicit notion of “random hereditary changes being fixed by natural selection” which is one of the definitive ideas of the Darwinian BE. Yet, the conception of “design without designer”, “direction without director”, and “laws without law maker” is part of the ‘understanding’ (ज्ञान) of these schools which foreshadows the post-modern ideas of BE and DE. The difficulty of explaining the emergence of qualitative experience in individual life-forms seems to have been anticipated by these schools.

Yogi Aurobindo and Swami Vivekānanda of 19th-20th century offered a spiritual model of evolution with alternating directionality of evolution and involution. This model integrated BE and cosmic DE in the cyclic paradigm of Hindu belief systems. Hindu theosophical traditions allow such constructive view-point which enables the theologian to place himself in a particular position of his choice in the vast empirical spatium and construct his metaphysical and axiological models based on the primary sources. Such models are ‘regularized’ (usually, but not exclusively, in Sanskṛit) depending on how firmly they are rooted in the scholastic and spiritual tradition of Hinduism. Such reconstructions are a part of CE and AE of Hindu belief systems.

Keywords: Hinduism, Evolution, Agamas, Culture, Development, Cosmos, Buddhism, Jainism

Suggested Citation

Padalkar, Shashikant, Hinduism and Evolution (December 10, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3298891 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3298891

Shashikant Padalkar (Contact Author)

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