Ask the Swami: Dharma vs. Darwin?

If you're bad enough, will you be reincarnated as an amoeba? Vedic perspectives on evolution, dinosaurs, Mars, and the Big Bang.

BY: Swami B.V. Tripurari (Bio)


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

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. As matter develops, the jivas develop from gross to refined subtle expressions 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, we agree 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.

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?

The Hindu scripturally-based notion of the world expanding and contracting in perpetual cycles, with no beginning or end in time, does not contradict 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 many 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.

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