Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Advaita Yoga and the Natural Sciences: Chapter 1 — excerpts

The idea which virtually changed all our thinking about how the human race came into existence was the theory of evolution, propounded mainly by Darwin in the middle of the nineteenth century. That life had not been created suddenly but evolved gradually from other forms was not a new idea and had been held by philosophers since ancient times. This was the theory of the most ancient of the Hindu philosophies, the Samkhya School. But these ideas were not the practical ideas of evolution of species as in Darwin‘s theory. They involved instead specific principles of nature which had arisen from more general forms and in turn gave rise to more specific forms and so on till the development of mankind. It was an idea of evolution based on imaginary principles and entities.

However, Darwin was to give a far more practical and scientific theory. He showed that the diversity of the different life forms in the world did not need a creator as an explanation but that they could be easily explained by simple laws of nature. Nature did not have a purpose but merely followed a course determined by the odds. He demonstrated that the higher forms of life were developed from the lower ones. This led to the inevitable conclusion that man too was not created but merely developed from other life forms. Darwin and soon other scientists had irrefutable proof in the form of fossils and biological studies which proved their theory beyond reasonable doubt, although the finer details may still be debated.

As could be expected, the theory unnerved all traditional religions and there were vehement protests against it by the reigning high priests. It shook the thinking of all persons; from a vague belief that humans were indeed superior and had a special place in the sun, they had now to believe that they were in fact merely one in a chain of circumstances and had all kinds of slimy creatures and monkeys as ancestors. The psychological blow to the people of that age must have been immense. The human race now faced a world where although we were still at the top of the pyramid, we were very much an inseparable part of it. We stood at this position not because of any wise dispensation from above but because we had fought and killed with the rest and done it better than them. There was no fundamental gap, no place where God could have intervened to grant us a higher status. There was now no divine purpose behind our existence.

Not just the fossils but the evidence from the anatomy and chemistry of our bodies also shows our common origin with other ‘lower‘ life. For instance, genetic data has provided fresh proof like the identical genetic codes (90%) between chimpanzees and man. Various other studies of comparative physiology and anatomy demonstrate beautifully the different stages of evolution of our organs and functions, like eyesight, urine formation, etc.

Of course most dualists, who accept unquestioningly the concept of a Divine Creator, do not accept evolution. Besides this, there are people who, while not being such orthodox dualists, still reject evolution but most of this rejection is totally irrational and of an egotistical variety, of the ‘What, me descended from monkeys?!!‘ variety.

To get around evolution, one of the recent ideas proposed is that man originated in some way from travellers from outer space. According to this, the aliens mated with prehumans (they must have been really desperate!) and gave rise to our race. In this way, a touch of the celestial is retained for our origin through these modern Divine Beings. This does not however solve the problem as we still have to explain how the aliens evolved in the first place. Either they would have to evolve from monkeys in their own planet or we have to posit another super alien race for them, and so on. There is really no getting away from our ancestors.

One of the strongest objections in rejecting evolution is that if we give up the idea of a creator behind the world, we will also be giving up a vital part of our life, the strength that the concept of an absolute being gives to us. There is no denying that the need for spirituality in our life is as important a part of our makeup as the need for intellectual, emotional, and physical satisfaction. The concept of evolution destroys the basic beliefs of most traditional religions, where it is either a case of accepting the religion or accepting evolution.

However, this is not true of all religions. Hinduism and Buddhism are the two most important religious traditions that can support us spiritually while at the same time allowing us to accept evolution and all other scientific knowledge as true. Understanding Advaitism (non-dual Hindu philosophy) and Buddhism gives us a concept of religion that provides us spiritual strength through the idea of a higher absolute, without forcing us to reject science and rationalism.

The seminal idea in evolution is that there is no fixed purpose or direction behind it. The two forces that drive evolution are sexual selection and selection for survival. Sexual selection selects organisms which are most attractive or powerful sexually, as these individuals mate more and hence have more offspring, as for instance birds with more colourful feathers or males with bigger horns. Selection for survival selects those individuals which have an extra something to survive in their environment, such as giraffes with longer necks to feed on higher leaves. Each animal fits into its own particular niche in the complex environment, and in turn changes the environment to a certain extent, perhaps creating new niches for other creatures or disturbing and driving to extinction other creatures in their niche.

Sexual selection and selection for survival are not purposive forces that create evolution. They are simply terms used to describe certain processes. Nature does not have a mechanism to select for sexual advantage, it is only that those creatures that by mutation acquire a certain quality that lets them mate more, automatically produce more offspring. Similarly, those that have qualities that enable them to survive in a difficult environment also automatically have more offspring. Evolution theory thus showed that there is no active principle, whether divine or in nature, that guides or propels evolution. This fundamental truth changed all our thinking on God and our own existence.

The concepts of evolution and the origin of life left no role for God to intervene at any stage. Life is transmitted in an unbroken chain, and this chain has been continuous since the first dawn of life. The earliest life forms, the prokaryotes, are virtually immortal. There is no inevitable death for them unless they are killed accidentally. During multiplication they simply split into two daughter cells so that, in a sense, the first such organisms still continue to exist. An amoeba of today can be said to be the same organism living from the beginnings of life on earth. Even in higher creatures such as humans there is no beginning of life, as the egg and sperm of the parents are already living. When these unite to form a new organism, there is no sudden grant of life but only a continuation of the lives of the egg and the sperm, which in turn are a continuation of the lives of the parents. There is no point where God has to step in and grant life to a nonliving organism, either in the course of any individual life or in the whole history of life. This eliminates the most important role of God in all traditions.

In everything that we do – in our activities, tastes, creativity, and so on – we can find a precedent in the animal kingdom. Our taste in sense objects matches quite closely to that of the animals. We may find beauty in flowers, but this beauty was meant to attract insects that apparently have the same sense of style. Similarly, we enjoy the scent of flowers and the taste of fruits, when in fact these are meant for insects and birds. Even our higher tastes have their clear counterpart in the animal world. The musical notes of bird songs are as charming for us as the female birds for which they are meant. Our dancing has a clear precedent in the mating dance of birds. Birds are also known to arrange their nests in as artistic and creative a fashion as possible to attract their mates. Birds like the jackdaw seem to decorate their nests with brightly colored baubles gathered from the streets.

Even our so-called higher emotions are clearly mirrored in the animal world. Parental bonding prevails throughout the mammalian world. Other social bonds are clearly seen, especially in herding animals. Elephants are known to mourn for days near the body of one of their herd when it dies. Many birds mate for life, and some, like the Brahmini duck, will stand crying beside its mate if it is killed, until it also dies. It would be hard work trying to find such love in our own race. The importance of having a leader to make decisions and the discipline to follow the leader’s directions is also clearly seen. The social bonds between herding animals are as complex and strong as in any human society. All this has led to the realization that we owe most of the fundamentals of human culture to our animal ancestors.

The progress of our knowledge in the origin and course of life poses a serious challenge to the traditional concept of religion. The dominance of God is derived in most religions from His importance in creating and sustaining life. But that role cannot be believed in any more. Science has shown that there is no need to posit any divine hand in the origin of life, and that the human race does not occupy a central position nor was created differently from the rest.

This new knowledge has demolished the beliefs at the core of most religions, and as a result much of their doctrines have become redundant. It is untenable now for religions with pre-evolutionary concepts to sustain their teachings in the light of this new knowledge. Only religions which can accept evolution and other scientific discoveries can achieve harmony with our intellectual progress and spiritual needs.

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Index / Introduction / Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Biblio

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Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

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