On the Theory of Evolution

Q&A with Satyanarayana Dasa Babji, originally published at the Jiva Institute of Vaishnava Studies.

Scientist: In the Sarva-samvadini, Sri Jiva Gosvami quotes Vacaspati Misra from the Bhamati. Vacaspati Misra is considering ordinary sense perception and contradictions between sense perception and scripture. He makes the argument that the sastra is also heard with the senses. So we cannot reject the authority of the senses because then the sastra itself cannot be heard, nor things like Krsna’s names etc. So sense perception has its value. Now if there is a contradiction between sense perception and scripture, what do we do? He says that the philosopher is not concerned with such sense perception in that case. He doesn’t say that the philosopher is obligated to reject sense perception.

With this background, let us consider the Bhagavata’s version and the evolutionary version. The Bhagavata’s version (the sixth canto) is that Kasyapa Muni fathered several different species through his wives. Kadru gave birth to snakes, reptiles etc. Vinata, Garuda’s mother, gives birth to birds- and in the same way, there is a whole list with other wives—tigers, hooved animals like cows etc. Kasyapa is a human being by all accounts—some people in India have Kasyapa gotra, which means he was their ancestor.

What is evolution? First, I don’t think evolution is a conspiracy to reject religion, nor is science a matter of faith. I think that the term ‘rational faith’ is a straw man argument. Science did not come about based on a pre-existing belief system—rather it came about despite pre-existing beliefs (such as the Bible). Neither was it a reaction to a pre-existing belief system. It was based on observation. The observations are there—what do you do? You can’t run or hide from it. Newton observed, and then he came up with his laws. They were based on observations, and he came up with a mechanical explanation for his observations. I see evolution the same way.

There are layers in the earth’s crust. In certain places like the Burgess Shale, there is a lot of evidence of fossils in different layers. The rocks have been dated. Older life-forms are very primitive, then they become more and more sophisticated in more recent rocks.

We can’t explain this evidence (and the mountain of other types of evidence for evolution from molecular biology, biochemistry etc.) with Kasyapa. sastra is silent on DNA, carbon dating, fossil evidence etc. The word evolution is not found in the Bhagavatam. People have many opinions on it. I find that Darwin came up with a beautiful, logical way to explain it. As far as I can see, nobody has come up with anything close in terms of explaining the evidence. And the evidence is not a matter of faith; that we have to trust scientists. It is published in papers, which are available at the click of a button. Anybody who wants to see it can access it and examine it. There are tens of thousands of papers published, and to really refute evolution, one has to go through all these papers and then have an alternative way to explain all the evidence; that is simply not feasible

It is not in our experience that a human being like Kasyapa can father snakes, birds, or tigers. This knowledge is beyond sense perception. I say that these two are separate bodies of knowledge, and communication between the two is problematic. It is problematic to reconcile scriptures with scientific information.

Babaji: The way I reconcile the Bhagavata view with what you have said is as follows: TheBhagavata has a different language than science. It has a different audience than science and it has a different purpose. The purpose of the Bhagavata is not to explain creation without God. Nor is it interested in explaining evolution just for the sake of it. Its intention is to show that Krsna is the source and regulator of everything. So from the scientific point of view, you can consider the wives such as Kadru and Vinata as a medium for experimental evolution. The Puranas’ language is different from the scientific language. The people to whom the Puranas were spoken would not understand your scientific language. So one has to devise some means to explain. People can understand stories. They can understand husband and wife giving birth to children. So they can have stories that explain things to them in simpler terms.

Now it is unbelievable how human beings can give birth to reptiles, cows, and birds. But just as Darwin says that these things developed or evolved, in the same way, maybe Kasyapa is experimenting and evolving. He is performing a controlled evolution. Thus we hear stories that Vinata gave birth to two eggs but the eggs were lying for a very, very long time and nothing came out of them. So she broke one egg and Aruna was born. He was not fully developed yet. His legs were not developed yet. Thus he could not walk or fly. He cursed Vinata to become a slave of her sister Kadru. Aruna got to be the chariot driver of the sun god. Aruna means the twilight that comes before sunrise. Garuda was born after a very long period. So this may have been an evolutionary process in a controlled environment.

Actually, I studied mechanical and industrial engineering in my graduate and post-graduate studies, and I worked in the field of software. So my training and expertise is not in this field [evolution theory]. Somehow, I have never studied biology in my schooling days. I am not familiar with concepts of evolution. What I have read and understood is that there is evolution from lower to higher life. Maybe Kasyapa consciously caused evolution. What kinds of wives these are, I cannot say. These wives are not just wives in the ordinary sense of the world. Kasyapa is not an ordinary human being—he has some powers. Maybe he is an evolutionary scientist who is experimenting with the DNA. That is why he is called Prajapati. He has some powers—this is how I would say it. There is truth in what the scientists are finding. It is not my field so I cannot say more on this.

That evolution can happen, I have no problem with. What I don’t accept in evolutionary theory is that life just began on its own and that everything happened in a particular way, and that it cannot be interfered with by any human being to produce something else.

Scientist: Part of the evidence in evolutionary biology is that human beings were not present on the earth. There were only bacteria for the first two billion years.

Babaji: That is possible. I have no problem with that. When Brahma created Manu and asked him to go to earth, Manu said, “Where am I going to go? The earth is under water.” Brahma meditated and Varaha Deva appeared to uplift the earth from water. Now this is a story. These stories cannot be taken literally. Maybe there was just water everywhere on earth. Or may be there was no earth to begin with. Varaha or a boar is fond of digging into the earth with his snout. Maybe he manifested earth from the smell tanmatra, which comes from the water tattva. This is the Sankhya principle. Science also says the same thing—there was water everywhere. In Sankhya also—first there were gases, then water, then earth. Science will agree with that. So these stories (from the Bhagavata) have some scientific, historical facts in them. They can’t be just taken literally. I am saying that there is always some interference from a higher personality, which science does not accept. The Bhagavata Sankhya speaks of evolution from prakrti but with the involvement of Purusa.

Scientist: The yugas and the yuga cycles go back billions of years. Humans are said to be present in these cycles. I guess we don’t know what it all means.

Babaji: No, we do not know. But we do know that things change. They have found elephant fossils on the North Pole. So how did this happen? The earth was just one, and the continents separated. The story of the deluge is there in all religions. Many intensive changes have happened in the atmosphere over a period of time—whether this happened over billions of years or whether the yuga cycles really correspond to billions of years as defined in the Puranas—this is all difficult to prove. Many things get lost over a period of time. But things do go in cycles. We see this in our experience—day and night, seasons—here must be cycles at a higher level also. Bigger cycles. Timescales may be difficult to calculate. The whole time principle is probably different than what we know at present. I see no problem that in the beginning, there were no human beings and then they appeared later on. Kasyapa had thirteen wives, so maybe there were thirteen levels of evolution, then came human beings. But the original person behind it is a human being who is controlling it.

So I don’t reject evolution absolutely. But just I don’t accept the part that there is no person behind it all. For me, there is always a personality involved. I don’t see that this universe is just haphazardly evolving. There is somebody behind it. That’s my understanding but it is not possible for me to prove in a scientific language that there is a God or devas working behind it.

So you can give your expert views on this. I would like to hear them.

Scientist: I am glad that you are not dismissing the evidence.

Babaji: You cannot dismiss it. Of course, there can be misinterpretation of evidence. That part is possible. But evidence is evidence. And please consider that you also find evidence according to your accepted belief. This is how our mind works. We see truth selectively. So besides the fact that a scientist would interpret the evidence differently than a theist would, he would also discover evidence differently. Ultimately nothing is objective although we tend to believe that science is purely objective. Pure objectivity is a myth.

Scientist: Some religious people see evolution as a conspiracy. Others say that the scientists didn’t know how to look for evidence that supports the Bhagavatam’s version.

Babaji: No, I don’t believe all that. There are so many conspiracy theories.

Scientist: Once we agree that there is evidence and that the evidence is there for examination, after that, I am not really concerned. I think your stance is reasonable, and I don’t see what else one could do here really.

Babaji: Scientists have excluded God from the picture, so naturally they are going to interpret the evidence according to their hypothesis—that there is no personality involved. As a theist, I will take the same evidence and I will interpret it differently, although this is not my field. It is possible that the same evidence can be seen in two different ways, and that one way may be more inclusive than the other.

Scientist: I have a philosophical issue with that. To prove the existence of Krsna or any type of power from scientific evidence is not possible. Nobody has seen the devatas, such as Varuna, Surya etc.

Babaji: No, I am not interested in that. I am saying that if I have to interpret the available evidence as a theist, then I will interpret it in a way that is different from the scientist’s interpretation. It is not that I have to prove that Krsna is involved—that’s not what I am saying. I am saying that there is a personal factor involved; evolution is not just an impersonal phenomenon happening automatically.

Scientist: One cannot find God in the evidence. This cannot be done.

Babaji: That this cannot be done has already been said in the Vedanta-sūtra. It is a futile exercise. Whatever you try to do, there will always be a counter-argument. In fact, this is exactly what Nyaya tries to do. Nyaya gives eight proofs of God’s existence. But why does Vedanta not pay attention to it? Because they can all be refuted. Although it is a good exercise to know these arguments, and they are good for a beginner, they are not conclusive. One might talk to people and convince them since not everyone can go up to that level of argument. So such arguments have some value. But ultimately, God cannot be proven by mere logic. sastra is the only pramana. And we have to understand that sastra is not just words, but it is actually someone’s experience. It is also sense perception. Ultimately, the pramana is perception only. But it is a perception of a different type. And that takes a lot of effort to come to and to have that type of experience. This is explained by sri Jiva Gosvami in Sarva-samvadini, which you referred to earlier.

So the purpose of sastra is actually that we study it with faith, we follow it, and then we realize it exactly the way it is written. This is why the Bhagavata says: kasmai yena vibhasito ’yam atulo jñana-pradipaḥ pura: “This knowledge was given to Brahma, then Brahma speaks to Narada.” So when Brahma speaks, he is not just speaking that sastra, but he is speaking what he has realized and internalized. He has direct experience of it. Then he speaks. This is the whole idea of the parampara. Parampara is not just transferring the word, but the experience. Thus, sastra is ultimately pratyaksa pramana. For a beginner, it is sabda pramana. But for a perfected being, it is a matter of perception. Yet, it is not possible to prove it to a non-believer because it is based on subjective experience. It is not objective knowledge like the sciences.

Scientist: So the Bhagavatam’s version is not going to make any sense to a scientist who has no experience.

Babaji: Yes, it will not make sense and I am not going to waste my time with him. Let him do what he wants to do. He is not ready for it. There is no need to argue with such a scientist. There is also no need to call him a rascal or demon. His goal and my goal are different. He studies nature to control it and to exploit it for his pleasure (of course not every scientist works that way). I study it to worship it and to use it in service of Krishna. Our goals are different and hence our approaches are different. Thus our theories are different, albeit, there may be some commonalities since we are studying the same reality.

Guest: Can’t we prove scientific theories from the Bhagavata’s information?

Babaji: It is not possible. These are two different fields.

Guest: But doesn’t the Bhagavata give us the number of species on earth? And how old human life is?

Babaji: The Bhagavata has such figures, but how do we know that they are really true? These are just figures. How do you prove or disprove them? We have no means to do that. We do not have scientific laboratories nor have we done research on fossils. Proving doesn’t mean just reading sastra. But we have to accept that the Bhagavata has a big figure for the age of the world. No other religion says that, and even science wasn’t thinking that in the beginning. Some credit has to be given. Whether airplanes existed at that time and whether interplanetary travel was there or not, at least in sastra these things were envisioned long before science made them happen.

About the Author

2 Responses to On the Theory of Evolution

  1. Observations are one thing, but putting them together to make a coherent TOE is another. Regarding the latter, science has failed. Species struggle to exist and arguably in doing so evolve means to do so. But that says nothing about chemicals on their own strength becoming biological entities. With all the talk of biological evolution being the centerpiece to the puzzle of life, chemical evolution—the theory that chemicals evolve into biological entities—once a well-funded field of research, has gone broke. And on the other end of the spectrum, subjectivity—consciousness—remains very elusive, leaving a phsysicalist TOE with an explanatory gap that knows no bounds.

    And for that matter, a physicalist worldview really has no justification for being at odds with religion as a made up meaning because in the physicalist world view all meaning is made up and mere human convention—there is no actual right or wrong act or thought. Nor is there any real meaning to any sense of self-determination. Really, what is the point of debating with someone who “believes” that the outcome of the debate is already determined and there is nothing either side can do to change that.

    Yes, modern science looks at the world and interprets what it finds. And so does the Bhagavatam, which in contrast to the dominant materialistic interpretation coming from science, finds purpose, will, meaningful action and rationality, atma, and Paramatma. Neither does the Bhagavatam rely only upon the senses for its conclusions derived from observation. Indeed, it teaches a method of stilling them that gives rise to experience unfettered by them, the experience of the experiencer. Go within or go without.

  2. Good post. Many nice points to learn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑