Charles Darwin's challenge to world religions

Charles Darwin’s challenge to world religions

Charles Darwin’s challenge to world religions


Darwin was born this same day – February 12 in 1809. Darwin studied the evolution of turtles in the Galapagos island of South America.

Darwin was born this same day – February 12 in 1809. Darwin studied the evolution of turtles in the Galapagos island of South America. He came up with the theory that the present man had evolved from apes. At that time the Western world believed that God had made man as a sculptor makes a statue with hammer and chisel. Thus, the Bible says, "God created humankind in his own image… male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). Instead, Darwin suggested that there was no intervention by an external entity such as "God" in the process.

Humankind evolved by the process of natural selection. There is a variation in all living species. Some monkeys are supple, others are strong. Those among these that adjusted to the available environment procreated in larger numbers and survived while those who did not adapt died. His theory challenged the Biblical conception of God "creating" mankind.

The opposition to Darwin's theory can be gauged from a discussion held in 1860 between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley who supported Darwin's theory at the University of Oxford. Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he claimed descent from an ape on his grandmother's or grandfather's side? Huxley responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than a man who used his talents to bring ridicule into a serious scientific discussion. The question posed by the Bishop shows that Darwin's theory was pitted against the narrative of the Bible.

The issue is equally important for Hindu religion although it was apparently not debated at that time—or now. The Vayu Purana says that Brahma created four sets of 1000 pairs of men and women (8:37-40), just as the Bible says God created humankind. Next, the Bible says God formed the man from the "dust, ashes, rubbish breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7).

In parallel Vayu Purana tells of Brahma's five efforts at creation of demons, gods, man, ancestors, and birds and animals from "darkness" (9:6). Next, the Bible tells of the creation of Eve from Adam's ribs (Genesis 2:21-22). In parallel, the Purana says that Swayambhu and his wife Shatarupa were created by splitting of the body of Brahma (10:7-8). Next, the Bible say that after being expelled from the Garden, Adam started to till the ground (Genesis 3:23).

In parallel the Vayu Purana says that the trees began to die at one time. The people meditated on the matter. Then trees began to grow again in their homes (8:83-90). Therefore, Darwin's refuting the Biblical creation of man by God equally refutes the Hindu creation of man by Brahma.

I believe that Darwin does not actually refute the Bible or the Vayu Purana. The issue hinges on how we understand "God" or "Brahma." Scientists tell us that at one time the entire universe was contained in a Black Hole. Then there was an explosion and elements like hydrogen, oxygen, earth, plants, animals and man were created sequentially. Question arises, where was God or Brahma when the entire universe was contained in the Black Hole?

If we consider that God was in the Black Hole at that time then it would follow that "God" and "universe" were the same entity and that God-Universe itself exploded or divided its own body and it came out as if a person suddenly comes of a jail. In this formula, "God" is the name of the consciousness of the Universe as contained in the Black Hole. God is Universal Consciousness.

This possibility matches with the statement in the Upanishads that Brahman thought "I am one, let me be many." This description of God is known as "Monist" philosophy. If, on the other hand, if we think that God was outside the Black Hole and He created the explosion in the Black Hole as if by planting a dynamite, then the question arises where was God when there was nothing in the Universe except the Black Hole?

This description of God is known as "Monotheist" philosophy. Be that as it may, if we accept the Monist approach of God then Darwin's, Biblical and Hindu ideas of the creation of man become consistent with each other. In that case we may understand that the inner consciousness of the ape caused the ape to evolve and it became man.

In continuation of above, when the Bible says that God created Eve from Adam's ribs (Genesis 2:21-22), or the Vayu Purana says that Brahma divided his body of darkness into Swayambhu Manu and his wife Shatarupa; we may understand this as the evolution of the human consciousness into male- and female consciousnesses. Mankind had already been made both according to the Bible and the Vayu Purana. However, they may be living without dividing their physical- and mental work between the male and female just as we see among the monkeys and other animals.

This uniform human stock may have divided its physical and mental labour and between the male and the female. Biblical scholars such as Nahum M Sarna, author of the JPS Biblical Commentary and David Wenham, author of the Word Biblical Commentary say that the creation of Eve from Adam's ribs actually describes the beginning of the institution of marriage.

Previously a woman used to cohabit with any man. After God "created" Eve from the ribs of Adam, one woman began to cohabit with one man. The same idea is encapsulated in the Vayu Purana saying that Shatarupa accepted Swayambhu Manu as her husband.

Darwin represents a fundamental break in the understanding of God. He has caused us to think whether God was an external entity that created man, so to say, with a hammer and a chisel; or God was an all-pervasive internal entity that evolved itself. The road opened by Darwin still needs to be walked.

One key difference between the Abrahamic and Hindu religions is that the Abrahamic religions think of God as an external entity while Hindu religions think of Brahman as an internal and all-pervasive entity. Time is at hand to resolve this debate, thanks to Darwin.

(The writer is formerly Professor of Economics at IIM, Bengaluru)

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