Hinduism and Evolution


Today the Texas Board of Education voted on how American history will be taught in Texas schools. It is a version of history that fits the conservative world view. From the New York Times

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum. To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

Texas textbooks are important not just because Texas is a big state, but also because many small states just go with the Texas version of the textbooks because it costs less than commissioning their own versions.

Around this time last year the Texas Board voted to change science text books. Evolution, which is always in the spotlight when such matters are discussed, was saved by the skin of its teeth from being relegated to “one of many alternate theories”. However,

Failing to overhaul the curriculum broadly, conservatives instead attached a series of measures specific to subjects like biology, where teachers would be newly required to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.”


Christian Conservatives in American politics have recently been tripping over each other in their eagerness to denounce evolution. Bradley Byrne, candidate for Governor of Alabama was recently attacked in a TV ad which claimed that he believed in evolution. Byrne denied the “despicable lies”

“As a Christian and as a public servant, I have never wavered in my belief that this world and everything in it is a masterpiece created by the hands of God,” he said. “As a member of the Alabama Board of Education, the record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school text books. Those who attack me have distorted, twisted and misrepresented my comments and are spewing utter lies to the people of this state.”

Evolution and to some extent the Big Bang are the flash points in the battle between organized religion and science. They both inject serious doubt into the belief that god created the world and all its creatures, or Creationism. Sure, Intelligent Design can sort of fit the facts into a new theory that preserves the role of god, but that’s not good enough because the Bible doesn’t talk about ID. It vividly describes how god created the world.

This allergy to evolution is to be seen in Islam as well. Turkey, which is the most liberal Muslim country, has very little support for evolution. From the Washington Post

A recent survey, quoted in a 2008 article in the American journal Science, found that fewer than 25 percent of Turks accepted evolution as an explanation of how modern life came to be — by far the lowest percentage of any developed nation.

In the same article

The Discovery Institute of Seattle, which researches and promotes intelligent design as an alternative to creationism and evolution, also sent speakers to Turkey after being invited by the Istanbul municipal government in 2007. President Bruce Chapman said the institute helped bring Turkish evolution critic Mustafa Akyol to a 2005 Kansas school board hearing on teaching critiques of evolution.

A battle against as formidable a foe as science can bring together the two faiths. Somewhat like how Delhi High Court’s verdict allowing consensual gay sex brought together the BJP and All India Muslim Personal Board for the first time on any issue.

Are all religions opposed to evolution? Buddhism and Hinduism are the two other great religions of the world. Do devout Hindus view evolution as a threat to their beliefs? I haven’t heard of any attempts to mess around with science text books in India based upon ideology. Although the BJP did try to change history text books when Murli Manhor Joshi had charge of the HRD ministry.

In my view, other things being equal, Hinduism will be friendlier to evolution. The “other things being equal” being mostly about education. A high school education that teaches science and evolution well, will matter more to people’s acceptance of evolution than their religion or religiosity.

Why is Hinduism friendlier to evolution? It is not because religiosity amongst Hindus is less. Razib Khan analyzes religiosity amongst South Asians in developed countries. It turns out that South Asians are very religious. Being a large majority Hindus must also be very religious.

So there must be other reasons.

Many scriptures, not one Book – Islam and Christianity both have The Book which is the word of god, the ultimate truth. If that book says that god created the earth, then there can be no negotiation on that. Hinduism on the other hand has many scriptures – Bhagvad Gita, Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads, Ramayana. None of them to my knowledge are considered to be the word of god.

Many gods – For millennia, Hindus have had many gods. Personally you might worship just one god, but the people around you worship different gods. In a Hindu’s world view there is no one god and no one truth. Acceptance of alternate gods was in fact a design criteria in the Hindu faith. It was how the Aryans assimilated the tribes in India. This flexibility continued. As far back as the 15th century Hinduism tolerated an atheist school of philosophy.

No organized religion – Organizations perpetuate themselves. The conditions for organized religion to thrive are just not there in Hinduism. As a consequence there is very little, if any, religious education. Faith is a family or personal matter (Here I’m talking about faith rather than ritual).

Bizarre mythology – In Hinduism, scripture, literature and mythology weave a seamless fabric that every Hindu grows up with. From Ram Leela to Grandma’s stories to Amar Chitra Katha we are immersed in this sea of lore and mythology where individual stories can be evocative and powerful, but together they don’t make a cohesive whole. There are miracles in all religious texts, but Indian mythology can get so bizarre that really nobody will ever think it to be possible. The gods are depicted to be flawed, with unpredictable behavior (Why doesn’t Indra just use his thunderbolt and get it over with?). They are more like the DC comics of ancient Hindus than the Bible.

This tolerance for internal inconsistency makes it easier for Hinduism to accept a new idea like evolution. In fact if you look hard enough you will be able to find support in the scriptures or elsewhere in ancient texts for almost any idea. One might, for instance, see the Dashavatara as a metaphor for evolution.

I am not a devout Hindu. I am more Hindu by culture than religion, if there is in fact, a line separating them. I am sure many readers are though. It would be very interesting to get your views on how do you think Hinduism will respond to challenges from science in the years to come and specifically, evolution.

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14 Responses to Hinduism and Evolution

  1. KSharma says:

    The best thing i read about Hinduism is by Jawaharlal Nehru: "Hinduism is a way of life."

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  2. Madhu says:

    Agree that the structure of Hinduism has been more amenable to scientific thought. But I guess it had also been a result of two centuries of subjugation under other races which has allowed us to develop a broader interpretation of our own religion.

    We had always been taught that the ‘Christian’ West conquered the rest of world due to it’s scintific advancement. That’s why it is always surprising for anyone that encounters the Christian fundamentalism in the American hinterland- the country with the highest number of Nobel winners in Science.

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  3. Ram says:

    You are right when you say that there is little tolerance for anything outside the book in the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism). But saying that Hinduism tolerates because it can tolerate any sh*t is taking the logic too far.

    Hinduism at its core does not talk of rituals or gods. There are several verses in the Vedas that refer to Consciousness and that all life and creatures merely reflect it. Quantum physics postulates that for the universe to exist, consciousness is required (search for double slit experiment in youtube) – and both Buddhism and Hinduism are much closer to accepting this (http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/) as the resonate with talk of the life force, the cycles of creation and destruction that make everything – from stars to the Universe itself. The song that describes the thousand names of Vishnu (Vishnu Sahasranamam) also refers to the Big Bang.

    Overall a nice piece, logically written for the most part; but unfortunately like many of us educated people in post colonial India (including myself), we seem to take our 'body of knowledge' a little too lightly.

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  4. Wit Real says:

    You confessed that you are not a devout Hindu. That reflected in the case build up.

    >> Why is Hinduism friendlier to evolution?

    Elementary! cos, it preaches evolution! 😉

    per karma philosophy if you do bad karma, in your next birth you will come back in a lesser form of life.

    "Jantunaam Nara Janma Durlabham" = Among all the creatures, human life is the most fortunate one.

    so, after a great Karma, we got this life. If we do better this time, we attain salvation

    and thats evolution! 🙂

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    • Ram says:

      Very nice reply. I like the perspective.. but am not sure if other forms of life are really 'lesser'. From a human angle, they appear to be but not sure if they really are!

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      • @Ram. You are right. Depending upon your criteria for success different species could be called more successful. If you look at just biomass certain species of ants are far more successful than humans. Rats and cockroaches will probably survive the worst nuclear winter that most of animal kingdom won't.

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    • @Wit Real, I agree. I missed reincarnation. I don't think it is like evolution in any way. Homo Sapiens are not the apex of an evolution process, merely one of the tips of the branches of the evolutionary tree. But reincarnation does create the visual image that an ape could be my ancestor, something that Creationists can't accept.

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  5. Krishna says:

    The flexibility ingrained in Hinduism takes its root from its very objective – of seeking knowledge throughout one's lifetime. Vedanta means just that (Veda – knowledge, Anta – end, meaning – at the end of one's lifetime quest for knowledge, one shall realize Brahmn or God) Its scriptures (say, Upanishad for example) have been authored by several practitioners after exhaustive debate, based on their need to maintain relevance to posterity. Perhaps they even recognized that their findings may not be the masterpiece and so left it amenable to inference and interpretation. That's why when we read Shrimad Bhagavatham or Bhagavad Gita, we feel it talks about each one amongst us, right here and now.

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  6. A friend comments on this post on Facebook:

    Hindu world view is essentially non-evolutionary.. ref [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manvantara ].
    It does not have all or nothing approach of revealed religions. There is no counterpart to the books/prophets of the revealed religions. This makes it quite amenable to adapt to scientific and evolving world views. it is more cultural. the clergy has by now been decimated over centuries of reform movements. Even arrests of Sankaracharyas hardly agitate anyone..

    Indian people of all religions are quite willing to adapt to new ideas. Well certainly, some get politicized and grounded..That is more a result of competitive religiosity than real resistance.
    For example, Abortion in India has been legal since 1971. Nobody ever questioned it.. This quite remarkable compared to its status in the neighborhood and in developed countries..

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  7. Shiva says:

    There are several people who argue that Hinduism infact echoes mordern scientific views. For example the dashavtars progressing from Matysaavtar, Kurmaavtar to the more human like Rama and Krishna mirrors the evolutionary process.

    Similarly the concepts of helicentricity, relativity of time (1 kalpa is half a day for Bramha), etc somehow point to the fact that there is probably more to hindu scriptures than being figments of imagination or works of fiction.

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  8. Roopesh says:

    Modern science actually questions the existence of a supreme deity or deities; and has an explanation for most natural processes which do not involve any god. Also, science has found and explained very important things that are not in any religion – dinosaurs, plate tectonics, supernova, black holes, DNA to name a few. Then why is religion even in the picture? Why does evolution need the approval or recognize conflicts or make common cause with the followers of any religion, including Hinduism?

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  9. Gopal Reddy says:

    Frankly speaking Hindu scriptures have spelt evolution in many ways. It is a very hard and vast subject to discuss or discard. I think there is nobody who can decipher the complete knowledge about Hinduism ( I mean its evolution form, the creation and its creator (s) and the complete knowledge of the Epics (Mahabharata, Ramayana) being them in a different versions. So it becomes very complicated and puzzled subject. I tried to gather some pieces from here and there, but still I get so many (crazy) questions cropping inside my mind. There are pundits who clarify my doubts to some extent but couldn't fully satisfy me, as there appear more questions and I shy myself away. I want some solid basic theroy and want to have the knowledge to atleast pacity my doubts to some extent. Like – who is the Greatest of our Hindu religion (greatest in the sense who has control over the different countries with different faiths, religions etc. how will He judge them) which will satiate my eager mind.

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  10. David says:

    At its core, Hinduism relies on equivalence of energy (Bramha) and matter (physical manifestation). God (a physical manifestation of the cosmic energy) is 'aware' and able to control the physical world. As a result, nothing in Hinduism is bizaare or impossible including evolution!

    However, this question is more related to sociology than theology. Tolerance (or intolerance), of a religious group is based on how its leaders intend to use any issue. If the leaders use an issue to drive a wedge or incite its followers, any topic can be used to breed intolerance. If it wasn't made into an issue by some nut jobs looking to mobilze a crowd for some political gain, I don't believe a majority of muslims would be bothered by things like a Danish cartoonist's drawings of their god and you would be asking about exceptional tolerance of Muslims.

    Hindus lack the coherence and structure of other religions and its leadership structure is weakly defined. A few god-men don't hold sway over a large enough populace to define issues clearly. If that were the case, it wouldn't take much to make Hindus (or substitute any religious group) friends or foes of evolution.

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