Evolution and Science
Modern science recognizes an evolution of form in the world of nature as the dominant movement of life. It notes how the bodies of different creatures adapt over time, becoming more complex and sophisticated through succeeding generations, with new species arising that demonstrate important advances in structure and function over what went before them.
From the beginning of life on Earth with a chemical soup that resulted in single cell organisms to the current state of the planet dominated by intelligent life, science has portrayed an onward march of evolution, albeit with a few detours along the side. Science has outlined a physical or bodily evolution from bacteria and viruses, to plants, animals and human beings.
Since the time of Darwin, science has gone into great detail trying to explain this bodily evolution in terms of the outer factors of natural selection, survival of the fittest and adaptation to changing environments – as if it were a process that occurred of itself by natural necessity like water flowing down a hill. Evolution has sometimes been crudely portrayed as a survival of the strongest, though we often find that smaller and more adaptable species outlast large predators.
Science emphasizes genetics as the main mechanism behind this proposed evolutionary process, with genetic mutations occurring slowly and randomly over time as the main means of developing new and more complex species. Science has discovered an underlying genetic code or DNA pattern behind the great diversity of life, linking all creatures together in a greater evolutionary process. This marvelous genetic code is simpler, more concise and yet more powerful in its results than any code or data base that the human mind can invent.
Evolution Itself Evolving as an Idea
Yet the scientific account of evolution contains notable gaps and question marks. Nature does not proceed through mere uniform processes. On the contrary, natural history is punctuated by powerful cataclysmic events, whether meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions or great earthquakes.
Powerful climate shifts like great Ice Ages have decisive impacts on the development of life, such as have strongly affected human history. Such natural catastrophes can waylay even well adapted species and favor those that otherwise might remain in the shadows. In short, a uniformist and progressive evolution seems at odds with the great spirals and cycles of nature that have a great deal of unpredictability to them.
If we examine life at a deeper level, we find something more than a play of chemicals becoming progressively more complex. We note in the world of nature various holistic patterns, gestalts and energy fields linking together otherwise discrete phenomena. There are powers of unity, identity, life and consciousness that weave together various creatures and species like different beads on a single strand.
The Gaia hypothesis suggests an overriding Earth intelligence behind apparent random evolutionary adaptations of different creatures. Nuclear physics also is looking to an underlying cosmic intelligence behind the intricate and mathematically precise laws of physics in order to explain their precision.
While the idea of evolution remains important, it is becoming increasingly clear that there must be a higher consciousness and energy to support it, which takes evolution in the direction of Hindu thought. Hindu thought emphasizes that the universe proceeds through a powerful underlying force or Shakti that promotes periodic transformations and a long term development of higher consciousness.
The universe does not follow a progressive linear development but proceeds through cycles and spirals of growth, destruction and transformation, like the great dance of Shiva. Such a great power guiding the universal movement reflects a higher will and consciousness, not just chance evolution.
The current scientific account of evolution leaves any underlying life-force or power of consciousness out of the picture except as a by-product of biochemical processes. It seems as though we are following the tracks of an animal and proposing an evolution of the tracks themselves without positing any creature making the tracks, as if one track somehow manages to evolve into the next! Science recognizes life and intelligence only as epiphenomena, results not causes of the evolutionary process.
Life and intelligence reflect a deep sense of self, being and awareness as we all know within ourselves. We human beings have a distinct sense of being a single person, not just a collection of cells and organs, for example. Without such deeper consciousness powers, it is hard to see what makes a single creature aware of itself and capable of making decisions out of a chemical network that spreads in all directions with no clear boundaries.
Evolution and Yoga
We can contrast the scientific view of material evolution with the view of Yoga, the great spiritual science of the East, which recognizes an evolution of consciousness as well as one of form. Yoga neither denies evolution to justify a religious view of creation out of nothing, nor reduces evolution to a blind play of material forces creating intelligence out of chance and inertia.
Yoga teaches that form cannot evolve without consciousness. It is an inner consciousness that brings about evolutionary changes of form, not the form itself, which is no more than a shell. The creatures that we observe in nature are the result of an inner consciousness evolving in its self-expression through the movement of time and experience. Such a yogic view of evolution is most in evidence in the work of the great modern teacher, Sri Aurobindo but has antecedents and correlates throughout yogic and Hindu literature.
Yoga connects evolution with the unfoldment of karma. It postulates not just a gross body that evolves at a physical level, but a subtle body that reincarnates and carries evolutionary information along with it at a deeper level. This is the lingas sharira of Samkhya philosophy that is defined in other Hindu systems as well. The goal of cosmic evolution is not simply material adaptation but the development of higher consciousness through an evolution of consciousness. This subtle body creates another strand of evolution besides DNA, which are the karmic patterns it holds.
Besides our physical environment and biosphere, there are subtler energy fields around the Earth that hold these karmic potentials and collective samskaras. Hindu thought and its practices of ritual and yoga work to improve the karmic energies in the world, so that this higher evolution of consciousness can proceed, not just the outer evolution of more complex organisms.
Karma and rebirth are the primary means of this evolution of consciousness, its underlying modus operandi. Only an intelligence that is reborn can truly evolve in awareness, carrying on the seeds of that intelligence from life to life. Otherwise intelligence would die with the body, letting the form disintegrate with nothing left to continue.
Consciousness and the Universe
Hindu thought teaches us that there is a soul in nature, of which the human being is an embodiment. This soul exists in plants and animals as well as human beings. An ancient Vedic text, the Aitareya Aranyaka, teaches that plants have a soul because they have the ability to feel. Animals have a mind (chitta) which we can see through their usage of the senses and motor organs. Human beings, however, have the capacity for real intelligence, prajna, through which we can know the reality of things and ultimately realize the Divine within ourselves.
A related text, the Aitareya Upanishad, has an interesting allegory about cosmic creation. It says that in the beginning the Self envisioned the universe as a series of worlds or lokas, planes of existence, from the gross earth to the subtle cosmic spaces.
Then the Self decided that having created the universe, it should take birth within it in order to know its creation from the inside. However, for that to occur, it required a suitable vehicle or body in which to enter. It tried a cow and a horse but found that they were not sufficient vehicles for the development of the wisdom or prajna that it needed. Then it found the human body and found that that the human being was a suitable vehicle.
The Self then entered the human body from the suture at the top of the head. It brought all the cosmic powers with it, placing the Sun in the eye, the wind in the breath, fire in the speech and so on. It made the human being as a miniature of the greater universe.
The details of this allegory aside, the implication is clear. The Divine consciousness that creates the universe also enters into it in the form of living beings. It then evolves in order to create a body that will allow it to become conscious of its universal reality in an individual creature. The human being has that higher capacity of consciousness and developing it is the real purpose of our species.
Our true role in cosmic evolution is to facilitate that manifestation of the Divine consciousness within ourselves and in our world. This cannot be done by mere faith or any outer activity. It requires Yoga and meditation and a life-style that supports these.
This is a very different view of life than science that views the development of the body as the main factor, or western religions that see faith alone or going to heaven as the goal of life. These systems do not recognize any real evolution of consciousness, much less karma and rebirth.
Yoga rests upon a higher evolutionary potential within us. This is held latent in the Kundalini Shakti or power of Yoga that dwells latent in the base of the spine. Awakening that inner power of consciousness is the basis of higher Yoga practices.
So if someone asks, “Do Hindus believe in evolution?”: the answer is that Hindu thought is based on an evolution of consciousness. While this does not exclude an evolution of form, such as science proposes, it places that in the context of a greater development.
This evolution of consciousness is not a matter of mere natural selection or genetics. It requires yoga and meditation at an individual level. It is a potential latent within each individual but requires the appropriate support factors to set it in motion.
We could say that Hindu thought embodies the highest evolutionary urge of the human species, which is the development of universal consciousness. That is why Hindu thought cannot limit itself according to the confines of any single belief, science, discipline, book or teacher. It takes up the entire evolutionary movement both inwardly and outwardly, holding the great Shakti of the supreme consciousness that directs all the forces of nature.