Darwin's theory of evolution got us thinking about our understanding of God, says Bharat Jhunjhunwala

The English naturalist Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809. He studied the evolution of turtles in the Galapagos Islands 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 in his likeness, just as a sculptor sculpts 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 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 them that adjusted to the existing environment proliferated, while those that failed to adapt, died. His theory challenged the Biblical concept of God “creating” mankind.

Darwinism vs the Bible

The opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution can be gauged from a discussion held in 1860 between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and the naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a Darwinist, 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 the Hindu religions, although it was apparently not debated at that time—or now. The Vayu Purana says that Brahma created four sets of 1,000 pairs of men and women (8:37-40), just as the Bible says God created humankind. Next, the Bible says, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). In parallel, the Vayu Purana tells of Brahma’s five efforts at creation: of demons, gods, man, ancestors, and birds and animals from “darkness” (9:6).

Hindu parallels

Next, the Bible tells of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. (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 of Eden, Adam started to till the ground (Genesis 3:23). In parallel, the Vayu Purana says that the trees began to die at one time. 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.

However, this writer would like to believe that Darwin did 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 a big bang and elements like hydrogen, oxygen, earth, plants, animals and man were created sequentially.

The 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 the universe were the same entity and that God-Universe itself exploded or divided and the world as we know it, came into existence.

'Monist' & 'Monotheist'

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, God was outside the black hole and he caused the explosion in the black hole, 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, then the ideas of Darwin, the Bible and the 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.

Male & female consciousness

In continuation of the above, when the Bible says that God created Eve from Adam’s rib (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 created, according to the Bible and the Vayu Purana. 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 rib actually describes the beginning of the institution of marriage. 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 whether God was an all-pervasive internal entity that evolved. The road opened by Darwin still needs to be walked on. One key difference in 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. The time is at hand to resolve this debate, thanks to Darwin.

The writer is former Professor of Economics, IIM Bengaluru.

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