Charles Darwin who pioneered the theory of evolution (Spencer Arnold/GettyImages)
  • Today is Darwin’s Day, and what can be better than re-reading Hints for Self Culture by Lala Har Dayal — a science aficionado, Hindu nationalist and a secular humanist — a combination of attributes urgently needed in India, today.

Today, on 12 February, the world celebrates Darwin's Day. It is the 210th birthday of Charles Darwin, who is, perhaps, the pioneering system biologist of the world. He discovered the process of natural selection, the mechanism through which evolution happens in the biocosm.

Two years after the great Indian rebellion of 1857, Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The famous closing sentence of the last paragraph in the book provides a magnificent picture of the process -— what Richard Dawkins would call ‘the greatest show on earth’. Darwin wrote:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwinian evolution in many ways provided the quintessential test for an individual’s and a culture’s adherence to truth. The soft-spoken, almost self-effacing, ever hesitating Charles Darwin had unleashed an unprecedented storm on human psyche. To this day, Darwin proves to be the testing scale on which we can measure our commitment to truth.

In India, almost all spiritual and cultural traditions have a strong sankhya component, which makes evolution its basis. Hence, evolution has never met the opposition that the creation-based religious traditions of the West faced. This actually created a great divide in the West.

This is a great civilisational advantage that India has. Unfortunately, certain voices opposing evolution are arising. There are people, even responsible people in seats of power, who desire a ‘vedic alternative’ to evolution and speak of replacing Darwinian evolution with such a ‘vedic alternative’. This is the worst form of injustice and insult that can be meted out to vedic traditions, in particular, and Hindu civilisation in general.

What a fall for Hindus when we hear anti-evolution voices in our high circles! But even this negative movement has some roots in our colonial past. The Arya Samaj saw Darwinian evolution as a part of colonial aggression and did unleash some anti-Darwinian rhetoric not wholly anti-evolution but it was so to a considerable extent.


So this Darwin day, let us dwell on the thinking of Lala Har Dayal (1884-1939). Har Dayal started his life as an Arya samaji. The simplicity and fire of the samaji remained with him all his life. He was involved in a series of revolutionary activities in London, Paris and the United States. He was barred from entering India.

In 1934, five years before his death at a not-so-old age, he wrote Hints for Self Culture which was published by Hy S L Polak and Co. London (UK). It is essential that every Indian educationist, who desires a robust science and cultural education in India, should read this classic. Here, Har Dayal speaks of how studying zoology, cosmology and evolution, in particular, frees our mind from the tyranny of superstition and takes us forward into a vision of the universe and our own place in it, which is far magnificent than any presented by scriptural fantasies.

Why should one study zoology? Har Dayal answers:

Zoology leads you from the lowliest worms to the loftiest wisdom. Zoology will also provide you with a scientific theory of the Origin of Life, which excludes the dogma of Creation by a Deity. Man and the animals have been evolved from the protozoa, and the latter are either eternal or were evolved out of inorganic Matter at a remote period in the history of the earth. 

So what is the relation between life and matter? Is life a separate category?

The question is, “Is living Matter an ultimate category by itself, like Energy and inorganic Matter, or is it derived from the latter? ” There is no theoretical difficulty in admitting that there is a difference of kind, and not merely of degree, between living and inert Matter. 

Life has always come from life. Har Dayal refers to the famous experiment by Louis Pasteur that conclusively disproved spontaneous arising of life from inanimate matter. Do you think life cannot be reduced to matter and energy? It is okay, says Har Dayal. There is no compulsion for such reduction. But he at the same time, warns against using this as a backdoor to creationism. For him, seeing life as a special category in the universe can be a stimulant to do science, but finding solace in a creator-deity is detrimental to the health of the society and an obstacle to the progress of science. He writes:

Spontaneous generation has been shown to be impossible through the researches of Redi, Spallanzani, and Pasteur. You need not create such an avoidable difficulty for your own mind, if you find that it is impossible for you to conceive of Life as developing spontaneously out of lifeless Matter. Philosophy is under no obligation to refer all things to the one category — of Energy-Matter: such a factitious Monism is unscientific. So if you are inclined to believe that living and non-living Matter cannot be reduced to a common denominator, you are free to postulate that Life is sui generis and has existed eternally, like Energy and Matter. Then you need not worry about the problem of the Origin of Life. The chief point is that you must not believe in the creation of Life by a Deity.

But he does not stop here. He explores the other side of the problem. Quoting Huxley and citing the experiments of J C Bose, he shows that there is indeed a case for a continuum.

There is, however, another side to this thorny question. T.H.Huxley wrote “if It were given to me to [...] I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from not-living Matter.” Professor J. C. Bose’s researches have demonstrated that inert and living bodies have much in common. He says: “Living response in all its diverse manifestations is found to be only a repetition of responses seen in the inorganic.” Several organic compounds have been built up in chemical laboratories since Wohler first produced urea in 1828.  The ultra-microscopic units called “bacteriophages” may be an intermediate form between living and non-living Matter (if they exist at all). It is conceivable that the simplest forms of Life, like the invisible viruses or even the micro-organisms, may have appeared on earth spontaneously about 1300 million years ago, when the temperature and the atmospheric conditions were favourable for such a radically new development. Of course, the process of the transformation of chemical matter into the first living cells will ever remain a mystery. But Science and Philosophy must at least attempt to unify and simplify Nature. The mind of Man loves the logic of Monism, and must ever strive to arrive at one ultimate category, if it is at all possible. 

The ability to present both diametrically opposite positions and at the same time argue against the pitfalls of pseudo-scientific creationism makes this passage by Lala Har Dayal a guiding principle for a true scientific approach to a problem. After pointing out that matter and energy, considered two separate categories, have been found to be ‘mutually convertible’, he argues for a possibility of monist view of life.

How can we then be so sure that a living cell can never be produced from inert Matter under certain circumstances? Such dogmatism would be unworthy of a modem philosopher. If a monistic interpretation of Nature can be achieved without doing violence to facts, it must be appreciated and acclaimed as the crowning glory of Science and Philosophy.

The reader should note the words “without doing violence to facts”. This is a very important caution. One should never allow one’s love for a particular philosophical or ideological position crowd one’s mind’s eye in observing the facts and yielding to their superiority. So he concludes why one should study zoology. What he says may well have been written by a popular scientist decades after him like Lewis Thomas or Richard Dawkins. He writes:

Zoology will also teach you compassion towards animals. Study always evokes interest and sympathy. To a Zoologist, a sheep is not merely mutton and wool, a lobster is something more than a ‘delicacy’, and a spider is not just a horrid ugly creature. He has learned to look upon all worms and birds and beasts as struggling, scheming, suffering, food-hunting, mate-seeking, death-fearing individuals, born without their consent and compelled to complete their short life-cycles in an infinite Universe that they do not understand. A course in Zoology, will leave you a sadder and a wiser man. It will also help you to realize the essential unity of living beings, so that you will begin to feel that you owe a duty to them all.

One theme that runs consistently throughout the work of Lala Har Dayal is his insistence that the sciences should be studied for experiencing the greater mystery of existence without giving in to the weakness of mysticism of any sort. When criticising reductionism, Har Dayal takes a very careful line. While pointing out the fallacy of trying to reduce biology into chemistry and physics and imposing Darwinian principles erroneously on to the society as Herbert Spencer did (social Darwinism), he warns his readers that this should not make them fall into the trap of vitalism:

Herbert Spencer applied the physical concept of “persistence of force ” and the biological concepts of “organism” and “embryonic evolution” to the human phenomena of History and Sociology, and the result was disastrous. Such methods lead only to confusion and error. ...The attempt to foist all the physical and chemical laws upon Zoology or zoological laws upon Psychology and Sociology must be abandoned. Each branch of Science deals with its own phenomena and discovers its special laws, besides those universal laws that apply to all phenomena. ...You should also beware of the fallacy of “Vitalism”. You should admit that the phenomena of plant-life, animal-life, and human life are not always physico-chemical processes; but it is not necessary to go further and postulate a “life-force” in order to “explain” them. ...You should thus recognize the existence of fundamentally diverse orders of phenomena, with their special laws; but you need not take refuge in the obscure and misleading terminology of “Vitalism”.

The clarity and depth of thought is amazing to say the least. He attacks all aspects of religion as delusional. But he is not non-spiritual. He completely dismisses the theistic religions of all sorts as not only incompatible with science but injurious to human development and social morality. In this, Har Dayal anticipates ‘The God Delusion’ of Dawkins:

All the theoretical arguments for Theism are very bad indeed, but its practical and social consequences are infinitely worse. Superstition is never harmless, and this dogma is a veritable Pandora’s box of calamities and sufferings for mankind. ...Science emphasizes the idea of impersonal, invariable Law in Nature, while Theism postulates a living Person’s Thought and Will behind or above or in Nature. ...Theism leads to stagnation and decay in society, as it regards the laws and ideals of a certain religious system as divinely ordained for all nations and epochs. ...Theism robs mankind of all the advantages and benefits that Science confers upon us. It also blocks the forward-moving traffic on the highway of History. ...Study the biography of Gautama Buddha, and note how he treated the members and leaders of other sects. Read the edicts of Asoka, and imbibe the spirit of religious toleration. The literature and history of Buddhism and Hinduism provide the best antidote to the ingrained and ineradicable intolerance of Islam and Christianity. 

One can see that in his criticism of theism, he completely reverses the colonial notion of monotheism being part of colonial progress brought to heathen land. He also rejects the argument that theism is needed for ethics. He was equally harsh on mystic notions, which separate the body and soul while demeaning the body.

The metaphysical doctrine of the Summum Bonum has been developed chiefly by the Hindus, the Christian mystics, and the Platonists, who postulate a fundamental Dualism in human personality. ...We are taught to suppress the body and the mind, and to develop and unfold the “Spirit”. The body is reviled and condemned as the ‘prison-house of the soul’. ...The Body, which is the basis of Personality, is despised ; the Mind, which is the light of Personality, is ignored. Society, which is the cradle of Personality, is neglected; while the imaginary ‘Spirit’ is considered to be the real essence of Man. ...The folly and futility of this disastrous doctrine are exhibited in the pathetic tragedy of the wasted lives of such ascetics as Simeon Stylites, the ravings maniacs of the Thebaid, immured Buddhist monks of Tibet who never leave their dark caves and cells, the Hindu fakirs who make long pilgrimages by measuring their lengths along the ground, the Trappists who never speak, the nuns who never go out of their convents etc. These are the earnest men and women condemned to slow suicide by ‘spiritual’ Metaphysics.

Israel had not yet come into being and Jews would soon face Holocaust and antisemitism was almost axiomatic in Christendom. Yet, we find a great admiration for Jews from the point of view of humanity in terms of the Jewish contribution to the human civilisation:

The Hebrews found a wise guide and legislator in Moses; this bond of union was valuable for social unity and moral training. They also secured the ten commandments, and a definite ethical code was thus accepted by the whole nation. They had a spirit of sturdy independence, which was reflected in their laws and their revolts. They cared more for happiness in this life than for felicity after death. ...When almost all other peoples in Asia bowed to the Roman yoke, the Hebrews defied the tyrants again and again, and paid the penalty for their love of freedom. They produced the group of eloquent prophets, Isaiah, Amos, and others, whose writings may still be read with profit, though they are couched in theological terms. The ideas of a cosmopolitan society and universal peace were developed by the advanced Hebrew thinkers. But the Hebrews are also responsible for intolerant monotheism and its terrible consequences. They learned much from the Persians and the Babylonians, and passed it on to the Christian Church. We owe our Sunday rest, the achievements of Jesus and Paul, and the noble ethics of the Talmud to this people. Their religion teaches them charity and chastity. In spite of dispersion, proscription, isolation, and suffering, the Hebrews are still alive and active. Modern music, science, and socialism owe much to them. To Philosophy, they have contributed the supremely lovable figure of Spinoza. Maimonides, Mendelssohn, Marx, and Einstein are also the gift of this people to the world. The history of the Hebrews shows that good leaders, a well defined ethical code, a worldly creed, a living historical tradition, and unity of fundamental ideas will enable a people to accomplish great things.

It is quite interesting to see that a Hindu nationalist, an atheist, a person who condemned monotheism of Christianity and Islam, praise the Jews and even suggested that the ‘terrible consequences’ of ‘intolerant monotheism’ were more the result of certain ideas getting passed on to the Christian church. More importantly, Har Dayal finds the Jewish contribution to diverse fields including varied schools of thoughts as one that enriched human civilisation.

He does not attribute this to concepts like ‘chosen people’ or a ‘different or superior race’ but to social ethics which he wants all human communities to emulate. Perhaps, this secular-humanist love for Jews that he had was the reason why the committee formed in Germany in the late 1930s to engage in anti-British activities with German support found him ‘unreliable’.

Har Dayal criticises capitalism and considers it unsustainable. But he also criticises the dogmatic Marxist view of history which gives extreme importance to economic relations. However, he also spoke of the need to study theoretical and practical Marxism. At the same time, he could see that the Marxist state was acquiring the characteristic of a theocratic state so much so that while it allowed blasphemy of religious leaders, it prohibited the blasphemy of Marx and Lenin. To him, Marxism devalued and did not properly recognise the human personality and individuality. He criticised the Marxist approach exhibiting a sense of humour:

Capitalism produced the necessary external circumstances for the growth of Socialism, but Capitalism did not go every morning to the British Museum in London for many years, and write ‘Das Kapital’. It was a particular individual, named Karl Marx, who did it. Capitalism did not enable Marx’s parents to give birth biologically to that original brain.

The book shows Har Dayal as a complete internationalist and a humanist par excellence. He wanted free-thinkers to be pioneers of a world-state who should establish cosmopolitan centres and denounce the ‘cruel institutions of capitalism and nationalism’ as seen in the West.

Do your duty within the nation-state to-day, but do it in the spirit of a world-citizen of the future. Eschew all hatred and contempt for other nations and races. ...Establish a Cosmopolitan Club in your town. Join an inter-national correspondence society. Preach peace, when others howl in hate or rage for revenge. Welcome all to your home and your heart, whites and blacks, browns and yellows, creoles and mulattoes, gypsies and Hottentots — all men and women and children without distinction of race or colour. Eat and drink with all. Love and serve all. Do good to all. ...You may be born in the present nation-state, but you are not of it. Your heart is elsewhere. Waking and sleeping, you think of the World-State and long for its advent. When the Sun is still below the horizon in the early morning, he cannot be seen; but he sends before him sister Dawn, holy Ushas, radiant Aurora, who has also been deemed worthy of adoration. Such a slow brightening Dawn, are ye privileged to witness in this age, though your eyes cannot behold the Sun.

Though there is a romantic flourish in his utopian vision, he was not too much of a romanticist who would forget the harsh realities on the ground. His love for all humanity was as genuine and as sincere as his understanding of geo-political and demographic ground realities. When he was writing the Hints for Self Culture, the revolutionary and Hindu Mahasabha leader, Bhai Paramanand, requested Har Dayal to write a book on nationalism. Har Dayal replied, saying he would write a pamphlet, instead. But he could not. The reason being his penetratingly uncompromising vision and value system. He said:

I want to write in a scholarly manner; so that this pseudo-nationalism is washed off from the minds of Hindu youths and they begin to feel that what they term as Hindu communalism is, according to the tenets of political science, real nationalism
Emily C Brown, Har Dayal: Hindu Revolutionary and Rationalist, Manohar, 1975, p.255

So in the end, why should we re-read his book now? Because this is a book for no-nonsense nation-builders written by a person who considered himself both a universal humanist and a Hindu nationalist. This book is filled with insights that are relevant even today. One may or may not agree with all his assessment of history and society but the broad framework and its core values are very important and they need to be integrated into our education system.

So this Darwin Day, I recommend reading Lala Har Dayal — a ‘science-phile’, Hindu nationalist and a secular humanist — a combination that is an urgent need in India today .

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