Satyapal Singh (Creative Commons/Photo by Praketarya)
Snapshot
  • A minister associated with the higher education department has spoken against the science of evolution.

In Tamil Nadu it is one of the most popular Puranic stories.

Brahma the creator deity becomes too conceited. He refuses to pay obeisance to infant Murugan/Skanda – the son of Shiva. Murugan summons Brahma and asks him who he is. Brahma answers that he is the creator. Murugan asks him what is the basis of creation. Brahma when confronted with this question becomes silent. He does not know. Amost as if he was expecting this answer Murugan knocks the ‘creator’ on his head and for good measure imprisons him.

Hearing this Shiva summons Murugan to enquire as to the reason behind his mischief and to perhaps deliver an admonishment. His children needed to behave better.

Murugan responds to Shiva that the god who claims himself to be creator does not even understand the real basis of creation and hence, what else to do with him, he has been locked up.

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A stunned Shiva asks his son if he himself knows the secret and basis of creation. “Yes" says Murugan. Of course, Murugan knows. He is the deity of knowledge in Tamil lore.

But if Shiva wants to know, then he must request his son to impart him the knowledge in a proper fashion – as a humble disciple would seek from his guru. Shiva then kneels, bows in respect to Murugan, his guru for the time, and most humbly seeks to know. Murugan, perhaps chuckling a little to himself, reveals the basis and secret of creation: it is pranava - the sound symbol of the self in the Upanishads.

In others words, there is no external deity creating – it is at best an early pedagogic tool. The single self evolves into the entire variety of creation.

A popular depiction of the legend. A popular depiction of the legend.

In countless devotional poems in Tamil Nadu this event is sung. For the devotees of Shiva and Murugan, this incident is of great importance in Tamil Nadu.

The story is narrated to emphasise many aspects.

One is that in the pursuit of knowledge, no matter what age or the social status of the one with knowledge is, the person who seeks knowledge should approach him/her with humility.

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At another level, creation by a deity is repudiated. Instead, creation happens through the self – either it is Drishti-Srishti or Ajaathivada – the changes are apparent while there is one basic substratum.

Either way in the phenomenal world of existence, evolution is accepted in Indic darshanas and this puranic story is a beautiful way of conveying it to children and adults alike.

(Charles Darwin, with his ‘tree of life’) (Charles Darwin, with his ‘tree of life’)

When in 1859 Charles Darwin published his book Origin of Species it can be said it was West’s exposition of the knock Murugan delivered to the creator deity.

It took two decades for Darwin to bring himself to publish the book. He had returned from his voyage in 1836 and by 1838 he had become convinced about his 'heretical' concept of the transmutation of species. He wrote:

There is one living spirit prevalent over this world, (subject to certain contingencies of organic matter & chiefly heat), which assumes a multitude of forms each having acting principle according to subordinate laws. — There is one thinking sensible principle, intimately allied to one kind of organic matter—have & which thinking principle seems to be given a assumed according to a more extended relations of the individuals, whereby choice with memory or reason? is necessary—which is modified into endless forms bearing a close relation in degree & kind to the endless forms of the living beings.
Charles Darwin, “Notebook C” (1838), pp. 196–197

By providing a naturalistic explanation to the origin of species and by challenging the immutability of life forms, Darwin created a revolution that was far more deeper than the Copernican revolution.

He changed fundamentally not only the way we look at the creation-evolution debate but also the way we see evolution itself. The idea of a ladder of life, that comes from Aristotle himself, with the 'low animals' at the bottom and the Caucasian male at the top was demolished by Darwin. That is why the popular depiction of evolution with the small monkey through other great apes culminating in human being (usually a white male) is wrong.

Darwin showed that the evolution, the origin of species, happens like the branching of the tree – the great phylo-genetic tree. We are one of the several branches. We are merely one of the several branches.

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The ramifications of this revolution are felt even today each time a child learns that we are not the products of creation of a deity but a process of evolution.

When we see the incredible apparent complexity of natural world around us it is natural to intuit in a simple way about a creator deity. The knock of Darwin is the real and historic equivalent of the puranic knock of Murugan. In fact the polymath and evolutionist J B S Haldane half jokingly but rightfully said of the conceptual revolution brought by Darwin thus:

My wife has stated categorically that Darwin converted Europe to Hinduism. This is, I think, an exaggeration, but is nearer to the truth than it sounds. Hinduism is not a religion as this is term is understood by the adherents of proselytizing religious beliefs. It is an attitude to the universe compatible with a variety of religious and philosophical beliefs…. Darwin, then, from the Hindu angle, had some at least of the attributes of a saint.
J B S Haldane, What I Require From Life: Writings on Science and Life

Why do we find it very difficult to accept evolution?

(New Scientist cover) (New Scientist cover)

In his recent cover story in New Scientist Graham Lawton speaks of how “the ideas that come most effortlessly to us" are often misguided. "Our childish intuitions haunt us," he says.

The so-called 'folk theories' or 'naive theories' are important in the context of creation-evolution debate. Lawton points out how as children we tend to see 'purpose everywhere': 'birds are “for” flying, rocks are for animals to scratch themselves on and rain falls so flowers can drink.' :

For most everyday purposes, these ideas are serviceable. Nevertheless, they aren’t true. Children cling to their folk theories, and when they encounter difficult concepts, they cling even harder. For example, many intuitively see evolution as a purposeful force that strives to endow animals and plants with the traits they need to survive. Folk theories do get knocked back as we move through education, but they never go away. 
‘Thoughtlessly thoughtless’, New Scientist, 16-Dec-2017

However, in the Indian context there is a saving grace. Thanks to Sankhya, evolution has always been accepted in Indian culture without the bitter and useless battles that are being waged in the West.

Again in Tamil Saivaite tradition, the great Saivaite saint Manickavaasagar (probably ninth century CE) in his Thiruvasagam sang a version of transmutation of life forms – becoming grass, small shrubs, worms, trees, various types of animals, birds, snakes and moving through the entire continuum of bio-cosmo of both moving and stationary forms of life.

This hymn is one of the earliest of hymns traditional Saivaite Tamil children learn in their houses. From darshanas to puranic stories to daily hymns, the appealing concept of non-mutability of species and creation has been removed in our minds by our culture.

Hindutva has also had a very positive interaction with evolution. Colonialism and Marxism used evolution to further their own agenda with the former opting for the pseudo-science of social Darwinism to justify racism and imperialism, Karl Marx first admired and later jettisoned Darwin for more racial ideas of evolution.

Interestingly, it was Veer Savarkar who applied the concept of sexual selection in human context to argue for the unity of human species against the artificial barriers of race, religion and culture. He wrote:

After all there is throughout this world so far as man is concerned but a single race, the human race, kept alive by one common blood, the human blood. All other talk is at best provisional, a makeshift and only relatively true. Nature is constantly trying to overthrow the artificial barriers you raise between race and race. To try to prevent the commingling of blood is to build on sand. Sexual attraction has proved more powerful than all the commands of all the prophets put together. Even as it is, not even the aborigines of the Andamans are without some sprinkling of the so-called Aryan blood in their veins and vice-versa. Truly speaking all that one can claim is that one has the blood of all mankind in one’s veins. The fundamental unity of man from pole to pole is true, all else only relatively so.
Essentials of Hindutva

Recollecting all these becomes necessary now because a Union Minister – that too a junior minister associated with human resources and hence department of education as well as culture, has talked against the science of evolution.

Talking to the reporters at Aurangabad where the minister Satyapal Singh was present for attending 'All India Vaidik Sammelan', he is reported to have said:

Darwin’s theory (of evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curriculum. Since the man is seen on Earth he has always been a man. Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw an ape turning into a man and no books we have read or the tales told to us by our grandparents had such a mention.

Are we to forego our scientific tradition from Sankhya to Savarkar, because a minister is not able to comprehend the science of evolution and the greatness of his own culture?

What this minister deserves right now is a knock on the head from the hands of our very own Murugan – the Tamil deity of knowledge.

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