Dashavatara and Darwinian Evolution

Things were going exactly as Srinivasan had feared, his Mother would come in from India and crush his American way of life under her strong South Indian influence. For a genetic scientist like Vasu, as Srinivasan was called by his friends, the only kind of order was disorder. So consumed he was by his research that the world and it’s affairs mattered little to him. When his last girlfriend walked out on him, “Find a girl on planet Srinivasan,” she had screamed as she stomped out.

Now Vasu’s Mother had taken over the administration of the planet. It irritated him, this milk at night and chywanprash every morning. “Have you been wearing the same pair of Jeans for the past three days?” Mother was beginning her morning interrogation.

Vasu stared at the hot idlis in front of him, the chywanprash to follow and the wardrobe interrogation that had begun. Something snapped in his mind. “Mom I love you and I love that you come all the way from India to take care of me but please don’t fuss over me! It irritates me!  And then I cannot work!”

His Mother did not really care if Vasu was upset, “The idlis are getting cold,” was her matter of fact response.

“You don’t really care, do you Mom?”

“I care about you Vasu. The work you do is alright. If you don’t do it, someone else will do it.”

“Mom, I am genetic scientist. I am working on the evolution of man. Theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, have you heard of him? ” Vasu was exasperated with her unwillingness to understand. His Mother sat down next to him and smiled, “I know Darwin, Vasu. I also know that what you think he discovered was old news in India.”

“Yeah sure Mom!” Vasu said with sarcasm.

“Well if you are too smart then listen to this, ” his Mother countered.” Have you heard of Dashavatara? The ten avatars of Vishnu?” Vasu nodded. “Then let me tell you what you and Mr. Darwin don’t know. The first avatar was the Matsya avatar, it means the fish. That is because life began in the water. Is that not right?” Vasu began to listen with a little more attention.

“Then came the Kurma Avatar, which means the tortoise, cause life moved from the water to the land. The amphibian. So the Tortoise denoted the evolution from sea to land. Third was the Varaha, the wild boar, which meant the wild animals with not much intellect, you call them the Dinosaurs, correct? ” Vasu nodded wide-eyed.

“The fourth avatar was the Narasimha avatar, half man and half animal, the evolution from wild animals to intelligent beings. Fifth the Vaman avatar, the midget or dwarf, who could grow really tall. Do you know why that is? Cause there were two kinds of humans, Homo Erectus and the Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapiens won that battle.” Vasu could see that his mother was in full flow and he was stupefied.

“The Sixth avatar was Parshuram, the man who wielded the axe, the man who was a cave and forest dweller. Angry, and not social but the seventh avatar  was Rama, the first thinking social being, who laid out the laws of society and the basis of all relationships. The eight avatar was Krishna, the statesman, the politician, the lover who played the game of society and taught how to live and thrive in the social structure. The Ninth avatar, the Buddha, the man who rose from Narasimha and found man’s true nature. The nature of Buddha, he identified man’s final quest of enlightenment. And finally, my boy, will come Kalki, the man you are working on. The man who will be genetically supreme.”

Vasu looked at his Mother speechless. “This is amazing Mom, how did you.. This makes sense!”

“Yes it does Vasu! Now have your chywanprash!” Never underestimate Moms! 🙂

As I was reading the story sent by one of my friends to our WhatsApp group, I was thinking how the thought has nicely been explained in the form of this story. Dashavatara (दशावतार) refers to the das (ten) avatars of Vishnu, the Hindu god of Preservation. Vishnu is said to descend in form of an avatar to restore cosmic order. The order of the Dashavataras has been interpreted to be reflective of Darwinian evolution for centuries. The stories of Dashavatara are believed to have developed prior to 200 CE!

Many modern interpreters sequence Vishnu‘s ten main avatars in a definitive order, from simple life-forms to more complex, and see the Dashavataras as a reflection, or a foreshadowing, of the modern theory of evolution. Such an interpretation was propounded by Theosophist Helena Blavatsky in her 1877 opus Isis Unveiled, in which she proposed the following ordering of the Dashavataras:

  1. Matsya – fish, the first class of vertebrates; evolved in water. The first incarnation of Vishnu as Matsya (fish) resembles origin of fishes in Silurian Period (over 400 million years ago).
  2. Kurma – amphibious (living in both water and land; but not to confuse with the vertebrate class amphibians)
  3. Varaha – wild land animal
  4. Narasimha – beings that are half-animal and half-human (indicative of emergence of human thoughts and intelligence in powerful wild nature)
  5. Vamana – short, premature human beings
  6. Parasurama – early humans living in forests and using weapons
  7. Rama – humans living in community, beginning of civil society
  8. Krishna – humans practicing animal husbandry, politically advanced societies
  9. Buddha – humans finding enlightenment
  10. Kalki – advanced humans with great powers of destruction.

Vishnu Dashavatara

Many Hindus in India, particularly reformers sought to harmonise traditional religion with modern science. Keshub Chandra Sen, a prominent figure in the Brahmo Samaj and an early teacher of Swami Vivekananda, said in an 1882 lecture:

“The Puranas speak of the different manifestations or incarnations of the Deity in different epochs of the world history. Lo! The Hindu Avatar rises from the lowest scale of life through the fish, the tortoise, and the hog up to the perfection of humanity. Indian Avatarism is, indeed, a crude representation of the ascending scale of Divine creation. Such precisely is the modern theory of evolution.”

Sir Monier Monier-Williams wrote:

“Indeed, the Hindus were … Darwinians centuries before the birth of Darwin, and evolutionists centuries before the doctrine of evolution had been accepted by the Huxleys of our time, and before any word like evolution existed in any language of the world.”

JBS Haldane suggested that Dashavatara gave a “rough idea” of vertebrate evolution: a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a man-lion, a dwarf and then four men (Kalki is not yet born).

HT: Wikipedia

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