Karmic Versus Organic Evolution: The Hindu Encounter with Modern Evolutionary Science

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Hindus today often affirm a belief in evolution and avow that the Hindu tradition is entirely compatible with evolutionary theory and modern science in general. Some Hindus go so far as to claim that their ancient sages actually discovered evolution long before Darwin. Others assert that Hindu teachings go beyond modern science and can complete it, accounting not just for the evolution of the physical body but also of consciousness. In the process of making such claims, these apologists at times declare that Hinduism is the most scientific religion in the world, certainly more scientific than Christianity. Closer examination of these pronouncements reveals that evolution has many meanings. For Hindus, it often refers to the spiritual evolution of the soul via the processes of rebirth and karmic development. It is this meaning that permeates the broad claims about the compatibility of Hinduism and evolution, rather than Darwin’s notion of organic evolution, thereby obscuring deep differences. This conflation of meanings thus generates considerable tension in attempts to reconcile the two explanatory evolutionary processes, karmic and organic, despite many superficial similarities. The tensions revolve around the three major challenges that confronted Christian theologians regarding purpose, morality, and human uniqueness, although in rather different terms. To investigate these tensions, I will first look at traditional teachings about karma and rebirth, both in popular literature and more philosophical treatises, including Hindu accounts of the origin and nature of species. I will then examine colonial and postcolonial Hindu responses to modern evolutionary theory.


C. Mackenzie Brown







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Asian Religious Responses to Darwinism: Evolutionary Theories in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian Cultural Contexts