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« Saffron: You Can Have Too Much Of A Good Thing (Norman Costa) | Main | Darwin contra Diamond on Domesticability (prasad) »

December 09, 2010


- I'm not sure I'd call that evolution, in that you pretty much have to believe this sort of thing if you think people reincarnate into other things.
- I'm reminded of similar statements made about the avataras of Vishnu (fish before tortoise before boar before man/lion before man)
- Can you recommend a source elaborating on samkhya metaphysics? Anything that "stands up" well to modern views? I've often wondered vaguely about the interrelationships among the different schools of hindu religious philosophy, but haven't encountered secular scholarship on such matters.

Ach, reincarnation! Why didn't I think of that? I suppose the first two lines should have given away the good poet's meaning.

What an effort we put to be born now, Because of the good deeds that we did?

So if was the belief in reincarnation that was the major contributor to the listing of the sequence, it is still puzzling as to why that is listed with the simplest life forms (or, maybe not as simple as we assume them to be.) I make no claims that the poet knew about evolution in the way we moderns perceive it, post-Darwin. It was the sequence listed that jogged my interest, not the possibility that reincarnation theory posits that everyone has gone through multiple births in the sequence of protozoa, aquatic life, amphibious life, flora, fauna, humans.

As for Sankhya philosophy, I didn't have much more than a faint inkling about its details, other than the fact that it was the 'atheist' school of philosphy. I did come across this interesting sort of FAQ on the differences between Sankhya and Yoga systems, especially of interest in the last few paragraphs. The article is by a Swami Abhedananda (1866-1939),of the Ramakrishna math. There may be other better expositions out there that don't smack of me-tooism, but I'll try to find them later.

Thanks for the FAQ! Also, I'll point out, you don't need evolution to see this sort of gradation between living (and non-living) things - it's pretty intuitive that monkeys and lions have more oomph than lobsters or frogs. I'd say in fact evolutionary thinking involves much more ambivalence about chains/ladders of progress, especially as involving multiple species all currently alive (which are more like cousins than ancestors). My impression is progress in evolution is one of those fraught ideas. Gould hated it, but then again it's the sort of thing he would..

Rumi has a poem
"I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, 'To Him we shall return.'

That does not mean the ancients knew of modern theories of evolution. Far less mysterious explanations are available. The ancients believed in rebirth. They believed in immanent spirit rising from simplicity to complexity and then back to ultimate simplicity. They had many many notions that lead to such poetry. None of them can be described as evolution in modern terms. This is not to put down the ancients. But the idea that they somehow had advanced scientific notions is just another way of paying tribute to science and secondarily, to the ancients. I see no need for such a hypothesis. There are things about ourselves that could be intuited by human beings ages ago and have been hinted at for millenia in literature, religion, poetry... There is also a consensual, gradual buildup of scientific knowledge that has accelerated in the last 500 years. The second need not be projected back into the first.

That's exactly the conclusion that I came to, on mulling it over. There's a lot to be said for intuition running ahead of the actual scientific proof, but that shouldn't let us get too carried away in replacing one with the other :)


I guess that once the narrative of Genesis in the Bible was established, it took several hundreds of years before the older 'intuitions' about the order of things would have their heyday as being borne out by scientific proof. Though that will still not rule out the assertions of hard-core believers that the whole fossil record was placed to confound inquirers into thinking that evolution is the mechanism that ,rather than outright creation of all beings in a grand Creationpalooza.

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