Vedic Creationism in America, by Meera Nanda
Metanexus Bios. 1,862 Words.
ï¾“Darwin is under attack in America yet again. Exactly eighty years since the Scopes ï¾“monkey trial,ï¾” the teaching of Darwinï¾’s theory of evolution is facing legal challenges in many parts of the country. A major trial pitting creationism against Darwin is under way in Dover, Pennsylvania, while the fate of another trial is awaited in Cobb County, Georgia. In all, 14 states are debating new regulations on teaching evolution. Kansas has taken a lead by changing the very definition of science to make room for supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. President Bush is in favor of ï¾“equal treatmentï¾” for creationism in biology classes. It is open season on Darwin.ï¾”
Vedic Creationism in America
By Meera Nanda
Darwin is under attack in America yet again. Exactly eighty years since the Scopes ï¾“monkey trial,ï¾” the teaching of Darwinï¾’s theory of evolution is facing legal challenges in many parts of the country. A major trial pitting creationism against Darwin is under way in Dover, Pennsylvania, while the fate of another trial is awaited in Cobb County, Georgia. In all, 14 states are debating new regulations on teaching evolution. Kansas has taken a lead by changing the very definition of science to make room for supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. President Bush is in favor of ï¾“equal treatmentï¾” for creationism in biology classes. It is open season on Darwin.
This time around, the challenge is coming from a new breed of sophisticated, scientifically trained creationists who are pushing the theory of ï¾“intelligent designï¾” (ID). The IDers donï¾’t interpret the Bible literally. They accept the fossil record as evidence of evolution of human beings from apes, and they accept that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old (and not 6000 years old, as the earlier generation of creationists believed.) But IDers draw the line at natural selection, the hallmark of Darwinian evolution. They insist that the complexity in biological structures ï¾– the intricacy of the eye, for example ï¾– could not have come about by natural causes alone. From this they surmise that there must be an intelligent designer responsible for the wondrous intricacy of life.
It is these ID-creationists who are leading the current barrage of anti-evolution lawsuits. But they are not alone. They have found enthusiastic allies among the Hare Krishnas, who have been actively propagating their theory of ï¾“Vedic creationism,ï¾” ï¾“Krishna creationism,ï¾” or ï¾“Hindu creationism,ï¾” as it is sometimes called. Vedic creationism is attracting friendly attention form both the old-fashioned Biblical creationists and the new-fangled ID-creationists. And Vedic creationists, in turn, are doing their best to encourage and support all varieties of creationism.
Earlier this year, the Hare Krishnas filed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief supporting ID-creationists. The case in question involved a school district in Cobb County, Georgia, which wanted to put ï¾“warning stickersï¾” on biology texts books, as if books teaching Darwinï¾’s theory were injurious to the mental health of the students. The stickers warned the students that ï¾“evolution was a theory, not a factï¾” and that students should approach it with a ï¾“critical attitude.ï¾” The school district was obviously singling out Darwin for special warnings, for isnï¾’t all science just theories?, and shouldnï¾’t students approach everything they learn with a critical attitude? In January 2005, the court threw out the stickers as a ruse for creationism. But the issue came right back before the court on appeal. The final decision is still awaited.
In the Cobb County case, the Hare Krishnas appealed to the court to keep the warning stickers. Because the stickers only attack Darwin without endorsing a specifically Christian God, Hare Krishnas see them as an opportunity to introduce Vedic creationism into American schools. They know that once one religion gets its foot in the door, all others will automatically get equal time to bring in their own creation stories and cosmologies into science classrooms.
If the Hare Krishnas hope to sneak into science classrooms through the door opened by ID creationists, the IDers use them to bolster their own image. ID is often accused of being a scientific-sounding cover for Christian creationism. The IDers conveniently use the support of Hare Krishnas to paint themselves in multicultural colors. Prominent ID theorists (Philip Johnson, Michael Behe) and some Catholic creationists have endorsed Vedic creationism. Any enemy of the Charles Darwin is their friend ï¾– that seems to be the operating logic.
The intellectual force driving Vedic creationism is a pair of American Hindus, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, both resident ï¾“scientistsï¾” of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, the research wing of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Cremo has recently published a huge book, Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwinï¾’s Theory, which ties together his (and Thompsonï¾’s) previous and even larger book, The Forbidden Archeology, with literature on paranormal phenomena to argue for creationism from a spirit-centered, Vedic-Hindu perspective. While Cremo insists he is offering a ï¾“scientificï¾” alternative to Darwin, almost all of his evidence comes from paranormal phenomena, including studies of extra-sensory perception, faith-healing, reincarnation and past-birth memories, UFOs and alien abductions. (He needs the paranormal to make a case that purely spiritual causes can modify the DNA and create new life forms).
Let us see what Vedic creationists are saying. They deny that different species of living beings, including humans, have evolved, or risen up, from simpler organisms, as Darwin claims. Instead, they claim that all species, including humans, have ï¾“devolved,ï¾” or come down from, a highly evolved, super-intelligent being, which is pure consciousness itself. Different species of plants and animals are simply material forms adopted by consciousness, Atman, as it transmigrates in endless cycles of births and rebirths over billions and billions of years. Spiritual growth is the driving force of evolution: higher species emerge when Atman trapped in all matter takes on a higher (more ï¾“subtleï¾” and sattvic) life-form as a result of good karma, and lower species result when Atman ï¾“forgetsï¾” its purity and indulges in ï¾“gross desires.ï¾”
Vedic creationists claim to derive this picture from the ï¾“Vedas,ï¾” in which they include the puranas as well, especially the Bhagvat Purana. Here it must be added that theories of spiritual or ï¾“integralï¾” evolution have been proposed before, notably by Sri Aurobindo and Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy. But the Hare Krishnas are the first to support their theory with ï¾“scientificï¾” data ï¾– if data from psychics and UFO sightings can be called scientific.
Like all fundamentalists, Vedic creationists take the Bhagvat Purana, along with Bhagvat Gita, Mahabharata and Ramayana, to be literally true. They then proceed to use the ï¾“factsï¾” described in these sacred texts to condemn Darwin and all of materialist science.
For example, Cremo and Thompson accept the notion of the ï¾“day of Brahmaï¾” lasting some 4.32 billion years as literally true. They also accept as fact the idea that the ï¾“current day of Brahmaï¾” began 2 billion years ago. A literal reading of Ramayana convinces them that humans and monkey-like hominoid creatures co-existed. Putting the two ideas together, they come up with the fantastic notion that the ancestors of modern human beings have existed for 2 billion (2,000, 000, 000) years. They want us to believe that human beings walked the earth at a time when fossil records show that only bacteria existed on the earth!
This completely contradicts the best scientific evidence from fossil records and radiocarbon dating that shows that the ancestors of modern human beings only appeared around 200,000 to 100,000 years ago, after the appearance of fish, amphibians, and reptiles and other mammals and hominoid species, from which humans have evolved. Vedic creationists set aside all this evidence as a mere social construct of Western archeologists and paleontologists who, they say, have been brainwashed by an atheistic, materialistic worldview. Once you remove the ï¾“knowledge filterï¾” of materialism, they tell us, ï¾“spiritual sciencesï¾” will become dominant again, just as they used to be before the ï¾“reductionistï¾” science of the West banished the gods from nature.
On the face of it, Vedic creationism with its longer time spans looks more ï¾“scientificï¾” than the old-fashioned Bible literalists who think the earth is only 6,000 years old. But what the two creationists share is the belief ï¾– entirely unfounded on verifiable facts ï¾– that human beings have been around since the beginning of life, and that they have not descended from the apes. (In fact, A.C. Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, used to describe Darwinians as ï¾“rascalsï¾” and ï¾“foolsï¾” for believing in such ï¾“nonsenseï¾” as the evolution of humans form apes. Prabhupadaï¾’s spirit lives on in Vedic creationism.)
The shared ground extends into the more ï¾“advancedï¾” ID as well. Proponents of ID bring in a Designer God to explain the existence of ï¾“irreducible complexityï¾” of life which they think cannot be explained by natural causes alone. Proponents of Vedic creationism likewise, bring in Atman because they think that the existence of consciousness cannot be explained by natural causes alone. Just like the IDers completely ignore the mass of studies showing how complex structures like eyes can arise out of natural causes, Vedic creationists completely ignore the mass of studies showing that the phenomenon of consciousness can be explained by purely natural causes. In both cases, there is the same willful neglect of scientific method and scientific evidence in order to defend a religious conception of natural order.
As far as I know, Vedic creationism as an ï¾“ism,ï¾” as a ï¾“scientificï¾” challenge to Darwin, has been more influential in America than it is in India. But the ideas of Vedic creationism ï¾– the enormous time spans, the cyclical yugas, the day and the night of Brahma, the creation of new species as a result of transmigration of the Atman ï¾– are obviously better known in India than in America.
Indeed, most of what the Vedic creationists are talking about is part and parcel of the common sense of a majority of Indians. Even well-educated, scientifically trained Indians believe in karma-transmigration as the force propelling evolution or devolution of species. Many of us encounter Darwin in our schools and college curricula. But thanks to the rote learning that goes on in most of our science classes, Darwin hardly makes a dent on the Vedic creationist ideas we absorb from our myths and religious discourses. For all intents and purposes, Darwinism remains quite irrelevant to our picture of the world. (Yes, most Americans, too, believe in their God over Darwin. Perhaps that is one reason why America, among all advanced Western countries, remains so hospitable to Christian fundamentalism. We surely donï¾’t want to imitate the worst traits of American culture.)
Yet ï¾– and this is what I find most puzzling ï¾– most educated Indians take pride in how receptive our religion and culture is to scientific ideas. So many educated middle class Indians I know compare Hinduism favorably with Islam and Christianity on precisely this issue of openness to new ideas. Muslims and Christians are often put down as ï¾“illogical,ï¾” ï¾“superstitiousï¾” and ï¾“fundamentalistï¾” while we see ourselves as enlightened and open to arguments and evidence.
But we remain receptive to science only by ignoring its substance. We can keep celebrating the ï¾“argumentative Indianï¾” who welcomes new ideas, only by not really engaging with what they are actually saying. An honest engagement with Darwinism would mean acknowledging that if we actually believe that Darwin is right then Vedic creationism ï¾– if interpreted as an actual description of natural evolution ï¾– cannot be right, and vice versa. Honest engagement would involve actually revising our views in light of more persuasive evidence. I donï¾’t see much evidence of this kind of engagement in our culture.
The complicity of Vedic creationism with Christian creationism in America will hopefully make us take a critical look at what we believe. A literalist reading of our mythology is harmful for both our faith and for our rationality. It is time to ask some hard questions.
Meera Nanda was trained a microbiologist before turning to philosophy of science. She the author of three books, including Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism (Rutgers University Press, 2004). She is a recipient of a research fellowship from the Templeton Foundation.
ï¾©2006 Metanexus Institute
Published on 2006.3.31.