Friday, 14 October 2016

Vishnu and Darwin

Some time I ago I had written about references to Other human species in the Indic mythology, arguing that the Indic myths and sacred stories represent the oral traditions and could be the keepers of ancient knowledge from prehistoric times.

This post is is a continuation of that thinking, provoked by a sculpture in a temple in Guwahati (Assam, India). The sculpture is a statue of an avatar of Vishnu.

ORAL TRADITIONS AND PREHISTORIC HUMANS

The first ancestors of the modern man, Homo sapiens, appeared on earth around 70,000 years ago while our knowledge about human history goes back to about 5-6,000 years. This in-between period about which we have no written records is called prehistoric period.

Human beings probably started to speak and developed languages, even before the appearance of modern man. Thus for a very long time, humans only had speech and art to express themselves. This led to different oral traditions in the communities and the memories of most important events were saved as stories and songs and passed along the generations.

These stories changed over time, as they passed from one generation to another and as groups of people broke away from their parent groups and moved to new lands, with people adding new details and new explanations to the old words. When human-groups invented writing, they usually codified these stories as part of their sacred books.

Jayakrishnan Nair in his post "Preserving Long Term Memories" has given a nice overview of oral traditions in safeguarding ancient knowledge across countries and cultures:
Memories are preserved when societies have the ability to retell stories across generations and remain unaffected by military, religious and cultural assaults. Indigenous traditions have foundational ways — through stories, art, ritual — to preserve knowledge. Textual studies won’t reveal the secrets; these have to be experienced.

STORIES ABOUT AVATARS OF VISHNU

Hinduism has many stories about Avatars of God coming down to the earth. For example, in chapter 4 of Bhagwat Gita, verse 7 (Yada, yada hi dharmasaya glani bharwati bharat ...) is about God coming down to earth whenever there is a decline in Dharma.

Stories of different avatars of Vishnu are part of the Indic sacred literature. For example, Bhagwat Puran mentions 24 avatars of Vishnu. Other stories have ten such avatars (Dasavatar). In all these stories, the first four avatars of Vishnu show him as an animal – Mataysa (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar) and Narsimha (half man and half animal).

While visiting Shukreshwar temple in Guwahati, I saw a sculpture of the Matasya (Fish) avatar of Vishnu on one of the walls of a temple (shown in the image below).



Different authors have linked these stories about Vishnu's avatars to the Darwin's theory of evolution of species. In 19th century, Darwin had proposed that over a period of millions of years, life had evolved from single cells and through natural selection, gradually created more complex organisms. Life had started in oceans, it moved to the land, passing through fishes, amphibians and then birds and animals, till humans evolved from the apes.

People have remarked on how the first 4 avatars of Vishnu seem to reflect the evolution of life in the ocean (Matsya/Fish), its progression in creatures that lived partly in water and partly on land (Kurma/Tortoise), the arrival of mammals (Varaha/Boar) and the birth of humans from their animal progenitors (Narsimha/Half human, half animal). The image below shows a statue of Narsimha avatar from a street in old Delhi.



According to the Dasavatar stories, the fifth avatar of Vishnu was Vamana (Dwarf). This story reminds me of another human species, Homo floresiensis, also called "hobbits", the short humans who lived in Flores island of Indonesia.

These stories do not talk specifically about development of humans from the apes. However Indic sacred literature has many figures such as that of Vanars/Apes (Sugriv, Bali, Hanuman) and other beings such as Asurs, Danavs, Rakshas, etc. These other figures share certain similarities with humans and could be seen as references to other human species during prehistoric times.

If Indic myths speculated on the origins and evolution of life and some times came up with answers similar to those given by the science today, it means that those persons had significant capacities of observation and logical deduction. They did not have the scientific tools to test and confirm their ideas and thus, came up with stories of Vishnu's avatars to explain their observations.

At the same time, the Dasavatar story includes a prophecy about future - the tenth avatar of Vishnu who is supposed to come at the end of Kaliyug. This future avatar is called Kalki and is shown as a man with a sword on a white horse. This myth implies that there was some understanding that there will be other forms of life and that humans are not the end-point of evolution of life. This idea is also consonant with the present view of evolution of species, though the future life-evolution is not likely to be about white horses or swords, rather it might be linked to artificial intelligence and other technological innovations.

OUR UNDERSTANDING OF MYTHS

As explained above, the roots of the myths go back to the oral traditions of prehistorical times, before writing was invented and before we had the formal religions.

Emergence of religions like Christianity and Islam, with their specific books such as Bible and Koran, influenced attitudes towards the knowledge contained in ancient myths. Some ancient myths were incorporated in these books and came to be accepted as part of their religious dogmas. Other ancient myths, not included in these books, came to be seen as superstitions or false stories.

Therefore, the common use of the word Myth came to imply that these stories provide wrong and unreliable knowledge and thus, should not be taken seriously.

Most Indic myths are part of Vedic literature, especially of the Puranas. "Mithak", the Sanskrit word used for myths, sounds very similar to the Greek word Mythos. The Sanskrit word "Mithya", derived from Mithak, is also commonly understood as a synonym of lies or untruth. Thus, it would seem that even in Indic traditions, myths are seen as unreliable or wrong knowledge. So I was wondering, if our myths and sacred stories are part of our oral traditions, why and when did we start to consider them as lies?

The word "Mithya" appears in only one Upanishad, the Muktikopanishad, which is considered as the last Upanishad, written relatively recently (probably in seventeenth century). Its use in that Upanishad seems to suggest its meaning was somewhat similar to that of Maya (illusion). Thus is it possible that the negative connotation given to ancient stories or the myths in the Indic traditions was a more recent phenomenon? Certainly, traditional Indian scholars did not consider the Purana stories to be a bunch of lies.

Another explanation can be that in Indic traditions, Purana stories were seen as Itihasa (history) and they had used the word "mithak" to refer to some other stories, while today we have started to club together all our sacred stories as myths because that is how Western scholars have described them over the past couple of centuries?

CONCLUSIONS

Reconstructing the ancient history gives a lot of importance to written documents, skeletons, cultural artifacts and images such as the cave paintings, while the oral history traditions are not given similar importance. This is natural since stories of the oral traditions must have undergone many changes as they were passed from one generation to another, and thus are not as reliable as written texts and pictorial testaments of the prehistoric humans.

Over the last couple of decades technical advances in molecular biology and informatics have also started adding to our knowledge about prehistorical period, for example through reconstruction of genome.

On the other hand, cultures with strong oral traditions that have unbroken links with their prehistoric past through their mythologies and sacred stories, are fast disappearing. Except for some tribal communities, such cultures have survived only in India and in certain parts of Asia, especially where there are significant numbers of Hindus and Buddhists.

At the same time, looking at and understanding this ancient knowledge is becoming increasingly difficult as we tend to look at the myths and ancient stories through the lens of rational approaches, ignoring the original cultural contexts and philosophies that guided their meanings.

However, I feel that speculations about the seeds of historical events and ancient knowledge hidden inside the myths are also important. Looking at myths and sacred stories can be another way of knowing our past, though at present it may not be possible to have objective proofs of such knowledge.

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