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Vedic creationism in America

Print edition : Jan 27, 2006 T+T-
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The International Society of Krishna Consciousness, which propagates the theory of Vedic creationism, is a big hit in the West. Here, Western devotees at a religious gathering organised by ISKCON in Allahabad.-

Vedic creationism is attracting friendly attention from both the old-fashioned Biblical creationists and the new-fangled intelligent design theorists. And Vedic creationists, in turn, are doing their best to encourage and support all varieties of creationism.

DARWIN is under attack in the United States yet again. Exactly 80 years since the Scopes "monkey trial", the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution is facing legal challenges in many parts of the country. Even though the court in Dover, Pennsylvania, recently ruled in favour of teaching Darwinian evolution in schools, 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 George W. Bush is in favour of "equal treatment" for creationism in biology classes. It is open season on Darwin.

This time around, the challenge comes from a new breed of sophisticated, scientifically trained creationists who are pushing the theory of "intelligent design" (I.D.). The `ID-ers' do not interpret the Bible literally. They accept fossil record as evidence of the evolution of human beings from apes, and they accept that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old (and not 6,000 years old, as the earlier generation of Biblical creationists believed.) But they draw the line at natural selection, the hallmark of Darwinian evolution. They insist that the complexity in biological structures - the intricacy of the eye, for example - 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 I.D.-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, followers of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), who have been actively propagating their theory of "Vedic creationism", "Krishna creationism", or "Hindu creationism", as it is sometimes called. Vedic creationism is attracting friendly attention from both the old-fashioned Biblical creationists and the new-fangled I.D.-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 brief supporting I.D.-creationists. The case in question involved a school district in Cobb County, which wanted to put "warning stickers" on biology textbooks, as if books teaching Darwin's theory were injurious to the mental health of the students. The stickers warned the students that "evolution was a theory, not a fact", and that students should approach it with a "critical attitude". In January 2005, the court threw out the stickers as a ruse for creationism. The court argued - correctly - that all science is made up of theories and students should approach all knowledge, not just Darwin's theory, with a critical attitude. But the issue came 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 anti-Darwinian warning stickers. As 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 inside the door, all others will automatically get equal time to bring in their own creation stories and cosmologies into science classrooms in America.

If the Hare Krishnas hope to sneak into science classrooms through the door opened by I.D. creationists, the IDers use the Hare Krishnas to bolster their own image. `I.D.' is often accused of being a scientific-sounding cover for Christian creationism. The ID-ers conveniently use the support of Hare Krishnas to paint themselves in multicultural colours. Prominent I.D. theorists (Philip Johnson, Michael Behe) and some Catholic creationists have endorsed Vedic creationism. Any enemy of Charles Darwin is their friend - 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 "scientists" of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, the research wing of ISKCON. Cremo recently published a huge book, Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin's Theory, which ties together his (and Thompson's) previous and even larger book, The Forbidden Archeology, with literature on paranormal phenomena to argue for creationism from a spirit-centred, Vedic-Hindu perspective. While Cremo insists he is offering a "scientific" 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 (unidentified flying objects) and alien abductions. (He needs the paranormal to make a case that purely spiritual causes can modify the DNA and create new life forms.)

WHAT are the Vedic creationists 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 "devolved", 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 pure consciousness, or 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 "subtle" and sattvic) life-form as a result of good karma, and lower species result when Atman "forgets" its purity and indulges in "gross desires".

Vedic creationists claim to derive this picture from the "Vedas", in which they include the Puranas as well, especially the Bhagvat Purana. Here it must be added that theories of spiritual or "integral" 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 "scientific" data - if data from psychics and UFO sightings can be called scientific.

Like all fundamentalists, Vedic creationists take the Bhagvat Purana, along with the Bhagvad Gita, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to be literally true. They then proceed to use the "facts" described in these sacred texts to condemn Darwin and all of materialist science.

For example, Cremo and Thompson accept the notion of the "day of Brahma" lasting some 4.32 billion years as literally true. They also accept as fact the idea that the "current day of Brahma" began two billion (2,000, 000, 000) years ago. A literal reading of the Ramayana convinces them that humans and monkey-like hominoid creatures coexisted. Putting the two ideas together, they come up with the fantastic notion that the ancestors of modern human beings have existed for two billion 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 show that the ancestors of modern human beings only appeared around 200,000 to 100,000 years ago: that is, 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 archaeologists and palaeontologists who, they say, have been brainwashed by an atheistic, materialistic worldview. Once you remove the "knowledge filter" of Western-Christian materialism, they tell us, "spiritual sciences" will become dominant again, just as they used to be before the "reductionist" science of the West banished the gods from nature.

ON the face of it, Vedic creationism with its longer time spans looks more "scientific" than the old-fashioned Bible literalists who insist that the earth is only 6,000 years old. But what the two creationists share is the belief - entirely unfounded on verifiable facts - 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 ISKCON, used to describe Darwinians as "rascals" and "fools" for believing in such "nonsense" as the evolution of humans from apes. Prabhupada's spirit lives on in Vedic creationism.)

The shared ground extends into the more "advanced" I.D. as well. Proponents of I.D. bring in a Designer God to explain the existence of "irreducible complexity" 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 ID-ers completely ignore the mass of studies showing how complex structures such as 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 wilful neglect of scientific method and scientific evidence in order to defend a religious conception of natural order.

Vedic creationism as an "ism", as a "scientific" challenge to Darwin, has been more influential in America than it is in India. But the ideas of Vedic creationism - the enormous time spans, the cyclical yugas, the day and night of Brahma, the creation of new species as a result of transmigration of the Atman - are obviously better known in India than in America.

Indeed, most of what the Vedic creationists are talking about is part and parcel of a common perception held by 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 do not want to imitate the worst traits of American culture.)

Yet most educated Indians take pride in how receptive our religion and culture is to scientific ideas. Many educated middle-class Indians compare Hinduism favourably with Islam and Christianity on precisely this issue of openness to new ideas. Muslims and Christians are often put down as "illogical", "superstitious" and "fundamentalist" 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 "argumentative Indian" who is supposedly open to arguments and evidence, only by not really engaging with the content of new ideas. An honest engagement with Darwinism would mean acknowledging that if we actually believe that Darwin is right then Vedic creationism cannot be right, and vice versa. Honest engagement would involve revising our views in the light of more persuasive evidence (from fossils and biology) that supports the Darwinian theory of evolution. I do not see many signs of this kind of critical engagement with science in India today.

The complicity of Vedic creationism with Christian creationism in America will hopefully make us take a critical look at our beliefs. If we are troubled and tickled by the creationist challenge to the scientific understanding of evolution in America, it is time, perhaps, to look at the anti-scientific creation stories that we ourselves subscribe to. Can we, in all honesty, believe in Vedic creationism and still think of ourselves as modern, scientific and enlightened?

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