One of the most ancient expressions of the notion of evolution in the sense of a gradual development towards a more sophisticated state may be found in a Hindu mythic vision. In this framework, the cosmic principle that sustains the universe is referred to as Vishnu. Vishnu, the divine, incarnated periodically in ages past, often to rid the world of any evil that may be tormenting human societies. Such divine manifestations are known as avataras. The literal meaning of the word is descent, for it refers to the descent of the Divine to down below.
As the sage-poets of the Hindu world saw it, Vishnu has come thus far, not once but least nine times, perhaps more. The periodic emergence of a dynamic leader to lead to light a people immersed in darkness and engulfed by serious problems is not an uncommon occurrence in history. What is fascinating here is that in each new avatara Vishnu incarnated as something a notch more sophisticated, biologically speaking, than the previous one. The list of ten avataras, given in one canonical book of Hindu sacred history (Garuda Purana), manifesting in various eons (yugas) of mind-boggling time intervals, is as follows: fish, tortoise, boar, half-man-halfline, dwarf, hero with an axe, princely hero, fish, tortoise, boar, half-man/half-lion, dwarf, hero with the axe, princely hero, enlightened guide and his brother. Fascinating legends are associated with each incarnation, and different classical texts give different names and forms for them, some listing less and some more.
Leaving aside the mythical dimension of the stories, what strikes us in this notion is a prescient insight into stages that have an evolutionary ascent implicit in them. That the very first avatara was pisciform reminds us of life having its origins in the waters. Then comes the tortoise, followed by the boar, followed by a theranthropic form, suggesting again the gradual move to land and transformation from beast to man. And then there is the vision of humans endowed with wealth and values, followed by wisdom and arms too.
It occurred to some Hindu thinkers in the nineteenth century, after reading Darwin, that there was an uncanny parallel between the modern evolutionary insight and the avataric manifestation on earth. The British biologist J. B. S. Haldane reiterated this idea, unwittingly misleading some Hindus into believing that Darwin had been foreseen by their ancestors whom he should have acknowledged in his work. Without jumping to the facile conclusion that those ancient thinkers knew all about biological evolution, one can still be struck by the insight of a gradual ascent from water to wisdom which we find here.
The avatara concept is a pervasive doctrine in the Hindu worldview, and is often taken as inspiration for the hope that when things get really bad, God will come to redeem us of our insurmountable problems in one form or another. In the meanwhile, urged by the lofty legends and the associated eerie imagery, the Hindu spirit went on to worship the unfathomable mystery of existence in these various forms. Furthermore, as devout Christians in medieval Europe did for their symbols of worship, Hindus built magnificent temples for the avataras, especially the seventh and the eighth ones who are known as Rama and Krishna in the tradition.
A Hindu temple built in the fifth-century CE Deogarh in Northern India (Uttar Pradesh) is consecrated entirely to the ten avataras (Dasavatara as the set is collectively referred to), of whom the tenth is yet to come. Tradition has it that this tenth manifestation will appear riding high on a splendid white horse, and will spell the end of this phase of cosmic history: not unlike the thermodynamic heat-death forecast by nineteenth century physics. There may have been other such visions in other cultures, but this is certainly one of the most ancient.
March 2, 2011