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Re: Vedic evolution

From: Krishna Susarla (krishna_at_tumora.swmed.edu)
Date: Sat May 22 1999 - 14:15:18 PDT

From: Mani Varadarajan <mani@best.com>

>I have said pretty much all that I wish to say on this
>subject. I notice that the few who are discussing this
>with me now are affiliated with the Gaudiya sampradAya.

I think this must be a reference to me, among others. I would like to say
first, that I am no more affiliated with the Gaudiya sampradaya then I am
with the Sri Vaishnava one. Having been born into neither tradition, I am
prepared to question both perspectives and go either way in my philosophical
views. However, that is all besides the point. Any of the remarks I have
made could just as easily have been made by a Sri Vaishnava, an Advaitin, a
Tattvavadi, a Muslim, a Christian, or even an agnostic or atheist. I think
that pegging the discussion as a "Hare Krishna vs Sri Vaishnava" one does
not really do justice to the issue. Because at the heart of the discussion
is *not* whether or not you believe in evolution, but what you ultimately
accept as a spotless authority and how you reconcile it to science. Such
basic questions as how faith can be reconciled with empirical observations
and deduction plague modern day practitioners of almost every ancient
religion, and the discussions which try to answer them strike me as the kind
of practical use of religious forums like this that would be highly
relevant. I think it is unfortunate that such a basic discussion on
epistemology is officially discouraged here. But seeing as how that is the
case, I would like to offer a few clarifying remarks of my own before
letting this thread go.

>1) The original question was how to reconcile scientific
>   opinion and the teachings of the Vedas.  People are free
>   to believe in the literal truth of Puranic cosmology, and
>   I don't want to convince them otherwise.

Nor am I attempting here to convince others of the literal truth of Puranic
history, cosmology, and so on. Rather, I am only pointing out that the type
of reconciliation spoken of here between the two sources of knowledge is not
as clean and easy as is thought; I personally think it is counterproductive.
I also think that in some cases, there is no need for a reconciliation at
all.

I am merely stating
>   my opinion that *if* one finds evolution irrefutable (as I
>   personally do, others are free to disagree), it is fully
>   reconcilable with Vedanta.

Respectfully, I would like to point out that many proponents of evolution
consider evolution to be an irrefutable fact. But many proponents of
evolution, when challenged to explain its inconsistencies, can often be
caught saying things like, "well I don't know how to explain that, but I'm
sure the evolutionary scientists have already thought these things through
since they have PhDs, are highly respected, are intelligent, well funded,
etc etc."

Now, if a religious man were to claim that his guru's teachings must be
accepted as correct because his guru is a realized soul, a pure devotee, or
some such thing, it would be rejected by any true Vedantin. A real guru is
obliged to provide evidence for his views from scripture; he is not a
prophet whose words must be accepted on the basis of blind faith alone.

But this willingness among many Western-educated thinkers to give
evolutionary biologists the benefit of the doubt when inconsistencies emerge
is really nothing more than prophet-acceptance all over again. Why are
scientists given more flexibility than gurus? It is only reasonable that if
a guru must be ready to support his views with scriptural evidence (the
standard by which his beliefs are to be evaluated), then a scientist must be
ready to support his views with at least experimental evidence. There is an
obvious double standard that should not be there. It is hardly correct to
call a theory unassailable if one is unprepared to explain its
inconsistencies himself.
>2) I don't wish to engage in debate over Hare Krishna views
>   on pramANas here either.  However, it is accepted by all


Neither do I. First of all, I don't see that they are so different to begin
with. But even if they were, that is irrelevant. The point I am making is
that even according to Sri Vaishnava standards of pramaanas, the acceptance
of mechanistic models of creation and the treatment of Puraanic stories as
quaint mythology presents obvious problems.

>   mImAmsakas and Vedantins that each pramANa is svataH-prAmANya,
>   intrinsically valid, so pratyaksha needs to be given full
>   weight in its sphere of influence.

However, there is a world of difference between "intrinsically valid" and
"always correct and never to be doubted." If you acknowledge that senses are
limited in their perception, then so too is deduction based solely on
information gathered through those limited senses. One cannot assert with
any degree of certainty that theories based on the two are always perfect
and correct; even empirical scientists are not supposed to do this.

To give you an example, it used to be thought by European navigators that
the Earth was flat and that sailing too far Westward would be a fatal
mistake. That was their deduction based on their limited senses. Now we know
it isn't true. The point I am making here is that information based solely
on pratyaksha and anumaana must be held to be correct in a relative sense;
it is considered correct only as long as contradictory evidence does not
exist and it continues to be a valuable paradigm for making further
predictions. It is unscientific to assert the absolute truth of any theory
at any particular point in time, even within its sphere of influence.
Theories based on limited senses must change as new information becomes
available to those senses. And this is why I caution against the reckless
"reinterpretation" of shaastric truths just to make them consistent with
what we consider to be empirical truths at any given time.

Another example that is relevant is the Big Bang theory. It used to be
considered gospel among physicists and the lay public. But now there are
astrophysicists (with no religious affiliation whatsoever) who publicly
disagree with it, based on sound empirical principles (involving the COBE
data among other things). When even scientists allow their views to change,
why must we cling blindly to scientific truths that just happen to be en
vogue? And that too when it requires us to change our understanding of
scripture?

>3) It has been argued that Ramanuja only makes these points
>   in the context of Advaita. This is true of almost all of
>   Ramanuja's philosophy. It, however, does not mean that
>   Ramanuja did not espouse these as general principles. This
>   is easy to deduce from Ramanuja's and Desika's works.
>   Specifically, pratyaksha is to be trusted absolutely
>   because it is the 'upajIva' of Sruti.  If Sruti and pratyaksha
>   come into conflict, one's understanding of Sruti must be
>   wrong, so Sruti must be reinterpreted (whether concerning
>   the chemical constitution of water or otherwise).


Sri Ramanuja's point, however, is that pratayaksha should be used to *help*
understand the shruti, and that it should not be casually rejected as the
advaitins do. I see no evidence that Sri Ramanuja would have espoused the
*rejection* of scriptural truths based on pratyaksha. The difference as I
see it is this: The shrutis must be eternally true and correct in order for
them to be an acceptable source of information for teaching us. If any flaws
exist in them, then all of the shrutis must then come under scrutiny.
Therefore, we may not understand fully certain statements in the shaastras
describing some material phenomena until we get supporting evidence using
pratyaksha and anumaana. A classic example of this is a statement in the
Bhaagavatam describing Bhuu-mandala as a disc so many millions of miles in
diameter. One scholar points out that the description corresponds almost
exactly to the astronomers' conception of the Earth's orbital plane, and
thus "Bhuu-mandala" here must refer to the orbital plane and not the Earth
itself. This I think is an acceptable use of pratyaksha because it does not
contradict the scriptural view; it helps us to understand it better.

What I do not believe are acceptable uses of pratyaksha for Sri Vaishnavas
are the rejection of scriptural truths based on: absence of empirical
evidence or speculation based on limited information. There are two cases
mentioned in this thread which I would like to point out.

1) Rama's appearence in Treta yuga. This is millions of years ago if we are
to believe in the Puraanic accounts. Because we allegedly do not have
empirical evidence of human existence before a few thousand years ago, we do
not really have to believe that Lord Rama appeared in Treta Yuga. We can say
instead that the dates mentioned in shaastras are convenient exaggeration,
or somehow symbolic, and assert with conviction that whatever the evidence
allows us to believe is what we can believe to be the actual truth.

But absence of evidence is *not* the same thing as evidence of absence. It
is ludicrous to assert that the events did not happen as told because
empirical evidence does not yet substantiate it. Supporting evidence could
be discovered tomorrow, or next year, or ten years from now. Or it could be
never, given that common sense holds that fossil and archaeological evidence
from millions of years ago is harder to find than those from only a few
thousand years ago. Why must we look for empirical evidence before accepting
Vaalmiiki's view? The important point is that there is no *contradictory*
evidence.

2) It is asserted by many that macroevolution is an unassailable fact. Yet
the shaastras state that creation was accomplished by Brahma, who was first
born from a lotus emerging from Lord Vishnu's navel, and who then went on to
create the various species and Prajaapatis who in turn gave birth to the
entire human race. Therefore, because this account of creation differs with
the neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, the scriptural accounts must be
regarded as poetic exaggeration, as symbolic (or in other words, incorrect).
After all, pratyaksha is intrinsically valid and must be given full weight
within its sphere of influence. And scriptural truths have to be
reinterpreted in light of what we observe with our senses.

But who here has observed macroevolution occurring? Can even one person step
forward and claim that he has seen it? The scientific method requires that a
theory be replicated with experimental evidence. Can anyone replicate
macroevolution? Obviously not, since evolution is by its very nature an
unobserved and unreproducible phenomenon (except of course, for God who
could probably conjure up millions of material universes for His
laboratories). There is evidence of evolution on a much smaller scale, but
whether or not macroevolution can be inferred from it is in dispute. I can
discuss this point in more detail with reference to professional journals if
it is desired. Suffice it to say that the grounds for dismissing the
scriptural view on the basis of pratyaksha is shaky; there is no observation
of evolution, only the inference that evolution occurred based on a limited
(and some would say, biased) sample of evidence.
---

Furthermore, just to drive home the relevance of all this to Sri
Vaishnavism, I think an important question must be asked. Do you think Sri
Ramanuja would have condoned the dismissal of Puraanic stories as mythology
based on the absence of supporting evidence? For example, you point out that
it is hard for some to believe that Sri Rama could have appeared at the
beginning of the Treta Yuga, because no empirical evidence exists supporting
that notion or the notion that any humans existed on Earth millions of years
ago.

Well, if no empiricial evidence exists now to support the idea of human
existence in the Treta Yuga, then it logically follows that such evidence
did not exist in Ramanuja's time. So did Sri Ramanuja reject the literal
understanding of the timing of Sri Rama's appearance because of the absence
of empirical evidence? You are probably more well read in his works than I;
you tell me.

Personally, I find it telling that no evidence has yet been provided from
the writings of Sri Vaishnava acharyas, past *or* present, which use Sri
Ramanuja's views of pratyaksha vis-a-vis shabda to compromise with shaastric
accounts of creation or of the Lord's descents.

>4) Sense perception is by its very definition limited. It cannot
>   perceive the super-sensous, nor that which cannot be detected
>   by that sense.  One does not need to study Vedanta to come to
>   this conclusion, and I stated this in my first post. However,
>   given certain sensory data, which much be trusted according to
>   Ramanuja, how is one to reconcile that with Sabda? This is the
>   question I sought to address.

I think there are ways to do it without compromising the sanctity of sabda
pramaan. If we were allowed to discuss it, there are many points I would
love to bring up.

>In short, if you think that taking the Puranas literally in every
>aspect is satisfying and convincing, go ahead. I am not going to
>challenge you. In the same vein, I reserve the right to reconcile
>conflicts my own way, and I believe I am being fully faithful to
>Vedantic principles. My words are addressed to people who are trying
>to make a similar reconciliation.

I want to mention something I brought up earlier. I said before that
everything I have said on this subject could have been said by anyone. Let
us say for the moment that I am not a Vaishnava, but instead a seeker
looking for something to believe in. When I find you asserting the
correctness of your beliefs on the basis of scriptures which you only accept
on your own terms to begin with, I naturally feel quite skeptical as an
outsider looking in. For example, one reason I could never be, say, a
Christian is because I note that many of my Christian friends have obvious
problems with specific teachings of the Bible; they can't believe that I am
going to hell for not being a Christian. But they want very badly to feel
like Christians, so they follow the rest of the Bible and "reinterpret" (or
in other words, change the meaning of) those passages which they find
intellectually troublesome. To me, that is tacit acknowledgement that the
Bible has flaws in it to begin with, and thus I could never accept it as a
spotless authority.

In a similar vein, I might point out that young people born and brought up
in Sri Vaishnava families will likely notice the compromises with shaastra
that elders choose to make, and this will affect their decision about where
to place their faith to begin with. In the Telugu smaartha community in
which I grew up, I can think of not even one among the first generation
immigrants who faithfully accept the shaastras, but prefer instead to
compromise with the historical details, all the while claiming that they are
great for the spiritual/philosphical/intellectual truths they teach us.
Their children notice this, and go even further into left field with their
views: if scripture cannot be counted on to teach us historical truths even
when it tries, why should we trust it in spiritual truths? And thus the
whole problem of passing on religious values develops.

I am sorry for the long mail.

namo naaraayaNaaya,

- Krishna