For a long time now, ten of the avatars (‘descents’ or incarnations) of Vishnu, have been cited as proof that Indian sages knew about evolution one or two thousand years before Charles Darwin revealed evolutionary theory to the world.
The ten incarnations, known as the Daśāvatāra, include a Fish, the amphibious Turtle, and various grades of human form. But to equate – or to reduce – this group to a representation of Darwinian evolution is both inaccurate and achieves no purpose.
To consider the Daśāvatāra as a representation of evolutionary theory would make Vedic philosophy appear not only embarrassingly simplistic, but uncharacteristically “crude”, as some scholars have indeed described it.
Vedic philosophy is far from simplistic or crude, suggesting that it is the equating of the Daśāvatāra to evolutionary theory that is crude, not the other way around.
A brief study of each avatar (shown at the foot of this article) reveals that they have a far deeper significance than as symbols of physical (Darwinian) evolution.
A deeper understanding of them is desirable because it would stretch our understanding of evolution – beyond matter to evolution in the broader perspective, a perspective more in keeping with Vedic philosophy. I expect such an explanation would also be more in keeping with what we know about the universe scientifically as well, but I will not touch on that here.
Before going any further, here for your reference are the ten avatars: Fish (Matsya); Turtle (Kurma); Boar (Varaha); Lion-Man (Narasimha); Dwarf (Vamana); Warrior ruler (Parashurama); Ideal king (Rama); God-aware human (Krishna); Enlightened human (Buddha); Game changing Divine warrior (Kalki). (Depictions are at the foot of the page.)
There does not appear to be an obvious equation between this list of symbols and Darwinian evolution. A few reasons, are:
- … the series does not contain an ape (which is strange, for a culture that reveres Hanuman, the so-called ‘monkey god’)
- … nor is cell life depicted (again, strange for a culture that recognised the atom or ‘anu’, and which elaborates upon the different stages of evolution in another treatise known as the Samkhya)
- … plant life is not depicted in the series (but is in, for example, the Samkhya)
- … to have a Boar as the chosen example of terrestrial creatures is too random
- … why would each of the evolutionary symbols have a face, carry symbolic objects, and appear in certain apparel? (See the pictures below)
- … why only ten figures, when the physical evolutionary family is so vast and complex (again, as figured in texts such as the Samkhya)?
Our understanding of the Daśāvatāra demands a deeper look.
The first clue we have as to their true and deeper meaning is Vedic philosophy’s understanding that Vishnu (God/Divine/Source Energy in Its action of Preservation) incarnates on earth periodically, marking a new step in the evolution of consciousness.
In Vedic philosophy, evolution is a top-down affair – triggered by Source Consciousness, evolution is the progressive manifestation of Consciousness in Matter. Thus Matter only evolves when Consciousness shows itself a little bit more and so the manifest reality becomes more evidently conscious and alive.
This clue suggests that the ten avatars suggest the nature or character of the evolutionary movement at any given time – like energy signatures.
But to understand these figures and the character of the evolutionary movement they represent, we need a deeper perspective than the physical or scientific.
This deeper perspective can be enlivened to our minds by the work of conscious conservationists, particularly interspecies communicators such as the US-based Anna Breytenbach and Penelope Smith, whose work exactly mirrors the interspecies and earth communications carried out by people who remain closer to their ancient past, such as the animal trackers in Africa and the Aboriginals in Australia. (The ability to communicate with animals is detailed in the foundational yoga treatise: Patanjali Yoga Sutras. The verse and a commentary by Swami Vivekananda are printed at the foot of this page.)
The work of these communicators drives home the ancient spiritual premise that all is one – in body (we are all made up of the same quanta and energy), and in Being, in Spirit. As the Vedic philosophy says: there is a Person (Purusha) in a rock and an animal as much as in a human being. This is what these communicators convey so clearly. Their communications convey Being, convey Personhood.
As Anna Breytenbach says in one of her interviews: We are all the same being, just in different outfits. We are, thus, equal. Yet, humans have for so long considered themselves superior and as the owner of the planet. We are neither of those things! We are all equal; we are all essential to the wellbeing of the planet; and we should actually be working together as a single team.
This is the old paradigm. We have strayed from it during our development, which is why we are feeling lost and why we are suffering. We can and really must now circle back and re-embrace it. To add, as a small digression, is that we do now have sufficient knowledge of how we can do that while maintaining a progressive and excellent life for humankind.
The wide-lens this broader, spiritual understanding of the world gives us, may help make sense of these symbolic forms of the Daśāvatāra, which are clearly so laden with meaning. A brief glance at their descriptions even on Wikipedia reveals them to be symbols of characteristically, beatifically complex realities.
I urge readers to unravel the puzzle for themselves in the light of this broader lens.
Here’s an example of the kind of lateral thinking I think we should afford ourselves in relation to the Daśāvatāras (but substantiated with much deeper research into the symbols and stories accompanying each avatar than is illustrated in my case here):
The fifth, Vamana (Dwarf) Avatar, often referred to by those who want to equate the ten avatars to evolutionary theory as a sort of primitive man because he follows on from Narasimha (half-man, half-lion) Avatar.
However, Vamana Avatar’s backstory is far from primitive. Arriving at a King’s sacrificial ritual, this diminutive character surprises all as he rises up as Lord Vishnu to claim the whole world in just two steps. His third step wins the King’s own allegiance.
Vamana is often depicted as a young, divine looking person. Does this perhaps tell us that He represents the emergence of the specifically Human evolutionary soul – tiny to begin with, but, made of Divine Stuff, capable of realising itself as that One, origin and thus master of all that is, and as such rightly commands the allegiance of the human mind – the ‘King’?
After Vamana comes Parashurama Avatar, the statesmanlike warrior. Maybe this symbolises the evolution of consciousness from the stage of dominant vitality to the stage of mental dominance. The human stage where mentality wields power, revealed in its moral nature and its context as rulership over a complex – civil society.
This warrior statesman is followed by Rama, the ideal King: a man who is vaguely aware of his Divine origins and strongly aware of his divine dispensation. And following Rama is Krishna, the fully aware God-in-human form: the Divine Teacher of mankind.
Finally, Kalki, the warrior upon the white horse. The scriptures describe Kalki as appearing at a time of great chaos, corruption, stupidity, and ungodliness. He breaks away from the conservative figures of the warrior statesman, the great and good King, and even steps beyond the Divine Teacher of mankind.
Kalki does not walk in and offer an improved social system, a better functioning human. Rather, Kalki gallops in brandishing a sword: he sweeps away the old and brings in something completely new.
I shall leave you on this cliff hanger! Enjoy the beautiful figures of the Daśāvatāras below.
No. 1: Matsya (Fish) Avatar (Image: Ravi Varma Press)
No. 2: Kurma (Turtle) Avatar
No. 3: Varaha (Boar) Avatar
No. 4: Narasimha (Man-Lion)
No. 5: Vamana Avatara
No. 6: Parashurama Avatara
No. 7: Rama Avatara
No. 8: Krishna Avatara
No. 9: Buddha Avatara
No. 10: Kalki Avatara
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras explains how to communicate with animals
In Chapter Three of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, powers gained from yoga practises are discussed. Powers manifest once the meditator has mastered the simultaneous and perfect practise of three modes of special concentration. Specifically in relation to animal communication, sutra 17 states: “By making [special concentration] on word, meaning and knowledge, which are ordinarily confused, comes the knowledge of all animal sounds.
“The word represents the external cause, the meaning represents the internal vibration that travels to the brain through the channels of the Indriyas [physical senses], conveying the external impression to the mind, and knowledge represents the reaction of the mind, with which comes perception. These three, confused, make our sense-objects.
“Suppose I hear a word; there is first the external vibration, next the internal sensation carried to the mind by the organ of hearing, then the mind reacts, and I know the word. The word I know is a mixture of the three – vibration, sensation, and reaction.
“Ordinarily these three are inseparable; but by practice the Yogi can separate them. When a man has attained to this, if he makes [special concentration] on any sound, he understands the meaning which that sound was intended to express, whether it was made by man or by any other animal.”
Above commentary by Swami Vivekananda