The “Bhagavad Gita”, an Evolutionary Interpretation, Pt. II

In our last post, started with the background of the Gita as well as Arjuna’ presentation of his doubts concerning just war. In this chapted, Krishna proceeds with the start of his reply.

Chapter II opens with Krishna’s reaction to Arjuna’s refusal to fight in the battle. Krishna begins by assessing the implications of cowardice for Arjuna’s moral character. Such pacifism, he claims, is

  1. ‘perilous’
  2. ‘unworthy’
  3. ‘disgraceful’
  4. And that it will ‘close the gates of heaven’.

Arjuna then asks for Krishna to explain his duty. The rest of the chapter contains a summary of the entire Gita, including both Samkya and Raja Yoga. He starts with the Samkya (II.11-30) which has an ontological thesis about what is real, followed by an ethical thesis about what should be done that is derived from the ontological thesis. Krishna does not explain of defend these at length, but merely summarizes them. In latter chapters, Arjuna will ask questions to elicit more detailed treatment of these.

II.1 Samkya Ontology

In verses 11 and 12, Krishna says the all souls exist eternally, and the war is thus not really bad. Such a statement call for clarification, which he begins in verse 13, where he states that the soul is constant through the life of the person, not changing from birth to death. This verse is rather important for my interpretation, and we shall return to it soon.

But first Krishna gives the gist of his own version of what we shall call the “Parmenidean Thesis”, named after the famous Greek philosopher. The Parmenidean thesis is as follows:

  1. Only Being is.
  2. Being must be.
  3. Not-being is not.
  4. Not-being cannot be.
  5. Not Being cannot come to be.
  6. Nor can Being cease to be.
  7. Thus change is impossible.
  8. Therefore, all apparent change is illusory.

Krishna adds to this argument the following:

  1. There are individual souls, which are real. (II.12) Thus while change is illusory, multiplicity is not.
  2. But their changes, suffering, birth and death are not really real. (II.13, 14)

Note the following:

  1. Krishna has just introduced the Dharmic concept of “Maya”, which we can translate as ‘illusion’. We shall see what this means later.
  2. Note that some interpreters of the Gita and the Santana Dharma generallly agree with the Parmenidean Thesis but think that individuality of souls is part of the illusion Here I am assuming Krishna accepts individuals, as real, but this is debatable. We shall return to this in our desicussion of II.13.

II.2 Samkya Ethics : Pratyahara

From the above ontology , Krishna claims that a rather interesting prescription follows: “pratyahara”, or sense control. This is part of ‘yoga’, which is a philosophy and set of practices the follow from it. In general it does not refer to our modern conception of ‘yoga’, especially the elaborate system of physical exercises practiced in yoga studios all over the world. The core practice of yoga in the Gita is meditation and the living of a lifestyle that promotes meditation, which is what Krishna now begins to explain.

Pratyahara is described as the fifth of the eight “limbs” of yoga in the definitive work of yoga philosophy, The Yogasutras of Patanjali. It marks the transition from external means of quieting the mind to internal or purely mental meditative techniques. The goal is to free the mind from undue influence from the outside. This need not be done from the belief that the sensory world is unreal, but clearly Krishna is emphasizing this motivation. After explaining that transitory nature is unreal, he then recommends that we free the mind from being led one by nature not by closing one’s eyes but by leaving them open and willing one’s self to not react.Not reacting means not only physical stillness but even more so mental stillness.

This sort of practice is common in Western philosophy and religion. Stoicism, Platonism, Neoplatonism, Islam, and Christianity all recommend some form of sense-control to maintain inner peace.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (NIV, Matthew 5:27-28)

Krishna generalizes this to all sensory events:

O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and dissappearance of winter an summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed. (II.14)


This is the essence of pratyahara; as with Jesus, the key thing is not rote following of rules, but turning one’s self into a certain type of person both within and without. The message of Krishna is not far from that of the gospel on this point, but even a naturalistic moralist can appreciate this practice; Epicurus would find sense control a useful thing to create inner peace, and it seems that Aristotle would appreciate it as both a way to develop agency, continence, and moral virtue generally.

While the idea of sense control mayseem otherworldly, mystical, and ‘life-denying’, this need not be so. The use of pratyhara fits perfectly with the moral theories of comparatively naturalistic thinkers like Epicurus and Aristotle. Aristotle’s extended rebuttal of Parmenides and Plato do not interfere with his fundamental agreement with much of what Krishna says. Consider, for example, thisverse:

The Soul is the same from childhood to old age just as it is before birth and after death” ( II.13 Sivananda)

As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (II.13 Prabhupada)

While this verse is clearly consistent with supernaturalism and has been interpreted as such most of the time, I see it in a different light. On the most superficial level, this verse coincides with a doctrine of the materialistEpicurus. Forhimas with Krishna the ultimate source of peace lies in the primeval state the precedes birth and follows death. But we can do much better than this; what Krishna says here applies not merely to Cartesian souls but also to Aristotelean souls as well as to modern biological genotypes. For both Aristotelean souls and genotypes, we have something which is not merely matter but is a formof matter. Furthermore, in some sense these both constitute the “substance” or essence of a living thing, and so could reasonably be called its atman, or “self”. This latter view of soul makes is much closer to Krishnas in the following senses:

  1. Because souls are formsof matter and not merely matter, the following is true:
    1. Souls are passed from parent to offspring, thus it “transmigrates”along lines of descent. Some DNA, can transmigrate through “lateral transfer” across lines of descent; this is very common among bacteria, but ithas also been proven between arthopods and gymnosperms as well as between cats and baboons.
    2. Soulsare shared among widely differing beings, microbes, plants, rats, to humans. The soul of a human is its form, and humans and bacteria both share the form of “living creature”, meaning that we both share 50% of our DNA from the Most Recent Universal Common Ancestor, who is thearcheof all living creatures on Earth.
    3. Soulshave a radically different relation to timefrom individual organisms; while individual organisms must die on a regular basis, forms might possibly last forever. The half of the human genome that we share with bacteria has persisted for almost 4 billion years, and may outlast the Earth itself by many trillions of years.
  2. Hylomorphic souls are teleologicalis a way not allowed in Epicurus’ atomistic ontology, while in in Aristotelean and (as I argue elsewhere) in modern biology, purpose abounds. In my view it is this natural teleology that forms the ultimate basis for all normative knowledge. This is true with my own work, as well as with Aristotle and Krishna. In a sense, the soul is the purpose of the creature in both modern biology as well as in ancient philosophy, both Eastern and Western. We shall focus on this at length in up coming chapters.

With this in mind, reread the following verses:

Neither he who thinks the living entity the slayer nor he who thinks it slain is in knowledge, for the self slays not nor is slain. For the soul there is not birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the bodyis slain. O Partha, how can a person who knows that the soul is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unborn, and immutable kill anyone or cause anyone to kill?

It seems to me that if any ancient person were to try and describe the “gene’s eye” view of evolution, they could not do better than this passage. For evolution, the death of individual organisms is not really death at all. The only real death is extinction.

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts now material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. The individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can neither be burned nor dried. He is everlasting, present everywhere, unchangeable and eternally the same. It is said that the soul is invisible, inconceivable and immutable. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body. If, however, you think that the soul will always be born and die forever, you still have no reason to lament… (II.19-26)

The modern person reading this may think that surely this cannot describe any natural phenomenon, but they would be wrong. Let us compare with a passage from a modern authority of evolutionary theory:

…any one individual body is just a temporary vehicle for a short-lived combination of genes. The combination of genes that is any one individual may be short-lived, but the genes themselves are potentially very long-lived. Their paths constantly cross and recross down the generations. One gene may be regarded as a unit that survives through a large number of successive individual bodies. (The Selfish Gene, pg.25)

Surely the comparison is striking, but one may reasonably doubt whether it really captures what is essential about the Atman, the Soul or God. I argue that it does; however, the full argument will have to be developed elsewhere concerning the evolutionary status of the soul. Here I would only like to make it clear that in the light of modern science, it ought to be likely that in Krishna’s case we have a religion that in some loose sense is “really about” life itself. It answers many questions, for example: ‘Why is it that issues of ultimate concern and value (often the weakest part of natural theology) are connected with 1) the Eternal, 2) the Creator and 3) Non-material?’. While our human intuitions seem to want these three to belong together, it seems that only in the light of the Gene’s Eye View natural theology do we really find an empirical basis for the unity.

Another aspect of the particulateness of the gene is that it does not grow senile; it is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred. It leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death. The genes are the immortals, or rather, they are defined as genetic entities that come close to deserving the title. We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades. But the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years. (Ibid. 34)

As a special treat, we also see a vindication of the old concept of ‘maya’ or ‘illusion’; one which does not depend on any sort of idealism, but is grounded in the fact that the genetic essence, being the substance ofthe organism, is in a sense ‘more real’ than it. This does not at all contradict Aristotle, while granting a reobust level of ‘real reality’ (Plato’s ‘ontos on’) to the organisms formal causes.

Genetically speaking, individuals and groups are like clouds in the sky or dust-storms in the desert. They are temporary aggregations or federations. They are not stable through evolutionary time. Populations may last a long while, but they are constantly blending with other populations and so losing their identity. They are also subject to evolutionary change from within. A population is not a discrete enough entity to be a unit of natural selection, not stable and unitary enough to be ‘selected’ in preference to another population. An individual body seems discrete enough while it lasts, but alas, how long is that? (Ibid. 34)

Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever. Genes, like diamonds, are forever, but not quite in the same way as diamonds. It is an individual diamond crystal that lasts, as an unaltered pattern of atoms. DNA molecules don’t have that kind of permanence. The life of any one physical DNA molecule is quite short—perhaps a matter of months, certainly not more than one lifetime. But a DNA molecule could theoretically live on in the form of copies of itself for a hundred million years. Moreover, just like the ancient replicators in the primeval soup, copies of a particular gene may be distributed all over the world. The difference is that the modern versions are all neatly packaged inside the bodies of survival machines. What I am doing is emphasizing the potential near-immortality of a gene, in the form of copies, as its defining property. To define a gene as a single cistron is good for some purposes, but for the purposes of evolutionary theory it needs to be enlarged. The extent of the enlargement is determined by the purpose of the definition. We want to find the practical unit of natural selection. To do this we begin by identifying the properties that a successful unit of natural selection must have. In the terms of the last chapter, these arelongevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. (Ibid. 35)

These last three charateristics are also what we claim as the essence of the Atman.In the Gita, Krishna claims that the Atman has the following essential traits:

  1. Longevity –The Atman lives for aeons (Sanskrit “kalpa”), which means for billions of years.
  2. Fecundity – The Atman creates all creatures, for tis own purposes, and insofar as it can be said to have desires, it wishes them to continue to exist.
  3. Copying-fidelity –New creatures will have information of various kinds that predate their individual existence: new humans will have the form of humans, which have existed for many yugas. Other creatures also preserve biological information, which is both ancient and which incarnates anew in each generation. Since this same information incarnates anew all the time, we might say that it re-incarnates, but this word has already been taken to denote another form of transmission of information over time, where said information is transmitted by some exotic or supernatural means.

What both reincarnation and evolution have in common is that they are both theories for how the information essential for life comes to reappear in generation after generation. I am not saying that Krishna discovered the theory of evolution, merely that he and modern scientists were both looking at life, faced by similar problems and came to broadly similar solutions. While we moderns get most of the empirical and theoretical details correct, it seems that Krishna is ahead of us in seeing the correct practical implications of such a theory. In short, my view is that modern biology is normative in a similar way to Krishna’ Dharma. While this thesis will seem premature in the extreme to many of my readers, the full answer will be found 1) in my extant work elsewhere in my blog, 2) in my forthcoming evolutionary reading of Aristotle’s “On the Soul”, and 3) in the remainder of the present interpretation of the Gita. If I am correct in my argument, then each of the branches of Krishna’s ‘rajayoga’ will correspond to complementary roles of one cooperative adaptive strategy for animals having language (Greek: ‘zoon echon logon’).

The next post in this series is here.






One thought on “The “Bhagavad Gita”, an Evolutionary Interpretation, Pt. II

  1. Pingback: The “Bhagavad Gita”; an evolutionary interpretation. Part I | Zoon Echon Blogon

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