4th August 2013
Vivekananda’s logic for reincarnation of the “soul” is very good, but DNA and evolution explains much better
I’m interested in finding out how Vivekananda came to reconcile Advaita – the most universal philosophy of all, with the caste system and reincarnation of the “soul” (the caste system depends CRITICALLY on the theory of reincarnation).
He had not been very clear about this initially. So he wrote on 7th Aug., 1889 he asks Pramadadas Mitra of Varanasi, an orthodox Hindu:
“The doctrine of caste in the Purusha-Sukta of the Vedas does not make it hereditary — so what are those instances in the Vedas where caste has been made a matter of hereditary transmission?”
Sometime thereafter Vivekananda was persuaded that there WAS a hereditary transmission mechanism for the soul (hence the validity of caste). By 1896 he was preaching that “there is hereditary transmission so far as furnishing the material to the soul is concerned.” [Source]
This is a summary of his argument. For the full argument click here. His argument is extremely cogent – GIVEN THE KNOWLEDGE KNOWN TO MANKIND IN HIS TIMES. He asks the right questions. Fortunately, modern science can answer all these questions. In that sense, the idea of caste (and a “soul” that reincarnates) should be pretty easy to kill once knowledge about evolution and DNA is more widely transmitted. Note that I’m quite comfortable with the idea of a UNIVERSAL SOUL (advaita).
QUESTION: Is there nothing permanent in this evanescent human life? Is there nothing, they have asked, which does not die away when this body dies? Is there not something living when this frame crumbles into dust? Is there not something which survives the fire which burns the body into ashes? And if so, what is its destiny? Where does it go? Whence did it come?
The question was answered once for all thousands of years ago, and through all subsequent time it is being restated, reillustrated, made clearer to our intellect.
Eye > Brain > Alertness > Intellect > Soul > orders to act
First the external instruments [eye], then the organ to which this external instrument will carry the sensation [brain], and lastly the organ itself must be joined to the mind [alertness]. The mind, too, is only the carrier; it has to carry the sensation still forward, and present it to the intellect. The intellect must carry it forward and present the whole thing before the ruler in the body, the human soul. Before him this is presented, and then from him comes the order, what to do or what not to do; and the order goes down in the same sequence to the intellect, to the mind, to the organs, and the organs convey it to the instruments, and the perception is complete.
[The] human being is composed first of this external covering, the body; secondly, the finer body, consisting of mind, intellect, and egoism. Behind them is the real Self of man.
This idea of reincarnation is … most essential for the moral well-being of the human race.
Why do we not remember our past? Why should we remember the past? What has come to this brain is the resultant, the sum total of the impressions acquired in our past, with which the mind has come to inhabit the new body. Yet at the same time, … there are instances which show that this memory does come.
No other theory except that of reincarnation accounts for the wide divergence that we find between man and man in their powers to acquire knowledge. [Sanjeev: modern scientists would call it g]
If, as some of the European philosophers think, a child came into the world with what they call tabula rasa, such a child would never attain to any degree of intellectual power, because he would have nothing to which to refer his new experiences. We see that the power of acquiring knowledge varies in each individual, and this shows that each one of us has come with his own fund of knowledge. [Sanjeev: This assumption that knowledge is inborn is false.]
Knowledge can only be got in one way, the way of experience; there is no other way to know. [Sanjeev: Now he’s back to tabula rasa/Locke/Hume]
If we have not experienced it in this life, we must have experienced it in other lives. [Sanjeev: This is a logical error that Vivekananda makes. There could be another transmission mechanism, and indeed there is: DNA.] How is it that the fear of death is everywhere? A little chicken is just out of an egg and an eagle comes, and the chicken flies in fear to its mother. There is an old explanation (I should hardly dignify it by such a name). It is called instinct.
Let us study this phenomenon of instinct. Instinct is involved reason. What we call instinct in men or animals must therefore be involved, degenerated, voluntary actions, and voluntary actions are impossible without experience. Experience started that knowledge, and that knowledge is there.
“But what is the use of saying that that experience belongs to the soul? Why not say it is hereditary transmission?”
The simple hereditary theory [which is wrong] takes for granted … that mental experience can be recorded in matters. But what proof is there for assuming that the mental impression can remain in the body, since the body goes to pieces? What carries it? [Sanjeev: DNA is a like a computer operating system: those that are fitter carry forward into the future. A “soul” is not necessary to bring into the picture.]
Even granting it were possible for each mental impression to remain in the body … how could it be transmitted to me? Through the bioplasmic cell? How could that be? [Sanjeev: That’s where Vivekanada’s lack of knowledge of modern DNA etc. shows up clearly. The DNA is the “soul”]
Until these physiologists can prove how and where those impressions live in that cell, and what they mean by a mental impression sleeping in the physical cell, their position cannot be taken for granted. [Sanjeev: “instinct” is merely that part of the operating system which is fit for purpose. Due to random mutation, programs that are more compatible with the environment, e.g. with the right “instinct” survive, others die out.]
SOUL AND FREEDOM (through KARMA)
But I will bring before you one more point with regard to this theory of reincarnation. It is the theory that advances the freedom of the human soul. Men in general lay all the blame of life on their fellow-men, or, failing that, on God, or they conjure up a ghost, and say it is fate.
We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. The infinite future is before you, and you must always remember that each word, thought, and deed, lays up a store for you and that as the bad thoughts and bad works are ready to spring upon you like tigers, so also there is the inspiring hope that the good thoughts and good deeds are ready with the power of a hundred thousand angels to defend you always and for ever. [Sanjeev: True, if we lose the soul, we lose this very attractive theory of karma, as well. I do not believe, however, that we should lose the essence of this theory. I include karma theory as the foundational principle in my theory of liberty, and believe it is perfectly compatible with a SINGLE life. There IS a reward for goodness in this lifetime: it is the sense that one has done the right thing.]
IN MY VIEW ADVAITA AND CASTE ARE IRRECONCILABLE. The soul can’t have “gradations” and “races”.