Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was the British naturalist who became famous for his theories of evolution and natural selection. He believed that all the life on earth evolved over millions of years from a few common ancestors. He went on expeditions around the world from 1831 to 1836, studying and collecting plants and fossils. Upon his return to London, Darwin conducted thorough research of his notes and specimens. Out of this study grew several of his related theories: (a) Evolution did occur; (b) evolutionary changes were gradual, requiring thousands of millions of years; (c) the primary mechanism for evolution was a process called natural selection; and (d) the millions of species alive today arose from a single original life form through a branching process called specialization. Darwin’s theory of evolution holds that variation within species occurs randomly and that the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism’s ability to adapt to its environment. Although he avoided talking about the theological and sociological aspects of his work, other writers used his theories to support their own theories about society and humankind.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is rooted in a philosophical commitment to naturalism or materialism, which assumes that all reality is ultimately physical or material. Thus, in his theory, mind or spirit is reducible to material reality, and God and religion are vanished to the land of irrelevance. This contradicts India’s Hindu philosophy of life, its existence, and development.
Hindu philosophy believes in different types of origins of humankind than what Darwin prescribed. In one of the earliest literatures of Hindu social thought, Purushasukta, a reference has been made to the four orders of society as emanating from the sacrifice of the primeval being. The names of those four order are given there as Brahmana, Rajanya, Vaisya, and Sudra, who are said to have come respectively from the mouth, the arms, the thighs, and the feet of the creator. This origin of the four classes is repeated in most of the later works with slight variations and interpretative additions. For example, the Taittiriya Samhita ascribes the origins of these four classes to the four limbs of the creator and adds an explanation. The Brahmins are declared to be the chief because they are created from the mouth. The Rajanyas are vigorous because they are created from vigor. The Vaisyas are meant to be eaten, referring to their liability to excessive taxation because they were created from the stomach, the receptacle of food. The Sudra, because he was created from the feet, is to be the transport of others and to subsist by the feet. In this particular account of the creation, not only is the origin of the classes interpreted theologically, but also a divine justification is sought to be given to their functions and status. The creation theory is here further amplified to account for certain other features of their social classes. In Hindu social thought, God is said to have created certain deities simultaneously with these classes. The Vaisya class, the commoners, must have been naturally very large, and this account explains that social fact by a reference to the simultaneous creation of Visvedevas, all and sundry deities, whose number is considerable. Also, no deities were created along with the Sudra, and hence, he is disqualified for sacrifice. Here again, the social regulation, which forbade Sudra to offer sacrifice, is explained as an incidental consequence of the creation.
The theory of the divine origin of the four classes is often repeated with special stress on the origin of the Sudra from the feet of the creator. In the Mahabharata, a slight material change is introduced in this theory, where we are told that the first three classes were created first and the Sudra was created afterward for serving others. In the Bhagavadgita, the creator is said to have apportioned the duties and functions of the four classes according to the inherent qualities and capacities of individuals. This theory of origin, even though it fails to explain how the individuals at the very beginning of the creation came to be possessed of peculiar qualities and capacities, tries to provide a rational sanction for the manifestly arbitrary divisions. God separated people into four classes not merely because they were created from different limbs of his body, nor again out of his will, but because he found them endowed with different qualities and capacities.
Darwin explains the concept of sexual selection by examining one of the social customs practiced in India. He maintains that infanticide was probably more common in earlier times, practiced by “Barbarians” who killed off children they were not able to support. Darwin gives many examples of tribes formerly destroying infants of both sexes. He further notes that wherever infanticide prevails, the struggle for existence will be less severe, and all the members of the tribe will have an almost equally good chance of rearing their few surviving children. In most cases, a larger number of female than of male infants are destroyed, for it is obvious that the latter are of more value to the tribe, as they grow up and aid in defending it. This was a practice in some tribes of India, particularly in a village on the eastern frontier, where Colonel MacCulloch found not a single female child. However, practice of infanticide in India, unlike Darwin’s argument, did not stem from the struggle for existence. Rather, it was rooted in the traditional customs and spiritual practices. It was believed that when natural calamities, such as droughts and epidemics, took a toll on (tribal) communities, it was their moral duty to offer sacrifices to God to gain his mercy and blessings. Female infants were preferred over male infants for sacrifices because of their purity and superior quality as the source of creation. In ancient Hindu epics, one female infant is equated with three male infants—indicating that God will be pleased as much with the sacrifice of one female infant as he would be with three male infants. Thus, female infants were thought to be the premium offerings to God. Not all infants were qualified for sacrifice. There were certain criteria in selection of an infant for sacrifice—such as, the chosen infant must be healthy, beautiful, and belong to a noble family of the tribe. In this practice of sacrifice, the strongest and fittest infant was the one more at risk of being sacrificed than the weakest and nonfittest, contrary to the Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. These sacrifices were conducted in an orderly form for the noble cause of the welfare of the entire tribe, rather than as a routine practice of mere killing of infants for the struggle for existence.
Darwin further contemplates that the practice of infanticide created scarcity of marriageable women, which, in turn, resulted in polyandry. Whenever two or more men, whether they are brothers or strangers, are compelled to marry one woman, such a marriage system is referred to as polyandry. Darwin gives the example of the Toda tribe of India who practiced polyandry. However, there is convincing evidence that this was never a common form of marriage practiced in India. In India, the polyandry form of marriage is supposed to have once been a trait of the culture, from the classic instance of Draupadi having the five Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame as her husbands, and some vague allusions to polyandry in the vedic mythology. However, Draupadi s case does not appear to be as clear evidence of polyandry as it is generally supposed to be. According to the Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers, after the death of their father, King Pandu, found themselves at odds with their cousins, the Kauravas. The long-drawn enmity between them compelled the Pandavas to stay hidden after their escape from the palace. During their exile, they lived on alms, which they collected and shared with their mother. One day, the sage Vyasa came and informed them that King Drupada of Panchala had invited kings to make their claims for the hand of his daughter Draupadi. The king had pledged her hand to the hero who successfully performed the feat of piercing a fish suspended on a post by taking his aim looking at its shadow in the water. Vyasa further asked them to attend the function in the guise of Brahmans. Arjuna, the third among the Pandavas, successfully performed the feat and became the suitor of Draupadi. The Pandava brothers, on their return home with Draupadi, found the house door closed. They merrily asked their mother to open the door and receive them who had returned with pretty alms that day. Not knowing what alms they referred to, she asked them from behind the door to divide it amongst themselves. Draupadi thus became the common wife of the five Pandavas. When mother Kunthi saw Draupadi instead of alms, she realized the blunder she had committed and was taken aback. Draupadi’s marriage to the five brothers raised a storm of protest from her relatives. Her father could not think of his daughter being the wife of five brothers, and he denounced it as irreligious, being against the Vedas and usages. Her brother attacked it with vehemence and asked Yudhishtira how he, as an elder brother, could marry the wife of his younger brother.
Thus, polyandry seems to have been discredited as a cultural trait from the time of the Aitareya Brahmana (800 BC), when it was said that a man could have many wives but a woman could have only one husband. The Mahabharata reiterates that this tradition to have many wives is no adharma (injustice) on the part of man, but to violate the duty owed to the first husband would be great adharma in the case of a woman. To sum up, polyandry has been found with the joint family not only among the Todas, as claimed by Darwin, but also among the Kotas, the Coorgs, the Iravans, the Nairs, and the Khasa community in India, but it was in different contexts and with different significance. Some of these communities considered Pandavas as their Gods and embraced the tradition of Pandava polyandry.
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