An Indian Buddhist evolution myth


Illustration by Andy Gammon

In the ‘Dialogues‘, the Buddha is represented in several places as telling stories of `beginnings’ (Pali agañña), as he calls them. His listeners must have been highly amused by his tongue-in-cheek explanations of the origins of various current customs, sayings, and phrases. The intention seems in part to have been to satirise the solemn creation stories of contemporary Indian religious traditions, especially those involving a creator god or justifying the pretensions of the Brahmin priesthood. The longest text has a more explicit message; the Buddha is linking unethical behaviour with degeneration, and ethical behaviour with further evolution, both in the cultural sphere and in the spiritual life of the individual disciple.

The overall framework is similar to the cyclic Hindu myths mentioned above: an unimaginably protracted cycle of alternate involution and evolution of the cosmos and consciousness. At the limit of involution, says the myth, beings were reborn in an immaterial heaven world called Streaming Radiance. After ages, they were reborn on the youthful earth, but were still non-material; they were androgynous, dwelling in the sky, needing no food but rapture, and they shone brightly, immersed in their own radiance. The world was then `just one mass of water’, and dark so that sun, moon, and stars were not visible.

After a very long period, mighty winds whipped up and evaporated the water, and a rich, creamy essence solidified on its surface. One of the beings was of a curious or exploratory nature (alternatively translated as `greedy’); he dipped his finger in the essence and tasted it. He found it delicious and very sweet, like pure wild honey, and others followed his example. Craving grew in them, until they were breaking off lumps of the stuff to eat. Consequently their radiance dimmed, and the sun and moon could be seen, and so the days, months, and seasons came into being. At the same time, the world’s land-masses arose from the oceans: mountains growing like swelling bubbles on porridge as it cooks.

As the beings feasted, their bodies gradually coarsened, those that ate most becoming noticeably uglier than the norm. This induced conceit in the rest, who despised the ugly ones. As a result, the creamy essence disappeared, much to the dismay of all, and in its place a sort of fungus grew, also delicious (bitter according to one account), which became the beings’ food. The coarsening of body and disparity of beauty increased further, giving rise to more conceit and spite, so that the fungus, too, vanished, being replaced by a fast-growing creeper, and then rice. The rice could be eaten straight off the plant, and always grew again in time for the next meal.

For the first time excretion was necessary, and coarsening and distinctions increased further, until the sexes could be distinguished in some, `and the women became extremely preoccupied with the men, and the men with the women’. Thus they desired each other, and later had sex, first in public, but later in private because of the disapproval of the beings who were still androgynous, who threw cow dung at anyone seen in flagrante delicto. Hence the invention of huts!

An unusually lazy being could not be bothered to gather wild rice before every meal, and so started the practice of hoarding it for longer and longer periods. This once again affected the food supply; perhaps it was being over-exploited. The rice developed husks, and did not regrow when cropped. The beings held a mass meeting, lamenting the results of their `unskilful ways’, and decided they would now have to invent farming, and cultivate the rice. This led to property, as each had his own plot with a marked boundary, and to theft, when one greedy being stole rice from a neighbour’s field.

Now all the features of society as we know it crowded in apace. Caught, the thief promised not to steal again, but relapsed twice, and was seized, rebuked, and beaten up. Thus stealing, lying, censuring, and punishment all appeared. Another meeting was called, and the consensus was to elect the most handsome, capable, and kind-hearted of their number as a judge, to censure or banish wrong-doers. This first ruler was named ‘the People’s Choice’ (the Buddha in a previous life, according to one version). The ‘Beginnings’ text goes on to explain the origins of the various trades and occupations.

At first sight, this myth is describing a degeneration rather than an evolution. There is something in this, but I prefer to see it as a co-evolution of the perceived and social worlds as human nature comes to terms with external reality. The radiant beings at the beginning are completely subjective, self-absorbed, and passive; they may hint at the pre-self-aware state. A perceived world grows around them as they interact with it.

They carry through pre-human greed into a self-aware, social existence, and so the perceived world evolves to match that greed. (Objective reality is still, in a relative sense, objective, but how we perceive it stems largely from our emotional attitude to it.) Thus, for example, farming and property do not evolve in the myth until the wild rice is over-exploited. The greed and ignorance were already present in the shining beings, but it took active intervention in the world before evolution could solidify these tendencies into the social structures of self-interest and self-protection that we know today. At first, self-awareness gave expression to greed and delusion, but it is also the foundation for higher evolution. The shining beings were not enlightened, and were too passive to work for enlightenment. The human state, for all its faults, is said to be best for that.

From Appendix to The Evolving Mind, by Robin Cooper