(Translated from Bengali )
[Place: Calcutta. Year: 1898.]
Swamiji accompanied by Sister Nivedita, Swami Yogananda, and others has come to visit the Zoological Gardens at Alipur in the afternoon. Rai Rambrahma Sanyal Bahadur, Superintendent of the Gardens, cordially received them and took them round the Gardens. Swamiji, as he went on seeing the various species of animals, casually referred to the Darwinian theory of the gradual evolution of animals. The disciple remembers how, entering the room for snakes, he pointed to a huge python with circular rings on its body, with the remark: “From this the tortoise has evolved in course of time. That very snake, by remaining stationary at one spot for a long time, has gradually turned hard-backed.” He further said in fun to the disciple, “You eat tortoises, don’t you? Darwin holds that it is this snake that has evolved into the tortoise in the process of time — then you eat snakes too!” The disciple protested, “Sir, when a thing is metamorphosed into another thing through evolution, it has no more its former shape and habits; then how can you say that eating tortoise means eating snakes also?”
This answer created laughter among the party. After seeing some other things, Swamiji went to Rambrahma Babu’s quarters in the Gardens, where he took tea, and others also did the same. Finding that the disciples hesitated to sit at the same table and partake of the sweets and tea which Sister Nivedita had touched, Swamiji repeatedly urged him to take them, which he was induced to do, and drinking water himself, he gave the rest of it to the disciple to drink. After this there was a short conversation on Darwin’s evolution theory.
Rambrahma Babu: What is your opinion of the evolution theory of Darwin and the causes he has put forward for it?
Swamiji: Taking for granted that Darwin is right, I cannot yet admit that it is the final conclusion about the causes of evolution.
Rambrahma Babu: Did the ancient scholars of our country discuss this subject?
Swamiji: The subject has been nicely discussed in the Samkhya Philosophy. I am of opinion that the conclusion of the ancient Indian philosophers is the last word on the causes of evolution.
Rambrahma Babu: I shall be glad to hear of it, if it can be explained in a few words.
Swamiji: You are certainly aware of the laws of struggle for existence, survival of the fittest, natural selection, and so forth, which have been held by the Western scholars to be the causes of elevating a lower species to a higher. But none of these has been advocated as the cause of that in the system of Patanjali. Patanjali holds that the transformation of one species into another is effected by the “in-filling of nature” (प्रकृत्यापूरात्) It is not that this is done by the constant struggle against obstacles. In my opinion, struggle and competition sometimes stand in the way of a being’s attaining its perfection. If the evolution of an animal is effected by the destruction of a thousand others, then one must confess that this evolution is doing very little good to the world. Taking it for granted that it conduces to physical well-being, we cannot help admitting that it is a serious obstacle to spiritual development. According to the philosophers of our country, every being is a perfect Soul, and the diversity of evolution and manifestation of nature is simply due to the difference in the degree of manifestation of this Soul. The moment the obstacles to the evolution and manifestation of nature are completely removed, the Soul manifests Itself perfectly. Whatever may happen in the lower strata of nature’s evolutions, in the higher strata at any rate, it is not true that it is only by constantly struggling against obstacles that one has to go beyond them. Rather it is observed that there the obstacles give way and a greater manifestation of the Soul takes place through education and culture, through concentration and meditation, and above all through sacrifice. Therefore, to designate the obstacles not as the effects but as the causes of the Soul-manifestation, and describe them as aiding this wonderful diversity of nature, is not consonant with reason. The attempt to remove evil from the world by killing a thousand evil-doers, only adds to the evil in the world. But if the people can be made to desist from evil-doing by means of spiritual instruction, there is no more evil in the world. Now, see how horrible the Western struggle theory becomes!
Rambrahma Babu was astonished to hear Swamiji’s words and said at length, “India badly needs at the present moment men well versed in the Eastern and Western philosophies like you. Such men alone are able to point out the mistakes of the educated people who see only one side of the shield. I am extremely delighted to hear your original explanation of the evolution theory.”
Shortly after, Swamiji with the party left for Baghbazar and reached Balaram Bose’s house at about 8 p.m. After a short rest, he came to the drawing-room, where there was a small gathering, all eager to hear of the conversation at the Zoological Gardens in detail. When Swamiji came to the room, the disciple, as the spokesman of the meeting, raised that very topic.
Disciple: Sir, I have not been able to follow all your remarks about the evolution theory at the Zoo. Will you kindly recapitulate them in simple words?
Swamiji: Why, which points did you fail to grasp?
Disciple: You have often told us that it is the power to struggle with the external forces which constitutes the sign of life and the first step towards improvement. Today you seem to have spoken just the opposite thing.
Swamiji: Why should I speak differently? It was you who could not follow me. In the animal kingdom we really see such laws as struggle for existence, survival of the fittest, etc., evidently at work. Therefore Darwin’s theory seems true to a certain extent. But in the human kingdom, where there is the manifestation of rationality, we find just the reverse of those laws. For instance, in those whom we consider really great men or ideal characters, we scarcely observe any external struggle. In the animal kingdom instinct prevails; but the more a man advances, the more he manifests rationality. For this reason, progress in the rational human kingdom cannot be achieved, like that in the animal kingdom, by the destruction of others! The highest evolution of man is effected through sacrifice alone. A man is great among his fellows in proportion as he can sacrifice for the sake of others, while in the lower strata of the animal kingdom, that animal is the strongest which can kill the greatest number of animals. Hence the struggle theory is not equally applicable to both kingdoms. Man’s struggle is in the mental sphere. A man is greater in proportion as he can control his mind. When the mind’s activities are perfectly at rest, the Atman manifests Itself. The struggle which we observe in the animal kingdom for the preservation of the gross body obtains in the human plane of existence for gaining mastery over the mind or for attaining the state of balance. Like a living tree and its reflection in the water of a tank, we find opposite kinds of struggle in the animal and human kingdoms.
Disciple: Why then do you advocate so much the improvement of our physique?
Swamiji: Well, do you consider yourselves as men? You have got only a bit of rationality — that’s all. How will you struggle with the mind unless the physique be strong? Do you deserve to be called men any longer — the highest evolution in the world? What have you got besides eating, sleeping, and satisfying the creature-comforts? Thank your stars that you have not developed into quadrupeds yet! Shri Ramakrishna used to say, “He is the man who is conscious of his dignity”. You are but standing witnesses to the lowest class of insect-like existence of which the scripture speaks, that they simply undergo the round of births and deaths without being allowed to go to any of the higher spheres! You are simply living a life of jealousy among yourselves and are objects of hatred in the eyes of the foreigner. You are animals, therefore I recommend you to struggle. Leave aside theories and all that. Just reflect calmly on your own everyday acts and dealings with others and find out whether you are not a species of beings intermediate between the animal and human planes of existence! First build up your own physique. Then only you can get control over the mind. नायमात्मा बलहीनेन लभ्यः — This Self is not to be attained by the weak” (Katha Upanishad, I.ii.23).
Disciple: But, sir, the commentator (Shankara) has interpreted the word “weak” to mean “devoid of Brahmacharya or continence”.
Swamiji: Let him. I say, “The physically weak are unfit for the realisation of the Self.”
Disciple: But many dull-headed persons also have strong bodies.
Swamiji: If you can take the pains to give them good ideas once, they will be able to work them out sooner than physically unfit people. Don’t you find that in a weak physique it is difficult to control the sex-appetite or anger? Lean people are quickly incensed and are quickly overcome by the sex-instinct.
Disciple: But we find exceptions to the rule also.
Swamiji: Who denies it? Once a person gets control over the mind, it matters little whether the body remains strong or becomes emaciated. The gist of the thing is that unless one has a good physique one can never aspire to Self-realisation. Shri Ramakrishna used to say, “One fails to attain realisation if there be but a slight defect in the body”.
Finding that Swamiji had grown excited, the disciple did not dare to push the topic further, but remained quiet accepting Swamiji’s view. Shortly after, Swamiji, addressing those present, said, “By the bye, have you heard that this ‘priest’ has today taken food which was touched by Nivedita? That he took the sweets touched by her did not matter so much, but — here he addressed the disciple — “how did you drink the water she had touched?”
Disciple: But it was you, sir, who ordered me to do so. Under the Guru’s orders I can do anything. I was unwilling to drink the water though. But you drank it and I had to take it as Prasâda.
Swamiji: Well, your caste is gone for ever. Now nobody will respect you as a Brahmin of the priest class.
Disciple: I don’t care if they do not. I can take the rice from the house of a Pariah if you order me to.
These words set Swamiji and all those present in a roar of laughter.
The conversation lasted till it was past midnight, when the disciple came back to his lodging, only to find it bolted. So he had to pass the night out of doors.
The wheel of Time has rolled on in its unrelenting course, and Swamiji, Swami Yogananda, and Sister Nivedita are now no more on earth. Only the sacred memory of their lives remains — and the disciple considers himself blessed to be able to record, in ever so meagre a way, these reminiscences.