Looking at today’s once-Christian ‘Western’ society, one sees two non-Christian worldviews growing like long-established trees, stretching their branches into everything from education, to the media, to the church. One tree is materialism, the belief that matter is all there is, firmly based on and intertwined with Darwinian evolution. Its canopy bears the dark fruits which stem from morality without a Creator (and thus Lawgiver).1
Alongside it a second tree is thriving: Eastern spirituality. With its alluring blossoms promising enlightenment, health and wisdom, this tree seems to be drawing much of the world to its shade.
These two worldview ‘trees’ may look very different, but are remarkably connected by a common root system.
Exploring the connection
Like materialistic Darwinism, Eastern spirituality is a far-from-biblical concept that is heavily promoted in popular culture and public education. In education systems throughout the world, ‘mindfulness’ programs have emerged to teach youth meditation practices which, though often secularized, are rooted in ancient Eastern religions.2,3 These may include anything from breathing practices, visualization techniques and other ‘focusing’ exercises to transcendental meditation, mantra repetition and yoga.4
Of course, one needs to avoid the ‘genetic fallacy’, which would be to conclude that something with origins in an anti-biblical philosophy is therefore necessarilyunbiblical in itself. It is nonetheless disturbing to see the extent of the enthusiastic penetration of such Hindu-derived practices, with at best minimal evidence of benefit. England, Canada, America, Israel, and India are just a few of the nations to integrate such programs in all levels of school curricula.4Organizations like Mindful Schools partner with teachers to bring meditation practices to classrooms in over 100 countries.5
But education is only the beginning. In Western nations, Eastern spiritualistic practices are becoming commonplace in such diverse realms as business, the military, and healthcare.3 They have become so popular in Western cultures that some Hindu communities are actually beginning to take offence. For instance, they deplore the Western commercialization of yoga without recognition of its Hindu origins,6 and are offended at imagery of Hindu deities on ‘religiously impure’ consumer goods such as socks, shoes and toilet seats.7 When did Eastern spirituality become so internationally popular?
A bit of history
Let’s backtrack through time to the mid-1800s, shortly after Darwin published his Origin of Species. As evolutionary ideas became popular in Europe and spread to India, which was then a British colony, both Eastern and Western scholars noted that despite some key differences between naturalistic Darwinism and polytheistic Hinduism, there were important commonalities. These make Eastern spirituality all the more appealing to Western cultures in which evolution has made inroads.
For instance, not only does Indian cosmology feature the long ages known as ‘deep time’, but Hinduism maintains that the universe progresses in cycles of evolution and dissolution. In each cycle, a set number of species evolves along a fixed pattern. The fixed, cyclic nature of Hindu evolutionism contrasts with the less predictable linear model which Darwin advanced. But Eastern and Western views of evolution overlapped enough that Swami Vivekānanda (né Narendranath Datta, 1863—1902), instrumental in developing modern yoga and popularizing it in America in the late 1800s/early 1900s said,
“The idea of evolution was to be found in the Vedas [ancient Hindu scriptures] long before the Christian era; but until Darwin said it was true, it was regarded as a mere Hindu superstition.”8
An example of Hindu doctrine which various scholars have interpreted as evolutionary is avatarism. This refers to a series of earthly manifestations, or avatars, of a deity—usually Vishnu. Each reincarnation of Vishnu assumes a new form, beginning as a fish-man and progressing up to a human avatar. Of this doctrine, nineteenth-century Hindu philosopher Keshub Chunder Sen observed,
“Lo! The Hindu Avatar rises from the lowest scale of life through the fish, the tortoise and the hog to the perfection of humanity. Indian Avatarism is, indeed, a crude representation of the ascending scale of Divine creation. Such precisely is the modern theory of evolution.”9
Nineteenth-century Westerners who likewise stressed the overlaps between Eastern and Western evolution include Nobel-Prize-winning essayist Maurice Maeterlinck, and Oxford Sanskrit professor Sir Monier Monier-Williams.10 The latter said, “The Hindus were … Darwinians many centuries before Darwin … .”11
Meanwhile, even as the Western naturalism12 of Darwin and Huxley spread east, Eastern spirituality was spreading west, with many of its prominent promoters advocating at least some elements of Darwinism.
One such was the aforementioned Swami Vivekānanda, who interpreted Yoga Sutras (ancient Hindu texts) along Darwinian lines. He used Westerners’ eroded trust of scriptural authority in Darwin’s wake as an opening for promoting evolution-friendly Hinduism in the West.13 He wrote,
“At the beginning of the nineteenth century man tried to find God through reason, and Deism was the result. What little was left of God by this process was destroyed by Darwinism and Millism.”14
He outlined four types of yoga, describing them as four paths by which man may realize his ‘own divinity’.15 Such ideas fitted well with the Western occultist movements, then becoming popular as an alternative mode of spirituality following Darwinism’s challenge to Christianity.16 The result was to usher yoga into the West through promotion by Western mystics and New Ageists who themselves adopted evolutionary ideas.
Among these was Annie Besant (1847–1933). Once a clergyman’s wife, she became an active political reformer before turning to theosophy, an occultist movement rooted in Hindu teachings.17 A leader of the Theosophical Society, Besant was influenced by Helen Blavatsky, who advanced a spiritualistic, cyclic form of evolution and who wrote,
“Evolutionary law compelled the lunar ‘Fathers’ to pass, in their monadic condition, through all the forms of life and being on this globe … . These ‘Forms’ are called ‘Sons of Yoga,’ because Yoga (union with Brahmâ exoterically) is the supreme condition of the passive infinite deity.”18
Besant was, like Vivekānanda, a key originator of modern yoga, as well as a social Darwinist and eugenicist.19 She advocated yoga as a means of hastening the evolution of a Mother Race, which corresponds to “what used to be called the Aryan Race”.20 Hitler’s swastika is in fact an ancient Hindu symbol.21
Sharing this fascination with both Social Darwinism/racism and Eastern spirituality was John Woodroffe (1865–1936). He interpreted Sanskrit texts into books which helped catalyze Western adaptations of kundalini yoga and hatha yoga.22 Woodroffe also wrote The Seed of Race, outlining a Social Darwinian model which aimed to enhance humanity’s evolution through eugenics.18,23
Further highlighting the intersection between Eastern philosophy and evolutionary thought in the 20th century is the relationship between the prominent humanist Charles Francis Potter (1885–1962) and the American yogi-entrepreneur Pierre Bernard (1875–1955). Bernard was born Perry Baker in Iowa, before choosing a less pedestrian-sounding name for himself in promoting postural yoga, occultism—and himself. A godlike figure to many, he became known as ‘the Great Oom’.
The humanist Potter was once a Baptist minister who adopted increasingly liberal theology. He founded a Unitarian church, debated conservative theologians on topics including creation vs evolution, advised the lawyer defending evolutionary education in the Scopes Trial, and founded the First Humanist Society of New York and the Euthanasia Society of America. In advocating the abolition of the supernatural to leave humanism as ‘real religion’, Potter said that “the chief end of man is to improve himself, both as an individual and as a race”.
Interestingly, Potter was also so taken by Bernard’s ideas that he wrote an unpublished biography of him. What connects Bernard’s Eastern spiritualism with Potter’s evolutionary humanism?
The root—an ancient rebellion
Answering this requires digging straight to the root connecting the two worldview ‘trees’ we have been examining. A major hint is seen in the stated purpose of Vivekānanda’s four yoga paths, echoing Potter’s ‘chief end’ comment: man’s “realization of his own divinity”. This is a lie as old as Eden, first whispered in Eve’s ear when the serpent insisted, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).
It is this rejection of a single, unmatchable, all-powerful biblical Creator that ultimately unites Eastern spirituality and evolutionary materialism. Both are manifestations of the same Genesis rebellion. But Eastern spirituality, unlike naturalistic evolution, has the advantage of recognizing a spiritual dimension. It can therefore tickle the human need for spirituality without requiring acceptance of the biblical Creator, or His moral standards.
It also stands in opposition to our need to recognize our own sinfulness and inability to save ourselves before coming to God through Christ. And it makes its appeal through a framework which shares many overlaps with evolutionary theory, even promising to help humanity reach a higher stage of evolution. No wonder Eastern spirituality appeals to so many in our evolutionized culture!
Ultimately, the only way to overcome the toxic fruits of these two ‘trees’ in our society is to acknowledge the root, reject the rebellion, and turn back to the Genesis Creator through the only way available: Jesus Christ.