THE WESTERN ROOTS OF AVATARIC EVOLUTIONISM IN COLONIAL INDIA

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Abstract.

British colonialism and Orientalist scholarship on India were key factors affecting the initial Hindu responses to modern science and technology in the nineteenth century. One response was the elaboration of avataric evolutionism—the idea that ancient myths of Vishnu's ten incarnations anticipated Darwinian evolution. This idea quickly became intertwined with political and nationalist concerns and cannot be fully understood in a purely theological context. These concerns were reflected in scriptural interpretation, especially in what may be termed the scientific exegesis of the Vedas and Puranas. Such scientific exegesis of scripture appealed to Keshub Chunder Sen, the leading figure of the Brahmo Samaj in the second half of the nineteenth century. Keshub was apparently the first Indian to develop the notion of avataric evolutionism, in the context of his “New Dispensation,” a synthesis of all religious traditions (in particular Hinduism and Christianity) and modern science. His pronouncement of avataric evolutionism in 1882, however, was not the first proposal of the idea. I conclude with an examination of the Western roots of this idea, specifically in the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

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