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Genome Mapping and Rebirth

June 1, 2009

I am a skeptic, nay, a rejectionist. I am not one to accept anything just because the scriptures say so. This concept of rebirth is not just a Hindu belief. People from various faiths including Christianity and Buddhism believe in rebirth. But it is the Hindus who have an elaborate theory behind it. This theory of Karma states that it is our deeds that get us out of the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. A good, pious person will attain moksha and be one with Bramha, the creator of the universe thus escaping the cycle of rebirth. I had been brought up hearing this since I was a child. This emphasis on good deeds did make sense but the other part about the cycle of birth and death and then rebirth seemed outlandish, if not totally out of sync with the scientific thought. The rationalist in me could not come to grips with this oft repeated and much discussed ‘fact’. I remain a skeptic but now I have begun to think.

This theory of rebirth did not end with the assertion that one would keep returning to life till one attains moksha but that after ones death one has to go through the arduous process of taking birth as each and every species that exist on this earth before one gets a chance to be born as a human being again. It is mentioned in the Puranas that there are some 30 million different living beings (plants are not included, only those that have a soul) and that the atma of a person has to take the form of each one of these living beings before one is born as a human being again. The idea was to make a person believe as to how precious human life is and to try and make the best use of it. The other emphasis was on the importance of using every precious minute of one’s life and to live life according to the Dharma as mentioned in the Dharmashastra the epitome of which is the Bhagvata Gita that stresses on ones duty above everything else.  I do not know whether there is a mention of rebirth in the Bible but I do know of some Christians who believe in rebirth. This theory of rebirth is accepted by millions across the world, for various reasons. The fact remains that people believe that they will be reborn and get a chance to live life again.

The other fact about us Hindus is that we consider the cow sacred. In India it is difficult to find restaurants that serve beef (though not impossible, Bangalore where I live has many a restaurants where one can order stake and vegetables). I take this hypothesis also as any rationalist would and while I could never get down to enjoying stake for my dinner I understand if others take beef. Well, if one can have chicken and fish and lamb, why not beef? Ask an ardent Hindu, and I am not talking about the illiterate, ‘ignorant’ masses but men and women who are professionals and have a standing in society and one may get a curt ‘do you want to kill your mother for food’? It is Gau Mata (Mother Cow), for Hindus and they cannot fathom how anyone can eat beef!  I did not dispute this Gau Mata sentiment and the rationalist in me thought that cow is sacred because even her dung is used for medicinal purposes and as fuel. Must we kill and eat an animal that gives us so much? But then a camel gives one so much too. Ask a Bedouin and he will tell you how his life depends on this animal that is called the ‘ship of the desert’. Yet a camel is not considered sacred. 

The answer may now have been given by scientists who have un-raveled the genome of a cow. What they have concluded startled me. They say that the genome of a cow is very close to that of humans. I was under the impression that rats and monkeys were closest to humans and therefore all clinical trials were conducted on rats before drugs and perfumes and other such stuff was introduced in the market. Scientists say that cow’s genome structure is even closer to that of humans than that of rats and that it is perhaps one step back from the evolutionary hierarchy where humans are at the top of the pyramid.

There was this conclave in Delhi on cow and her importance in Hindu school of thought. They were performing a yagna to propitiate Gau Mata and there were discourses on cow by various Hindu preachers.  These discourses were being televised live on one of the numerous religious channels. I generally do not listen to these religious preachers. I did not follow this discourse either. But while I was surfing my TV I did hear one such preacher say that cow is also sacred as she is the dwar (gateway) to human life. I could not understand what the gentleman was saying. He went on to say that in this cycle of birth and death and rebirth when one goes on this tortuous path the one last step to taking birth as a human is to be born as a cow. That is the last step before a soul gets human form. I switched the channel and forgot about this assertion by the god-man. I rejected it as another of those beliefs that has no scientific basis. Even now I find it difficult to believe that there is this cycle of birth and rebirth till one attains moksha. But now I am asking myself questions.

If we go by this genome theory and if a cow’s genome is closest to that of humans then maybe Darwins theory is being reenacted every day. Did Darwin believe in rebirth? Maybe he did not, the way we Hindus believe in. But could it be that there is some truth in what the ancient sages said?  That in this pyramid of living beings there is a method and that a soul indeed has to go through this tortuous path of rebirth as every species on this planet before being born as a human being. And maybe each one of us is born as a cow before we take the human form. And that our genes get refined as we move through the chain. I am told that the Puranas explain this hierarchy in detail. What if the genome studies find that the hierarchy in the Puranas is correct?  Did our ancient sages have some insight into the detailed biology of the living beings around us?  And since cows are so close to humans can one say that eating beef is almost cannibalism? I know I am stretching the argument a bit, but I cannot but wonder as to how those who talked about the ‘sacred cow’ with such reverence now have science to back them. I still do not condemn those who enjoy beef, but yes, I have begun to think. And if I were to believe the Hindu school of thought on birth and rebirth and karma, well, the conclusions are scary.

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