Yoga and Genetic Engineering

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati MB, BS (Syd.)

At present there is widespread excitement in the scientific world over the new prospect of genetic engineering. Molecular biology had its origins 40 years ago when Watson and Crick gained the Nobel Prize by unravelling the mystery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule which encodes the personal physical and mental characteristics of each individual member to transmit those characteristics to his offspring.

The blueprint of life

The DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule has been called the 'blueprint of life'. DNA is contained in the chromosomes within the nuclei of each and every living cell. Each strand of DNA consists of a sequence of base molecules strung together like beads on a mala. The sequence of these bases is found to be a simple code, containing a vast repository of genetic information which is replicated each time the cell divides into two daughter cells.

Mapping your genes

Each living species has a characteristic number of chromosomes containing the entire genetic complement of that species and the characteristics which differentiate it from other species. For example, human cells have 46 chromosomes - 22 pairs, termed autosomes, and one pair of sex chromosomes which are responsible for determining the sex of the individual.

Scientists have found that our range of physical and psychological characteristics is determined by the precise order of genes appearing along each of the chromosomes. Body build, eye and hair colour, susceptibility to specific diseases as well as inborn resistance to others, intellectual capacities, our blood grouping, personal appearance and so many other characteristics, which go to make up our personal individual identity, are determined at the cellular level by the precise coded sequence of genes lying along the long strands of DNA within the nuclei of our cells. It is the transfer of these genes which gives the physical explanation of why a child reflects the appearance and personal characteristics of its parents and grandparents, and on a wider basis, its family, caste, race and so on.

Yogic physiology: the meaning of the bindu

The ancient yogic scientists, the rishis and sages, were also well aware of the nature of the genetic code and its transmission from generation to generation and from age to age. They formulated their own researches and knowledge of this in terms of yogic physiology, and this has been preserved in the yogic and tantric literature. Much can be gained for mankind, and the evolution of our race as a whole, if we can integrate the twin approaches of the ancient yogis and the modern scientists in the field of genetics.

According to kundalini yoga, the entire range of genetic possibilities of our race, the entire range of possible expression, both past and future of humanity, is contained in the form of the bindu. This is conceptualised as a tiny point at the top of the back of the head - at the point where the Brahmins of India continue to preserve a tuft of hair.

According to scriptures, it is through this infinitesimal point that our physical body, personality and individual sense of identity has its origin. All this is contained in the bindu in seed form. In other words, via the bindu we emerge as conscious individuals in space and time, out of the entire flux of the timeless cosmic consciousness, which in religious terms is known as God, in psychological terms is known as the collective unconscious, and in tantra as the universal mind-space or chidakasha.

Through the operation of this bindu, we come and we go time and again, to play a role in history, descending into space and time, with a physical body and an individual sense or 'ego'. Bindu is like a trapdoor connecting our temporal physical existence and lifespan with the universal impersonal consciousness which upholds the entire creation.

We incarnate again and again, taking manifestation through the bindu many times in the course of our personal evolution. At the conclusion of each lifespan, consciousness is withdrawn from this body and this mind, and retreats into the potential state. What ties us to life and incarnation again and again, to the world of pleasure, pain and sensory experience, is the force of our own unfulfilled desires, which retreat with us into the bindu, even as the rotting corpse, devoid of life and prana remains behind. Then we live on only as a psychological entity in the memory of family or those to whom we have formed personal attachments during our lifetime.

Inheriting mind and matter

Today molecular biologists are on the verge of being able to eradicate less favourable genes or to implant more highly favourable ones. This may enable a mother whose children have been born mongoloid, or with juvenile diabetes or a host of other genetically transmitted genes, to bear a child free of the taint of these diseases. It may also enable construction of new gene combinations so that many other desirable characteristics are bestowed upon the offspring.

According to yoga and Samkhya, however, it is not only the physical, material characteristics which are inherited. In yoga, a thought is also recognised as being as tangible as a physical body. Both are manifestations of prakriti. Even though a thought is more subtle than a wooden table, nevertheless, they obey the same laws of inheritance. This explains why not only physical characteristics mirror those of ancestors, but also patterns of thinking, cultural expectations, taste preferences, and likes and dislikes. In yoga, these performed patterns of thinking and behaviour are known as samskaras.

Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine carried a report of the work of Drs. Lowel R. Weitkamp of the University of Rochester (USA) and Harvey C. Stancer of the University of Toronto (Canada). These researchers suspected that mental depression may also be an inherited characteristic. Their work validates the yogic contention that we inherit our samskaras or mental impressions and psychological characteristics, just as we inherit our physical appearance.

The researchers have found that one, and possibly more genes at a specific point on the sixth chromosome appear to be involved in depression. These genes are located near a cluster of genes that are known to control a part of the body's immune system called the HLA system. There are genes in the region of HLA which contribute to susceptibility to depressive disorders. Those same genes may contribute to susceptibility to other diseases as weir, reports Weitkamp.

However, the medical sciences have not as yet recognised the very real possibility of evolving ourselves beyond our physical and psychological deficiencies and limitations within the present birth by the practices of yoga.

Can we change our genes?

Medical scientists would scoff at the idea that an individual can change his genes consciously. Nevertheless, yogic scientists know that neither matter nor consciousness are fixed and unchanging and that both are undergoing constant changes. This is accelerated whenever an individual acts consciously to accelerate, change or direct the course of his personal evolution. In order to do this one must increase the faculty of self-awareness and this is achieved through yoga.

In fact, it is only the faculty of self-awareness which differentiates us from the animals. We have the capacity to know ourselves, whereas the animals do not. This capacity for self-awareness, which is the mark of a highly evolved human being is gained by practice of yoga. Without practice of yoga man is a victim of his diseases, his mental states and his limitations, as well as those of his ancestors. Like the fruit fly, the dog or the caterpillar, he is partaking in an evolutionary drama over which he has no control. It is an unconscious mechanical process, determined by the Mendelian laws of inheritance alone.

Only yoga opens up the possibility of consciously accelerating the individual evolution and elevating both human life and death out of the mechanical dimension into a conscious, wilful striving for perfection. In the process, diseases can be overcome - even those which are considered to have major or minor genetic components. Our very genetic map can be altered by yogic practice and this will be demonstrated by researchers in years to come. My grandfather who died of heart attack may have been depressive. My mother may have been a diabetic with an accident prone temperament. But this does not mean I have to labour under these diseases or deficiencies throughout my own life as a matter of course, nor transmit the same diseases or tendencies to my children.

This has become a fatalistic and dejective pattern of thinking which is very common today. How often do you hear someone lamely blame their obesity, diabetes, heart condition, bad back or some other disorder upon the genetic contribution of their ancestors. All too often this is really little more than a poor excuse for our own failing to act consciously and responsibly to preserve health in our lives. This tendency has been reinforced by medical science which has as yet failed to recognise that man can indeed re-engineer his genes, overcoming his inherent, inborn weaknesses and the defects of his ancestors by practising yoga determinedly under a guru's guidance in this very lifetime.

The purpose of human life is for man to evolve his consciousness beyond its limitations and confinement in matter. In this quest, the various paths of yoga - hatha yoga, dhyana yoga, bhakti yoga, gyana yoga and kundalini yoga are the paths leading to perfection, health and immortal consciousness.

For better or for worse?

As the possibility of altering the human gene pool by genetic engineering draws closer, we can glimpse the elimination of some of the most crippling inherited diseases of our race. Medical science should surely press on earnestly in this quest to relieve suffering. However, we should never allow the prospect of genetic engineering to serve as an excuse or a substitute for our own efforts to evolve to a higher platform of self-awareness and a greater responsibility for our lives. This tendency in medical science should be recognised and opposed, because it is anti-evolutionary; it represents a return to animal consciousness; a loss of self-awareness by our race. If this is the outcome of medical research then it is surely not a blessing for mankind, but a curse- leading to greater future collective pain and suffering in the long run, even while promising and encouraging us today to blindly accept rather than overcome our personal limitations and weaknesses. Like nuclear energy, medical genetics can be used for beneficial or detrimental goals.

If modern discoveries are applied diligently in combination with yogic awareness of man's higher possibilities then mankind's worst diseases will surely be overcome and his sufferings will soon be at an end. But where medicine degenerates into a bolster to promote a lifestyle of sense indulgence and unnatural imbalance, then we are surely multiplying the sufferings to come- if not for ourselves, then for future generations.

More often it is not our genes but our lifestyle and its dietary habits which need some engineering. This is why yoga will be the first medicine of a more conscious and evolved humanity.