pp. 81-85 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

2.5. The Bhagavad Gita on Genetics and Behaviour

K.K. Dua

Dayalbagn Educational Institute, Agra, India.

Our ancestors are present in the chromosomes of our body cells. They have reached down generation by generation through the transference of the chromosomes. The genes in the latter determine the behaviour of the organism. The Lord Sri Krishna in Bhagavad Gita (BG) has discussed in detail about the continuity of species, the role of genes in behaviour and their relationship with the environment and the factors leading to the formation of varied forms in nature (BGII-28, IV-3). A living being is present in the environment as manifested form and on death disintegrates to become unmanifested matter. The manifested form is attained from the latter. The environment provides the material for the benefit of the living beings. The living beings having attained life, develops ego and the desire to survive and thrive. This brings about an urge to evolve with respect to morphological and physiological adaptations so as to use the environmental factors in an optimal manner, leading to evolution. Life begets life resulting in the continuity of the species (BG VII-6). Creation, preservation and destruction are the three phases of life. Further, in it the role of senses and its interaction with the environment has also been identified (BG III-3).

An organism exists in the environment that is sometimes friendly, sometimes inimical and seldom neutral. An environment is friendly if it contains food for nourishment, a mate for propagation of the species, and shelter from enemies. An environment is unfriendly if it leads to the weakening or elimination of the organism or of the species. Therefore, the organism must be constantly informed of the nature of its environment in order that it may go deeper into the friendly area or withdraw from an unfriendly one. The information is supplied to organism by its sense organs and it responds accordingly with its appendages.

The Lord Sri Krishna in the very initial part of his discourse with Arjuna, the representative of mankind, of the eternal knowledge in Bhagavad Gita (BG) has mentioned about the interaction between senses and the environment, "O son of Kunti, the contacts between the senses and their objects, which give rise to the feeling of heat and cold, pleasure and pain etc. are transitory and fleeting, therefore, Arjuna ignore them" (BG II-14)

The Lord has significantly divided this verse into the following parts:

(i) An organism makes contacts with the environment (Objects) through senses.

(ii) The animal feels and analyses about the favourable and unfavourable environment.

(iii) All these feelings are transitory, indicates that either the animals is able to acclimatize them and/or the environment is fluctuating.

Acclimatization by the animals means that it is able to adjust/adapt in the adverse situation and now the very different environment appears to be congenial to it. Further, through this verse the Lord also indicates that environment too is never the same and it undergoes `a change'. Thus there is correlation between a living organism and the environment and the former interacts with the latter for its survival by adaptation or change in behaviour.

"All living creatures follow their tendencies; even wise man acts according to the tendencies of his own nature." (BG-III-33)

"He, however, who has true insight into the respective spheres of the Gunas (in the shape of objects of perception) and their actions, holding that it is the Gunas (in the shape of senses & mind etc.) that move among the Gunas (objects of perception) does not get attached to them, Arjuna"(BG-II-28).

"Surely, none can ever be inactive even for a moment; for everyone is helplessly driven to action by nature born qualities" (BG-III-5)

In this verse `action' and `helplessly driven to nature born qualities denotes that a living being is bound to perform various life activities according to his nature born qualities i.e. according to its genetic inheritance. All activities of the body and senses and its interaction with the environment such as movement, rest, satisfaction of hunger locomotion and reproduction and reflexes i.e. A man, Frog or lion will act under the impulse of respective nature which are formed out by the latencies of deeds performed by their respective ancestors.

All actions are performed by the modes of Prakriti (Primordial matter). The fool, whose mind is deluded by egoism, thinks: "I am the doer" (BG-III-27)

A living being is an embodiment of his own nature. In the environment, so as to survive all living beings follow their own tendencies. The word `Prakriti'/Nature denotes the distinctive nature of an individual representing the sum-total of tendencies of action done in previous lives i.e. by its immediate ancestors and stored up and passed to the predecessors. As it is well known that life is a continuous process, further, life in the body senses, is not an end in itself. It is only a passing phase. The interaction between environment and senses of an individual has played an important role in evolution. The former is never static, so the latter interacts with it and evolve the body accordingly. Thus a relationship exists between nature and nurture.

Genes are supposed to control the details of behavioural development. Different animals develop different behavioural abilities. The behaviour has been broadly classified into instincts (innate) and learning. Innate behaviour is said to be genetically determined and learned behaviour to be environmentally determined. Therefore, a trait may be a result of the interaction between nature (hereditary factors) and nurture (environment). These two without each other are meaningless. A genotype without environmental building blocks (nature) would remain a genotype and nothing more. Environmentally supplied materials, in the absence of genetic information (nature) to organize their use in development, would remain unorganized collection of molecules. The development of every aspect of an individual - its appearance, its physiological mechanisms, its behaviour, its everything - is the product of an interaction between hereditary information and the environment that provides the substances for development. Thus the behavioural diversity has evolved because of variety of environmental problems encountered by animal species. (1)

The behaviour is traditionally categorized into: instincts and learning. Instincts have a number of striking characteristics.

(i) They are supposed to be practiced by an entire species or some large fraction of the population. For example - all males of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster vibrate their wings when courting a female in much the same manner, producing a complex species - characteristic pattern of sound waves.(2)

(ii) Innate behaviour appear to be released by relatively simple stimuli. The mechanical relationship between a complex behavioural pattern and simple cue is best demonstrated by watching an animal in an unusual setting where its innate response is totally inappropriate and totally unintelligent. For example, if a baby bird is banded with a shiny ring while it is in the nest, the parents will sometimes treat the band as if it were a piece of fecal matter, a substance that is always removed from the nest and dropped some distance away. An adult bird may pull vigorously at the ring despite the fact that its offspring's leg is attached to the band and despite the cries of distress from the nestling (3).

These examples are a sort of `unintelligent' automatic behaviour. The interesting point to note here is that the animals helplessly behave in nature according to their latencies provided by their ancestors. (BG-III-5)

For this mechanism of innate behaviour or "helplessly driven to action nature born qualities" it is proposed that the nervous system of animals must have special units responsible for the detection of neural messages generated by sign stimuli. The Innate Releasing Mechanism (IRM) would upon receipt of appropriate signal, activate a battery of motor cells and so turn on a behavioural response or `Fixed Action Pattern' (FAP). However, it has now been proposed that there are physiological mechanisms that resemble IRM and that FAP (4 & 5).

The essential property of an innate behaviour or FAP is that the response is performed in a completely functional manner, the first time an animal of a certain age and motivational state encounters the correct sign stimulus.

A beautiful example of this point is the reaction of a mature female herring gull to herring gull egg (6). The stimuli associated with an egg will release feeding behaviour if the female is not breeding and not incubating egg herself or if the egg is located well outside her own nest. The same egg will release incubation behaviour if it is in her nest clutch for some time or has had to leave her nest or has had to leave her nest - because of a disturbance in the colony. The female `knows' when and how to incubate her eggs properly the first time. She settles down on her clutch. The same egg will release retrieval behaviour in which it is rolled back into her nest, if it lies just outside the female's own nest (having been pushed there during a hasty departure or having being placed by a man for the sake of doing this experiment). Again the female uses a functional retrieval response the first time she encounters her egg just outside her nest.

An adaptive change in behaviour is observed in the animals which it attains through the mode of experience (7). This is defined as Learning. Learning behaviour has been attained over the instinctive behaviour. In it lies the path of action and practice. The learned behaviour or knowledge acquired after over coming ignorance. The following is an interesting example:

"If a baby toad encounters a tiny moving bug for the first time after losing its tadpole tail and hoping out onto land, it will be able to perform the stereotyped prey-capture behaviour of its species. It may orient toward the object, open its mouth, flip out its tongue, strike the prey, withdraw the tongue and the creature stuck to it, and finally swallow its food. Some would argue that this is innate response to a certain class of stimuli.

If the toad is taken to the laboratory after having matured further, it can be offered various insects under controlled conditions. A hungry cooperative toad will go through the routine of snapping flies, mealworms, and other edible creatures presented to it. If the experimenter, then places a toxic millipede in the amphibian's enclosure, the toad may take this bait as well. The millipede responds by excluding a violently nauseating substance from the pores of its body, whereupon the toad will spit and push the prey from its mouth. Later, this toad will refuse to attack this millipede species even though it is hungry and will take edible insects avidly."

Its behaviour has changed. The change endures and is adaptive. The animal has learned to avoid after having tasted just once. The toad can also learn with equal facility not to attack other dangerous prey like honeybees etc. However, the toad captures and feeds on insects (innate behaviour) and void the toxic ones (learned behaviour).

The acquired aversion of toads to millipede is just an example of an innate verses learned behaviour. It is worth noting that innate behaviour can be said to be innate or unlearned or ignorant until and unless it had the facility for learning. The learning material comes from the environment. The animal can be termed as innate or unlearned till he has encountered the object/stimulus available from the environment. No development of behaviour will take place if the animal is deprived from the environmental stimulus.

Thus, it is possible that some environmental variables would influence the development of the behaviour. A learned behaviour is achieved over innate behaviour. This proposes that innate behaviour is genetically determined and learned behaviour is environmentally determined. This signifies that nature and nurture are both important for the development of a behaviour.

"Arjuna, sacrifice through knowledge is superior to sacrifice performed with material things. For all actions without exception culminate in knowledge, O'Son of Kunti" (BG IV-32)

The Lord in the verse has very beautifully narrated about knowledge, action and sacrifice. He has compared between action for material possession and action for attaining knowledge. For example - A man lives and acts to acquire enormous wealth and material possessions. It is important to note that material things cannot be made to use more than the requirement. Over possession fosters care and anxiety. He who gives himself over too much to mammon pays the penalty in the form of being lop - sided or stunted in intelligence. Sacrifice for knowledge on the other hand develops into wisdom. The Lord declares that all sacrifices / practices are born of actions (BG IV - 32). All actions require some sacrifice in the form of practice and it culminates into knowledge. Knowledge through sacrifice in which a mode of action has been involved provides a power of discrimination to an animal.

"The knowledge is enveloped in ignorance" (BG V-15)

"On earth there is no purifier as great as knowledge, he who has attained purity of heart through a prolonged practice of Karmayoga automatically sees the light of Truth in Self in course of time". (BG IV-38)

The Lord says, "The Yoga of knowledge and Yoga of Action both lead to Supreme bliss. Of the two, however, the Yoga of action is superior to Yoga of Knowledge." The significance of learning/knowledge indicate that knowing individual has less problems in life or countering the environment than the ignorant one. It is knowledge that intuits the senses for furtherance of action and modify, if necessary. The knowledge of the environment cannot be gained by senses, or intellect etc. alone. This can only be known when it acts in nature and interacts with the object. It is this then only the animal can discriminate between desirable or undesirable factors.

The Lord also states that it is through the Discipline of Know- ledge (Jnanayoga) that an individual attains knowledge about its surrounding but a keen observance in it reveals that it has gained through Discipline of Action. Further, it is through practice that brings perfection in the individual. Thus the Lord exhorts that one of the important factor for learning is through the discipline of action acquired by the discipline of knowledge (8).

`Practice makes a man perfect' is a saying and this is true for all living organisms. In it the knowledge acts as a purifier. Practice and knowledge provide fruit or goal of an individual. The practice/action are regarded as purifying only because they are helpful in revelation of knowledge. As ignorance is the root cause of any problem it is through the action that an organism comes to realize the truth about its true nature, requirement and ability to survive in the environmental stress or conditions. On earth in this verse refers to this nature, and the product of nature or all that exists in nature acts as substratum for the process of knowledge. Having attained knowledge through the act of Karmayoga and in due course of time provide perfection. Thus an animal sees the `truth in the self'. Truth in the self means that the moment his practice reaches culmination, the light of Truth dawns to the senses of the animal.

Therefore, the Lord declares that all sacrifices are born of action. Sacrifice here means to make an attempt, to devote time and energy to know more, to remove ignorance . He states that all actions culminate in knowledge. Knowledge as sacrifice stands for the process of acquiring the power of discrimination. Further, a careful study indicates that all knowledge is attained through the mode of action indicating a correlation between the senses and body.

"Arjuna, actions do not bind him who has dedicated all his actions to God according to the spirit of Karmayoga, whose doubts have been torn to shreds by wisdom and who is self-possessed."

The Lord here says that nature is infallible. There is a divine plan and purpose in its functioning (9). It provides varied types of stimulus to living beings stage by stage which helps the latter to a state of perfection. He who understands this does not fall prey to doubt but applies himself with all earnestness to self-fulfillment in tune with the Cosmic Plan. This wholesome attitude and right application develops into enlightenment. The enlightened individual has the power of discrimination and modify its behaviour or take a rationale approach.

"Shining like the Sun, Knowledge reveals the Supreme in them, in whom ignorance is destroyed by self knowledge" (BG V-16)

Darkness vanishes when the Sun rises, similarly ignorance ceases to be with the dawn of knowledge. An animal through the mode of practice or action in nature is able to attain knowledge. The attainment of knowledge in the present context is that Bufo is able to know about toxic millipede or stinging bumble bees and modify its innate response and avoid this behaviour. In other words, a living organism who has attained real knowledge would never and in no circumstances fall a victim of delusion or be exterminated in nature. It will continue to evolve, through the interaction of Nature and Nurture.



1. Alcock, J. 1979. Animal Behaviour: An Evolutionary Approach; Sinauer Associates, Inc. Sunderland, Massachusetts.

2. Bennet-Clark, H.C. and A.W. Ewing. 1970. The Lovesong of the fruit fly. Scientific American 223 (July); 84-93.

3. Welty, J. 1975. The Life of Birds. IInd Edition. Saunders, Philadelphia.

4. Willows, A.O.D. 1971, Giant brain cells in mollusks. Scientific American 224 (Feb.); 68-75.

5. Willows, A.O.D. and G. Hoyle. 1969. Neuronal network triggering a fixed action pattern. Science 166; 1549-1551.

6. Tinbergen, N. 1960. The Herring Gull's World. Doubleday Garden City, N.Y. U.S.A.

7. Lorenz, K.Z. 1969. Innate bases of learning. In On the Biology of Learning. K.H. Pribram (ed.) Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, N.York.

8. Goyandka, J. 1991. Srimad Bhagavad Gita. Gita Press, Gorakhpur.

9. Swami Chidbhavananda. 1972. The Bhagavad Gita. Sri Rama Krishna Topovan. Tiruchirapalli (DT).


1. Bernard Hung-kay Luk, Abortion in Chinese Law; 1977, 25 American Journal of Comparative Law 372

2. These issues are discussed deeper in my book 'Technical Development and Cultural Values in China: Human Genetics and Ethics in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the PR China' (German title 'Technischer Fortschritt und kulturelle Werte in China: Humangenetik und Ethik in Taiwan, Hongkong und der VR China', with a summary in English; Institute of Asian Affairs, Hamburg 1997.

3. For a balanced view see Elizabeth J. Croll A Commentary on the New Draft Law on Eugenics and Health Protection", in: China Information. Leiden. VIII, 3 p.32-37 (1993); for further discussions: Nature 367 (1994); Lancet 344 (1944); Nature 372 (1995); Nature 378 (1995); Nature 383 (1996); Nature 384 (1996); Nature Genetics 15 (1997); Nature Genetics 15 (1997).

4. Frank Dik_tter, "Throw-away babies", in Times Literary Supplement, January 12 1996.

5. See my essay on Shape and Perspectives of a Chinese Gen-Ethics: The Contribution of Hong Kong, in: Proceedings of the 1st Hong Kong Medical Genetics Conference, Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 1997 (forthcoming).

6. I recommend the following titles of interest for general philosophic and ethics issues: Heiner Roetz, Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age, SUNY Press, New York 1993; Chad Hansen, Chinese Philosophy and Human Rights: An Application of Comparative Ethics"; in: Becker (ed.) Ethics in Business and Society, pp. 99-127; and Gerhold Becker (ed.), Changing Nature's course:The ethical challenge of Biotechnology; Hong Kong 1996; and Qiu Renzong, Ethical Issues in Genetic Screening and Testing in a Multicultural Context; Actes of the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee, Vol. II, Paris 1995, pp.35-40.

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