Letters — on Parthenogenetic Reproduction


I am familiar with the basic tenets of Krsna consciousness, perhaps the most essential being that the bodies of all living creatures contain a spirit soul, which is their real self and which transmigrates from body to body.

Recently I was reading a biology textbook and came to a section dealing with parthenogenesis, or reproduction by means of unfertilized eggs. I recalled your belief that the spirit soul enters the egg at the time of fertilization, being carried in the sperm cell, and that it is the soul which gives life to the fertilized egg. Quoting from the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.31.1): “The living entity, the soul, is made to enter into the womb of a woman through the particle of male semen.” In the purport, Srila Prabhupada restates this and expresses further: “This process is applicable to all embodied living entities,” My understanding of this is that according to the Srimad-Bhagavatam it is not possible for a living being to develop unless an egg unites with a male sperm cell, which contains the soul.

This view, however, seems incompatible with parthenogenetic reproduction. Quoting from Biology, 1st edition, by H. Curtis, page 514:

Fertilization also activates the egg, initiating its development. However, a variety of artificial stimuli, including the prick of a needle—none of which contributes new material or new information to the egg cell—have been shown to activate eggs. In many species, including sea urchins, frogs, turkeys, and even rabbits, normal development can be completed in these fatherless organisms. In other words, as these experiments show, the egg alone contains everything necessary for development. Fertilization is not necessary for individual development but is important to the species.

How do you account for offspring produced parthenogenetically? Apparently they have either obtained a soul in some way contrary to that stated in Srimad-Bhagavatam, or they have no soul, which presents an even more serious discrepancy with Krsna conscious doctrine. I am very interested in knowing your view of this matter.

Gordon Wieland
Louisville, Kentucky

Our reply: The verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam you cite describes only the typical process of reproduction. It does not say there are no other forms of reproduction in the plant or animal kingdoms. All living organisms do have some form of sexual reproduction, and thus Srila Prabhupada is quite correct in saying that “this process is applicable to all embodied living entities.” Even bacteria, which normally reproduce by dividing in half, do have a process of sexual reproduction, known as conjugation. As the example of bacteria indicates, however, there are also many processes of asexual reproduction. For example, everyone knows that many higher plants, such as strawberries, often reproduce asexually. Yet I do not think you can say that this contradicts the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

I do not know of any explicit references to parthenogenesis in the Bhagavatam, but there are references to unusual forms of reproduction that do not involve the combination of sperm and egg in the normal fashion. I will cite two examples.

The first is the case of Gandhari, who gave birth to one hundred sons. Srila Prabhupada, describing how these sons were born, comments on a verse in the Bhagavatam’s First Canto (1.13.4): “[At first] she [Gandhari] gave birth to a lump of flesh only, but since she was a devotee of Vyasadeva, by the instruction of Vyasa-deva the lump was divided into a hundred parts, and each part gradually developed to become a male child.” This is like producing many trees by planting branches taken from one tree. It goes without saying that the souls of the one hundred sons had to enter the one hundred pieces of flesh at some point. You should also note that since the one hundred embryos developed outside the womb, the Mahabharata (from which Srila Prabhupada draws the information about Gandhari) deserves priority for giving the earliest known report of test-tube babies.

The second example is the production of the dwarf Bahuka from the dead body of King Vena. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.14.43) relates, “After making a decision, the saintly persons and sages churned the thighs of the dead body of King Vena with great force and according to a specific method. As a result of this churning, a dwarf-like person was born from King Vena’s body.”

Here a viable human being was produced from a dead body that had been preserved from decay by a special process. Here again the soul entered its next body without the aid of seminal fertilization. The process seems similar to cloning, or the production of a complete individual from a single somatic cell of the parent organism.

In conclusion, the general principle for the reproduction of living organisms is that the souls are placed in appropriate bodies through the agency of higher authorities (demigods), who act in accordance with the law of karma. Thus, whether or not this process involves the union of a sperm and egg. it does not depend solely on simple physical interactions but involves the intervention of intelligent agents who function under the direction of the Supersoul, an expansion of Lord Krsna. This is indicated in the verse you cite (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.31.1), where the soul is said to take on its new body “under the supervision of the Supreme Lord and according to the result of its work.”

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