"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell














PRABUDDHA BHARATAThe Fact and Mystery of Evil | Dr. Radharani P.  





The Fact and Mystery of Evil



Dr. Radharani P.




     Religion is one of the foremost influences that have shaped humankind since time immemorial, and it still remains a guiding force among all peoples - primitive, sophisticated and civilized. Religion has existed for so long because it meets the most peculiar of human needs - emancipation from evil. We are living in an imperfect world and religion is in reality the demand of such a world. It would not be wrong to say that religions are mainly concerned with emancipation from evil. The different religions of the world accept evil as a fact and have tried to overcome it. There have been thinkers who have claimed that if there were no evil, then the various religions of the world would not have come into being. So in the debates and discussions about religion the problem of evil occupies a crucial place.




     Is Evil a Reality?


     There are thinkers who reject the reality of evil. They believe that what appears as evil is not truly evil; it appears so because of defects in our vision. Evil can be transcended, and after getting moksha, or liberation, evil no longer remains evil. Good and evil are of the nature of paired opposites - evil is the abasement of good. The concept of good has got a positive meaning. As evil is the opposite of good, it has got a negative meaning. In actual life humans do experience various kinds of degenerations which can be considered evil. As we are experiencing all these, they are a real aspect of our existence.


     The enigma of evil presents a massive and direct threat to our faith. As long as we live in this religiously ambiguous world the fact of evil will continue to haunt our faith in the reality of an all-loving and all-powerful Creator. The problem of evil can be approached in many waysit can be approached in an impious spirit, without religious presuppositions, or it can be approached from the standpoint of a religious person. The mode of inquiry will vary from individual to individual. But the main problem is: Can the presence of evil in the world be reconciled with the existence of a God who is omnipotent and eternally existent? This formulation is common to both theists and atheists. For the atheists this problem stands as a major obstacle to religious commitment; for the theists this conundrum is a source of disturbance to their faith and sets up a burden of doubt.


     The problem of evil does not become a threat to every religion. It is a problem to religions which insist that the object of their worship is at once perfectly good and all-powerful. Of course, most of the worlds living religions attribute both omnipotence and infinite goodness to God, and so find this problem inescapable. Christianity considers God the most perfect conceivable being and has therefore insisted upon acknowledging the problem of evil in the person of Satan, who perpetually accuses faith.


     If God is all-powerful, He must be able to abolish all evils. But evil is a reality, and so either God is not perfectly good or He is not unlimitedly powerful. This paradox is not something that can be easily unravelled. Here the sceptic has an advantage over the believer.


     The problem of evil and its attempted resolution is what is known as theodicy. It refers to the defence of divine omnipotence in the face of the fact of evil. It was Leibniz who first used this term. But there are thinkers who believe that there really is no genuine theodicy, for no legitimate way of thinking about the problem of evil satisfies both mind and conscience.




     Types of Evil



     The term evil is usually used in a comprehensive sense. Metaphysical, physical and mental evils are often cited as natural evils. Metaphysical evil is beyond the control of man because it exists due to the operation of the laws of nature. It is something which originates independently of human action. There are natural calamities like tornadoes, earthquakes, storms, floods and droughts that kill in hundreds and thousands. Diseases like cancer, leprosy and AIDS have ravaged humankind; disabilities like blindness and deafness also pose serious challenges to normal life. Natural evil consists in unwelcome experiences brought upon sentient creatures, human or subhuman, by causes other than human. Modern science is still trying to control external environment and prevent it from doing harm to humanity. Mental and physical evils are to a great extent being controlled by science. Moral evil is that which we human beings originate. It results from the exercise of human will or it is due to the violation of moral laws. Unjust, vicious, cruel and perverse thoughts are moral evils. As they are created by humans they can be checked by them.


     In the case of human suffering the intellectual problem of evil usually originates in the mind of the spectator rather than in that of the sufferer. The sufferers main concern is to face and cope with the evil that is pressing upon him and what he needs is grace, courage and hope. For him evil is not a problem but a mystery to be confronted. Sartre had pointed out that the spectator is not actually involved in the suffering; he only reflects upon the fact that another person is involved in it.




     Evil: A Dilemma



     The problem of evil is a puzzle for Western theists because they assume that God is loving, just, omnipotent and good. The existence of evil is annoying for such a conception of God; the fact of evil is wholly incompatible with an all-good and omnipotent God. Western thinkers have generally considered the problem of evil as an intellectual problem and it has been left to social activists to attend to its eradication.


     The Greek Sophists were of the opinion that humans had the inheritance and culture of animals. Laws of society such as respect for life and property, keeping ones promises, and the like are conventional in nature and are not really natural to humans. An evil nature is present in all humans; they are, by nature, lustful and destructive of social life. But one finds that the maximum satisfaction of selfish desires may be had by accepting some restrictions on them. So goodness is conventional and not natural to man. Behavioural psychologists agree with this interpretation of human nature. The Sophists believed that one can construct ones own code of good and evil. But this kind of belief can prove dangerous when applied in practical life.


     Socrates, on the contrary, believed that goodness is naturally present in the heart of man. The human soul is rational and wisdom is the virtue of the psyche or soul. The human soul is capable of knowing the truth, and to know oneself is to know the soul. Mans happiness consists in cultivating excellences of the soul, and for this, control of passions in the light of knowledge is necessary. Sometimes man is engaged in wrong actions because he does not know it to be wrong. If man knows which actions develop the excellences of the soul, he will choose them because no one deliberately wishes to spoil his own soul. It is by ignorance that man acts contrary to what is best or just. So according to Socrates, evil is the result of ignorance. To remove ignorance one should have the knowledge of what is good for the soul. When a man knows the art of good life, he lives a good life.


     According to Plato the world of ideas is the world of goodness; the empirical world or the world of change is evil. He denied the assumption that the Supreme Being is the source of both evil and good. He states: He is responsible for a few things that happen to men, but for many he is not, for the good things we enjoy are much fewer than the evil. The former we must attribute to none else but God, but for the evil we must find some other causes, not God. (1)


     The Stoics (a school founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno) put forward two solutions to the problem of evil. For them the world is good and perfect and what we call evil is only relative. Just as shadows add beauty to a picture, the relative evils contribute to the beauty and perfection of the whole or the good. Again, for them evil is a necessary means of realizing the good, for virtue without its opposite is impossible. The truth is that the universe, when viewed in cosmic perspective, is a beautiful, good and perfect whole, in which every part has its own proper place and purpose, and no part when considered in relation to the whole is ugly or evil. (2)


     For Saint Augustine evil is really a privation of goodness which is proper to the world. If there is no negation of good, good loses its value. Evil is something negative, that is, it is absence or lack of good. It is the lack of some positive power or quality that a thing ought by its nature to have. Augustine argues that evils - both moral and natural - are directly or indirectly the result of the wrong choices of free rational beings. God created all things good and the free creatures misuse the God-given freedom and from this fall originate all other evils that we know of. God is without any taint of evil, but evil cannot be without God. God could have omitted evil altogether from the scheme of things, but he preferred to use it as a means of serving the good. The glory of the universe is enhanced by the presence of evil (180). Evil or defect exists in something good, and so there cannot be a purely evil being.


     Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that God allows evils to happen in order to bring about a greater good therefrom. He also expressed the view that evil is a negation or absence. As long as beings act according to their nature and reason they are good; evils arise when these actions become defective. Likewise, moral evil is due to defective will, that is, failure of the will to act according to natural reason or divine law. Evil is often not deliberate, but due to factors beyond ones control.


     Spinoza explains that evil is the result of our narrow outlook on things. Evil appears when we look at things from the standpoint of a particular interest. But evil can be eradicated when we learn to look at things from a holistic standpoint or from the standpoint of God. To Hegel evils are only irrational elements tending to become good or rational. Both Spinoza and Hegel practically denied the reality of evil.


     Leibniz accepted evil as a fact. Evil is due to the imperfections that are inherent in the construction of the finite elements of the universe. According to him, this is the best of all possible worlds, and evil is a necessary part of the universe. God has introduced harmony in the universe, but it is not perfect because the Infinite can never be adequately expressed through the finite objects that exist in the universe. So the present world is perforce imperfect. Evil is the result of such limitations. Leibniz firmly believes that the presence of evil in life only enhances the beauty of goodness. If the existence of God is taken as a part of firm knowledge or faith, then the problem of evil cannot constitute a real threat.




     Evil Is a Fact and It Can Be Removed




     The presence of evil in the world presents a problem to every theistic account of the universe. Indian thinkers were also faced with the problem. The Upanishads do not claim that evil is a mere illusion. At the same time, they do not say that it is permanent. Evil is unreal because it can be transmuted into good, but it requires effort to transform its nature. To that extent it is real. The Upanishads clearly state that only good ultimately exists. The true prevails, not the untrue. Evil is something negative and self-contradictory. Struggle is the law of existence and suffering is a condition for progress. All progress has a destructive side.


     According to Advaita Vedanta, at the paramarthika level there is only one reality, that is Brahman. This ultimate Reality is untouched by evil. Evil has place only at the vyavaharika level. Everything belonging to this level is the result of maya. So evil is illusory only in this sense of its lacking in ultimate reality.


     Buddhism presents a pessimistic faith, but Buddha shows us how to attain peace. He holds that the real cause of evil in man is craving, tanha, and that it arises out of fallacious faith in the I. Ignorance is the primary cause out of which false desires originate. Clinging to the I or me and mine creates selfish desires. Selfish desires lead to evil conduct. The total extinction of suffering or evil is what is known as nirvana. This total extinction of suffering, decay and death can be obtained in this life itself by following the Eightfold Path.


     Sri Ramakrishna points out that one may read the Bhagavata by the light of a lamp, and another may commit a forgery by that very light; but the lamp is unaffected. The sun sheds its light on the wicked as well as on the virtuous. (3) In the same way Brahman is unattached to righteousness and unrighteousness, good and evil. He adds, You may ask, How, then, can one explain misery and sin and unhappiness? The answer is that these apply only to the jiva. Brahman is unaffected by them. There is poison in a snake; but though others may die if bitten by it, the snake itself is not affected by the poison (ibid.). In the same way, God is not responsible for good or evil. Our intelligence is covered with ignorance, and so we have only imperfect understanding. Because of this we believe that God creates good and evil.


     Swami Vivekananda said that our life is a mixture of good and evil. Mans life is followed by the shadow of death. The mixture of life and death, good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, is the result of maya. Wherever there is good, there must also be evil, and wherever there is evil, there must be some good. (4) According to him, to have good and no evil is childish nonsense. But, behind good and evil stands something which is yours, the real you, beyond every evil, and beyond every good too, and it is that which is manifesting itself as good and bad. So, according to Swamiji, by knowing ones infinite nature one can transcend evil.


     Tagore said that the created beings of this world are finite and limited, and that evil originates from this finitude. In imperfect creations evils are natural but existence itself is not an evil. Even illusion is true as illusion. (5) Though evils are facts of life, they are not ultimate facts; they have to be superseded. Imperfection or evil is merely a stage leading to perfection or good. According to Gandhiji, evils arise on account of neglect of the truth that is all-pervasive. There is an element of essential goodness in every man because man contains divinity within himself. Evils result because this element is clouded by passion, hatred and the like. So what is required is to awaken this aspect of man.







     The explanations given by various thinkers of the concept of evil are not exhaustive or perfect. Some thinkers point out that evil is due to the misuse of human will, but this explanation is not a convincing solution to the problem of evil. This kind of explanation goes against the omnipotent nature of God. If God is all-powerful, why should He not check evil? If God could not control human free will, then He is not omnipotent. Again, the free-will argument explains moral evils only. Kant criticized the free-will argument by saying that it is contradictory to believe that God creates the wills of man without knowing the details of this willing.


     Some theistic thinkers consider natural evils as punishments for moral evils. But it is a fact that even in criminal anthropology, preference is given to the reformation of criminals rather than punishment. In natural calamities we find that innocent people are subjected to death and suffering and this strongly calls into question divine justice and benevolence. Again, it is said that evils are disciplinary. This explanation is also not convincing because it is not true that evils always inspire humankind. Evils add value to good - this is another way of explaining the concept of evil, but in order to know the good, it is not necessary that one should know the evil. It is not necessary to eat a rotten apple in order to enjoy the taste of a good one. It is also pointed out that evil is incomplete good (Hegel). This idea has also been rejected because from the incomplete alone one cannot desire the goodness of the complete.


     After an analysis of the various arguments for the solution of the problem of evil, one can rightly reach the conclusion that none of the theories has been able to explain convincingly the problem of evil. In one way or other, the arguments are relative. The main drawback of the Western thinkers was that they considered evil as an intellectual problem. They tried their best to safeguard the omnipotence of God in the presence of evil. The standpoints of the Indian thinkers, especially the views of Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda are worth noticing. They accepted evil as a fact of our world, for life itself is full of suffering. Their main problem is to point out the way of escape from these sufferings. For them, the problem of evil is both an intellectual and an existential problem. But this is not an inescapable existential, and there are proven paths to transcendence of evil. Indian thinkers describe how humans can be relieved of their sufferings and linked in happiness with fellow human beings.








     1. Plato, The Republic, trans. A D Lindsay (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1944), 298.

     2. Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (Allahabad: Central Book Depot, 1981), 136.

     3. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1994), 102.

     4. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.97.

     5. Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana (London: Macmillan, 1954), 156.





International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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