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The Problem of Evil

by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

Every religion or system of philosophy has to deal with the problem of evil - and unfortunately it is a problem which is usually explained away rather than explained. "Why," it is asked, "does God permit evil, when He (or She) is all goodness?"

One of two answers is usually given to this question by Western religious thought. Sometimes we are told that evil is educational and penal. God punishes us for our sins by visiting us with war, famine, earthquake, disaster and disease. He employs temptation (either directly or through the agency of the Devil) to test and strengthen the virtue of the good. This is the answer given by the Old Testament. It repels many people today and has become unfashionable-although, as we shall see in a moment, it contains a certain degree of truth, according to the philosophy of Vedanta.

The other answer, now more generally accepted, is that evil does not exist at all. If we view Life sub specie aeternitatis we shall know that evil has no reality; that it is simply a misreading of good.

Vedanta philosophy disagrees with both these answers-with the second even more radically than with the first.

How, it asks, can evil be changed into good, merely by viewing it in a special manner? Pain and misfortune may be borne more easily if we fix our minds upon God-but they are very real experiences nevertheless, even though their duration is limited. Vedanta agrees that evil, in the absolute sense, is unreal. But it reminds us that, from this standpoint, good is unreal also. The absolute Reality is beyond good and evil, pleasure and pain, success and disaster. Both good and evil are aspects of Maya. As long as Maya exists, they exist. Within Maya they are real enough.

The question, "Why does God permit evil?" is, in fact, most misleading. It is as absurd as if one were to ask, "Why does God permit good?" Nobody today would ask why rain "permitted" a catastrophic flood; nobody would blame or praise fire because it burns one man's house and cooks another man's dinner. Nor can it be properly said that Brahman is "good" in any personal sense of the word. Brahman is not "good" in the sense that Christ was "good"-for Christ's goodness was within Maya; his life expressed the light of Reality reflected upon the relative world. The Reality itself is beyond all phenomena; even the noblest. It is beyond purity, beauty, happiness, glory, or success. It can be described as "good" only if we mean that absolute consciousness is absolute knowledge, and that absolute knowledge is absolute joy.

But perhaps the question does not refer to Brahman at all. Perhaps, in this connection, "God" means Iswara, the Ruler of Maya. If this is granted, can Vedanta philosophy agree with the Old Testament that God is a law-giver, a stern and somewhat unpredictable father, whose ways are not ours, whose punishments and rewards often seem unmerited, who permits us to fall into temptation?

The answer is yes and no. The Vedanta doctrine of Karma is a doctrine of absolute, automatic justice. The circumstances of our lives, our pains and our pleasures are all the results of our past actions in this and countless previous existences, from a beginningless time. Viewed from a relative standpoint, Maya is quite pitiless. We get exactly what we earn, no more, no less. If we cry out against some apparent injustice, it is only because the act that brought it upon us is buried deep in the past, out of reach of our memory. To be born a beggar, a king, an athlete or a helpless cripple is simply the composite consequence of the deeds of other lives. We have no one to thank but ourselves. It is no use trying to bargain with Iswara, or propitiate Him, or hold Him responsible for our troubles. It is no use inventing a Devil as an alibi for our weakness. Maya is what we make of it, and Iswara simply represents that stem and solemn fact.

Looked at from a relative standpoint, this world of appearance is a bleak place, and as such it often drives us to despair. The seers, with their larger knowledge, tell us otherwise. Once we become conscious, even dimly, of the Atman, the Reality within us, the world takes on a very different aspect. It is no longer a court of justice, but a kind of gymnasium. Good and evil, pain and pleasure, still exist, but the seem more like the ropes and vaulting-horses and parallel bars which can be used to make our bodies strong. Maya is no longer an endlessly revolving wheel of pain and pleasure, but a ladder which can be climbed to consciousness of the Reality. From this standpoint, fortune and misfortune are both "mercies"-that is to say, opportunities. Every experience offers us the chance of making a constructive reaction to it-a reaction which helps to break some chain of our bondage to Maya and bring us that much nearer to spiritual freedom.

Shankara therefore distinguishes between two kinds of Maya - avidya (evil or ignorance) and vidya (good). Avidya is that which causes us to move further away from the real Self, and veils our knowledge of the Truth. Vidya is that which enables us to come nearer to the real Self by removing the veil of ignorance. Both vidya and avidya are transcended when we pass beyond Maya into consciousness of the absolute Reality.

The principle of Maya is the superimposition of the ego-idea upon the Atman, the real Self. The ego-idea represents a false claim to individuality, to being different from our neighbors. It follows, therefore, that any act which contradicts this claim will bring us one step back towards right knowledge, to consciousness of the inner Reality.

If we recognize our brotherhood with our fellow-men; if we try to deal honestly, truthfully, charitably with them; if, politically and economically, we work for equal rights, equal justice, and the abolition of barriers of race and class and creed, then we are in fact giving lie to the ego-idea and moving towards awareness of the universal, non individual Existence. All such actions and motives belong to what is known as ethical goodness-just as all selfish motives and actions belong to ethical evil. In this sense, and in this sense only, goodness may be said to be more "real," or more valid, than evil-since evil actions and thoughts involve us more deeply in Maya, while good thoughts and actions lead us beyond Maya, to consciousness of the Reality.

The words "sin" and "virtue" are somewhat alien to the spirit of Vedanta philosophy, because they necessarily foster a sense of possessiveness with regard to thought and action. If we say, "I am good," or "I am bad," we are only talking with the language of Maya. "I am Brahman" is the only true statement any of us can make.

(From Religion in Practice)


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