The Fact and Mystery of
Dr. Radharani P.
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.
Evil a Reality?
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
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 ways—it 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.
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 world’s 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.
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.
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.
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
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 sufferer’s 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
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.
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 one’s 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 one’s own code of good and evil. But
this kind of belief can prove dangerous when applied in practical
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.
Man’s 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.
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)
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)
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.
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 one’s control.
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.
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.
Is a Fact and It Can Be Removed
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.
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.
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
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.
Vivekananda said that our life is a mixture of good and evil.
Man’s 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 one’s infinite
nature one can transcend evil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Plato, The Republic, trans. A D Lindsay (New York:
Harper Torchbooks, 1944), 298.
Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (Allahabad: Central
Book Depot, 1981), 136.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1994), 102.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.97.
Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana (London: Macmillan, 1954), 156.