The Problem of Evil by Swami Prabhavavananda
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