The Agnostic God and the Problem of Evil: Examining the Hindu view
The Problem of Evil is one that has perplexed every civilization on earth. And it is a problem that is inextricably linked to the idea of God and his nature.
Is there a God? If yes, then he should, by definition, be omnipotent and perfect. And if he is perfect, why is he the cause of a creation that is so manifestly imperfect? Why does evil exist in God’s creation? Why do terrible things happen to “good” people for no fault of their own? Why are outcomes often so arbitrary and human free will so helpless? Why does evil pervade both the inanimate nature (Ex: Earthquakes, floods, droughts) and the animate mankind (E.g.: Anger, Jealousy, Pride, Greed)?
Christianity and the Problem of Evil
The monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have been particularly bothered by the Problem of Evil. God is omnipotent, omniscient and the creator of both the animate and the inanimate universe. This begs the question – why did he leave behind so much evil and imperfection? Clearly the existence of evil is a manifest challenge and threat to the idea of God, and more specifically to the idea of a “perfect” creator God championed by the three great theistic religions of the West. It is not a surprise then that the discipline of “theodicy” – which focuses on answering the Problem of Evil – has emerged in the three Western religions, particularly in Christianity.
Conservative Pauline Christianity has countered the problem of evil with the concept of “Original Sin”, as developed in the writings of St Augustine. Original Sin enables orthodox Christians to answer the problem of evil without denying the perfection of God or detracting from his greatness. God remains perfect, and so is his creation. But yet evil pervades human existence because of the transgression of Adam and Eve, who lost their innocence by consuming from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Hence Man is fallen right from the inception of the human race, and there is always a distance between Man and God that is unbridgeable. It is not a surprise then that ideas of monism or pantheism are completely anathema to an orthodox Christian, as that would violate the idea of a fallen world that has disobeyed the will of a perfect God.
Later Christian theologians have elaborated on Augustine’s views by positing that evil is merely a privation of “good” and does not have a positive source. The original creation is purely good, and all evil is merely a deviation from that pristine state. Hence the need for redemption through Jesus Christ. In fact, some Protestant sects like those of Calvin and Luther even resorted to predestination by claiming that Original Sin and the Fall of Man was also a part of God’s plan.
Indifference of Atheism to the “Problem of Evil”
In contrast, atheistic schools like Buddhism, Jainism, and of course Hobbesian materialism (to which the current Western civilization belongs) are completely unconcerned and untroubled by the Problem of Evil. Atheists deny the existence of God, leave alone a “perfect” one. So the existence of evil is not problematic at all. It is a secular concern and one that is specific to individuals and their circumstances.
Hobbes in fact embraces evil as an inextricable feature of human nature. His “state of nature” theory starts with a very dim view of human nature. Human life is nasty, brutish and short, and self-preservation is the one inescapable truth about human nature. Hobbes doesn’t talk in terms of good or evil. These words don’t feature in the calculus of atheistic materialists and empiricists. Whatever “virtue” one develops is merely out of expediency to get along comfortably in the world.
Just about every liberal western philosopher of the past 400 years has followed in Hobbes’s wake. In the liberal world view, terms like “good” and “evil” are simplistic, overrated terms that are a legacy of theology and religious fundamentalism. People are interested in having a good time, and there is nothing wrong with that. The challenge facing society is to focus on the “here and now” and design institutions that will minimize conflict that is endemic to human nature. In short, design “systems” that will preclude the need for natural “goodness”, and ensure the greatest comfort for the greatest number. A utilitarian world view.
It would be, however, dishonest to state that this indifference to the problem of evil is entirely modern in origin, and a product of Enlightenment with no precedent in the ancient world. One can legitimately argue that even the “Golden rule” (Do unto others as you would have others do unto you) found in many scriptures including the Bible, was a means of blending atheistic empiricist philosophy with Religion. The indifference towards Evil that we find among atheists of the ancient world like the Epicureans, Buddhists and the Indian Charvakas and Lokayatas, shows that this definitely goes back a long way.
However it is accurate to state that indifference to theodicy was a very marginal predilection in the old world, and has gained mainstream support in most societies only in the past 500 years (post Hobbes / Machiavelli).
Now let’s turn our attention to the Indian subcontinent. India is that remarkable country, that has for the most part, stayed away from both the Christian idea of fallen mankind and Original Sin, as well as liberal, value-free, “state of nature” based materialism, to this day!
Indian theistic traditions, under the ambit of Hinduism, have cogitated on the Problem of Evil. It is a problem that comes up in the commentaries on the Brahma Sutras – the foundational text of philosophical Hinduism. The various commentators in the past 2000 years have responded to the problem in a variety of ways – both innovative and ingenious. However none of the responses come anywhere close to the theories of Original Sin or that of Hobbes.
So let’s examine Hindu ideas of theodicy more deeply.
The Beginnings: An “Agnostic” God in Nasadiya Sukta
As with most things in Hinduism, we have to start with the Samhita portion of the Vedas to understand Hindu ideas of theodicy. The Rig Veda is the oldest text in the Indian tradition dating anywhere between 2500 and 1000 BCE, as per scholars of varying persuasions.
In the 10th Mandala of Rig Veda, there is a remarkable hymn (Hymn no 129) – the Nasadiya Sukta (also known as the Hymn of Creation). If Hindu ideas of theodicy differ so markedly from Judeo Christian conceptions of the same, one of the principal reasons for this lies in the roots of the tradition and more specifically in this particular hymn.
As we have discussed, the doctrine of Original Sin in Augustinian theodicy is necessitated by the fact that the New Testament God is an omnipotent all-knowing one, who is perfect. As a perfect god cannot create evil or imperfection, the fall of man becomes an indispensable doctrine, to explain the existence of evil.
But what if God is imperfect? What if the creator himself doesn’t quite know what he is doing? That’s the speculation which is first entertained in Nasadiya Sukta.
The Sukta is a short one and concludes on this note –
“को अद्धा वेद क इह प्र वोचत्कुत आजाता कुत इयं विसृष्टिः |
अर्वाग्देवा अस्य विसर्जनेनाथा को वेद यत आबभूव ॥६॥
इयं विसृष्टिर्यत आबभूव यदि वा दधे यदि वा न |
यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद ॥७॥“
As with most of Rig Veda the mantras are hard to translate as they are in a very archaic Sanskrit that is not entirely comprehensible to us. Nevertheless here’s AL Basham’s translation of the concluding lines of the Sukta quoted above –
“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the Devas (gods) themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows – or maybe even he does not know“
Maybe even he does not know. This is a very significant line in the history of religious thought. Because it posits an idea of God who is not all knowing, not perfect. In fact God could well be agnostic himself.
This has great implications for how the Hindu tradition deals with the problem of evil, as we shall see.
The second chapter of Brahma Sutra: Combating atheism
About one millennium after the composition of the Nasadiya Sukta, there emerged a sage in Northern India named Badarayana, who systematized the teachings of the Upanishads in 555 short aphorisms (called Sutras in the Indian tradition). This text later came to be known as Brahma Sutra or Vedanta Sutra. It is said to have been composed sometime between 200BCE and 200CE, and its essential mission is to provide clues to think about Upanishadic teachings in sutra form.
In the second chapter of this foundational Vedanta text, there are a couple of verses which are very central to Hindu ideas of theodicy.
This literally translates as follows –
“Not on account of having a motive”
The Vedanta Sutra is very much a theistic work. Nevertheless Badarayana engages in Purvapaksha here by positing an atheistic view.
While the literal translation doesn’t tell us much, we have to rely on the commentaries to make sense of this Sutra. Interestingly both Shankara and Ramanuja, the two great Vedantins of early medieval Southern India, writing some 1000 years after the Sutra composition, agree on the interpretation of this Sutra –
“God is possessed of all powers of creation. However nobody engages himself in anything without a motive or a purpose. Every task is undertaken to satisfy a desire. But given that God (Brahman) is self-sufficient, it has nothing to gain from creation. Hence Brahman (God) cannot be the cause of this world”
I have paraphrased Shankara’s Bhashya on the Sutra above. This is arguably the strongest atheistic statement in all of Vedanta literature. God, by nature of being perfect, cannot have desire. Hence he cannot possibly engage in creation.
Ramanuja in his bhashya goes a step further than Shankara and also brings up the existence of evil explicitly as the reason why the self-sufficient Brahman cannot be the creator.
“For a being, all whose wishes are fulfilled, could concern itself about others only with a view to benefitting them. No merciful divinity would create a world so full, as ours is, of evils of all kind–birth, old age, death, hell, and so on;–if it created at all, pity would move it to create a world altogether happy. Brahman thus having no possible motive cannot be the cause of the world”
However Badarayana disposes with the atheistic argument in the very next Sutra!
Translation: “But (it is) mere sport, as in ordinary life.”
This is one of the most important Sutras in all of Badarayana’s work as we shall see later. For one thing it marks the first use of the term “Leela” (pastime) in Indian literature.
Badarayana is essentially defeating the atheistic argument of the previous sutra by claiming that the supreme being can still be the cause of creation if he is engaging in the act as a mere pastime (despite not having a well-defined motive for creation). Both Ramanuja and Shankara agree with this interpretation of Sutra 2.1.33.
Here’s Ramanuja’s bhashya on the same –
“The motive which prompts Brahman–all whose wishes are fulfilled and who is perfect in himself–to the creation of a world comprising all kinds of sentient and non-sentient beings dependent on his volition, is nothing else but sport, play. We see in ordinary life how some great king, ruling this earth with its seven dvîpas, and possessing perfect strength, valor, and so on, has a game at balls, or the like, from no other motive than to amuse himself; hence there is no objection to the view that sport only is the motive prompting Brahman to the creation, sustentation, and destruction of this world which is easily fashioned by his mere will.”
So this is something novel in the history of theology. Here’s a text that is not resorting to “Original Sin” to explain evil, nor is it downplaying evil altogether with materialist value-free arguments. Instead creation is viewed as a sport, as a pastime, engaged in by the supreme soul, notwithstanding its perfection and self-sufficiency.
Leela in Puranic theology
As we discussed Sutra no 2.1.33 is highly influential in Indian intellectual history because of its first use of the term “Leela”. And Leela is a word that would capture the imagination of Indian theologians, particularly of the Vaishnavite kind, for the next 1500 years.
Leela was imprecisely translated as “sport” in the previous section. Because sport, especially in the modern context, suggests a certain motivation and drive and a competitive spirit. Leela in the truest sense is bereft of drive, as it is a pure outpouring of joy and “pure play” that one engages in without any win / lose motive.
And this “pure play” idea took firm root in Puranic literature, particularly in the 10th book of the Bhagavad Purana – the book that discusses the Krishna-avatar and focuses particularly on the exploits of Krishna as a kid. The Krishna of Srimad Bhagavatam is clearly inspired by the idea of Leela first mentioned in Vedanta Sutra. Krishna in Vraj engages in frolic and pastimes with his devotees, without any explicit objectives. Sure, he kills a lot of demons who come his way. But not because he wants to kill them. The modes of killing are almost incidental and a part of his Leela, be it the slaying of Vatsa the calf, Baka the crane, Dhenuka the ass or Kaliya the sea-serpent. The killings are effortless, and not an outcome of a plan.
So what is the Puranic take on the “Problem of Evil”? Puranic theology focuses on the leelas of the deities and given the spontaneity of God’s actions, the existence of evil is not quite a riddle to be solved.
Yet evil exists. And it is undesirable to the human mind. Thanks to the theological precedents in Rig Veda, Brahma Sutras and Puranic literature outlined so far, its origins never were as much of a puzzle to the Indian mind, as to the Western mind. Yet, the theistic Indian intellect could not adopt a stance of indifference towards evil, the way modern materialists do. It had to be rationalized. And that rationalization came pretty early in Indian thought. It came in the Mahabharata, the great Itihaasa of this land.
Karma theory: Rationalizing the existence of evil
The Mahabharata is the first major Indian text to grapple with evil in a very explicit way. It is a book that attempts to theorize the prevalence of random outcomes and to answer that age-old question – “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Here’s a line from the 12th book of the great epic-
“As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps; no man inherits the good or evil act of another man. The fruit is of the same quality as the action”
In the 13th book (Anushasana Parva), Yudhishtira asks Bhishma when the latter is on his bed of arrows following the conclusion of the Great War –
“Is the course of a person’s life already destined, or can human effort shape one’s life?”
Bhishma replies –
“The future is both a function of current human effort derived from free will and past human actions that set the circumstances.”
It is important to note that Karma theory never descended to a negation of Free will. As Bhishma says elsewhere in the same 13th book –
“Happiness comes due to good actions, suffering results from evil actions,
by actions, all things are obtained, by inaction, nothing whatsoever is enjoyed.
If one’s action bore no fruit, then everything would be of no avail,
if the world worked from fate alone, it would be neutralized.”
So evil outcomes are a result of evil actions. As long as actions are not pristine, one is caught in the web of Samsara and cannot find unity with the absolute (Brahman). This has been a very convincing rationalization of the prevalence of evil, which has been popular across the Indian subcontinent for at least the past 2000 years.
However the linkage of outcomes to actions has not gone unchallenged in later Indian thought. We head south to medieval Tamil country where a highly theistic form of Vaishnavism emerged, some variants of which challenged the strong linkage between actions and outcomes.
Revisiting Badarayana’s riddle: The role of Free will in medieval Sri-Vaishnavism
So are actions and outcomes linked in a deterministic way? So it would seem from most orthodox interpretations of Mahabharata and Gita. Nevertheless Badarayana’s assertion that the act of creation itself is a part of God’s playfulness (Leela) remains a thorn in the flesh of Karmic determinism.
If the Almighty is engaging in Leelas without a motive, then how can one safely say that Karma will always determine Phala (outcome)?
In fact even as early as the Gita, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to focus on Karma without thinking of Phala in the famous Verse 47 of Chapter 2 (Karmanyevadhikaraste….) But Krishna does not go to the extent of delinking Karma and Phala.
That leap happened in the Southern country in the 14th/15th century, some three centuries after Ramanuja when a schism broke out between the two branches of Sri-Vaishnavism, the religious movement founded by Ramanuja. These two branches were the Thenkalais (the Southern school) and the Vadakalais (the northern school).
While the Vadakalais stuck to the orthodoxies of an earlier age that extolled Karma, the Thenkalais emerged in the backdrop of an intense devotional movement in Tamil Nadu. The chief thinkers on the Thenkalai wing included men like Manavala Mamunigal and Pillai Lokacharya – who championed divine grace.
God’s grace is spontaneous. And yes, it is a part of his Leela, exactly as the creation itself is a part of his Leela. As a result, human actions including rituals do not necessarily determine outcomes. Outcomes are conditional on God’s grace, which is his business, and cannot be influenced by human intervention.
While the fatalistic theory of spontaneous divine grace discussed above sounds radical in the context of the emphasis on Karma throughout the annals of Indian literature, it is not a total break from the past, because it is very much aligned with the theories of Leela which had emerged in the middle of the 1st millennium CE during the Puranic age.
So to summarize, it is fair to conclude that Indian ideas on the “Problem of evil” are unique and their exceptionalism derives from the ideas of an Agnostic, even playful God, championed in the foundational texts of the tradition, including the Rig Veda and the Brahma Sutras.
While the origin of evil was deemed not to be a huge concern to the Indian mind because of the above reason, the rationalization of evil outcomes definitely has been a far greater riddle which has evoked varying responses.
Among these responses, the theory of Karma has been the most popular and long lasting. It originated in the Upanishads but is elaborated upon primarily in the Mahabharata – the great Itihaasa text. Karma is a word that has become synonymous with Indian religious thought and Karma theory is the one most strongly associated with Indian intellectual thought across the world.
However in the past 1000 years, the Karmic orthodoxy of the Mahabharata has been challenged by the emergence of the Bhakti movement. This movement, with its roots in Southern India, has traditionally placed a great emphasis on the extolling of divine grace. God’s grace is spontaneous and is as much a part of his Leela as the act of creation itself. Hence Karma does not always have a deterministic linkage with Phala, which is the reason why often evil things can befall the most virtuous of men.
The Indian cogitation on the Problem of Evil is definitely one that fascinates, and merits a more rigorous treatment by academics of religion.
I would like to acknowledge Edwin Bryant, whose introductory essay in his work “Krishna : The Beautiful Legend of God” – a translation of the Xth Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavata Mahā Purāṇa, partly inspired the discussion on Leela and Bhakti in the above essay.
Since this piece was published, Ms Rohini Bakshi (twitter : @RohiniBakshi) pointed me to a 1976 work on this topic by Arthur Herman titled “The Problem of Evil and Indian Thought” which may be worth exploring. I plan to take a look at it soon!
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