The Presence Of Evil As A Problem To Every Theistic Account Of The Universe

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The presence of evil in the world presents a problem to every theistic account of the universe. Tagore is also faced with that problem. Especially when he speaks about a state of joy and freedom as the ultimate destiny, he is obliged to take up and solve the problem that evil presents. (Lal, 1978, p. 79) According to Rabindranath Tagore,

“The question why it is evil in existence is the same as why there is imperfection, or in other words, why there is creation at all.” (Tagore, 1921, p. 85)

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Tagore does not hesitate in accepting evils as facts of life. Our experiences of life confirm their reality. Evil is an imperfection, and as such, it has to be there in creation, because the creation itself is a limitation of God. All created beings are finite and limited, and therefore, evils that naturally follow from finitude and limitation have to be there. Thus, the problem is discussed in awareness of the fact that in an imperfect creation evil are inevitable. (Lal, 1978, p. 79)

What, then, is the problem of evil? Evil presents a problem to the theist because he finds it difficult to reconcile its presence with the creator-God, who is omnipotent, omniscient and good. The problem before him is; how can we be there in the creation of such a God? But the problem does not present itself to Tagore in that form, because he does not accept the very assumption of the problem thus conceived. He does not feel the necessity of accepting the creation of an omnipotent and good God cannot be imperfect. On the other hand, he feels that creation as creation has to be imperfect. (Lal, 1978, p. 79)

In Tagore’s thought, the problem of evil is not related to the existence of evil so much as the way in which the experience of evil arises. According to him, evil is a necessary aspect of existence and existence itself is not evil. He says in Sadhana:

“If existence were evil, it would wait for no philosopher to prove it. It is like convicting a man of suicide, while all the time he stands before you in the flesh. Existence itself is here to prove that it cannot be evil”. (Tagore, 1921, p. 94)

Now, it is clear that, according to Tagore, evil is a fact of finite existence, and yet, existence itself is not evil. What then is the problem of evil? Tagore says that evil presents a problem only when we come to think that it is a permanent and final aspect of existence. If we view at evil in that way, we get the uneasy feeling that it cannot be dispensed with. But Tagore asserts that that is not the correct way of looking at evil. The finite aspects of creation or of man are all real, but they have to be superseded. Going beyond them is not rejecting the reality, just as crossing a mile-post is not rejecting the reality of that mile-post. Thus, evil are fact, but they are not the ultimate fact. (Lal, 1978, pp. 79-80) Tagore fully recognizes the existence of evil in the world, and not some accidental accompaniment to our life but as something pervasive and central to it. Even during his darkest periods, however, Tagore is able to translate his moments of despair and into ones of hope. Tagore’s writings attest to the belief that the existence and experience of evil cannot override our faith in beauty, goodness and harmony. (Gupta, 2005, pp. 88-89)

‘The Problem of Evil’ deals with the fact that suffering and pain and evil in the world are only in permanent though we imagine it to be a standstill and therefore exaggerate its presence. (Aruna, 2010) Our familiar and erroneous tendency, Tagore maintains, is to consider and evaluate evils in isolation from the wider context of life. If, for example, we keep the ‘searchlight of our observation turned upon’ death, he says, the world will appear to us like a ‘huge charnel house’. But it will only appear this way if we fail to keep in view the wholeness of life of which death is part. Only when we isolate the fact of death, do we experience its blankness, become dismayed and morbidly brood over it. The point is brought out by Tagore with the help of a useful analogy. A piece of cloth looks beautiful to us even though, were we to look at it through a microscope, we would find it full of ugly, jagged holes. These holes are indeed parts of the cloth, but they in no way spoil its beauty when the cloth is viewed from an appropriate standpoint. Only when they are unduly magnified do they interfere with the enjoyment of the whole piece of material. (Gupta, 2005, p. 90)

Tagore says that evil must not be viewed as the very antithesis of good, just as imperfection is not the opposite of perfection. It is on account of such an outlook that evil appears as ultimate. It is because we concentrate on the evil as is seen- without relating it to other aspects of life, that is to say, because we look at it as an isolated and separated fact, that it appears as ultimate. But truth cannot be known by fragmentary or a piecemeal point of view, Truth lies in the consciousness of the whole, therefore, the proper perspective to see the truth of a thing is to relate it to the whole. (Lal, 1978, p. 80) Tagore says in Sadhana:

“In fact, imperfection is not a negation of perfection; finitude is not contradictory to infinity; they are but completeness manifested in parts, infinity revealed within bounds.” (Tagore, 1921, p. 86)

This point can be explained clearly with the help of an analogy. We watch a child trying to walk. In the process he falls again and again, even gets hurt. If we view it in that way, the sight would appear as cruel. But, if we realize that the failures and falls are but necessary stages or steps towards his eventually learning to walk, the whole site is a source of joy to us. Likewise, let us take the example of the phenomenon of death. Death is considered to be the greatest evil. But according to Tagore, death is evil if it is viewed as a separate incident affecting a particular individual. But if it is viewed in relation to the whole it would appear not as evil but as an aspect of the perfect plan of the universe. (Lal, 1978, p. 80) As Rabindranath Tagore puts it in Sadhana:

“We lose sight of the wholeness of life of which death is part. It is like looking at a piece of cloth through a microscope. It appears like a net; we gaze at the big holes and shiver in imagination. But the truth is, death is not the ultimate reality. It looks black as the sky looks blue, but it does not blacken existence, just as the sky does not leave its stain upon the wings of the bird.” (Tagore, 1921, pp. 90-91)

To appreciate the harmony and beauty of the world, then, it is not necessary to deny or ignore such evils as death. Rather we must nurture the capacity to regard the world as a whole, within which even these ‘blemishes’ have their place. (Gupta, 2005, p. 91)

To regard the world in this way, we need to achieve what might be called the appropriate aesthetic distance from phenomena. If, to vary the cloth example, we stand very near to a tree, we will be aware only of the wrinkles on the bark of its trunk. But viewed from an appropriate distance, the tree as a whole will look stately, balanced and beautiful. To maintain the appropriate aesthetic distance from such objects of nature is not, generally, something difficult. It is more difficult to achieve this distance from the situations of life in which we are involved. In connection with these, we tend to be in the position of an actor who, preoccupied with his particular role, is unable to grasp the total structure and narrative of the play. Standing in the midst of life, with all its dramas, sorrows and sufferings, it is not east to step back and to attain to a perspective on the whole. (Gupta, 2005, p. 91) Tagore elaborates the point as follows:

“Since human beings are very near to us, we are always prone to magnify their limitations or smallness. Since we are in the human world very intimately, the terrible steam arising out of different conflicts and tumults of human life suffocates us. We attend only to poverty, disease, famine, different acts of barbarism, but not infinite harmony which is thereby appropriating all the evils of life”. (Gupta, 2005, p. 91)

What we have just been describing is a response to evils by Tagore. But there is also a different kind of response that he makes- that of a man of action. For Tagore, it is through action, as much as through aesthetic perspective, that a person should confront evil.

This is made clear in the poem ‘Romantic’, where he writes that the real world with all its poverty, disease and ugliness is one that calls upon him to respond with the ‘weapon’ of hard, uncompromising action. For the poet or artist who achieves appropriate aesthetic distance, harmony and beauty are discernible behind or beyond the jarring, ugly aspects of life. For the man of action, however, the immediate imperative is not one of aesthetic detachment from evils, but achieves involvement in confrontation with them. Harmony, for such a man, is not something given, but something to be achieved by combating these evils. What motivates him to fight against evil is faith in the ultimate triumph of good, the belief that what is good is achievable, and that, therefore, harmony may be established. He is confirmed in this belief by the recognition that everything in the world is forever changing and flowing forwards, so that evils are always and necessarily transitory. They pass on or pass by, or become, as it were, transmuted into good. (Gupta, 2005, p. 92)

As Tagore puts it in Sadhana:

“Could we collect the statistics of the immense amount of death and putrefaction happening every moment in this earth, they would appeal us. But evil is ever moving; with all its incalculable immensity it does not effectually clog the current of our life; and we find that the earth, water and air remain sweet and pure for living beings”. (Tagore, 1921, p. 88)

For Tagore, the main question is not “why there is evil?” Since he thinks the updated world has to be imperfect. For him the key question concerns whether evil is ultimate, final, or not susceptible to further analysis. Tagore’s answer is ‘no’. (Rich, 2007)

Rabindranath uses a number of analogies to help familiarize us the point he is making here. A river, for example, has banks that prevent it from flowing in certain directions, but they are not simply obstacles: on the contrary, it is the banks that make possible the onwards flow of the river. Similarly, a boat has its tow-rope which, while restraining its movements, also serves to draw the boat forwards. Again, the hard floor on which the child keeps falling when learning to walk is painful, but it is the very same floor that finally enables the child to walk ahead, and even the painful knocks it has received serve as an impetus to the goal of walking. Analogously, we meet the meaning of obstacles and setbacks in our daily life: ‘the unyielding sureness of reality’ very often ‘crosses our will’, causing frustration and suffering. But this very obstacle enables us intelligently to direct our lives and move ahead, like the river. And just, as those hard falls served to teach the child how to walk, so painful setbacks in life belong to our education as rational, self-directing beings. (Gupta, 2005, p. 93)

Evil, then, is an impermanent aspect of our finite existence. Its nature is like that of error, which we always come across in our intellectual life, and yet which is always impermanent. For example, if we survey the history of the growth of scientific knowledge, we find that it always progresses through mistakes. Every time a mistake is committed, something new comes up removing the mistake. That shows that error is essentially impermanent. So is evil. Again, this analogy itself throws light on another relevant point. Although in the history of scientific growth error has-been by far more numerous than the discovery of truth, nobody remembers the mistakes of science. It is the truths discovered that are remembered. (Lal, 1978, p. 81) In the same general way, human history is full of evil episodes, but it is nevertheless a story of progress and growth that tells of increasing approximation to goodness.

Through struggling against poverty, disease and premature death- but also by combating selfishness or confinement to the ‘narrow’ self- men and women have succeeded, albeit slowly and with difficulty, in enabling greater harmony, in society and in their individual lives, than existed in past centuries. (Gupta, 2005, p. 93)

Tagore is pointing out that an imperfection such as pain can serve as a means to good. Nature is red in tooth and claw, but the struggle for existence creates other goods, such as, self-sacrifice and love. Moreover, overcoming evils helps us to build our characters. For instance, if there were never anything to fear, how could be become courageous? As Tagore says, “Our will, our character, has to attain perfection by continually overcoming evil”. Further, from a moral plane, one may embrace pain as a means to a higher good, such as freedom or justice. Therefore, far from being ultimate, pain may be a necessary part of bringing about higher goods. (Rich, 2007)

Tagore has an optimistic approach to life; He believes in the ultimate goodness of the world process. In Tagore’s philosophy, we find that no evil is permanent or absolute, as it influences a man to remove all his imperfections through the realization of his perfect nature. From Tagore’s transcendental attitude

“Evil cannot altogether arrest the course of life on the highway and rob it of its possessions. For the evil has to pass on, it has to grow into good; it cannot stand and give battle to all”. (Chattopadhyay, 1987, p. 115)

Now in this context, the idea of pantheism may also be referred to, which accepts the relativity of evil and points out that evil is a necessary step or a means to the good. Evil is neither the denial of goodness, nor an illusion, nor absolutely necessary. Evil appears as an absolute evil due to the imperfect realization of truth. Evil and fighting for freedom from evil are real as the later procedure of life inspires man to realize higher freedom as harmony. Hegel rightly points about that life is for the achievement of higher unity in diversity. (Chattopadhyay, 1987, p. 116)

Tagore maintains that obviously, there are evils and sufferings in our life, but how can we ignore the fact that there are also ‘law and order, beauty and joy, goodness and love’? (Gupta, 2005, p. 93) For Tagore:

“Man does not really believe in evil, just as he cannot believe that violin strings have been purposely made to create the exquisite torture of discordant notes, through by the aid of statistics it can the mathematically proved that the probability of discord is far greater than that of harmony, and for one who can play the violin, there are thousands who cannot. Yet potentiality of profession outweighs actual contradictions.” (Tagore, 1921, pp. 93-94)

Here Tagore is telling us not only what he believes to be the case but something that for pragmatic reasons of mental or spiritual health it is good to believe. We are more likely to flourish as human beings if we develop the positive feeling that the potentiality of the good outweighs actual evils that the direction of humanity is from evil to good. (Gupta, 2005, p. 94)

Further, according to Tagore, facing our limitations in knowledge, power, and will, can also help us realize our true selves. Realizing our weaknesses may make us miserable, but this realization also points to an ideal of perfection. According to this ideal, the infinite is in us. In fact, according to Tagore, our true self is not an individual self but a universal self. Implicit here is a distinction between Maya (appearance) and Satyam (truth). Tagore says that “Our self is Maya where it is merely individual and finite, where it considers its separateness as absolute; it is Satyam where it recognizes its essence in the universal and infinite, in the supreme self, in Paramatma”. This supreme self is Brahman. (Rich, 2007)


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