The Problem Of Evil In The Western And Indian Traditions

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The problem of evil in the Western tradition

The problem of evil in the Western tradition examines how Western thinkers have dealt with the problem of evil. Epicurus, Plato, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, J. S. Mill, Josiah Royce, John Hick and many other thinkers in the west explicitly made attempts to solve the problem of evil in their own ways.

St. Augustine saw it as one of the major challenges to his and apparently to all Christian’s belief in God. In his Confession, Augustine writes that the sole purpose of his intellectual efforts was to identify ‘the origin of evil.’ (Herman, 1976, p. 11)

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For maintaining the divine omnipotence, St. Augustine is driven to the position that God is the cause of everything that happens in the world. But God is all-benevolent. Thus, evil is to be eradicated from the world or it is to be explained away.

Augustine holds firmly to the Hebrew-Christian conviction that the universe is good- that is to say; it is a creation of a good God for a good purpose. There are, according to Augustine, higher and lower, greater and lesser goods in immense abundance and variety; however, everything that has being is good in its own way and degree, except insofar as it has become spoiled or corrupted. Evil whether it be an evil will, an instance of pain, or some disorder or decay in nature- has therefore not seen set there by God but represents the going wrong of something that is inherently good. Augustine points to blindness as an example. Blindness is not a ‘thing’. The only thing involved is the eye, which is in itself good; the evil of blindness consists of the lack of proper functioning of the eye. Generalizing the principle, Augustine holds that evil always consists of the malfunctioning of something that is in itself good. (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 1990, pp. 41-42) The understanding of evil as something negative means it is not willed and created by God. But according to St. Augustine, the universe was a perfect harmony expressing the creative divine intention.

How then did evil come about? It came about initially in those levels of the universe that involve free will: the free will of the angels and of human beings. Some of the angels turned from the supreme Good which is God, to lesser goods, thereby rebelling against their creator; they in turn tempted the first man and woman to fall. This fall of angelic and human beings was the origin of moral evil or sin. The natural evils, such as, disease, earthquakes, storms and so on are the penal consequence of sin, for humanity was intended to be the guardian of the earth, and this human defection has set all nature awry. Thus, Augustine could say, “All evil is either sin or the punishment for sin.” (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 1990, p. 42)

The problem of evil dealt by John Hick who is a philosopher and theological one raises the question: Can the presence of evil in the world be reconciled with the existence of a God who is unlimited both in goodness and in power? This is a problem equally for the believer and for the non-believer. In the mind of the latter, it stands as a major obstacle to religious commitment, whilst for the former, it sets up an acute internal tension to disturb his faith and to live upon it a perpetual burden of doubt. (Hick, Evil & the God of Love, 2010, p. 3)

The approach to the problem of evil that Hick takes is to see the problem resting on the deprivation or privative notion of evil. (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 1990, p. 69)

“Evil is thus loss and lack, a deprivation of good….it tends, by its inherently negative character towards nullity and non-existence. As a characterization of evil within the framework of Christian theology, the privative definition must be accepted as wholly sound. It represents the only possible account of the creation of an omnipotent and good God.” (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 1990, p. 69)

The problem arises, Hick urges, only for a religion which ‘insists that the object of its worship is at once perfectly good and ultimately powerful.’ While this may not be enough to generate the theological problem of human evil, it will nonetheless start us on the road to it. Coupled with this deprivation notion of evil is the familiar concept of sin from which concept Hick develops his own idea of the problem of evil. (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 1990, p. 69)

“And because sin thus belongs to our own innermost nature and it is at the same time the source of so many forms of evils it has usually and surely rightly, been seen as constituting the heart of the problem of evil.” (Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 1990, p. 70)

Hick has identified with a branch of theodicy that he calls ‘Iranian theodicy’ or the ‘Soul-Making Defense’. A simplification of this view states that suffering exists as a means of spiritual development. In other words, God allows suffering so that human souls might grow or develop towards maturation. For Hick, God is ultimately responsible for pain and suffering, but such things are not truly bad. Perhaps with a greater degree of perception, one can see that the ‘evil’ we experience through suffering is not ultimately evil but good, as such is used to ‘make our souls’ better.

Therefore, Hick sees the evils of pain and suffering as serving God’s good purpose of bringing ‘imperfect and immature’ humanity to itself in uncompelled faith and love. At the same time, Hick acknowledges that this process often fails in our world.

However, in the after-life, Hick asserts that “God will eventually succeed in His purpose of winning all men to Himself.” (Hick, Evil & the God of Love, 1977, p. 342)

Indian Thinkers Views on Evil:

Indian thinkers like Swami Vivekananda, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore deals with the problem of evil from their own perspective.

According to Swami Vivekananda, there are good and evil everywhere in the world. Sometimes evil becomes good true, but at other times good becomes evil also. All our senses produce evil sometimes or other. According to Vivekananda, when a man drink wine, it is not bad (at first) but when he goes on drinking, it will produce evil. A man is born of rich parents, good enough, but he may become a fool if he never exercises his body or brain. That is good producing evil. So good and evil are relative terms. The thing good for me may be bad for another. The same thing is good at one part of our life and bad at another part.

According to Vivekananda, God did not create evil in the world at all. We have made it and we have to make it good. Good ways of doing things and bad ways of doing things are opposed to one another. The Good act is useful by favoring; the bad or evil act is harmful. Moral philosophers often discuss good and evil. Whether an act is morally good or bad depends upon its character of being beneficial or harmful, i.e., depends upon the way in which it offers the good of various things. The beneficial and the harmful are related to subjects. Vivekananda says,

“Here the earth soaked sometimes with widow’s tears, there in the West the air is rent with sights of the unmarried. Here poverty is the greatest bane of life; there the life weariness of luxury is the great bane that is upon the race. Evil is everywhere, it is like chronic rheumatism. Drive it from the foot, it goes to the head, drive it from there, it goes somewhere else. It is a question chasing it from place to place, that is all. Our philosophy teaches the evil and good are eternally conjoined, they observe and the rivers of the same coin. Nay, all life is evil. No breath can be breathed without killing someone else. Not a morsel of good can be eaten without depriving someone of it. All this work against evil is more subjective than objective, more educational than actual, however big we may talk.” (Swami Vivekananda)

According to Vivekananda, God has been conceived as Supreme goodness. In God there is no distinction between good and evil. For him, we have to move to the tremendous contradiction that wherever there is good, there must also be evil, and they must be some good, wherever there is life, death must follow as its shadow.

Sri Aurobindo discusses evil in the context of his original metaphysical theory according to which the problem is a temporary phenomenon indispensable during the evolutionary process. In an attempt to solve the problem of evil, Sri Aurobindo thinks that the problem arises due to a misconception. Some people wrongly think of Brahman as an extra-cosmic personal God. They conceive of God not as this very universe but as one who has created this universe of evil, pain and suffering for His creatures and He Himself remains unaffected and unconcerned. He further says that on the basis of the theory of an extra-cosmic God, the problem of evil and suffering cannot be solved. However, he believes in the Vedantic conception of God according to which He is one without the second. He is one with the Universe and all that exists in it. Now, if there is evil and suffering in the world, He Himself who bears it in the creature in whom He has embodied Himself. Thus, according to this point of view, the problem is totally changed. We cannot say that God has created evil for his creatures. If evil exists, He Himself is the sufferer. (Rafique, 1987, p. 70)

Now the problem appears before us in a different manner: Sachchidananda, being all-Bliss how does He come to admit pain and suffering into Him? Being absolutely free, why does He not reject the pain and suffering? (Rafique, 1987, p. 70)

Now Sri Aurobindo says that in the process of manifestation into multiple forms, Sachchidananda has distributed in each form His delight just as He has distributed His consciousness-force. (Aurobindo, 1970, pp. 151-152) We can experience delight behind each and every form if we see from the real point of view. Since Sachchidananda has chosen to manifest Himself through a practical world, effective action in this world will not be possible without practical point of view. Hence, we experience the variations of pure delight- pleasure, pain and indifference. Thus, in ordinary or normal life, this truth of all-pervasiveness of pure delight remains hidden from us. But in reality, there is a vast Bliss-self behind the superficial and limited mental-self. A superficial self cannot be the real self. Thus, when we are able to return to our real life, we experience only pure delight in place of pain and suffering. (Aurobindo, 1970, p. 158)


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