Problem of evil

Can evil exist? We’re sure that God exists, but if only God existed, life would be monochromatic. Our lives are textured because something interferes with the process of God gently leading us to perfection. And that could be evil. We think of evil in malevolent acts we cannot understand rationally.

We have a strong belief in God but the problem religion faces is our belief in evil. Once man starts to question evil, his faith in God also begins to slip. Belief in evil must be kept high by religions else the congregation lapses. The sinner is made to acknowledge guilt, through which the presence of evil is established.

Because of this, religions focus their instruction on what not to do; seven of the 10 Commandments are prohibitive. Christianity and Islam are unique for their belief in sin, and in Hell, which is actually a Platonic invention.

Islam was influenced by classical Greek thought, but Allama Iqbal pointed out that the Holy Quran itself was actually anti-Classical. The Holy Quran urged the Muslim to observe and engage with nature and not look inward at pure concepts, as Socrates did. Plato thought that sense should be distrusted and man should observe himself for knowledge; Iqbal believed the Holy Quran said the opposite.

Because of this, Iqbal remained convinced that Islam was not incompatible with a scientific temperament. Iqbal did not have the negative view of Hindus that later developed as the basis for the Pakistan movement; his view of Pakistan was positive. He was satisfied that his idea of a Muslim state could include a population that was as inclined towards science as it was to religion.

He thought this had precedent in Islamic history and that the Mutazila revolution sprang from a similar reading of the Holy Quran, but that it was undone by Ibn-e-Rushd’s following of what we can call the Aristotelian line of reason on the nature of God and the universe. Ibn-e-Rushd speculated that man could not be physically present to account for his sins on the Day of Judgement.

This offered Ghazali the opening to attack the early Islamic Aristotelians as heretics. In Iqbal’s words Ghazali’s action “helped the growth of that enervating philosophy” which obscured the Muslim’s vision of the world. Ibn-e-Rushd’s books were burnt in 1197, one year before his death and four years after Richard Lionheart defeated Saladin in the third crusade.

How did Iqbal tackle the problem of evil? He took the view that evil existed as a sort of test, and that without its existence man could not be perfected morally.

Evil was like the wind that resisted the bird but also gave it lift. Without evil the spirit could never soar.

Christianity’s problem with evil is that of sorrow in the world. There shouldn’t be as much pain as there is if God is all powerful and, importantly, has attributes like compassion, mercy and beneficence.

St Thomas Aquinas was the man who resolved this problem for the church. St Thomas (died 1274) finessed Moses Maimonides’s formulation of arriving at God’s personality through the negative path: describing him as what he was not, rather than what he was.

The unknowable aspect of God and His infinity was stressed, taking the argument away from demonstration of his power.

Hinduism has no heaven and hell. It also does not have unremitting evil or, for that matter, ever-shining good. Even Gods have flaws and may make mistakes.

Shiva beheads his son in a jealous rage, Ram tests Sita for her chastity, Indra dispatches lusty Menaka to tempt poor Vishwamitra. Gods can also be malicious: Ganesh is called Vighneshwar, the creator of obstacles; Hindus must appease him to keep his mischief away from them.

There is no heresy in Hinduism. And that gives it a high natural tolerance.

Because Hinduism recognises no one truth, its villains can also have noble qualities. Sita’s kidnapper, the enemy of Lord Ram, Ravan is a great Vedic scholar. Demon Mahishasur’s piety earns him Lord Brahma’s boon of invincibility. In the Mahabarat, Duryodhan shows great chivalry towards Karna when the Pandav brothers sneer at him for his caste.

Elias Canetti observed that the rewards religion promised the faithful were all far off, in the afterlife. This is because a short goal promised by religion would demand demonstration from God and create sceptics instead of believers.

There is an exception to this rule in Hinduism. Hinduism is not about the other world. There is no afterlife in Hinduism and rebirth is always on earth. The goal in Hinduism is to be released entirely.

Its death rites and beliefs — funeral in Kashi — seek freedom from rebirth. Christianity and Islam are about how to enter heaven; Hinduism is about how not to return to earth.

Hinduism recognises that the world is irredeemable: it is what it is. Perhaps this is where the Hindu gets his world view, which is zero-sum, from. We might say that he takes the pessimistic view of society and of his fellow man.

But how does the Hindu retain his faith in God if he has no faith in evil? Through the device of attaching his fate on earth to God. God influences and interferes with life. Religion is about bending this influence towards you through pleas and appeasement through offerings.

This is done not through the miracle, which creates something from nothing, but through fate: by reducing it from someone elsewhere. This gives Hinduism its zero-sum character as a faith.

To this extent the Hindu view of Pantheism is Aristotelian. Its colourful doctrine may be seen as a method to communicate a singular thought. But the parable has become the faith. Pantheists sat outside the Semitic faiths as heretics — Maimonides, Aquinas, Spinoza and Ibn-e-Rushd — waiting for reason to embrace them.

But the Hindu pantheist sat inside the faith as its greatest teacher, Adi Shankara.

It is no coincidence that the Muslims most inclined towards pantheism through the Sufi, are those of the Indian subcontinent: it is rooted in their culture, unlike Muslims elsewhere in the world.

Pantheism is uncomfortable with the existence of evil, because it does not admit anything outside of itself.

Ultimately pantheism leads to questioning the existence of an Abrahamic God, one with a personality and attributes. That is why the orthodoxy aligned against Ibn-e-Rushd and Ibn-e-Arabi, and why they were uncomfortable with wahdat al-wujood.

All of Islam’s reformers in India — Shah Waliullah, Iqbal and Maudoodi — attacked syncretic Islam because they worried it made the Muslim pantheist.

Hindu philosophy has a strong parallel strain that questions the existence of a supreme being. One powerful group of Hindus, the mercantile Jains, do not believe in the existence of a creator and all-powerful God but are still deeply religious!

A pantheistic God is really no God in the sense that we believe, because he is not influential. He cannot demonstrate his power through the miracle — which is a temporary suspension of nature — because that would mean nature suspending itself.

By Aakar Patel: The writer is a former newspaper editor who lives in Bombay. Email:

Courtesy The News: Sunday, December 07, 2008:

Problem of evil: