The Case of "Normal" Evil
Posted March 2, 2011
Part one of this series examined faith and paranormal evil. This part of the series examines a greater and more common challenge to faith- the existence of evil itself- outside of paranormal activity. This is a complex subject which cannot be broached in a short essay, hence this essay is a little longer than the last one…
For both devotees and non-devotees the greatest challenge to faith has always been the existence of evil. If God is all-good and all-powerful, then why does He allow evil in the world? Armed with the philosophy of the gita, we have an answer for that- past life karma, yet we also know that Krsna steps in at different times to protect His devotees from evil, whether or not their past life karma justifies it. The real deal-breaker for many people is the circumstance where a devotee is praying for deliverance and nothing happens, and he is tortured in a helpless condition by demons. Such happened in the case of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and such also happened with many of the gurukulis, at the hands of their teachers. One only has to empathize even slightly with them, to have one’s faith challenged to the core. How could you believe or love a God to whom you prayed, and He did nothing?
Returning to the gita, and its background, the Mahabharata, this story is not so different… Though Krsna did step in at different times, such as to protect Draupadi’s modesty, where was He when Asvatthama killed her sleeping sons? If anything, Draupadi needed His intervention more desperately in the latter situation- certainly her sons did! Why does Krsna not intervene in every situation of evil, or why does evil so rarely provoke a miracle from Him?
The clue to this can be found in Prabhupada’s purports to the gita- Krsna could well have killed all the Kauravas Himself, but He did not- He wanted His devotee to get all the credit. This situation is present in every facet of our daily lives, from our teenagers having problems, to the tension between nations. We are all meant to be heroes- for each other. Krsna does not step in, only because He wants us to be benefited within by heroic and selfless activity – and yet He is not aloof either- He acts as the voice of conscience within each individual, urging us to step in when needed and burdening us with feelings of guilt when we do not.
Therefore, as a general rule, evil is conspicuous by its absence, and the world is good. Parents love their kids, teachers try to educate them, strangers rush to the aid of an elderly person who has tripped. In the “normal” course of events, those who are frail and needy are offered help, facility and protection. If it were not so, we would not be shocked and outraged when parents or teachers or even strangers prove themselves not the well-wishers of others, but sources of evil. Because it is relatively unusual, the newspapers can sell such stories. Never in the headlines do we read “boy picked up groceries for pregnant lady who fell over” but commonly we read of elderly people getting assaulted. We are outraged, because it is not the way things are supposed to be in the world. This proves that there is an order, a common voice of conscience speaking the same message from within: “BE your brother’s (and sister’s) keeper!”
When the voice is listened to, we do not put credit to God, but the heroes on earth who follow it, just as Arjuna got all the credit for fighting. But when the voice is not listened to, and people walk past a young girl getting kicked in the head, or teachers beat or sexually abuse their pupils, or Jewish children are gassed, we ask “where is God? How could He permit such a thing? Why He did not step in and stop it?” Thus God has set up a situation where He rarely gets credit, but always the blame, and the reason is, He wants credit to go to His devotees, and He wants them to feel guilt and remorse when they do not act as heroes but cowering sycophants, or simply demons.
It would seem that this plan for making us into heroes, has its sacrificial lambs when we do not become participants in the hero-making process. God may be very good in trying to make us into heroes, but where are His good intentions for the victims? That goodness can be found again- in conscience, again- in hero-making. Either within the person who has committed the evil, or within people who have observed or heard of it, there is a stirring within to act for the benefit of the victim, the stirring of emotions of guilt in the perpetrator, of sorrow in others, of the desire to be rid of the evil by an overwhelming sense of compassion. We may try to write the victim an encouraging email, or donate to a fund for his recovery, or we may enact laws that protect children from abuse, or from nations enacting human rights transgressions. Within each of the observers of evil, a seed of heroism is born- but it must be watered. If we ignore it, it will die. If we offer justification like being too preoccupied with other things, again the hero in us will die. If the preoccupation is so-called devotional service, we will not derive benefit from it, for we will not please the Lord by such shrinking. Arjuna also wanted to shrink from duty, on plea of attraction to meditation, but Krsna made clear His intentions- religious activities such as meditation or chanting are never an excuse to retreat from heroism. Rather, heroism itself is a religious duty, from which no good intention justifies its avoidance.
It may be argued “Arjuna was a ksatriya. It was his duty to act as a hero. I am not a ksatriya, I do not have to be a hero to please the Lord” If that is the case, then why do we all feel guilt for what happened to the gurukulis? Appeal to varna does not absolve us from the responsibility that comes from being a human being, and one does not have to be brave to act according to conscience…
I found out this one morning at prasadam time, several years ago. Outside the prasadam room we could hear an argument going on. As it was becoming heated, I asked my husband to see what was wrong, and he returned, a little amused. “It’s about astrology. D prabhu thinks it’s valuable for the movement, and M prabhu disagrees. M says ‘it’s against Prabhupada’ ” Quickly however, there was a change in the tone of the philosophical disagreement- from challenging to threatening. I ran outside, ignoring several people’s request not to get involved. To my shock, D Prabhu, who was of slight build, was huddled over on the ground while M, who was very muscular, was raining fist blows on his back with all his strength. I screamed for him to stop. When he did not, my screaming became hysterical. I appealed to the male onlookers to help, but they just yelled back at me not to get involved. Looking back, if I were a ksatriya, I would floored both the offender and the callous onlookers. If I were a brahmana I would have reasoned with them, maybe a vaisya would have bargained, but all I could do was lament, extremely loudly. But hopefully it was my screaming that distracted M from doing further harm, as he soon desisted.
The lesson from this is that conscience speaks to us all, whether or not we have the full capability to respond to it. In our own ways, we must be a hero, even if it is in a very non-impressive way, for the goal, at least as devotees, is not the glory of a fight, or even the glory of heroism, but heroism itself, even if unimpressive, even if ordinary, even just as being another anonymous donor to a former gurkuli, needing help, or an anonymous signatory to “an appeal for zero tolerance of child abuse”. .
Thus, Arjuna was told by Krsna that even if he lost the fight, he would gain the heavenly kingdom, the association of the Lord’s associates and servants. It was not victory or glory, but the act of heroism, of doing what is right, that brings one into resonance with the Lord’s plan. He does not want victims, but heroes, and as the victim recovers through the help, love and support of His heroes, all again becomes right in the world.
In light of the law of karma, of course, there is no evil, as suffering even enacted upon an innocent is simply the result of their past life karma. From our point of view, who cannot see the past misdoings of the innocent, such cruelty is a gross injustice, and thus the saintly kings of yore were always the protectors of the innocent and the vulnerable. They never misused the law of karma, which they certainly knew about, to avoid their duty, which was to protect their subjects from fear and suffering.
Arjuna tried to retreat from his responsibility to protect the citizens from the evil rule of the murderous Duryodhana, but Krsna informed him “there is action in inaction”. In other words, shirking from one’s responsibility to protect, when either given by the Lord directly- as Krsna… or indirectly -as His voice of conscience, brings about reaction, as much as if one perpetrated the offense oneself. Simply looking on or walking away while someone is being punched, or a gurukuli is abused, or a woman is being disrobed, makes one culpable for severe reaction, as the Kaurava’s discovered on the Battlefield.
Through such instructions in the sastra, through conscience, or by Divine intercession, the Lord is ever willing to reverse the law of karma towards a higher principle- the law of mercy. Just as He reduces the karma of all who look towards Him, disregarding whatever they did in the past- in a sense “forgetting” it, so should we, who have no direct knowledge of past karma anyway, seek to reduce the karma of all who look towards us. We are godly when we do the work of God, when we come again and again to destroy the evil-doers and protect the innocent.
There is another sense in which there is no evil in the world- for that which we call evil brings out the best in people, whereas the normal course of events (whereby we are all placid well-wishers of each other) tends to make us complacent and self-absorbed. What is called evil is not only the cruelty of human beings, but also apparently the cruelty of God. In this case, it looks like God has turned His back on the world, or turned against it… Piles and piles of merciless rubble cover victims- why did He cause the earth to shake in areas where people can be crushed? If it were only the law of karma, then why are we not allowed to see cause and effect? It simply seems cruel and unjust, and thinking so, we rise to the occasion, and digging deep into our pockets, we give aid to Haiti’s victims.
This sense of compassion is not so much evident in India, where being born in a Delhi slum, with no hope for a life better than struggling with a rickshaw or picking over garbage, is seen as working off bad karma. What compassion, to let people work off their karma by starving and going without decent housing, work conditions and medical assistance? This is the dangerous aspect of knowledge of the law of karma (and could arguably be the poisonous fruit of the tree of knowledge described in the Bible). While it helps us to understand evil from a philosophical perspective, it can make us complacent, and gradually, maybe even callous. It can take away the responsibility to be God-like, when one sees ultimate justice in all things, for one may see no longer the necessity for human justice, and may even see compassionate action as simply interfering with the law of karma.
The lives of saintly people, close to God, and God’s own words, attest firmly to the contrary: though the living entities receive their due karma by suffering, it is also true that an onlooker (such as the Kauravas) standing back and letting it happen, even though able to intervene, perpetrates an evil deed, and karmic action is thus accrued- “there is action in inaction”. By acting according to God’s law of mercy, one accrues no reaction, indeed, one is freed from it, both past and present.
It may be argued that devotees have no interest in the body- they know they are not the body and want to save the drowning man, not his clothes! In this analogy, however, one saves both the man and his clothes, not that one removes the clothes and saves his body only. On the other hand, we have no interest to only save clothes, or bodies, and enact humanitarian works devoid of spiritual compassion. But when humanitarian works and spiritual guidance go hand in hand, as in Prabhupada’s instruction “let no person in a ten mile radius of any temple, ever go hungry” then it is perfect religiosity.
Similarly, he wrote: “saintly persons are always anxious to see how the people can be happy, both materially and spiritually (SB 4.14.7 pp) . There is a net effect of spiritual compassion in that it fosters faith in God, but material compassion has the same effect as well. When others see devotees being kind and merciful, gentle and always compassionate, within them is born the seed of faith. They are attracted to such behavior, and want to know the philosophy behind it, and follow it themselves. On the other hand, when we hear of priests or devotees enacting child abuse, and the church or ISKCON covering it up, we can be sure that many people will swear never to join any such church or temple. They will see religion as evil, the justification of so much cruelty. They will put forth arguments like ”if God is all good and all-powerful, then why does He allow such evil?” Such is only perceived when God’s followers do nothing- or perpetrate evil. When the religious seek to put things right in the world, God’s order is seen in the chaos, and there is no loss of faith, rather faith is born.
Ironically our philosophical explanation of evil, the law of past life karma, must be balanced by ignoring it in relation to others, or else we may enact evil by the consequences of inaction. A devotee sees only his own suffering as past life karma, for others he does whatever he can to relieve it. This can be seen in the Srimad Bhagavatam, first canto, where mother Bhumi is attributing her suffering at the hands of Kali, to her own karma or fault, whereas Pariksit, ignoring such philosophy, sought only to relieve her, in great earnest. In fact, such philosophical explanations by Mother Bhumi did not succeed, in any way, to quell his outraged fury at Kali’s cruelty! Similarly, Arjuna was prepared to enter fire if he could not relieve the brahmana’s distress at losing his sons. Saintly characters know when to use the law of karma to inspire faith, and when to ignore it, to evoke the same. That is the irony of their character, through which they enact the pastimes of the unfathomable Lord.
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