Problem of evil in Hinduism

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The standard problem of evil found in monotheistic religions does not apply to almost all traditions of Hinduism because it does not posit an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator.[1][2]

Scholars have proposed alternate forms of the problem of evil based on Hinduism's karma and transmigration doctrines. According to Arthur Herman, karma-transmigration theory solves all three historical formulations to the problem of evil while acknowledging the theodicy insights of Adi Sankara and Ramanuja.[3]


Hinduism is a complex religion with many different currents or schools.[4] Its non-theist traditions such as Samkhya, early Nyaya, Mimamsa and many within Vedanta do not posit the existence of an almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god (monotheistic god), and the classical formulations of the problem of evil and theodicy do not apply to most Hindu traditions. Further, deities in Hinduism are neither eternal nor omnipotent nor omniscient nor omnibenevolent. Devas are mortal and subject to samsara. Evil as well as good, along with suffering is considered real and caused by human free will, its source and consequences explained through the karma doctrine of Hinduism, as in other Indian religions.[5][6][7]

Both evil (agha, अघ) and suffering (dukkha, दुःख) are extensively discussed in ancient and medieval Hindu texts.[8][9][10] However, neither good nor evil, neither bliss nor suffering are linked to gods or god, but considered a part of the innate nature of living in the Saṃsāra cycle of rebirths.[11] In Hindu thought, some suffering is self-caused (karma in this life or past life, either intentionally or from ignorance), some caused by evilness of others, some are natural (aging, disease, natural disasters).[8][10][12] Some texts include the actions or influence of supernatural forces on evil experienced by man. One text of the ancient Samkhya school of Hinduism, for example describes three kinds of suffering: first, of body and mind caused by diseases or personal behavior such as anger, greed, delusion, etc.; second, suffering caused by other beings such as men, beasts, reptiles etc.; third, suffering caused by the influence of yaksha, planets and such forces.[12] The Hindu texts describe and discuss suffering caused by both moral evils and natural evils.[12]

Hinduism and other Indian religions do not focus on the problem of evil as formulated in monotheistic religions, by attempting to reconcile the nature of one all-powerful, all-seeing, all-benevolent god with existence of evil.[11] Rather, they focus on the path to spiritual liberation called moksha, one that grants bliss in the present life such that evil and suffering have no effect on the liberated person's state of inner peace and happiness, and attaining moksha also means an end to the cycle of rebirth.[9][13][14] In theistic devotional sub-traditions of Hinduism, the personal god such as Krishna or Shiva or Devi is believed by the Hindu to stand by, as a form of spiritual support and liberator, when one faces evil and suffers.[12]

Problem of Injustice in the Brahma sutras[edit]

A version of the problem of evil appears in the ancient Brahma Sutras, probably composed between 200 BCE and 200 CE,[15] a foundational text of the Vedanta tradition of Hinduism.[16] Its verses 2.1.34 through 2.1.36 aphoristically mention a version of the problem of suffering and evil in the context of the abstract metaphysical Hindu concept of Brahman.[17][18] The verse 2.1.34 of Brahma Sutras asserts that inequality and cruelty in the world cannot be attributed to the concept of Brahman, and this is in the Vedas and the Upanishads. In his interpretation and commentary on the Brahma Sutras, the 8th-century scholar Adi Shankara states that just because some people are happier than others and just because there is so much malice, cruelty and pain in the world, some state that Brahman cannot be the cause of the world.[17] Shankara attributes evil and cruelty in the world to Karma of oneself, of others, and to ignorance, delusion and wrong knowledge,[18] but not to the abstract Brahman.[17] Shankara develops the argument that God is not the Brahman, and that "a loving and good God could not have created the universe", a position held by Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism.[19]

For that would lead to the possibility of partiality and cruelty. For it can be reasonably concluded that God has passion and hatred like some ignoble persons... Hence there will be a nullification of God's nature of extreme purity, (unchangeability), etc., [...] And owing to infliction of misery and destruction on all creatures, God will be open to the charge of pitilessness and extreme cruelty, abhorred even by a villain. Thus on account of the possibility of partiality and cruelty, God is not an agent.

— Adi Shankara, Translated by Arvind Sharma[19]

In other words, in the Brahma Sutras, the formulation of problem of evil is considered a metaphysical construct, but not a moral issue.[18] Ramanuja of the theistic Sri Vaishnavism school – a major tradition within Vaishnavism – interprets the same verse in the context of Vishnu, and asserts that Vishnu only creates potentialities.[17]

According to Swami Gambhirananda, Sankara's commentary explains that God cannot be charged with partiality or cruelty (i.e. injustice) on account of his taking the factors of virtuous and vicious actions (Karma) performed by an individual in previous lives. If an individual experiences pleasure or pain in this life, it is due to virtuous or vicious action (Karma) done by that individual in a past life [20][page needed]

Ramanuja of the theistic Sri Vaishnavism school interprets the same verse in the context of Vishnu, and asserts that Vishnu only creates potentialities.[17] According to Arvind Sharma, Shankara's Advaita Vedanta school does not attribute the evil and suffering to the abstract concept of Brahman, but to ignorance, delusion and wrong knowledge.[18] The universe and all existence is without a beginning or end, and Brahman is everything before and after that beginning, before and after the end.[17] Further, in Hindu thought, neither evil nor error are final, all happiness and suffering is impermanent, and truth ultimately triumphs.[18]

Karma doctrine and the problem of evil[edit]

The theory of karma refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect).[21] The problem of evil, in the context of karma, has been long discussed in Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, both in its theistic and non-theistic schools; for example, in Uttara Mīmāṃsā Sutras Book 2 Chapter 1;[22][23] the 8th century arguments by Adi Sankara in Brahmasutrabhasya where he posits that God cannot reasonably be the cause of the world because there exists moral evil, inequality, cruelty and suffering in the world;[24][25] and the 11th century theodicy discussion by Ramanuja in Sribhasya.[26]

Many Indian religions place greater emphasis on developing the karma principle for first cause and innate justice with Man as focus, rather than developing religious principles with the nature and powers of God and divine judgment as focus.[27] Karma theory of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism is not static, but dynamic wherein livings beings with intent or without intent, but with words and actions continuously create new karma, and it is this that they believe to be in part the source of good or evil in the world.[28] These religions also believe that past lives or past actions in current life create current circumstances, which also contributes to either. Other scholars[29] suggest that nontheistic Indian religious traditions do not assume an omnibenevolent creator, and some[30] theistic schools do not define or characterize their God(s) as monotheistic Western religions do and the deities have colorful, complex personalities; the Indian deities are personal and cosmic facilitators, and in some schools conceptualized like Plato’s Demiurge.[26] Therefore, the problem of theodicy in many schools of major Indian religions is not significant, or at least is of a different nature than in Western religions.[31]

Dvaita tradition of Vaishnavism[edit]

One sub-tradition within the Vaishnavism school of Hinduism that is an exception is dualistic Dvaita, founded by Madhvacharya in the 13th-century.[32] Madhvacharya was challenged by Hindu scholars on the problem of evil, given his dualistic Dvaita Vedanta (Tattvavada) theory that proposed God (Vishnu, supreme soul) and the individual souls (jīvātman) exist as independent realities, and these are distinct. Madhvacharya asserted, Yathecchasi tatha kuru, which Sharma translates and explains as "one has the right to choose between right and wrong, a choice each individual makes out of his own responsibility and his own risk".[33][34] According to Sharma, "Madhva's tripartite classification of souls makes it unnecessary to answer the problem of evil".[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ David Buchta (2014). Matthew R. Dasti and Edwin F. Bryant (ed.). Free Will, Agency, and Selfhood in Indian Philosophy. Oxford University Press. pp. 270–276. ISBN 978-0199922758.
  2. ^ Sabapathy Kulandran and Hendrik Kraemer (2004), Grace in Christianity and Hinduism, James Clarke, ISBN 978-0227172360, pages 177-179
  3. ^ Arthur Herman, The problem of evil and Indian thought, 2nd Edition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 81-20807537, pp. 5 with Part II and III of the book
  4. ^ John Bowker (1975). Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World. Cambridge University Press. pp. 194, 206–220. ISBN 978-0-521-09903-5.
  5. ^ Kaufman, Whitley R. P. (2005). "Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil". Philosophy East and West. 55 (1): 15–32. doi:10.1353/pew.2004.0044.
  6. ^ Francis Clooney (2005), in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Ed: Gavin Flood), Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 0631215352, pages 454-455;
    John Bowker (1975). Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World. Cambridge University Press. pp. 194, 206–220. ISBN 978-0-521-09903-5.;
    Chad V. Meister (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Religious Diversity. Oxford University Press. pp. 163–164. ISBN 978-0-19-534013-6.
  7. ^ Francis X. Clooney (1989), Evil, Divine Omnipotence, and Human Freedom: Vedānta's Theology of Karma, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 4, pages 530-548
  8. ^ a b Chad V. Meister (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Religious Diversity. Oxford University Press. pp. 163–166. ISBN 978-0-19-534013-6.
  9. ^ a b John Bowker (1975). Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World. Cambridge University Press. pp. 207–225. ISBN 978-0-521-09903-5.
  10. ^ a b Emily T. Hudson (2013). Disorienting Dharma: Ethics and the Aesthetics of Suffering in the Mahabharata. Oxford University Press. pp. 3–9, 27–46. ISBN 978-0-19-986078-4.
  11. ^ a b Arthur L. Herman (1993). The Problem of Evil and Indian Thought. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 235–241. ISBN 978-81-208-0753-2.
  12. ^ a b c d Othmar Gächter (1998). "Evil and Suffering in Hinduism". Anthropos. Bd. 93, H. 4./6. (4/6): 393–403. JSTOR 40464839.
  13. ^ Arthur L. Herman (1993). The Problem of Evil and Indian Thought. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 235–241, 252–257. ISBN 978-81-208-0753-2.
  14. ^ Harold Coward (2008). The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought: The Central Story. State University of New York Press. pp. 102–103. ISBN 978-0-7914-7336-8.
  15. ^ NV Isaeva (1992), Shankara and Indian Philosophy, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-1281-7, page 36
  16. ^ James Lochtefeld, Brahman, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. 1: A–M, Rosen Publishing, ISBN 978-0823931798, page 124
  17. ^ a b c d e f S Radhakrishnan (1960), Brahmasutras: the philosophy of spiritual life, George Allen, pages 363-365
  18. ^ a b c d e Arvind Sharma (2008). The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta: A Comparative Study in Religion and Reason. Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. 30–32. ISBN 978-0-271-03946-6.
  19. ^ a b Arvind Sharma (2008). The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta: A Comparative Study in Religion and Reason. Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. 23–24. ISBN 978-0-271-03946-6.
  20. ^ Swami Gambhirananda (1965). Brahma Sutra Bhasya Of Shankaracharya. Vedanta Press & Bookshop. ISBN 978-8175051058.
  21. ^ Karma Encyclopædia Britannica (2012)
  22. ^ Francis Clooney (2005), in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Editor: Gavin Flood), Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 0631215352, pp. 454-455
  23. ^ Francis Clooney (1989), ‘‘Evil, Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom: Vedanta’s theology of Karma, Journal of Religion, Vol. 69, pp 530-548
  24. ^ P. Bilimoria (2007), Karma’s suffering: A Mimamsa solution to the problem of evil, in Indian Ethics (Editors: Bilimoria et al.), Volume 1, Ashgate Publishing, ISBN 978-0754633013, pp. 171-189
  25. ^ See Kumarila’s ‘‘Slokavarttika’’; for English translation of parts and discussions: P. Bilimoria (1990), ‘ Hindu doubts about God - Towards a Mimamsa Deconstruction’, International Philosophical Quarterly, 30(4), pp. 481-499
  26. ^ a b P. Bilimoria (2013), Toward an Indian Theodicy, in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (Editors: McBrayer and Howard-Snyder), 1st Edition, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-0470671849, Chapter 19
  27. ^ B. Reichenbach (1998), Karma and the Problem of Evil, in Philosophy of Religion Toward a Global Perspective (Editor: G.E. Kessler), Wadsworth, ISBN 978-0534505493, pp. 248–255
  28. ^ Yuvraj Krishan (1997). The Doctrine of Karma: Its Origin and Development in Brāhmaṇical, Buddhist, and Jaina Traditions. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. pp. 17–20. ISBN 978-81-208-1233-8.
  29. ^ Ursula Sharma (1973), Theodicy and the doctrine of karma, ‘‘Man’’, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 347-364
  30. ^ The Nyaya-Vaisesika school of Hinduism is one of the exceptions where the premise is similar to the Christian concept of an omnibenevolent, omnipotent creator
  31. ^ G. Obeyesekere (I968), Theodicy, sin and salvation in a sociology of Buddhism, in Practical religion (Ed. Edmund Leach), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521055253
  32. ^ Sarma 2000, pp. 19-21.
  33. ^ Sharma 1962, p. 361.
  34. ^ Sharma 1962, p. 270, 370-371.
  35. ^ Sharma 1962, p. 270,370-371, Quote: The problem of evil and suffering in the world is the most difficult one in Theism. We have explained Madhva's attitude to the allied problem of freedom and freewill, on the basis of the doctrine of natural selection of good or bad and of the tripartite classification of souls. It is not therefore necessary for Madhva to answer the question of the consistency of evil with Divine goodness..