Karma and the Origin of Evil
by Kundali dasa
God’s kindness and life’s hardships are an unlikely match unless we know the laws of nature.
Once upon a time, a wicked man had a change of heart. Approaching a renowned saint, he asked, “O great saint, what shall I do to make myself worthy in the eyes of God?” The saint replied, “Be thou like thy Father in heaven.” Returning home, the reformed sinner searched the scriptures diligently, then with fervor he petitioned the Lord with prayers for divine guidance that he, an uncommonly sinful soul, might now live his life in the ways of the lord. Following this our hero pulled a prank on his wife, causing her to break her back and become a lifelong invalid. He cheated his own brother out of a fortune and left him destitute. He inoculated several of his children with crippling diseases and sold his eldest daughter to a brothel, where she contracted a fatal disease. He then told his saintly mentor of his attempts to imitate the Lord in heaven. The saint severely chastised him for his misdeeds. When the man inquired as to how he had failed, the holy man was too disgusted to reply.
This odd story is adapted from Mark Twain’s essay “Letters from the Earth,” a diabolically witty satire on Western religion. In his essay, Twain challenges the existence of a God who is all-good, all-just, all-knowing, all- powerful, all-loving, all-merciful, and all-forgiving, yet who allows evil and suffering in His creation. Such a God, Twain implies, is but a whimsical product of man’s mind. If God does exist, concludes Twain, He is certainly not the all- knowing, all-good, and all-powerful being His devoted fang would have us believe He is. In his personal life, Twain could not settle the issue to his satisfaction, so he opted for agnosticism: We will never know whether or not a Supreme Being exists.
Like Mark Twain (one of my childhood heroes), I too have pondered the problem of evil. My first conscious encounter with evil was at age nine, on the day we all went to a school assembly and they told us that John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, the man who saved the Caribbean (where I lived) from dreaded communism, a man still in the prime of life, a “good” man, had been assassinated. I was stunned at first. Then I felt really rotten. Some of the kids were crying. That night my uncle pronounced judgment: JFK died “before his time.” I was shocked. It seemed to be cruel in the extreme that someone should have to die “before his time. “
As I grew older and my awareness of evil and justice increased, so also did my despair. What kind of Supreme Father, I wondered, stands passively by while war, murder, racism, disease, pestilence, and catastrophe plague His children? He even allows those devoted to Him to suffer martyrdom in His name!
I searched for answers to this mystery. I found none. The pious clergymen responsible for my Christian upbringing offered no adequate solution. At best, their answers implied that as a faithful believer in Jesus Christ I should be solaced that everlasting happiness in the afterlife was guaranteed for me, whereas countless others were fated to eternal damnation. I was advised to pity and pray for the miserable hellbound souls.
Such advice wasn’t much help. Once I got over the elation of having my salvation guaranteed, I did begin to feel sorry for those-many of, them my own friends and relatives- whose path led to eternal punishment in the lake of fire. That thought rekindled my original doubt: how can an all-just God and eternal damnation fit within the same reality?
By the time I was fifteen, my despair had turned to outrage. On the one hand, religion had failed to satisfy my philosophical inquiries. And on the other hand, I had grown disillusioned with those persons responsible for my spiritual guidance; they merely hid their ambition for acquisition and worldly enjoyment behind a thin veil of piety. Religion, I concluded, was no better than politics: a war of words, in which truth was irrelevant and the glib were victorious. I declared myself an atheist.
I felt relieved and free. Evil, you see, is only a problem for those who believe in a Supreme Being who is (1) omnipotent, (2) absolutely good and just, and (3) the creator of a world rife with evil. (The third attribute is clearly incompatible with the first two.) As a nonbeliever I had no such contradiction to resolve; I simply accepted evil as inherent in nature and tried to make the best of it. I was quite pleased with my realization; it freed me from God’s yoke in more ways than one.
Another Solution to Evil
These examples (Mark Twain and myself) show that evil is not just a concern of theologians and philosophers wrapped up in abstract theorizing about life. The recent popularity of Harold S. Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People proves that tens of thousands of otherwise God-fearing people find evil in the world a bitter pill and are not satisfied with the standard explanation offered by their Western religious traditions. They want a solution.
The traditional explanation in the West holds that suffering is just deserts for moral improprieties, sins, acts that do not meet with the approval of our heaven1y Father. But what moral improprieties have children and innocent infants committed? How are suffering infants getting their just deserts?
To say suffering is a consequence of the original sin of Adam simply adds to the confusion. Reason tells us that if infants’ afflictions are retribution for the original sin of Adam, all infants should suffer equally. But misery is doled out selectively and unevenly. In any case, as Mark Twain points out, what kind of God elects to punish children “down through the ages through the end of time for the offenses of others”?
Directly addressing these questions, Rabbi Kushner proposes that we deny the traditional theistic assertion that God is all-powerful. We may worship, love, and serve this “God- the-not-almighty,” he says, but we cannot hold Him responsible for evil, since it is beyond His control. If in a pinch He sometimes cannot help us, we should not hold that against Him. Struggling to thwart evil’s assaults, He has a hard row to hoe.
Kushner’s denial of God’s omnipotence seems harmless enough. His proposal is not as portentous for us as denying God’s all-benevolence, and it does solve the problem. Or does it? If we reject God as all-powerful, why should we consider Him all-benevolent? Once we begin diminishing or redefining God to explicate our pet peeves or to suit our private notions. What is there to stop us from negating His existence entirely? Why think of Him as all anything? Or, to cast that another way, why think of Him as anything at all?
Still, even if we muster the conviction to think of God as a finite, nonabsolute Supreme Being, we have to admit that complete surrender and devotion to a less-than-perfect Deity is not such ,in attractive proposal. It’s hard to conceive of a finite God conferring on his devotees the same complete shelter, peace of mind, and inspiration to surrender that an infinite, all-powerful Deity could. Fear and anxiety would continue to lurk within the devotee’s heart.
A religious consciousness without a tinge of fear and anxiety is possible only when there is no compromise about the infinitude of God. To be satisfactory, therefore, a solution to the problem of evil must comprehend God to be both all- powerful and all-good. That is to say, it should reconcile three universal elements: (1) God is omnipotent. (2) God is all-good and absolutely just. (3) God is the creator of a world rife with evil.
Furthermore, an adequate solution to the problem of evil should be logical and reasonable. It should confront the reality of human suffering and not minimize it. It should include an appropriate explanation of the need for moral conduct. And it should include an appropriate explanation for religious faith.
Such a solution I found in Bhagavad-gita As It Is. I read it a few years after my proclaimed atheism and discovered that Krishna’s teachings answered my questions and doubts about God and evil, as well as many other queries I had about spiritual life. I learned that service and surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead is not at all incompatible with the existence of evil—that evil is, in fact, a deliberate part of God’s scheme.
Suffering is an insurmountable law of nature. It comes upon us, whether individually or collectively, as the reaction for some evil we inflicted in our past. This retributive law of karma gives us repeated opportunities to suffer or enjoy the fruits of our actions, from one life to the next. Caught up in an almost unending cycle of action and reaction, souls fallen from the spiritual world reincarnate—lifetime after lifetime, species after species, in different sexes, cultures, and circumstances, each in exact accordance with the good and bad activities performed during previous lives.
Under this system of retributive law, each soul is responsible for his own vices and virtues and their concomitant joys and sorrows. Accordingly, divine justice is perfectly meted out; no one suffers or prospers undeservedly. God’s boundless mercy is matched by His infinite patience, and every soul gets repeated chances to rehabilitate and redeem himself. Through the process of suffering and atonement over many births, fallen souls eventually become frustrated with the pursuit of material desires and with the rigors of repeated birth and death: sometimes in a heavenly situation, sometimes in a hellish one. Gradually, one comes to realize that material life is largely a life of immediate suffering or of anxiety in anticipation of suffering.
The human form, Krishna explains, is a rare opportunity for us to end all suffering and anxiety by unconditionally surrendering to Him, to awaken our dormant love for Him. Krishna assures us that once we reach this stage of perfection, upon giving up our present body—which is nothing but a sheath of flesh and bones covering the eternal, luminous soul—we do not take birth in this material world again, but we join Lord Krishna in the spiritual world.
In the spiritual world, evil is conspicuous by its absence. Unfortunately, people either doubt that such a nonmaterial reality exists, or they mistake it to be devoid of variety, “perfection” fraught with idleness and boredom. But the descriptions of the spiritual kingdom of God given in the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam give many details barely hinted at in other scriptures. They describe a spiritual plane that is variegated and dynamic.
We learn, for instance, that the transcendental kingdom of Krishna is filled with innumerable spiritual planets, with pastures, forests, rivers, fruits, flowers, and abodes built with spiritual gems. Here Lord Krishna expands Himself into unlimited forms to live on each planet among His innumerable pure devotees, who reside there with eternal, spiritual bodies replete with spiritual senses. Just as in this material world our enjoyment is variegated, so in the spiritual world the activities and enjoyments are endlessly variegated and pleasurable, unsullied by envy, false pride, malice, disease, and death. According to Krishna’s plan, these evils are necessary here because they provide the impetus for us to desire to return back home, back to Godhead.
Point by point, Krishna’s explanation of evil satisfies the minimal criteria I listed earlier. It changed my views considerably, for I could not remain an atheist in the face of a consistent resolution to all my questions.
In my attempts to propagate Krishna consciousness, I frequently meet people driven to faithlessness. Why driven? Because of their inability to reconcile an all-loving, almighty God with a world of suffering and evil. One man told me he’d become an atheist “because Hitler killed six million Jews.” A relative of mine (Sue) turned from God because as a little girl she had lost her mother, a good and pious lady, to cancer. Evil cut too close for Sue, and no amount of explaining can mollify her. Like many others I’ve spoken with, she has objections to Lord Krishna’s explanation of evil.
First objection: Why don’t we remember our past lives? In fact, a growing number of people do claim to remember their past lives, but in any case the absence of such recollections by no means disproves past lives. We have forgotten so much even of this present life, especially of our infancy, what to speak of previous lives.
Second objection: To be punished for deeds we no longer remember would be pointless.
According to Krishna, however, the law of karma is not pointless and involves no caprice. The joys and sorrows we incur are proportionate to the joys and sorrows we have caused. Even without our seeing the connection between present suffering and past sins, the system of karmic retribution is nonetheless effective: it slackens our materialistic grip and stimulates our latent desires for permanence and transcendence. As we know from psychology, impressions from infancy and childhood affect the actions of the adult—even when we “forget” those impressions or they become unrecognizable to the conscious mind. Likewise, Krishna explains that knowledge stored within the unconscious from previous lives helps pry the eternal soul from his selfdefeating attachment to an existence of repeated birth, disease, old age, death, and other miseries.
Third objection: Our innate abilities are already explained by heredity. Doesn’t that detract from the idea that karma and reincarnation explain an individual’s talents and inclinations?
Actually, while Lord Krishna’s doctrine of karma includes phenomena we usually attribute to heredity, it has the additional merit of accounting for things that heredity cannot explain; for example, vicious persons born into families of virtue, geniuses born into families of average intellect, and idiots born into families of high intellect. None of these are satisfactorily explained by heredity. The retributive law of karma, however, explains that due to some past vice or virtue, an individual has certain setbacks or talents, or takes birth in a certain family to make further progress on the path of moral and spiritual evolution.
Furthermore, heredity can be compatible with karma. Soulsare fated to be born into families and situations where they are most likely to inherit the qualities due them from their past conduct. Thus character in this life is due to a combination of factors: the influence of the present family plus the character of the individual’s previous life. This is clearly indicated in the Bhagavad- gita where Krishna explains that by virtue of the divine consciousness cultured in their previous life, fallen devotees take birth in the families of transcendentalists, wherein they continue to progress toward complete success in self- realization.
It should be noted that to understand karma isto remove the most formidable obstacle evil poses to theism: the suffering of the innocent. Simply stated, the innocent suffer because they are not innocent. In previous lives they performed wicked deeds that have now come to fruition. Without Krishna’s explanations of karma, therefore, we would have to chalk up the suffering of, say, infants to God’s caprice, or to resort to the fatuous idea that God must not be all-powerful. Or we would have to choose atheism outright.
And what of the popular view that the soul has no rebirth and thus no karma—that the soul goes around once, faces judgment, then it’s off to heaven or hell? By this belief, God awards felicity to a scant few, while the rest suffer eternally—a harsh line from one believed to be the embodiment of goodness and mercy.
The Gita reconciles these anomalies. Proclaiming God’s goodness and justice, it describes endless opportunities for the fallen souls. Accept the Gita’s solution to evil, and God’s seeming partiality and limitations, as well as the apparent chaos and injustice of life—all become a systematic plan of perfect justice. It would surely be beneficial for the Sues, Mark Twains, and Rabbi Kushners of the world to study Lord Krishna’s teachings in the Gita; they offer a viable solution to an otherwise disconcerting problem.