Every religion has its own way of explaining human suffering and the concept of evil. Most Hindus believe God does not impose evil on people and that evil is a natural part of life. In this article, we look to common questions raised about evil, and the suffering that people endure.
What is evil and suffering?
Evil is a cause of human suffering. There are two types of evil:
- moral evil – the acts of humans which are considered to be morally wrong
- natural evil – natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tsunamis
These two types of evil can work together, eg human evil can make natural evil worse. If natural evil, eg a drought brought on by lack of rainfall, causes crops to fail, the policies of a government can make the food shortages for the poorest people worse (moral evil).
Religions differ in what they teach about the origins of evil:
- Some consider it to have been present in the world from the beginning as the work of evil forces.
- Some believe it is part of God’s creation which may have a purpose that humans cannot understand.
- Some consider it to be the outcome of ignorance and to have no beginning.
- Most religions teach that moral evil should be opposed. Attempts should be made to minimise the impact of natural evil.
Suffering is the bearing or undergoing of pain or distress. Suffering is often a result of evil.
Most people experience suffering at some time in their life. Religions attempt to explain suffering, help people to cope with it and learn from it. For some religious people, the fact that people suffer can raise difficult questions about why God allows this to happen.
Some people say that God allows humans to make decisions for themselves and that suffering is caused by the choices that people make.
Questions raised by the existence of evil and suffering in the world:
- What does the presence of evil and suffering say about God’s love, power and purpose?
- Is there a purpose to suffering?
- Is suffering the price humans pay for free will?
- How do different religions respond to evil and suffering?
- How do individuals respond to evil and suffering?
What does Hinduism say about the origin of evil?
Most Hindus believe that God does not impose evil on people. Evil is a natural part of life – it happens because of the law of karma.
Karma means ‘action‘ and is understood as the law of cause and effect. Each time a person does something, it has an effect. Good actions have good effects, bad actions have bad effects. Hindus believe that thoughts also have effects. These accumulated effects make up a person’s merit.
What does Hinduism teach about evil and suffering?
Hindus believe in karma, and that every action brings about a reaction. Most Hindus believe that much of the suffering they endure is a result of their own actions. None can escape the consequences of their action; if not in this life, then in some other life.
Many would add that this is not about ‘deserving’ suffering, but about taking the opportunity to learn from it. It is about not repeating mistakes. The response of those around the sufferer should always be compassion (karuna) and kindness (prema); for, whatever you give out to others, that is what you get back.
Sometimes things happen that do not seem to be the result of any action, for example, natural disasters. Some Hindus explain these events as a ‘play of the gods’ (leela vinodi), which is part of a cosmic realm and beyond human understanding.
Others believe natural disasters are necessary for the balance of life on Earth. For example, the fertile soil that results from volcano eruptions and flooding rivers may help to grow crops for food. There is also the potential for many souls to gain good merit in helping the victims of natural disasters.
How do Hindus respond to evil and suffering?
Most Hindus respond to natural evil by trying to help those affected by it and through understanding of what life is. Examples of natural evil include:
- natural disasters
The Bhagavad Gita encourages readers to ‘detach from the world’ and appreciate that everything is just part of an eternal cycle. The role of humans is to do as little harm and as much good as possible so that they may escape this cycle. Liberation from rebirth is called called moksha. Humans only suffer because they cannot accept how ‘limited’ their existence is in the scheme of things.
Most Hindus believe that moral evil is caused by other people. They feel that Hindus should act with kindness and non-violence to all living things, called ahimsa (non-violence). This means treating all living creatures and the planet with consideration and kindness, and never causing harm to any being.
Those who deliberately hurt others or harm the Earth will face karmic consequences, but it is the duty of everyone else to both challenge such people and help them to ‘see the light’.
Mahatma Gandhi taught Hindus that it is their duty to help people who are suffering.
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