Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The key to understanding the existence of suffering and evil in Hinduism is the central concept of karma. Karma is at once the simplest of concepts and the most complex. The word itself simply means "action," and originally referred to the sacrificial action that was at the center of the Vedic world. Karma gradually took on the meaning of both action and the effect of action.
Karma is understood within Hinduism—and Buddhism and Jainism as well—as the fundamental and universal law of cause and effect. When a person does something, it has an effect: good actions have good effects, bad actions have bad effects. Thoughts have effects as well. An individual person carries around these accumulated effects, this karma. Over the course of a single lifetime, an individual performs countless actions, has countless thoughts; all of these bits of karma—good and bad—are something like spiritual baggage, or deposits in a spiritual bank account. When a person dies, all of his or her karma is, in a sense, added up. A "positive balance" leads to a more positive rebirth; a "negative balance" leads to a more negative rebirth.
Two concepts are essential here: the first is that of the atman, the permanent self; the second is that of samsara, the cycle of rebirth or reincarnation. Hinduism holds that just as the world is created, maintained, destroyed, and recreated endlessly, so too people are born, live, die, and are reborn endlessly. Although samsara is often called "reincarnation" in the West, it is important to note that it is not the "person" who is reborn, but the permanent self, the atman (which includes elements of personality).
The quality of each rebirth depends on the accumulated karma of prior rebirths; this karma "sticks" to the atman, and determines what sort of form it will take in each rebirth. Thus if a human being does particularly good deeds while alive, he or she might be reborn as a "better" human being: a particularly good shudra might be reborn as a Brahmin, for example. But if one does particularly "bad" deeds, called papam in Sanskrit, he or she might be reborn into a lower life form—a member of a lower caste, say, or even as an animal or insect. One might also be reborn outside of the earthly realm, as a demon or even, according to some schools, as a god or goddess. According to this worldview, there is no such thing as evil. There are "bad" people, who are bad because they have done or continue to do bad things; bad events happen as a result of karma as well.