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Religion Library: Hinduism

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

There is another way of understanding things that might appear evil that focuses not on humans but on the gods. Sometimes things happen that do not seem to be the result of any karmic activity: earthquakes, say, or tsunamis, or droughts. One way to understand such events, which of course can be quite catastrophic, is that they are the result of the play of the gods, or lila. Although the gods' lila can be a profoundly positive source, such as the "play" of Krishna with which he combats demons, it can also be negative in the human realm. Ultimately, such divine play is mysterious. Humans cannot possibly understand why the gods do what they do, why they allow bad things to happen to good people. It is simply lila, mysterious.

Satya Yuga (or Krita Yuga)     
Treta Yuga
Dvapara Yuga
Kali Yuga

A way to think about the issue of evil in Hinduism is found in the image of the cosmic ages. Hinduism breaks each cosmic age—that period between the creation of the universe and its destruction—into huge expanses of time called yugas. In the beginning, when the world has just been created, there is peace and tranquility in the world, perfect dharma, or order. Because human beings possess free will, and because we grasp on to the things of the world out of ignorance of the ultimate reality behind this world—Brahman—the world gradually devolves. Sometimes this is depicted using the image of a cow: when the world is new and dharma is perfect, the cow stands on four legs. As a result of human greed and negative karmic acts, however, the cow eventually loses one leg, then two, then eventually three, leaving it with only a single leg to stand on. The cow, here a symbol for order (dharma), is profoundly unstable, tottering. This is the age we are currently in, the Kali Yuga. Eventually things will become so bad, so adharmic, or disorderly, that the world will go up in flames, and then, eventually, be engulfed in water. Eventually Vishnu will reappear on the waters, and the world will begin again.

What appears to be evil, then, is in this view an inevitable result of the Kali Yuga.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is it better to be freed from karma than to continually accumulate good karma?
2.     How is rebirth determined? What are some of the outcomes of rebirth in correlation to karma?
3.     What is lila? How can it be explained?
4.     How do the yugas demonstrate the cyclical nature of Hinduism?


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