Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
ISKCON places three central concepts at the heart of its understanding of suffering and the problem of evil: maya (illusion), kali yuga (the present age of decline), and karma (the law of cause and effect). These three concepts combine to form an understanding of suffering as embedded within the present material world, caused by illusion, misunderstanding, and the poor choices born of such a condition.
Like other Hindus, Hare Krishna devotees understand the world as effused with illusion, or maya. In classical Hinduism, maya can mean both illusion and the created world, and this understanding carries over into ISKCON. For ISKCON, maya is an innate quality of materiality, meaning that the whole physical or material world is fundamentally illusionary. Hare Krishna devotees believe that one finds actual reality only on the spiritual level in the spiritual world of Krishna.
The nature of the world as maya results in its ever-changing nature. This characteristic of maya causes one reason that humans suffer. Like other Indian philosophical traditions, ISKCON considers change both a basic reality of earthly existence and a profoundly negative characteristic. Sickness, aging, and death represent the most obvious forms of such change, and all three cause the experience of suffering. However, one experiences suffering only because human beings are embedded in maya, the illusionary nature of the material world. By seeking to develop a connection to the material world of Krishna one can minimize one's attachment to the world of always-changing material maya, and therefore limit one's suffering.
While this understanding of maya bears striking resemblance to the classic understanding of suffering in both Buddhism and advaita (non-dualistic) Hindu philosophy, one major distinction separates ISKCON from those other systems' understandings. The Hare Krishna movement takes an explicitly theistic approach to maya's relationship to suffering. Maya results in a false bond to the material world rather than to Krishna, and escape from that bond requires cleaving to the eternal non-material nature of Krishna. While ISKCON accepts that non-theistic techniques of Buddhism and Hindu yoga might assuage some of the suffering resulting from materiality, it rejects these approaches as less useful than that of theistic devotion. Hare Krishna devotees seek to follow the bhakti (devotional) tradition that assigns ultimate meaning to the unchanging eternal spiritual reality.
While the illusionary nature of materiality offers one explanation for suffering, the nature of the present age represents another. The Hare Krishna movement follows the wider Hindu understanding of the cyclical nature of the cosmos. This approach explains that the universe experiences a periodic cycle of creation, decay, and destruction. The first three ages of the cosmos (Aatya, Treta, and Dwapara yugas) last 4800, 3600, and 2400 divine years -- with each divine year equaling 360 human years -- and represent a slow decline from the golden age of the Aatya yuga toward the present age, that of decay and decrepitude, the Kali Yuga. Decline occurs in multiple manners, but most importantly, it results in the failure of humans to understand and follow dharma (universal law). Over the yugas, human beings become shorter-lived, more prone to violence and unethical behavior, less intelligent, and slowly lose the original noble spirit that they once possessed. While far shorter than the other ages, the 1200 divine-year long Kali Yuga represents the present age, that of complete decline. During our present era, violence, immorality, stupidity, and rascaldom predominate, and knowledge of the divine becomes increasingly difficult. Kali Yuga will eventually culminate -- hundreds of thousands of years in the future -- with the complete collapse of all culture and the destruction of the universe.