The Story of God & Evil: Dichotomy or Complexity?

The Story of God & Evil: Dichotomy or Complexity? April 27, 2016

My father, an English professor, always told me that the opposite of love was apathy – not hate. Similarly, we’ve discussed how the opposite of God and all that is good has less to do with evil and the devil, and more to do with all that is bad – and how Shakespeare had it right: there is no absolute, where one is good and the other is evil, but rather a perspective that shapes our understanding  The next National Geographic episode of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman attempts to understand the concept of evil, and how different religions understand it.  While I found the simplification of the concept helpful to someone with minimal or no exposure to Hinduism, it really didn’t explain the complexity around the understanding of what a Hindu might consider to be evil. The framing of the segment – “Christianity has God and devil, what about Hinduism” simplifies the ancient philosophy that provides a pluralistic understanding of humanity, evil and our relationship to it.

In my understanding of the Christian tradition, evil is traditionally associated with original sin – and the all-powerful God who is pitted against the devil. The traditional interpretation is that those who accept this fatherly figure, guiding and controlling Creation, will be saved but those who do not, will be left to the devil.  Hinduism, however does not have this type of binary with a heaven and a hell, encompassing as it does, a range of sampradayas with a wide range of understandings of the Divine. There is no struggle to understand why evil exists  – but it is a quest on which Morgan Freeman goes – and in doing so, has conversations with murderer and a former skinhead.

I too went on a quest, to see what evil actually translates to in three Indian languages – Telugu, Hindi and Sanksrit. In Telugu, evil became duṣṭamu, yet a dustudu, one who does dustamu, was a “bad man,” according to the CP Brown English-Telugu dictionary.   In Hindi, the official language of India, not to be confused with Hindu – the practitioner of the religious practices in Hinduism, gave me buraee, which could be taken to mean mischief, harm or badness. And in the language of the Vedas, Apte’s English-Sanskrit dictionary led me not only to dusta, but also paap (sin) and asat (untruth). Much is often lost in translation.

Consider that, for Hindus, the cycle of birth and rebirth encompasses all of reality, including the universe itself. There is no original starting point for evil – nor is there anything in the universe which is absolutely good or absolutely evil, that is to say, good or evil for all time. Patanjali, the great saint/scholar who laid out the aphorisms (sutra) of yoga, outlined in one sutra the five causes of suffering, which is the closest idea to evil:

avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśaḥ kleśāḥ

Avidya or ignorance is the root, from which the other four follow: asmita or misidentification, raga or excessive desire, craving, dvesa or aversion, and abhinivesa or insecurity, fear of loss.

And if a person acts contrary to their dharma, they are creating an imbalance in their lives – a simple translation of this could be evil. The failure to pursue dharma in one life can impact one’s karma in this life or in another. This brings us back to the cycle of birth and rebirth, and leads us to the concept of moksha, the liberation from it. And yet another way we create “evil” is by creating distance between our own self and the Divine Self.

It is Freeman’s guide in Varanasi who brings some clarity and depth to help answer the question – whether there is evil in Hinduism – even as she applied terms that made me squirm, such as “goblin,” “shaman” and “speaking in tongues” to refer to elements in the episode.  The camera focuses on the ritual at  the Pishach Mochan Temple in Varanasi, as people perform purification rituals for the souls of their ancestors. The common thread of water cleansing our souls, and human yearning to be free of the demons that possess us comes through. Freeman’s somewhat simplistic, single-perspective explanation that Hindus believe “that evil is caused by the unhappy souls of their ancestors” is countered by their conversational conclusion:

“There is no dichotomy between good and evil, even the evil is treated with respect and care…. This frees us up to be better…. the hope at the end is that even the evil can be liberated. Evil is spirit that needs help… [we can] guide evil to the common good.”

For more information regarding the National Geographic mini series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman be sure to check out the following links:


What other Patheos Bloggers are saying about it:

Browse Our Archives