Submitted 26 February 2002
THE PROBLEM of good and evil has plagued us since the beginning of recorded history. Youth, personal beauty, affluence, high intellect, and strength are good; old age, death, poverty, ignorance, and disease are bad. If our senses are pleased, we are happy, and life is good. If our senses are displeased, we are unhappy, and life is bad.
No less an authority than the Encyclopedia Britannica states that "in monotheistic religions, evil does not originate within the divinity nor in general within a divine world." Thus, God is barred from hell, an eternal realm of misery. But a post-modernist philosopher would say that there is a third, more enlightened state. This concept was glimpsed in Shakespeare's Hamlet where it?s said, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." The Vedas imply that good and evil do exist and that they arise from the same source. But how can an all-good God be the source of evil?
Simply put, evil is the backside of God; we can face the sun or our own shadow. A mother sometimes punishes her child out of love. To save her child she may angrily jerk it out of the way of an oncoming car, or punish it for endangering itself when it puts its hand into a flame, or rotating fan. On the macrocosmic scale, mother Durga gives us freedom but also enough rope to hang ourselves. By using her devastating weapons, she teaches us that taking refuge in illusion is ultimately bad for us.
In the Eastern tradition, the second aphorism of the Vedanta Sutra asserts that everything - even evil itself - emanates originally from God. This tradition further explains how bad behaviour and the whole material world of suffering stem secondarily from our selfish bodily desires, just to purify us of them.
Shrimad Bhagawatam (3.14.27) says that no one in the material world is equal to or greater than Shivji and that his perfect character "is followed by great souls to dismantle their ignorance." Still, he "remains as if a devil to give salvation to all devotees of the Lord." Contrary to conventional western thought, it is not bodily comforts or pains that make for good or evil. Rather, perfection is obtained by knowing that pleasing the Supreme Lord is good, and that displeasing Him is bad.
It is this standard alone that raises us above the bodily concept of life, into the dimension of the soul, far beyond the interchangeable goods and evils of the world. Service to God is the necessary reference point we need to distinguish good from evil ? for our own good.
The writer is emeritus member of the ISKCON Governing Body Commission