Problem of Evil

THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

The question why there is evil in existence is the same as why
there is imperfection, or, in other words, why there is creation
at all. We must take it for granted that it could not be
otherwise; that creation must be imperfect, must be gradual, and
that it is futile to ask the question, Why we are?

But this is the real question we ought to ask: Is this
imperfection the final truth, is evil absolute and ultimate? The
river has its boundaries, its banks, but is a river all banks? or
are the banks the final facts about the river? Do not these
obstructions themselves give its water an onward motion? The
towing rope binds a boat, but is the bondage its meaning? Does
it not at the same time draw the boat forward?

The current of the world has its boundaries, otherwise it could
have no existence, but its purpose is not shown in the boundaries
which restrain it, but in its movement, which is towards
perfection. The wonder is not that there should be obstacles and
sufferings in this world, but that there should be law and order,
beauty and joy, goodness and love. The idea of God that man has
in his being is the wonder of all wonders. He has felt in the
depths of his life that what appears as imperfect is the
manifestation of the perfect; just as a man who has an ear for
music realises the perfection of a song, while in fact he is only
listening to a succession of notes. Man has found out the great
paradox that what is limited is not imprisoned within its limits;
it is ever moving, and therewith shedding its finitude every
moment. In fact, imperfection is not a negation of perfectness;
finitude is not contradictory to infinity: they are but
completeness manifested in parts, infinity revealed within
bounds.

Pain, which is the feeling of our finiteness, is not a fixture in
our life. It is not an end in itself, as joy is. To meet with
it is to know that it has no part in the true permanence of
creation. It is what error is in our intellectual life. To go
through the history of the development of science is to go
through the maze of mistakes it made current at different times.
Yet no one really believes that science is the one perfect mode
of disseminating mistakes. The progressive ascertainment of
truth is the important thing to remember in the history of
science, not its innumerable mistakes. Error, by its nature,
cannot be stationary; it cannot remain with truth; like a tramp,
it must quit its lodging as soon as it fails to pay its score to
the full.

As in intellectual error, so in evil of any other form, its
essence is impermanence, for it cannot accord with the whole.
Every moment it is being corrected by the totality of things and
keeps changing its aspect. We exaggerate its importance by
imagining it as a standstill. Could we collect the statistics of
the immense amount of death and putrefaction happening every
moment in this earth, they would appal us. But evil is ever
moving; with all its incalculable immensity it does not
effectually clog the current of our life; and we find that the
earth, water, and air remain sweet and pure for living beings.
All statistics consist of our attempts to represent statistically
what is in motion; and in the process things assume a weight in
our mind which they have not in reality. For this reason a man,
who by his profession is concerned with any particular aspect of
life, is apt to magnify its proportions; in laying undue stress
upon facts he loses his hold upon truth. A detective may have
the opportunity of studying crimes in detail, but he loses his
sense of their relative places in the whole social economy. When
science collects facts to illustrate the struggle for existence
that is going on in the kingdom of life, it raises a picture in
our minds of “nature red in tooth and claw.” But in these mental
pictures we give a fixity to colours and forms which are really
evanescent. It is like calculating the weight of the air on each
square inch of our body to prove that it must be crushingly heavy
for us. With every weight, however, there is an adjustment, and
we lightly bear our burden. With the struggle for existence in
nature there is reciprocity. There is the love for children and
for comrades; there is the sacrifice of self, which springs from
love; and this love is the positive element in life.

If we kept the search-light of our observation turned upon the
fact of death, the world would appear to us like a huge charnel-
house; but in the world of life the thought of death has, we
find, the least possible hold upon our minds. Not because it is
the least apparent, but because it is the negative aspect of
life; just as, in spite of the fact that we shut our eyelids
every second, it is the openings of the eye that count. Life as
a whole never takes death seriously. It laughs, dances and
plays, it builds, hoards and loves in death’s face. Only when we
detach one individual fact of death do we see its blankness and
become dismayed. We lose sight of the wholeness of a life of
which death is part. It is like looking at a piece of cloth
through a microscope. It appears like a net; we gaze at the big
holes and shiver in imagination. But the truth is, death is not
the ultimate reality. It looks black, as the sky looks blue; but
it does not blacken existence, just as the sky does not leave its
stain upon the wings of the bird.

When we watch a child trying to walk, we see its countless
failures; its successes are but few. If we had to limit our
observation within a narrow space of time, the sight would be
cruel. But we find that in spite of its repeated failures there
is an impetus of joy in the child which sustains it in its
seemingly impossible task. We see it does not think of its falls
so much as of its power to keep its balance though for only a
moment.

Like these accidents in a child’s attempts to walk, we meet with
sufferings in various forms in our life every day, showing the
imperfections in our knowledge and our available power, and in
the application of our will. But if these revealed our weakness
to us only, we should die of utter depression. When we select
for observation a limited area of our activities, our individual
failures and miseries loom large in our minds; but our life leads
us instinctively to take a wider view. It gives us an ideal of
perfection which ever carries us beyond our present limitations.
Within us we have a hope which always walks in front of our
present narrow experience; it is the undying faith in the
infinite in us; it will never accept any of our disabilities as a
permanent fact; it sets no limit to its own scope; it dares to
assert that man has oneness with God; and its wild dreams become
true every day.

We see the truth when we set our mind towards the infinite. The
ideal of truth is not in the narrow present, not in our immediate
sensations, but in the consciousness of the whole which give us a
taste of what we _should_ have in what we _do_ have. Consciously
or unconsciously we have in our life this feeling of Truth which
is ever larger than its appearance; for our life is facing the
infinite, and it is in movement. Its aspiration is therefore
infinitely more than its achievement, and as it goes on it finds
that no realisation of truth ever leaves it stranded on the
desert of finality, but carries it to a region beyond. Evil
cannot altogether arrest the course of life on the highway and
rob it of its possessions. For the evil has to pass on, it has
to grow into good; it cannot stand and give battle to the All.
If the least evil could stop anywhere indefinitely, it would sink
deep and cut into the very roots of existence. As it is, man
does not really believe in evil, just as he cannot believe that
violin strings have been purposely made to create the exquisite
torture of discordant notes, though by the aid of statistics it
can be mathematically proved that the probability of discord is
far greater than that of harmony, and for one who can play the
violin there are thousands who cannot. The potentiality of
perfection outweighs actual contradictions. No doubt there have
been people who asserted existence to be an absolute evil, but
man can never take them seriously. Their pessimism is a mere
pose, either intellectual or sentimental; but life itself is
optimistic: it wants to go on. Pessimism is a form of mental
dipsomania, it disdains healthy nourishment, indulges in the
strong drink of denunciation, and creates an artificial dejection
which thirsts for a stronger draught. If existence were an evil,
it would wait for no philosopher to prove it. It is like
convicting a man of suicide, while all the time he stands before
you in the flesh. Existence itself is here to prove that it
cannot be an evil.

An imperfection which is not all imperfection, but which has
perfection for its ideal, must go through a perpetual
realisation. Thus, it is the function of our intellect to
realise the truth through untruths, and knowledge is nothing but
the continually burning up of error to set free the light of
truth. Our will, our character, has to attain perfection by
continually overcoming evils, either inside or outside us, or
both; our physical life is consuming bodily materials every
moment to maintain the life fire; and our moral life too has its
fuel to burn. This life process is going on–we know it, we have
felt it; and we have a faith which no individual instances to the
contrary can shake, that the direction of humanity is from evil
to good. For we feel that good is the positive element in man’s
nature, and in every age and every clime what man values most is
his ideals of goodness. We have known the good, we have loved
it, and we have paid our highest reverence to men who have shown
in their lives what goodness is.

The question will be asked, What is goodness; what does our moral
nature mean? My answer is, that when a man begins to have an
extended vision of his self, when he realises that he is much
more than at present he seems to be, he begins to get conscious
of his moral nature. Then he grows aware of that which he is yet
to be, and the state not yet experienced by him becomes more real
than that under his direct experience. Necessarily, his
perspective of life changes, and his will takes the place of his
wishes. For will is the supreme wish of the larger life, the
life whose greater portion is out of our present reach, most of
whose objects are not before our sight. Then comes the conflict
of our lesser man with our greater man, of our wishes with our
will, of the desire for things affecting our senses with the
purpose that is within our heart. Then we begin to distinguish
between what we immediately desire and what is good. For good is
that which is desirable for our greater self. Thus the sense of
goodness comes out of a truer view of our life, which is the
connected view of the wholeness of the field of life, and which
takes into account not only what is present before us but what is
not, and perhaps never humanly can be. Man, who is provident,
feels for that life of his which is not yet existent, feels much
more that than for the life that is with him; therefore he is
ready to sacrifice his present inclination for the unrealised
future. In this he becomes great, for he realises truth. Even
to be efficiently selfish one has to recognise this truth, and
has to curb his immediate impulses–in other words, has to be
moral. For our moral faculty is the faculty by which we know
that life is not made up of fragments, purposeless and
discontinuous. This moral sense of man not only gives him the
power to see that the self has a continuity in time, but it also
enables him to see that he is not true when he is only restricted
to his own self. He is more in truth than he is in fact. He
truly belongs to individuals who are not included in his own
individuality, and whom he is never even likely to know. As he
has a feeling for his future self which is outside his present
consciousness, so he has a feeling for his greater self which is
outside the limits of his personality. There is no man who has
not this feeling to some extent, who has never sacrificed his
selfish desire for the sake of some other person, who has never
felt a pleasure in undergoing some loss or trouble because it
pleased somebody else. It is a truth that man is not a detached
being, that he has a universal aspect; and when he recognises
this he becomes great. Even the most evilly-disposed selfishness
has to recognise this when it seeks the power to do evil; for it
cannot ignore truth and yet be strong. So in order to claim the
aid of truth, selfishness has to be unselfish to some extent. A
band of robbers must be moral in order to hold together as a
band; they may rob the whole world but not each other. To make
an immoral intention successful, some of its weapons must be
moral. In fact, very often it is our very moral strength which
gives us most effectively the power to do evil, to exploit other
individuals for our own benefit, to rob other people of their
rights. The life of an animal is unmoral, for it is aware only
of an immediate present; the life of a man can be immoral, but
that only means that it must have a moral basis. What is immoral
is imperfectly moral, just as what is false is true to a small
extent, or it cannot even be false. Not to see is to be blind,
but to see wrongly is to see only in an imperfect manner. Man’s
selfishness is a beginning to see some connection, some purpose
in life; and to act in accordance with its dictates requires
self-restraint and regulation of conduct. A selfish man
willingly undergoes troubles for the sake of the self, he suffers
hardship and privation without a murmur, simply because he knows
that what is pain and trouble, looked at from the point of view
of a short space of time, are just the opposite when seen in a
larger perspective. Thus what is a loss to the smaller man is a
gain to the greater, and _vice versa_.

To the man who lives for an idea, for his country, for the good
of humanity, life has an extensive meaning, and to that extent
pain becomes less important to him. To live the life of goodness
is to live the life of all. Pleasure is for one’s own self, but
goodness is concerned with the happiness of all humanity and for
all time. From the point of view of the good, pleasure and pain
appear in a different meaning; so much so, that pleasure may be
shunned, and pain be courted in its place, and death itself be
made welcome as giving a higher value to life. From these higher
standpoints of a man’s life, the standpoints of the good,
pleasure and pain lose their absolute value. Martyrs prove it in
history, and we prove it every day in our life in our little
martyrdoms. When we take a pitcherful of water from the sea it
has its weight, but when we take a dip into the sea itself a
thousand pitchersful of water flow above our head, and we do not
feel their weight. We have to carry the pitcher of self with our
strength; and so, while on the plane of selfishness pleasure and
pain have their full weight, on the moral plane they are so much
lightened that the man who has reached it appears to us almost
superhuman in his patience under crushing trails, and his
forbearance in the face of malignant persecution.

To live in perfect goodness is to realise one’s life in the
infinitive. This is the most comprehensive view of life which we
can have by our inherent power of the moral vision of the
wholeness of life. And the teaching of Buddha is to cultivate
this moral power to the highest extent, to know that our field of
activities is not bound to the plane of our narrow self. This is
the vision of the heavenly kingdom of Christ. When we attain to
that universal life, which is the moral life, we become freed
from the bonds of pleasure and pain, and the place vacated by our
self becomes filled with an unspeakable joy which springs from
measureless love. In this state the soul’s activity is all the
more heightened, only its motive power is not from desires, but
in its own joy. This is the _Karma-yoga_ of the _Gita_, the way
to become one with the infinite activity by the exercise of the
activity of disinterested goodness.

When Buddha mentioned upon the way of realising mankind from the
grip of misery he came to this truth: that when man attains his
highest end by merging the individual in the universal, he
becomes free from the thraldom of pain. Let us consider this
point more fully.

A student of mine once related to me his adventure in a storm,
and complained that all the time he was troubled with the feeling
that this great commotion in nature behaved to him as if he were
no more than a mere handful of dust. That he was a distinct
personality with a will of his own had not the least influence
upon what was happening.

I said, “If consideration for our individuality could sway nature
from her path, then it would be the individuals who would suffer
most.”

But he persisted in his doubt, saying that there was this fact
which could not be ignored–the feeling that I am. The “I” in us
seeks for a relation which is individual to it.

I replied that the relation of the “I” is with something which is
“not-I.” So we must have a medium which is common to both, and
we must be absolutely certain that it is the same to the “I” as
it is to the “not-I.”

This is what needs repeating here. We have to keep in mind that
our individuality by its nature is impelled to seek for the
universal. Our body can only die if it tries to eat its own
substance, and our eye loses the meaning of its function if it
can only see itself.

Just as we find that the stronger the imagination the less is it
merely imaginary and the more is it in harmony with truth, so we
see the more vigorous our individuality the more does it widen
towards the universal. For the greatness of a personality is not
in itself but in its content, which is universal, just as the
depth of a lake is judged not by the size of its cavity but by
the depth of its water.

So, if it is a truth that the yearning of our nature is for
reality, and that our personality cannot be happy with a
fantastic universe of its own creation, then it is clearly best
for it that our will can only deal with things by following their
law, and cannot do with them just as it pleases. This unyielding
sureness of reality sometimes crosses our will, and very often
leads us to disaster, just as the firmness of the earth
invariably hurts the falling child who is learning to walk.
Nevertheless it is the same firmness that hurts him which makes
his walking possible. Once, while passing under a bridge, the
mast of my boat got stuck in one of its girders. If only for a
moment the mast would have bent an inch or two, or the bridge
raised its back like a yawning cat, or the river given in, it
would have been all right with me. But they took no notice of my
helplessness. That is the very reason why I could make use of
the river, and sail upon it with the help of the mast, and that
is why, when its current was inconvenient, I could rely upon the
bridge. Things are what they are, and we have to know them if we
would deal with them, and knowledge of them is possible because
our wish is not their law. This knowledge is a joy to us, for
the knowledge is one of the channels of our relation with the
things outside us; it is making them our own, and thus widening
the limit of our self.

At every step we have to take into account others than ourselves.
For only in death are we alone. A poet is a true poet when he
can make his personal idea joyful to all men, which he could not
do if he had not a medium common to all his audience. This
common language has its own law which the poet must discover and
follow, by doing which he becomes true and attains poetical
immortality.

We see then that man’s individuality is not his highest truth;
there is that in him which is universal. If he were made to live
in a world where his own self was the only factor to consider,
then that would be the worst prison imaginable to him, for man’s
deepest joy is in growing greater and greater by more and more
union with the all. This, as we have seen, would be an
impossibility if there were no law common to all. Only by
discovering the law and following it, do we become great, do we
realise the universal; while, so long as our individual desires
are at conflict with the universal law, we suffer pain and are
futile.

There was a time when we prayed for special concessions, we
expected that the laws of nature should be held in abeyance for
our own convenience. But now we know better. We know that law
cannot be set aside, and in this knowledge we have become strong.
For this law is not something apart from us; it is our own. The
universal power which is manifested in the universal law is one
with our own power. It will thwart us where we are small, where
we are against the current of things; but it will help us where
we are great, where we are in unison with the all. Thus, through
the help of science, as we come to know more of the laws of
nature, we gain in power; we tend to attain a universal body.
Our organ of sight, our organ of locomotion, our physical
strength becomes world-wide; steam and electricity become our
nerve and muscle. Thus we find that, just as throughout our
bodily organisation there is a principle of relation by virtue of
which we can call the entire body our own, and can use it as
such, so all through the universe there is that principle of
uninterrupted relation by virtue of which we can call the whole
world our extended body and use it accordingly. And in this age
of science it is our endeavour fully to establish our claim to
our world-self. We know all our poverty and sufferings are owing
to our inability to realise this legitimate claim of ours.
Really, there is no limit to our powers, for we are not outside
the universal power which is the expression of universal law. We
are on our way to overcome disease and death, to conquer pain and
poverty; for through scientific knowledge we are ever on our way
to realise the universal in its physical aspect. And as we make
progress we find that pain, disease, and poverty of power are not
absolute, but that is only the want of adjustment of our
individual self to our universal self which gives rise to them.

It is the same with our spiritual life. When the individual man
in us chafes against the lawful rule of the universal man we
become morally small, and we must suffer. In such a condition
our successes are our greatest failures, and the very fulfilment
of our desires leaves us poorer. We hanker after special gains
for ourselves, we want to enjoy privileges which none else can
share with us. But everything that is absolutely special must
keep up a perpetual warfare with what is general. In such a
state of civil war man always lives behind barricades, and in any
civilisation which is selfish our homes are not real homes, but
artificial barriers around us. Yet we complain that we are not
happy, as if there were something inherent in the nature of
things to make us miserable. The universal spirit is waiting to
crown us with happiness, but our individual spirit would not
accept it. It is our life of the self that causes conflicts and
complications everywhere, upsets the normal balance of society
and gives rise to miseries of all kinds. It brings things to
such a pass that to maintain order we have to create artificial
coercions and organised forms of tyranny, and tolerate infernal
institutions in our midst, whereby at every moment humanity is
humiliated.

We have seen that in order to be powerful we have to submit to
the laws of the universal forces, and to realise in practice that
they are our own. So, in order to be happy, we have to submit
our individual will to the sovereignty of the universal will, and
to feel in truth that it is our own will. When we reach that
state wherein the adjustment of the finite in us to the infinite
is made perfect, then pain itself becomes a valuable asset. It
becomes a measuring rod with which to gauge the true value of our
joy.

The most important lesson that man can learn from his life is not
that there _is_ pain in this world, but that it depends upon him
to turn it into good account, that it is possible for him to
transmute it into joy. The lesson has not been lost altogether
to us, and there is no man living who would willingly be deprived
of his right to suffer pain, for that is his right to be a man.
One day the wife of a poor labourer complained bitterly to me
that her eldest boy was going to be sent away to a rich relative’s
house for part of the year. It was the implied kind intention of
trying to relieve her of her trouble that gave her the shock, for
a mother’s trouble is a mother’s own by her inalienable right of
love, and she was not going to surrender it to any dictates of
expediency. Man’s freedom is never in being saved troubles, but
it is the freedom to take trouble for his own good, to make the
trouble an element in his joy. It can be made so only when we
realise that our individual self is not the highest meaning of our
being, that in us we have the world-man who is immortal, who is
not afraid of death or sufferings, and who looks upon pain as only
the other side of joy. He who has realised this knows that it is
pain which is our true wealth as imperfect beings, and has made us
great and worthy to take our seat with the perfect. He knows that
we are not beggars; that it is the hard coin which must be paid
for everything valuable in this life, for our power, our wisdom,
our love; that in pain is symbolised the infinite possibility of
perfection, the eternal unfolding of joy; and the man who loses all
pleasure in accepting pain sinks down and down to the lowest depth
of penury and degradation. It is only when we invoke the aid of
pain for our self-gratification that she becomes evil and takes her
vengeance for the insult done to her by hurling us into misery.
For she is the vestal virgin consecrated to the service of the
immortal perfection, and when she takes her true place before the
altar of the infinite she casts off her dark veil and bares her
face to the beholder as a revelation of supreme joy.

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