If there is so much bad in the world, how can God be good? Religions that talk about a good God must be lying. There is no God.
That was my chain of thought when, in high school, I was confronted with the facts of the Nazi Holocaust. As a German American, I was shocked – my people were the guilty. I became an atheist.
After ten or so years of depressing atheism, I started to read widely in religion, especially Sufism, the mystical strain of Islam. However, I did not rediscover God through an if-then reasoned argument. It was through a startling experience while driving back to Boston from New York City. Although others may dismiss it as some kind of brain dysfunction, I guess I have to call it a mystical experience. God was back but I had a lot of work to do.
As an atheist, the cruelty of the world is just the way things are. So suck it up.
As a believer, I wanted to understand just how suffering and evil fit the grand design. Fortunately, my flexible Harvard doctorate in education and human development allowed me to slip through the system and explore this question by teaching comparative religion.
THE LAW OF KARMA
It seems appropriate to start an exploration of evil with the oldest religion, Hinduism. Since its inception some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, Hinduism has gone through many changes. But we will jump to around 500 BCE. As in other parts of the world during the Axial Age, religion was changing, becoming less clan- centered and more focused on the individual’s responsibility.
The Law of Karma lays responsibility for evil, for good or bad things that happen to an individual, not with God, but at the feet of the individual.
Explanation of Karma in Hinduism, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs (link)
“Karma is the Hindu view of causality in which good deeds, words, thoughts, and commands lead to beneficial effects for a person, and bad deeds, words, thoughts, and commands lead to harmful effects. These effects are not necessarily immediate but can be visited upon a soul in future lives through reincarnation; additionally, good or bad fortune experienced in life may be the result of good or bad actions performed in a past life. One’s karmic state affects the reincarnation of the soul: good karma may lead to reincarnation as a human while bad karma can lead to reincarnation as an animal or other forms of non-human life. Many Hindus hold a theistic view of karma in which a personal god—such as Vishnu in Vaishnavism and Shiva in Shaivism—is responsible for administering karma according to a soul’s actions. Non-theistic strands of Hinduism believe that karma is a matter of basic cause-and-effect without the need of a deity to mediate the effects.
Karma is a core concept in the Indian religions, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, although their specific views on karma vary. In Hinduism, karma is the force of retributive justice that compels believers to behave righteously according to Dharma—the moral order of the universe. As such, karma is a central component of the Hindu ethical worldview. Further, because Hindu religious ordinances govern not just the individual believer but society as a whole, belief in karma enforces and perpetuates systems of social organization prescribed in Hindu scriptures. Karma also bolsters active worship on the part of believers, as many Hindus hold that bad karma can be counteracted through ritual activity including religious pilgrimages, temple worship, and making offerings to the gods.”
Perhaps the most direct path to dispel evil or bad karma is Karma Yoga, advocated by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
This path requires you to look deeply into yourself to find the thoughts, judgements, and motivations underneath each action you take. The goal is purification of the causes of evil, recognizing one’s selfishness, ones hidden desires, ones ego at work. Over time, these processes become easier to see.
The false self becomes smaller and smaller. One can become free, making room for ever deeper levels of experience, consciousness, and peace. Eventually, perhaps over several lifetimes, you will reach moksha, realizing that Atman, your soul, is the same as Brahman, absolute reality, as described in Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita. You are at Unity and released from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
BACK TO THE GITA
My previous post on the Gita and Karma Yoga included 7 translators’ takes on the eternal self, morality, and selfless action without ego or reward.
To further understanding, I particularly like this explanation from Eknath Earswaran* (the first of our translators).
“Everything we do produces karma in the mind. In fact, it is in the mind rather than the world that karma’s seeds are planted. Aptly, Indian philosophy compares a thought to a seed: very tiny, but it can grow into a huge, deep-rooted, wide-spreading tree. I have seen places where a seed in a crack of a pavement grew into a tree that tore up the sidewalk. It is difficult to remove such a tree, and terribly difficult to undo the effects of a lifetime of negative thinking, which can extend into many other people’s lives. But it can be done, and the purpose of the Gita is to show how.
“Karma is sometimes considered punitive, a matter of getting one’s just desserts. This is accurate enough, but it is much more illuminating to consider karma as an educative force whose purpose is to teach the individual to act in harmony with dharma**- not to pursue selfish interests at the expense of others, but to contribute to life and consider the welfare of the whole. In this sense life is like a school; one can learn, one can graduate, one can skip a grade or stay behind. As long as the debt of karma remains, however, a person has to keep coming back for more education.”
Good karma also leaves a residue to be purified. To become released from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, you need to move beyond the desire for happiness. This means accepting, with equanimity, the good and the bad as if they were the same. This is the goal of the mystics of all religions.
*See in Earswaran’s introduction, the chapter “Dharma, Karma, Rebirth and Liberation” in his book “The Bhagavad Gita Translated for the Modern Reader”
**Dharma is the essential order of the universe, goodness, rightness, justice and purpose. Dharma averts chaos.