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Good and Evil

By Swami Abhedananda
Ramakrishna Vedanta Math

“Good and evil of this world of duality are unreal,
are spoken of by words, and exist only in the mind.”
- Bhagavatam, XI, ch. XXII.

In the voluminous writings of Hindu sages, there is no word that means creation out of nothing. The word, they use, literally means Projection and not creation, answering to the modern idea of evolution. Unlike the Western people of the present day, they had nothing to learn, as they had slowly and gradually discovered the true cause of good and evil, and afterwards explained their mutual relation as clearly as possible. They said that good and evil are relative terms, one of which cannot exist without the other. What we call good depends upon the existence of what we call evil, and evil exists only in relation to good. Being interdependent terms they cannot be separated. In trying to separate them and to make each stand by itself as independent of the other, we not only destroy their relative and interdependent nature, but also destroy the terms themselves. The moment we try to separate good from evil, we find this to be true. Evil cannot exist alone. If we try to make evil stand by itself as entirely separate from good, we can no longer recognize it as evil. Consequently, according to the Vedanta philosophers, the difference between good and evil is not one of kind, but of degree, like the difference between light and darkness.

Again the same thing can appear as good and evil under different circumstances. That which appears as good in one case, may appear as evil if the conditions change and the results be different. The same fire may be called a giver of life and comfort and a bestower of happiness and a producer of good, when it saves the life of a half-frozen man, or when it gives us warmth in the coldest days of winter, or when it cooks our food and guides our feet. But it will be called the producer of evil and a curse of God when it destroys life, or inflicts injury on man or on his property. Still the nature of fire is to burn, and this nature does not change. The Great London fire destroyed many lives, brought ruin and destruction to many families, but at the same time it destroyed the germs of a plague that could have done more evil. So it was both good and evil at the same time. The same force of gravitation is called good when it attracts atoms and molecules of our bodies and keeps together the atoms of our clothes, gives shapes to our houses, bodies, and this earth where we are now living, but it is the producer of evil when it kills a man who falls from the roof of a house.

Electricity is good when it gives light, moves a streetcar, cures a pain, and relieves a disease, but it is evil when it crushes a man under the shock of its tremendous currents. As electricity, it is neither good nor evil, but their expressions may be called good or evil according to the results they produce. The forces of nature are running in the universe with tremendous activity and mad rush, like the currents of a mighty river which brings what we call good and blessings on one shore and evil and destruction on the other. As standing on one shore, where good prevails, we say the river is very good, it is the producer of good, etc., so, standing on the other shore, we call the same river a producer of evil, or a creator of destruction. Similarly, we say the forces of nature are good or evil according to our standard, ideas and interests. On the one hand, the river fertilizes the country by depositing rich soil and helps the growth of vegetation and, on the other hand, the same river destroys villages and all that stands in its way.

Good and evil exists in our minds.

Good and evil exists in our minds. That which fulfils our interests is called good, and that which brings to us misery or anything which we do not want, is called evil. When we look at the phenomena of nature piecemeal, without recognising their connection, we do not get the proper explanation of events. If we look at the same phenomena as related to one another and to the whole universe, then we discover the true explanation and we are no longer puzzled. Then the proper cause of good and evil is understood. It is limitation, the inability to recognize the relation of the part to the whole.

According to the monistic philosophers of India, it is impossible to find anything absolutely good, or absolutely evil, in this world of relativity. That which we call good, is only one phase and the other is evil. When we ignore the one phase, we see the other phase all along. The same event may produce evil in one country and good in another. The famine in India killed millions by starvation, but it made the American farmers richer than ever before. The famine has done evil in India, but good in America. This is true in every case. Our life, which is a great blessing to us, depends upon the life of others. The maintenance of our life causes thousands to die. Millions of lower animals are killed every day for our food. Each stomach has become a cemetery and each tooth a tombstone. When one man murders another, his motive is to do good to himself, or to his family, or to society, or to fulfil some purpose, which he considers good. The murderer may believe that he does some good to somebody, but, as he takes a wrong course of action, he is called a murderer, and gets no sympathy from anybody, and is punished by society and the State.

When a big murderer, however, comes from the battlefield after committing hundreds of murders to possess another’s territory, we praise him and call him the greatest hero, and reward him. But if we analyse the nature of the work he has done, we find that he has committed many murders to serve his country. As the murderer of multitude is supposed to do good to his country, so possibly the man who kills but one person, may do some good somewhere, although we may not recognise it as such. Our intellect is shortsighted, therefore, we cannot always see the true results of our actions. As we cannot draw a sharp line of demarcation between the good and evil results of the physical forces of nature and cannot say that this is good and good alone, so we cannot separate the good and evil results of our moral acts. That which is morally good in one case, may be evil in another. As, for instance, the commandment of God is supposed to be a moral good and beneficial to all. Think of the command that God gave Saul:

“Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox, sheep, camel and ass.”
-(Samuel, XV, 3)

We call it a good act, because God did it, but if one man commands another to do such a horrible deed, what will you call him? Such is our judgment. We say many things without knowing why we say them. Let us open our eyes and see how far good goes and how it is mixed with evil. Each act that we do must be backed by a motive and that motive again is for the good of some, or for the evil of some. We may or may not understand it, but the results of our acts are always mixed with good and evil. Take, for instance, the nearest example. I am talking to you. Perhaps I am doing some good. At least, I intend to do so. But at the same time I am causing the death of millions of microbes. It may be good to me, to you, but the poor microbes would not call it good. When we see the results of this act from our standpoint we call it good, but if we were to look at it from the microbe’s standpoint, it would appear quite different and they would doubtless call it evil.

If we judge everything from our standpoint, we can never know whether it is really good or evil, because our standard is limited and imperfect.

If I judge the whole universe by my standard,
my judgment will be very poor.

Those who do not recognize the results of acts from different standpoints are liable to all kinds of error. If I judge the whole universe by my standard, my judgment will be very poor. But when I look at things from the various standpoints, I can understand how the same event can produce good and evil in relation to different conditions. Every mistake we make becomes a great teacher in the long run. Thus evil has its good side, and good has its evil side. Therefore good and evil go hand in hand. But ordinarily, wherever we find a preponderance of good over evil, we designate it good and the opposite as evil.

Again, that which is sinful to one may be virtuous to another. Consider the different standards of sin among the Mohammedans, the Mormons and the Christians. Compare the scriptures of the world and see how, what is a virtue in the Old Testament, is a vice to men who believe in other scriptures. If polygamy is a sin according to the Christians, it is virtue with the Mohammedans and the Mormons, and was such with the ancient Jews. That which is good for some persons, as inculcated by their religion, may be evil to others living under a different dispensation.

We cannot draw a sharp line of demarcation between good and evil

Thus we cannot draw a sharp line of demarcation between good and evil. Punishment and reward, according to the Vedanta philosophy, are but the reactions of our own actions. It says that every action must have a similar reaction. If action were good, the reaction must be the same. The Vedanta philosophy says: “Every action, whether backed by good or bad motives, is covered with its opposite, as fire is enveloped with smoke.” If we examine our lives, we will notice that good often comes out of evil. If the greater numbers of personal misfortunes have their good side, hardly any good fortune ever befell any one that did not give, either to the same or to some other person, something to regret. The Vedanta philosophers try to explain the so-called punishment and reward by referring to the law of cause and sequence, or the law of action and reaction. Action and reaction are sometimes opposite and sometimes equal, says physical law. When we do certain acts, we are sure to reap certain results. But, if the results come before we have forgotten the causes that brought them, we call them either rewards, or punishments.

If a good act is done today, the result may come at once, or after many years. God never punishes the wicked, nor rewards the virtuous. He shines like the impartial sun equally upon the heads of the sages and the sinners. It is our own acts that bring the results, either in the form of reward, or punishment. When we understand clearly the law of cause and sequence, or of action and reaction, we cease to blame God, or any other extra-cosmic creator of evil. Then we do not say that evil has been interpolated from without. If we know that all the forces of nature, both physical and mental, are but so many expressions of one eternal Energy or Divine will, which is far beyond the relative good and evil, then we do not see good and evil in the universe. On the contrary, we find everywhere the expression of that Divine will. The nature of an effect must be the same as that of a cause, because effect is nothing but the manifested state of the cause, and if the cause of the universe be one eternal, divine Energy, then the universe, as a whole, can be neither good nor evil.

We can throw aside the narrow and limited (looking) glass of our relative standard, through which now looking at the events of life and put on our mental eye the (looking)) glass of divine energy, or universal will, then we no longer see good and evil, or virtue and vice, or reward and punishment. But we see the expression of one law of causation everywhere. Then we do not blame our parents, or the Satan, or God, or anybody, but understand that all our misery is but the result of our own acts which we did in this life or in a past incarnation. If we understand that as electricity is neither positive nor negative, but appears as positive or negative when manifested through a magnet, we apprehend that the laws of nature only appear to us as good or evil when they express themselves through the gigantic magnet of the phenomenal universe. If we realise that the eternal Energy, or the Divine will, appears as good or evil only as related to our minds and lives then we can say, as the great sages in India said:
“God does not create good or evil, nor does He take the virtue or sin of anybody. He does not punish the wicked or reward the virtuous. Our intelligence being covered, as it were, with the cloud of ignorance and relativity, deluded as we are, we imagine, on account of our imperfect understanding, that God creates good and evil, that His creation is good or evil, that He punishes or rewards.”
It is through our ignorance of truth that we do not recognise the Divinity that pervades the universe, standing high above the reach of our conception of good and evil.

However, let us strive to see the Divinity, by going behind the phenomenal appearance of good and evil. Let us go to the eternal source of all the phenomena. Let us first reach the highest plane of spiritual oneness, and standing on that Divine will, let us understand that good and evil are two aspects of one eternal substance which is neither good nor evil, but is the Absolute or the Brahman. Then and then alone, we shall transcend good and evil and enjoy the eternal Bliss in this life. It should be remembered that relativity created by the categories of time and space is nescience (ajnana or ignorance) and when we dispel the darkness of nescience, the ever shining light of the Atman, or the Brahman, is manifested. The light of the Brahman is self-revealing (svayam-prakasha) and it exists within us and within the phenomena all the time.




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