A Hindu view of Evil


Lakshmi arising from  the milky ocean

Samudra mathanam – Lakshmi arising from the milky ocean

Samudra Mathanam – Churning of the sea – a panel from Angkor Vat

All religions have their explanation and origin of evil. Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism postulate an external element named Satan or Ahriman or Angra Mainyu who is responsible for evil. In these religions, evil is therefore external to one self. While  in Christianity and Islam, Satan is a fallen angel, in Zoroastrianism, Ahriman or Angra Mainyu, co-evolved with Time itself. Indic religions have a different view of it. In Dhammapada, Buddha says – “By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.” (Dhammapada chapter 12, verse 165).

What is the Hindu view of evil? The two eternal contestants in Hindus are Devas (lit: The shining ones) and the Asuras (lit: the ungodly). Chāndogya Upaniṣad, relates the story of Indra (lit: residing within), the king of Gods and Virochana (lit: shining), king of Asuras went to Prajapati (All Father, the Creator) for instruction. When Prajapati instructed Indra and Virochana first saying that this body is Brahman, they both were satisfied. However Indra upon reflection thought instruction was not complete and went back again and again. However, Virochana instructed his Asuras as the body is be all and end all and not caring for anything other than their own bodies. The Upanishad says “Therefore even today they say of one who does not practice charity, who has no faith and who does not perform sacrifices: “He is verily a demon”; for such is the doctrine of the demons. The demons deck the bodies of the dead with garlands and perfume, with raiment and with ornaments, for they think that thus they will win the world beyond.” [For reading the full story in Chāndogya Upanishad (Chapter VIII), please click here]. Rama battles demons who want to destroy the sacrifice of Vishwamitra. Rig Veda is full of stories about Indra battling Panis who hold back wealth and water. The Panis were regarded as niggardly and uncharitable.

What has the mythology got to do with evil you ask? Well just this. Remember Chāndogya Upaniṣad states that the Asuras bedeck their bodies with garlands and perfumes, with raiment and with ornaments for they think with this they will win the world beyond. Basically anyone who has an excessive preoccupation with his own self here and now, materialistic, selfish (uncharitableness is a result of selfishness), headless of the world beyond is an Asura, i.e., the ungodly who are regarded as the source of evil. This excessive preoccupation of self to the exclusion of others and hereafter is the source of all evil in this world.

3 thoughts on “A Hindu view of Evil

  1. Was it Vivekananda or Ramakrishna, when asked why there’s evil in the world, who responded, “To thicken the plot”?
    Some days that answer seems terribly flippant, yet on others, extremely profound.
    In Christian teaching, the advice to take up your individual cross daily is a demand to put aside any selfish, self-centered agenda.
    There is also an implicit understanding teaching that evil can be overcome, rather than resisted, if we remain in the Light of God.
    I’m trying to think of similar teachings of transforming evil within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Any help?

    • One thing that has been misunderstood in Christian traditions is the actual role of Devil/Satan. To me Satan represents ultimate materialistic/selfish desires; certain amount of this should be there in humans else the world will cease to exist; we all work on that basis. In fact you will recall, that is why Satan has been allowed respite till the end of times. For destroying Satan (who represents materialistic desires) may also mean the end of the world and all the souls which are trapped in the body would immediately desire moksha. The problem of evil becomes acute only when when selfish desires overwhelm a man completely whereby he himself does not know whither he is being led by his own desires.

      Hindu tradition says that there are four goals or objectives of live and these are:

      (a) kama – desire
      (b) artha – wealth or economic well being in the first sense or means in the second sense
      (c) dharma – righteous/moral conduct
      (d) moksha – liberation;

      It also says that desires should be fulfilled; subject to wealth and means; wealth and means are guided by dharma; final goal is moksha which controls all these.

      I don’t know if this answers your question or brings you a different perspective. I am sorry for the delay in responding to your comment as I was travelling.

  2. In Islam, shaytan is a djinn, not an angel. And there is a thing such as the nafs. After all, what are the sufis fighting against?

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