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The problem of evil refers to the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil in this world with an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God. The argument for the problem of evil goes as follows: We can see that evil exists in this world—cheating, misery and suffering, poverty, disease, etc. Why would God create a world in which this evil exists? Since He is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, therefore, He could have created a world devoid of evil, but since evil exists, He is either not omnipotent (that is, He was helpless in creating the evil world) or not omnibenevolent (He doesn’t care). If He is indeed omnipotent and omnibenevolent, evil could only exist if God wasn’t aware of the misery in this world. In this case, He would not be omniscient. Therefore, whichever position is adopted, the result is always that one of the three properties of God—omniscience, omnipotence, or omnibenevolence—must be discarded. The mere presence of evil, therefore, is taken to be the refutation of God’s existence.

Vedic Philosophy Answer

In Vedic philosophy, the answer to this problem is presented by Lord Kṛṣṇa as follows in Bhagavad Gita 4.11.

ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham

There are two key operative terms in this verse—(a) yathā māṁ prapat, and (b) tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham. The term prapat means approaching or moving towards, and therefore, yathā māṁ prapat means “as they approach Me”. Similarly, bhaja means worship or love, and therefore, tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham means “them certainly in the same way I love or worship”. In simple words, as they approach Me, in the same way, I love or worship them. At first sight, this is not omnibenevolence. It is rather the tit-for-tat philosophy. As you behave with me, I will behave the same with you.

But there are some important nuances here. Note from above, the statement is “them certainly in the same way I love or worship”. So, even if you hate God, God isn’t hating you back. He is still loving and worshiping you but in a way that looks like hatred. In simple words, He acts as if He hates you, although He doesn’t hate you. This can be understood by the example of a parent who punishes a child. The parent doesn’t hate the child, and yet, the parent punishes the child that looks just like hate.

Different Kinds of Love

Vedic texts describe five kinds of loving relationships with God. These are called sānta, dāsya, sakhya, vātsalya, and mādhurya. Sānta means silent appreciation or that “God is great”. This is a distant appreciation just like you might respect a great person, offer respect from a distance, but you are not closely related to that person. Dāsya means the mood of a servitor. In this mood, God is the master, and the soul is a servant; the master orders, the servitor fulfills it. Sakhya means friendship. In this mood, the soul and God are just like equals. They consult each other, advise each other, compete with each other, and argue with each other. But even if they compete and argue with each other, they don’t stop caring for each other. Vātsalya means the parent-child relationship. However, in this relationship, God is the child and the soul is the parent—mother or father. Vātsalya doesn’t mean “God our Father in Heaven” because God doesn’t want to be the father (we will return to this topic shortly). God only wants to be the child. Mādhurya means romantic. In this relationship, God and the soul are romantically related as masculine and feminine. Again, God doesn’t become a female to have a relationship with a male. He remains a male but relates to other souls who want to relate to Him romantically as a female.

Thus, three kinds of moods of relationship—which exist in this world—don’t exist in the relationship to God. First, in the Dāsya relationship, God is always the master, never the servant. Second, in the Vātsalya relationship, God is always the child, never the parent. Third, in the Mādhurya relationship, God is always the male, never the female. Servant, parent, and female natures are excluded from God.

Now, this may seem to suggest that something that exists in this world doesn’t exist in God, but that is not truly the case. God indeed becomes the servant of His parents, although He is acting like a child serving the parent, not the servant controlled by a master. So, we cannot say that God is never a servant; He is a servant of His parents. But He is not a servant of a master. He becomes a servant when someone cares for Him like a parent. Similarly, even though He is a male in a relationship with females, He can be like a henpecked husband controlled by His wives. Or, He can be a jilted lover in a relationship with His girlfriends. So, despite His masculinity, He is not always in the mood of superiority; He can also feel inferior. God’s interest in art, music, dance, etc. also makes Him feminine in a different sense.

The Nature of God’s Parenthood

The only mood that is never acknowledged in God is that of a parent—i.e., “God our Father in Heaven”. And yet, He is a parent in the technical sense that meanings in us are child-meanings of the meaning in God. As an example, a “cow” is a child meaning of “mammal”. These child meanings expand from the original meaning, and become parts of the original meaning—just as “cow” is a part of “mammal”.

However, there is a difference between this technical meaning of parent-child, and the loving relationship of parent-child (in which God is a parent). What is that difference? A parent to a child, in the emotional sense, will suffer hardships to bring up the child. A loving parent may endure injury to protect his child. The parent may work hard day and night to provide for his children. A parent may even listen to insults and face disrespect to protect his children. But God doesn’t do any of that. He doesn’t suffer hardship to bring up the child, endure injuries to protect the child, and doesn’t work to raise the child.

Due to the technical meaning of the parent-child noted above, God is technically the soul’s parent. However, God is not emotionally our parent. This is extremely important because when the argument of evil is invoked, God’s omnibenevolence is challenged. The argument of evil says: If God was benevolent, then He could have pardoned all our sins, and we would then not have to suffer. Those who make this argument are thinking of God as a parent in the loving sense—i.e., “God our Father in Heaven”.

This problem of evil arises from God’s supposed parenthood of the soul in the emotional sense, which Vedic philosophy rejects. However, God is accepted as a parent of the soul in a technical sense, which is why the soul is said to be the part of God, quite like a “cow” is a part of a “mammal”. If we don’t distinguish between the technical parent and the emotional parent, then the issue of evil is created.

The Situation in the Material World

The soul’s condition in the material world is that God is still technically its parent, but emotionally, the soul has abandoned the five types of relationships to God–sānta, dāsya, sakhya, vātsalya, and mādhurya. By becoming self-centered rather than loving, the soul is indifferent toward God. As a result, God is also indifferent toward the soul. As they approach Me, in the same way, I love or worship them. Of course, God is still omnipotent, because He can force the soul to love Him, but He doesn’t, because the soul has no desire to love Him in return. God is still omniscient because He knows that the soul doesn’t love Him, and therefore, He is also indifferent toward the soul. But God is not omnibenevolent in the sense that He is not going to take the trouble to salvage the soul from its present condition.

The condition of the material world is that of choice and responsibility. You sow and you reap. You will reap whatever you sow. God has nothing to do with this sowing and reaping; it is the soul’s choice. This process of sowing and reaping is called karma and it causes the cycle of birth and death, enjoyment and suffering. This is a natural law called dharma in which each situation has a unique type of duty. If that duty is fulfilled, then there is good karma. If that duty is unfulfilled, there is bad karma. Due to the soul’s indifference toward God, God is not involved in this process of action and consequence. And we cannot invoke paternalistic love of God where God will salvage us from our present condition unilaterally.

The Nature of the Material World

Now, some people might say that God is the bigger person, and He should act bigger. But how can God act like the bigger person without violating the condition of free will in the soul? Vedic texts answer: God appears even in the material world to attract the soul, not to force the soul.

These appearances of God are called incarnations. He appears to show what He is. He also speaks about His nature and the nature of transcendence. And often His devotees present that same knowledge in different ways. This appearance of God in the material world is His omnibenevolence. His speaking about Himself is His omnibenevolence. And His sending of His devotees to present the knowledge of Himself is His omnibenevolence. His creating an advertisement about Himself is His omnibenevolence.

This omnibenevolence shows that God is concerned about the soul, but not as a parent, who will undergo many tribulations to save the child, suffer pain and insults to protect him, or work day and night to provide for the child. His omnibenevolence is showing concern without emotional attachment. The emotional attachment exists only when there is love. If love doesn’t exist, then there is no emotional attachment, even though the soul is technically God’s child. Hence, because there is no attachment, we can say that God is indifferent. However, there is a tinge of concern even in that indifference, where God wants to get the soul back, but He is not going to force the return.

Free Will and Omnibenevolence

The problem of evil arises because omnibenevolence is interpreted as the unilateral love of the parent with the child, where the parent will try to save the child under all circumstances. But God in Vedic philosophy is not omnibenevolent in that sense. He has a concern, but it is not unlimited. This is stated in the Bhagavad-Gita as the tit-for-tat philosophy. But it is not literally tit-for-tat, in the sense that most people understand it in this world—i.e., if you are indifferent toward me, then I am also indifferent toward you. There is still some concern, but it is not a loving attachment to force an outcome.

So, in one sense, the argument from evil is correct—God is not omnibenevolent in the sense that we think that He could be. But if God was omnibenevolent in that sense, then we could also make the reverse argument—the soul doesn’t want to love God, but God forces that love upon it. So, God now becomes the tyrant who prevents the free will of the soul to choose to love or not love.

The point is that omnipotence is not a good thing, because that leads to tyranny. If God demonstrated His omnipotence to force the soul, then He would be accused of tyranny, and due to the annulment of free will, there would be far more problems than if God’s omnibenevolence is limited. The limitation of God’s omnibenevolence is the least evil solution, but since there is a limitation, there is a problem of evil. However, this problem is also unsolvable because if God shows His omnipotence, then He is accused of tyranny, and if He doesn’t show omnibenevolence, then He is accused of indifference.

Ultimately, this problem comes down to a choice—Should God be a tyrant or should He be indifferent? We can argue logically and say that, all things considered, indifference is better than tyranny. But it is also God’s choice—because He is a person. He has made a rational choice in the sense that He has chosen the lesser of two evils, but since either side creates a problem, therefore, the situation is not perfect. The fact is that any rational analysis of this problem would lead to either the same answer or something much worse. And the conclusion would be that the material world is not a perfect place to live.

Hidden Attitudes in the Problem

But we can also turn around and ask: Given that this rational analysis has been presented many times, or could easily be understood even by a little careful thought, why does this problem persist?

The answer is that we want choice without responsibility. A child who has a loving parent, who takes care of all their problems, quietly addresses all the issues they create, is a child who exercises a choice without responsibility. We can interpret “Our Father in Heaven” in just that way—“I have a parent who will always protect me, even though I’m irresponsible”. But what happens, if one child of the parent acts irresponsibly against the other child? What should the parent do in such a situation? Allow the stronger child to torture the weaker child? Would that be considered omnipotence or omnibenevolence?

The hidden attitude in the problem of evil is just this—we want choice without responsibility. This Calvin and Hobbes comic illustrates this aptly: Why isn’t the world unfair in my favor? The fact is that the person arguing for evil in this world is asking the wrong question: Can I have a choice without responsibility? The question is asked by infantile and entitled children cared for unreservedly by the parent, such that even if that child acts against the siblings, there should never be a reprimand.

The answer to an infantile attitude is “You must be punished”. The problem of evil arises because the infant shifts the blame from his or her attitude to God’s creation. Once we see how this problem arises from a flawed attitude and question, then the correct response is: “I don’t care what you think”.

In this indifference about what we say about evil, God’s omnibenevolence transforms from sweetness to sourness. It is not literally the absence of love. But it is the absence of the sweetness of love. The sour answer to the question is stated by Kṛṣṇa: “as they approach Me, in the same way, I love them”.  As we noted at the beginning, this can be understood by the example of a parent who punishes a child. The parent doesn’t hate the child, and yet, the parent punishes the child that looks just like hate.

Part of the problem in the question of evil is that we are technically God’s children, but we are not infants in God’s view. Alternatively, God doesn’t want to be the parent to an infant, although He wants a parent who will love Him as an infant. This desire to be an infant, but not a parent to an infant, is God’s nature. We could ask: Why God doesn’t want to be a parent to an infant? But that question has no answer; it is ultimately God’s nature.