Cultural Roots of Evil

Modern Mythmaking 12 Comments

Pulished in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 24, 2011


The English word ‘evil’ cannot be translated in any Indian language. There is no synonym of evil in Hindi or Tamil. And yet when this is pointed out, everyone feels odd. They keep offering alternative words that mean ‘evil’. Surely evil exists!

A few years ago the Dalai Lama spoke that there is goodness in all human beings, even Hitler. This idea annoyed and irritated many in the West. How can anyone say anything good about Hitler? Recently someone tried to say that the punishment against Shiny Ahuja was too harsh. He was silenced with the rhetoric: how can anyone speak in favor of a rapist?

Evil means the absence of good. Implicit in the word ‘evil’ is a religious concept. It means the absence of God. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that everything that exists is a manifestation of the divine. And so nothing can be devoid of divinity. And so nothing can be evil.

Most Indians believe in rebirth and the theory of karma. As a result every event is the result of some past deed. Even the worst of events can be explained by karma. In one Purana for example, there is a story of Sita accidentally killing one of a pair of  lovebirds and so is cursed by the surviving bird that she too will be separated from her beloved. In another Purana, Vishnu, the preserver of the world, beheads the mother of a sage, Kavya, who attempts to help the Asuras. For this action, Vishnu is cursed that he will descend on earth in human form and experience death. Thus even God is subject to the laws of karma. When everything is karmic, the notion of evil is not needed to make sense of a terrible action. That is why in Indian languages there is no concept or word for evil.

All this makes evil a cultural concept not a universal one. The rational discourse aligns itself with the ‘evil’ discourse and justifies the existence of ‘evil’ through words like psychopath and sociopath whose usage has shot up in recent American crime-based television series like CSI or Dexter. It stems from a clear need to justify killing of the undesirable. Basically what we are being told is that there are human beings on this planet that do not deserve mercy or pity. Like the Orks of the Lord of the Rings trilogy we are being told they have to be killed. We cannot live with them.

In India, the word ‘evil’ is being replaced by the word ‘corrupt’. Increasingly, influenced by Western religious and political and social discourses, Indians are believing that the way to create a better world is by getting rid of ‘evil’ politicians and ‘evil’ bureaucrats and ‘evil’ businessmen using lawful and if necessary lawless means. This is a dangerous trend. It means we have stopped looking at people as human beings who can in different situations be heroes and villains. Instead we have chosen to box all humans as good and evil, boxes from which there is no escape.

There seems to be an urgency to declare people as evil or corrupt and no urgency whatsoever to reflect what makes people evil or corrupt. Refusal to reflect indicates an arrogance that we already know. And that certainty is a dangerous trend.

  • Sameeran Jenna

    I do not know what is “evil” or what is “corrupt”. All I know is, no matter what, no reason can justify the action of Satyam CEO, Commonwealth scam, 2G scam.

    • That is what the article says. Not every deed a person does is right. But that does not make him devoid of divinity. Satyam’ mgt may be wrong but they have given employment to a lot of people. That is a good deed. Similarly, window-dressing their accounts was a bad deed. The deed is corrupt/evil. The person doing it still has scope to change (if given a choice)

      • Sameeran Jenna

        Thanks Tarun. Your explanation cleared my mind. I was thinking of deed and person in one light. But, now I understand, deed and the person doing it are indeed separate.

        • ANUDIP SAMUI

          There is one Word, Devduttji always uses in all his videos and teaching,


          Everything he says may not be the right thing, but everything introspected by us will surely give us the right answer.

          Kalmadi may have been the worst of Scamsters in India, but he was backed by enormous number of corrupt officers, government and the PM’s office too.

          The Only reason i can find is Greed and not Need. Everyone wants an opportunity to eat away profits and secure their Childs future. So in doing “Evil”(as per westerner’s), they are also doing “Good”(as per Indian thoughts) by securing their childs future.

          I believe in one thing, “EVERY COIN HAS TWO SIDES and EVERY HUMAN IS GOOD AS WELL AS BAD”

          But yes, no one is above the Laws Created by Nature and Nature is God !!!

          So God can never be Evil…but maybe Competitive !!!

  • Sledge Hammer

    Hi, I think this is absolutely correct. As the karma that we generate does not last forever, the bad deeds don’t last forever. No one stays in hell or heaven forever. That is confirmed by our mythology again and again. Only solution to all this is Mukti or Moksha.

  • Giriraj Bhatia

    Well, Nice thoughts Sir!

    A person may not be evil, but he has to pay for his bad deeds. Justice needs to be done.

  • Aditya Naikdesai

    Wow! Thanks for writing this. I always wondered how we were taught in school that everything in this world was created by God. Everything.

    If that’s the case, when we say something is not good, should we be blaming God for it? Is God capable of making mistakes then?

    And if God is ALWAYS right, then is it possible that he meant for something to be more bad than good for a reason?

    Add to that sayings like ‘jo bhi hota hai achhe ke liye hota hai’. ‘jo bhi hai kismat / bhagwaan ki den hai’. . . .

    Man, especially elders at times, can surely be confusing.

    • Rajni

      God probably is not mistaken by creating bad things. These have been created 1. So that we can appreciate good things. 2. It is a payoff mechanism (suffering today is due to our previous karmas).

      Besides, when they say “Jo hota hain acche ke liye hi hota hain”, because if something bad has happened, you have just partly paid off some of your previous bad karmas.

  • Rajni

    Well, every action has its repercussions good, bad, or both. However, the ‘Evil’ doers in the context of this corrupt system do not have a conscious and they fear nothing. This, I think is a bigger issue in our current society.

  • venkatesan

    One can say –
    Eastern culture does not recognize absolute evil; This can be an observation;
    (To assoicate with languages English word “evil” – Indian languages do not have equivalent;
    – distraction)
    Sita accidental killing a bird; cursed for separation; It explains on a first level ” why did Sita got separated from her husband?”
    Next minute one can ask is it fair?
    accidental killing – separation by abduction and suffering in enemy’s place?
    why did the curse should work, if it is not fair?if it is not fair, why should it work?
    Take the popular context-
    Dasrath kills the boy Swravan- ( by shooting arrow by sound);
    He goes to the parents to give water and give the bad news;
    He is cursed;
    Why should the curse work? He could walked away? why did not see that he was good enough to come and report;
    (actually, it is said in another angle, he was happy that he is assured of sons in future- that time he was childless; the curse is blessing of fatherhood)
    Ambika curses Bhisma? Ghadhari curses Lord Krishna?
    why should theri curses should work? Are they not unfair?
    What is the relation between God, Law of karma, curse-effect?

    A new age American-Jew may have a (standard) eastern view of life,
    A modern educated Hindu Indian
    may have (standard) western view of life; The “Western” and “Eastern” meanings are shifting;

  • Dear Pattnaikji,
    I came to know you via Youtube by your very popular show “Shaastrarth” and have become a regular viewer of it. You have very intelligently woven the mythological principles with modern business and have inspired many minds to plan efficiently.

    What I have personally interpreted after listening to you is that the wrong understanding of ancient
    texts and its message among the mob is due to our faulty education system.

    Few months ago I came across an article stating Macaulay’s opinion on India and his strategies to
    change the education system here so that britishers can rule us for long. His plan was to ruin the self
    esteem of Indians and their language and make English language a brand of Literacy and Intelligence and
    also to mar the faith of Indians in their religion. It shocked me a lot.

    My question is how far do you hold Macaulay’s conspiracy responsible for the present intellectual and
    emotional degradation of Indians and to what extent. What would have been the scenario if such event
    had not taken place?

    Awaiting your reply.

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