Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

July 21, 2011

First published July 20, 2011

 in Devlok

Cultural Roots of Evil

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.

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