Hindu Vedanta Theodicy

What is God’s responsibility for the evil in the world? How can God be impartial when we find good and evil in the world he created? Why do some suffer while others enjoy?

In the Vedanta-sutra (2.1.34), this subject of theodicy is raised:

vaisamya-nairghrnye na sapeknatvat tatah hi darsayati
“God is not guilty of inequality and cruelty, because we must take karma into consideration.”

One cannot argue that God is partial and thereby responsible for suffering because the Upanisads clearly teach that God only rewards and punishes the living beings with due consideration of their good and evil deeds. Such deeds and their due rewards are what is commonly known as karma. Karma and the world of repeated birth and death are inextricably entwined.

The next aphorism of Vedanta-sutra takes an opposing position for the sake of argument and then refutes it. Sutra 2.1.35 states,

na karmavibhagad iti cen nanaditvat
“If it be objected that it is not so on account of the non-distinction, we refute the objection on the ground of being without a beginning.”

This sutra raises the objection that before the first world cycle there was no karma, no distinction between souls on the basis of their merit and demerit. To this objection, the sutra replies that this is incorrect because there is no beginning to the world cycles. There is no beginning to the cycles of birth and death each soul experiences under karmic law. The world cycles, its souls, and the karma that binds them together are all anadi, beginningless, as is Vishnu himself. Indeed, the world cycles are compared to his breathing, and God has no first breath. Thus there is no time when karma did not exist, whether inside or outside of time—during the manifest creation or during its unmanifest condition. With all this in mind, this sutra is to be understood as follows:

If it be objected that it is not correct to say that karma is responsible for the evil in the world, since before the world cycles began there was non-distinction between souls on the basis of their karma, we refute the objection on the grounds that the world cycles and their karmic influence on the souls has no beginning.

On this aphorism (2.1.35), the Vedanta-sutra ends its discussion on theodicy with the conclusion that God is not partial or guilty of unfairly rewarding some and punishing others in the material world. No, reward and punishment are a result of the living entities’ own actions, their karma, which is anadi.

Here it matters not how well such an argument satisfies one’s material intellect or how well one feels the issue of theodicy has been dealt with by Vedanta and Hinduism overall. This is Hinduism’s position on the topic, a subject matter (beginninglessness) that one can only understand by virtue of sastrasastra yonitvat. Sastra reaches where reason on its own cannot rise.

Although there is an appearance of creation, neither the individual souls nor the world itself have a beginning, just as God himself does not have a beginning. Both the individual souls and the world are aspects, or attributes, of God, his jiva sakti and maya sakti respectively.

All souls interact with the world and many exploit her in the name of sense indulgence, wealth accumulation, and worldly progress. God sanctions the karmic justice incurred by this exploitation but he also extends mercy through scripture, saints, and his own descent (avatara) all of which provide an opportunity to end our exploiting tendency and engage in loving dedication to him (bhakti). Those who take advantage are delivered and experience the ingress of another sakti of God, the svarupa sakti, and as a result they can interact directly with him.

This article is based on Swami B.V. Tripurari’s, Anadi for Beginners, originally published on the Harmonist. This version has been edited and re-published with permission to provide a simplified introduction to Hindu Vedanta’s treatment of “the problem of evil” (theodicy). Based on the discussion that followed on the Harmonist, some content has been added to address potential questions that may arise as a result of the doctrine of anadi karma.

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