Thinking About Religion
Volume 7 (2007)

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Rabindranath Tagore and the Problem of Evil

Gregory P. Rich
Fayetteville State University

The problem of evil raises a difficult question for traditional religious believers in the west: if there is an all-powerful, all-good being, how can there be evil? The idea is that an all-powerful being would be able to abolish evil, and an all-good being would want to abolish it. Thus if there were such a being, there would be no evil. But there is evil, and so how can there be such a being? In this way, the problem of evil raises a serious challenge to belief in an all-powerful, all-good God.

In this logical version of the problem, the emphasis is on whether there is a logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of an all-good, all-powerful being. The evidential version of the problem focuses on whether the amount of evil in the world makes it unlikely that there is such a God. The practical problem of evil concerns what to do to minimize the evil in the world. And there is still another version of the problem, one that might be dubbed the coherence version of the problem of evil. It concerns whether particular religions can adequately explain evil.

In this paper I want to address what Rabindranath Tagore had to say about this version of the problem of evil. Tagore was a twentieth-century Hindu Bengali writer. In 1913, he became the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Best known as a poet, he also wrote novels, short stories, and philosophical prose (“Rabindranath”). In 1913 he published Sadhana: The Realization of Life, in which there is a chapter entitled “The Problem of Evil.” After explicating the main lines of his response to the problem, I will raise some questions for his approach. I shall maintain that Tagore’s view is incomplete because it leaves too many important questions unanswered.

The motivation for the paper is to explore how a Hindu would deal with this problem. This is an interesting question in part because traditional western ideas and Hindu ideas regarding the individual, God, and the relationship between the two are so different. Thus Hindus, but not traditional westerners, often describe the individual as part of God (Smith 27) and God as all or in all (Lewis 200 and Nikhilananda 38).

Tagore himself speaks of becoming “one with the All” (16) and of “God … who permeates the whole world” (13). And he quotes the Upanishads, key Hindu scriptures, thus: “This deity who is manifesting himself in the activities of the universe always dwells in the heart of man as the supreme soul” (29). This supreme soul is not only part of us; we are part of it. Referring to it, Tagore says, “thou dwellest in me and I in thee” (129). This deity is Brahma, “the one Eternal Spirit, whose power creates the earth, the sky, and the stars …” (6) According to Tagore, “The being who is in his essence the light and life of all, who is world conscious is Brahma … this all-feeling being is in our souls … We are immersed in his consciousness body and soul” (14).

Such Hindu ideas regarding God, the individual, and the relationship between the two are so different from traditional western ideas that some may think that this project is misconceived. Some Hindus and scholars of Hinduism, for instance, may say that Brahma is formless, pure being, and as such, indescribable. In such a case, since the categories of good and evil would not apply to him, there could not be a conflict between evil and such a God.

According to Tagore, however, Brahma is not “a mere abstraction” (12), but “the infinite in all things” (13). Tagore says that Brahma is “not a thin nonentity, void of all content” (15); we find him “in each and all” (15). Tagore does distinguish between Brahma in his essence and Brahma in his manifestation (99). This allows him to speak of Brahma as limitless yet complete, evolving yet perfect. Thus he is one way under one aspect and another way under the other aspect. But Tagore points out that the doctrine of Brahma solely as abstraction “is not in accord with the pervading spirit of the Indian mind” (13). His own emphasis seems to be on Brahma as manifest, since he often describes him. And in such a case, it seems that there could be a conflict between evil and such a God.

Others may regard this project as misconceived because they think that the problem of evil only arises for systems which have an all-powerful, all-good God and Hinduism does not have such a God (cf. O’Flaherty 4). In Sadhana, however, Tagore speaks of Brahma as “perfect” (125). Thus there is basis for viewing his Brahma as omnipotent and omnibenevolent. But the key point here is that even if Brahma is missing one of these qualities or altogether without qualities, there is still a problem.

This is because one version of the problem of evil more broadly concerns whether particular religions can adequately explain the existence of evil. This version of the problem remains a problem for Hinduism, and hence Tagore’s interest in addressing it while explicating his religious belief system. The problem of evil thus conceived remains a problem for any religion, and it is therefore interesting and worthwhile to see how a Hindu would address this question. As sociologist Max Weber says, “All Hindu religion was influenced by (the problem of theodicy) …; even a meaningful world order that is impersonal and supertheistic must face the problem of the world’s imperfections” (qted. in O’Flaherty 5).

Tagore tries to show how his variety of Hinduism can make sense of evil. After clarifying the meaning of “evil” and focusing his question, he maintains that evil is not absolute but leads to other goods, especially the good of our recognizing our identity with God.

A traditional western definition of evil emphasizes moral evil (wrongdoing) and natural evil (suffering). But Tagore equates evil and imperfection. Imperfections include pain, suffering, and disease. But imperfection, according to him, is not just “a negation of perfectness”(38). Instead it is “completeness manifested in parts, infinity revealed within bounds” (38). He says that “what appears as imperfect is the manifestation of the perfect” (38).

For Tagore the main question is not “why is there evil?”, since he thinks a created world has to be imperfect. For him the key question concerns whether evil is ultimate, final, or not susceptible to further analysis (37). Tagore’s answer is “no.”

He points out that a river has banks, but they are not the “final facts” about it. They help serve the purpose of moving the water on. The world too has its boundaries, but its purpose is not found in them but in its movement towards perfection. And similarly, according to Tagore, a rope ties a boat, but this bondage is not the “final fact” or ultimate meaning of the rope, because it also pulls the boat forward. According to Tagore, then, evil does not have to be final, absolute, or ultimate, since it can serve other purposes as well (37).

Tagore is pointing out that an imperfection such as pain can serve as a means to good. Nature is red in tooth and claw, but the struggle for existence creates other goods, such as, self-sacrifice and love. Moreover, overcoming evils helps us to build our characters. For instance, if there were never anything to fear, how could we become courageous? As Tagore says, “Our will, our character, has to attain perfection by continually overcoming evil” (42). Further, from a moral plane, one may embrace pain as a means to a higher good, such as freedom or justice (45). Therefore, far from being ultimate, pain may be a necessary part of bringing about higher goods.

Tagore claims as well that sometimes people think there is a great deal of evil in the world because they have the wrong focus. For instance, if they just dwell on death, totally detached from life, then life itself can begin to look pretty bleak. Tagore says that this amounts to taking the wrong perspective, that by letting the blankness of death separated from life sink in, “we lose sight of the wholeness of a life of which death is a part” (40). When we look at a piece of fabric under a microscope, we see large holes, but we needn’t worry about them because they’re only part of the fabric, not its ultimate reality. In some cases, what appears to be a bad thing is “just the opposite when seen in a larger perspective” (45). Part of what Tagore seems to be suggesting here is that some of the evils in the world contribute to the overall goodness of the whole in the same way that a discordant note may contribute to the overall beauty of a symphony (cf. Westphal 71-72).

Further, according to Tagore, facing our limitations in knowledge, power, and will can also help us realize our true selves. Realizing our weaknesses may make us miserable, but this realization also points to an ideal of perfection. According to this ideal, the infinite is in us.

In fact, according to Tagore, our true self is not an individual self but a universal self. Implicit here is a distinction between maya (appearance) and satyam (truth). Tagore says that “Our self is maya where it is merely individual and finite, where it considers its separateness as absolute; it is satyam where it recognizes its essence in the universal and infinite, in the supreme self, in paramatman” (67). This supreme self is Brahma (89-90).

According to Tagore, avidya (ignorance) makes us believe in an absolutely separate self. He says, “It is our ignorance which makes us think that our self, as self, is real, that it has its complete meaning in itself” (56). In contrast, the true meaning of our self is in union with God (62).

Tagore says that much evil is coming from our lack of understanding about our true nature. When we fail to merge the finite self into the infinite self, we are less likely to act from disinterested goodness. According to Tagore, not having the right fit between the individual self and the universal self causes much suffering. He says, “It is our life of self that causes conflicts and complications everywhere, upsets the normal balance of society and gives rise to miseries of all kinds” (50). Our lack of understanding then makes us the source of much evil.

But if we are not absolutely separated from God, why then do we appear to be that way? Quoting Hindu scripture, Tagore says that “From joy does spring all this creation” (62). God, from his love and joy, manifests himself in a variety of joy forms, including law and our individual souls. These forms are apparently separate from God because for his joy to be realized there must be this duality. The singer puts his joy in the form of a song, but for his joy to be fully realized, a hearer has to translate the song back to its original joy. Then there is complete communion. (82). Similarly the immortal one manifests his joy and love in the forms of his creation, but for his joy and love to be fully realized, there must be another to translate the creation back to its original joy and love. As Tagore says, “The infinite joy is manifesting itself in manifold forms, taking upon itself the bondage of law, and we fulfill our destiny when we go back from forms to joy, from law to love, when we untie the knot of the finite and hark back to the infinite” (82). We appear to be separate from God because he can realize his love “only in union with another free will” (68). This is why he “has made himself into two,” with him being the lover and our soul being the beloved, “his other self” (82).

As a result there is an ongoing play of love or game, lila (127), between the lover and the beloved. In this festival of love, this eternal cosmic dance, “this wonderful festival of creation, this great ceremony of self-sacrifice of God, the lover constantly gives himself up to gain himself in love:” (89-90). Brahma creates us from love and joy as apparently separated so that we can grow to realize our union with him and return to him in love and joy. He takes a finite form so that finite and infinite can be made one (90).

But because our individual soul is not absolutely separated from the supreme soul, “untruths, sufferings, and evils are not at a standstill; the human soul can defy them, can overcome them, nay, can altogether transform them into new power and beauty” (82). According to Tagore, “the most important lesson that man can learn from his life is not that there is pain in this world, but that it depends upon him to turn it into good account, that it is possible for him to transmute it into joy” (51). Even after we realize our identity with God and submit our individual will to the universal will, pain still performs a valuable function: it helps us measure the extent of our joy. Our freedom is not exercised “in being saved troubles” (51) but in taking trouble as a good and making it an element of our joy. He says that we do this by realizing that “our individual self is not the highest meaning of our being, that in us we have the world-man who is immortal, who is not afraid of death or sufferings, and who looks upon pain as only the other side of joy” (51). Thus Tagore claims that by merging our individual self into a universal self, we “become free from the thralldom of pain” (46).

Finally, Tagore says, “man does not really believe in evil” (41) anymore than he believes that violin strings were created to make discordant sounds (41). He maintains further that those who claim that existence is an absolute evil “cannot be taken seriously; they are merely posing” (42). He continues: “If existence were evil, it would wait for no philosopher to prove it. It is like convicting a man of suicide, while all the time he stands before you in the flesh. Existence itself is here to prove it cannot be evil” (42). Thus Tagore maintains that if existence were evil, it would be obvious. And since it is not obvious, then it follows that existence is not evil. If a man stands before us, he’s obviously not dead. And similarly if there is existence, it’s obviously not evil.

In sum, Tagore maintains that evil is not absolute, since it can lead to important goods. As a discordant part of the world, evil can make the whole world better. It can help us develop our characters and realize our identity with God. Our lack of understanding of our unity with God is the source of much evil. But Brahma created us with the appearance of separateness from him so that he could realize his joy and love through union with another free will. It is up to us to turn what evil there is in the world to good account. Through realizing our identity with God we can become free from pain. Since existence is here, it is not evil.

Tagore’s view raises a number of questions. Tagore tries to make sense of evil by talking about what Brahma does, but then why believe that Brahma exists? Tagore says that this is something we learn by “direct and immediate intuition” (29), not by reason or demonstration. We have in our soul an immediate awareness of the supreme one. As a result, we feel peaceful, joyful, and free, at one with Brahma. The difficulty for this view, however, is that in such a case we may merely be experiencing a beautiful yet vivid dream. In other words, the experience may best be explained psychologically instead of theologically.

Even if Brahma exists as the formless, the next question is “how could he create?” How could a pure being with no qualities create anything (cf. Noss 92)? How could he have love or joy to express in creation? To be a cause, one must have the quality of being a cause. And even if he could create, why would he if he is perfect? Would not the joy of a perfect being be sufficient unto itself? If not, then how is it perfect? Tagore might say that if it is alone, there could be no love (90). But why could not such a being love itself? Or, why could he not just be a joyous or loving consciousness without any content or object of joy or love (Wainwright 11)?

Assuming Brahma did create, what kind of individuals did he create? What are we as individuals? Why think that we are real only as phases or elements of God (Lewis 200)? Why is it not that we are simply beings really separate from God who are capable of merging with him?

Even if we are real only as phases or elements of God, why did he create us ignorant of our true natures? Tagore admits that much evil comes from our lack of understanding of our true natures. He says that our avidya (ignorance) creates “a limiting of consciousness that creates the hard separateness of the ego, and thus becomes the source of all pride and greed and cruelty incidental to self-seeking” (25). But since God created us with this ignorance, then it seems that he is the deeper source of the evil that results from it. The idea is that if he makes us ignorant and our ignorance leads us to do wrong, then he bears some of the responsibility. In a similar way, if someone drugs us without our knowledge or agreement and as a result we have a car accident which kills someone, then the person who drugged us is in large part responsible. This raises the question of whether such a being is worthy of worship.

Tagore might respond that evil performs a valuable function by leading to a variety of important goods. It provides conditions needed for us to show self-sacrifice and love and to develop courage and sympathy. It helps us develop good character and realize our identity with God. But not every case of evil leads to these results (cf. Herman 118). Sometimes evil breaks people, and other times it keeps them from realizing any union with God. Why should Brahma not make the illusion of separateness less vivid to prevent such results? Further, even if evil is necessary to accomplish important goods, is there a need for so much of it and of such a sort as there is? Why could there not be a universe where we realized our oneness with God without such wholesale suffering?

Why should God allow catastrophic natural disasters? Why didn’t he, for instance, prevent the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed 60,000 ("1755 Lisbon Earthquake"), or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which killed 225,000 ("2004 Indian")? Tagore concedes that the laws of nature can be the source of disasters but maintains that by increasing our understanding of these exceptionless laws, we grow beyond our limited selves and towards oneness with God. We gain knowledge of the things around us because “our wish is not their law” (48). Because the world is law-governed, it is not a place of fantasy. We grow greater by becoming more unified with all, but for this there has to be law in common. Tagore says we no longer pray for the laws to be set aside for us when they seem troublesome because we know that they cannot be set aside. They are not separate from us but our own. And as we understand them more, we gain a “universal body” (49); “we can call the whole world our extended body” (49).

It remains unclear, however, why the laws have to wreak such havoc. Why could there not be different laws? Or even with the laws there are now, why would God not miraculously intervene to prevent widespread suffering? As H.J. McCloskey says, “Surely, if God is all-powerful, He could have made a better universe in the first place, or one with better laws of nature governing it, so that the operation of its laws did not produce calamities and pain” (33). Could we not realize our oneness with God even in a world that included occasional exceptions to natural laws?

Tagore might respond that by making laws God has willingly set limits on himself so that he can realize the joy of play. Tagore compares God to a chess player. If a chess player ignores the rules and moves the chessmen any way he pleases, “then there can be no play” and no joy from the play (67). Similarly, if God does not abide by the laws that he has set up to separate the player from the play, then the play cannot continue and no joy will come from the play. Tagore says that, for God, water must be water and earth must be earth, because God’s “law that has made them water and earth is his own law by which he has separated the play from the player, for therein the joy of the player consists” (68). Tagore’s point seems to be that allowing exceptions to the laws of nature would interfere with God’s play. But then why would a perfect being need to play in such a way that his laws would lead to avoidable yet extreme suffering? And with such apparently arbitrary suffering, how can the play be considered a play of love or the God be considered a being worthy of worship?

According to Tagore’s “discordant note” justification of evil, the whole is better because of some of its parts which individually seem bad. To support his point of view, Tagore mentions the large holes that appear in a fabric when viewed under a microscope. His point is that these gaps do not make the fabric worse, but better. His idea is that the same could be true for evils in the world; they could make for a better overall world, too. The problem here is that we have seen the fabric of which the gaps are parts, but we haven’t seen the whole world of which evils are parts. And that makes it hard for us to be sure that the evil parts actually make the whole better. He could be right, but his claim is not well-supported (cf. Herman 115).

Sometimes those worried about evil point to what appears to be the suffering of innocent children and ask why. Perhaps Tagore would bring in karma and reincarnation to try to answer these concerns. Here the idea would be that the children suffer because of their misdeeds in a previous life and so are not innocent after all. One question here has to be “is there good evidence for karma and reincarnation?” Just noting that the doctrines are parts of one’s religious tradition is not sufficient because different religious traditions conflict on such matters and therefore cannot all be correct (cf. Smart 123). The question then becomes “why accept one religious tradition over another?”

Tagore claims that through union with the universal self, we rise above pleasure and pain, but his claim is far from obvious, particularly in regard to cases of painful, deadly disease and cruel torture. Tagore says that pain “is the vestal virgin consecrated to the service of the immortal perfection, and when she takes her true place before the altar of the infinite she casts off her dark veil and bares her face to the beholder as a revelation of supreme joy” (52). But it is far from clear that this is always so. Perhaps Tagore is thinking of a change of consciousness, a different state of mind, where one loses himself and is filled with unlimited joy (46). But with extreme pains it may be extremely difficult to lose oneself or keep oneself out of the picture; the pain may be too distracting, too all-consuming, for this to happen.

When Tagore speaks of feeling that “what appears as imperfect is a manifestation of perfection” (38), or of man not believing in evil (41), he may be suggesting that evil is not real but maya or illusion (cf. Smith 82-83 and Nikhilananda 35, 38, and 43). Not believing in evil is not enough to show that evil is not real, but Tagore has other evidence. He says that if a man is standing before us, then it is obvious that he has not committed suicide; and if existence is here, then it is obvious that it is not evil. But it is contradictory for a man to be alive and not alive but not contradictory for existence to be evil. Thus his analogy fails to show that existence is not evil.

Perhaps Tagore is claiming that “the world in its essence is a reconciliation of pairs of opposing forces” (74), and so since there is evil there must be good. But even this is questionable, since this principle of opposites does not seem necessarily so. If there is red, does there have to be non-red? It seems conceivable that there could be just red (cf. Mackie 12-13).

According to Tagore, we appear to be finite, but really we’re not. And we appear to be separate from God, but really we’re not. He says that our separateness “has no intrinsic reality of its own” (62). The life of a personal self, then, is an enthralling illusion (cf. 79). Further, Tagore says that our ignorance interferes with our recognizing our oneness with God. But he says that in ridding ourselves of such ignorance, we do not destroy “anything that is positive and real” (56). If evils or imperfections include such limitations as these, then such evils are mere appearance or maya.

Many people find this idea of maya or illusion hard to accept. David Hume points out that the testimony of humankind is overwhelmingly against this belief. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume has the character Demea say, “And who can doubt what all men declare from their own immediate feeling and experience” (486)? This claim that evil is an illusion conflicts with some of our most reliable ways of knowing. As A.C. Ewing says, “If we say that we did not really feel the pain we thought we felt or commit the sins we thought we committed, then we are contradicting some of our most certain judgments of introspection and memory” (264). In this case, plausible argument, not mere possibility, is needed if introspection and memory are to be dethroned. Henry Aiken rejects the evil-is-an-illusion view because it has counterintuitive consequences. He says that “it makes nonsense of the moral life. If nothing is evil, choice is pointless, and responsibility has no meaning” (qted in Herman 125). Thus there is much to say against the idea that evil is an illusion.

Even if the view turns out to be correct, it trades one serious problem for another. If there really is no evil, then there won’t be a conflict between evil and God. But there remains a problem of reconciling God with the appearance of evil. As Ernest Nagel says, “facts are not altered by rebaptizing them. Evil may indeed be only an appearance and not genuine. But this does not eliminate from the realm of appearances the tragedies, the sufferings, and the iniquities which men so frequently endure. And it raises once more, though on another level, the problem of reconciling the fact that there is evil in the realm of appearance with God’s alleged omnibenevolence. In any event, it is small comfort to anyone suffering a cruel misfortune for which he is in no way responsible, to be told that what he is undergoing is …illusory” (190). For instance, it is hard to see how such an answer would satisfy or comfort a Job.

If a new “comforter” said to Job, “there is nothing wrong in the things you’ve been suffering because you’re not real as an individual but only as a phase of God, and so no harm has been done,” Job would be right to ask, “why think so?” This same question arises too often for Tagore’s attempt to explain how his variety of Hinduism would make sense of evil in the world. He tells us how things could be without telling why we should believe that they are that way. The trouble is that there are so many other ways that things could be that we need some reason to prefer his view over the other views.

Tagore’s discussion of the problem of evil leaves too many important questions unanswered. Why believe Brahma exists? Can we trust our feelings of union with him? If he does exist, why think he could or would create anything? Even if he did create, why think we are only apparently separated from him instead of really separated from him? If he did create us as only apparently separate from him, why did he make us ignorant of our true nature? If he did create us ignorant of our true nature, how is he not partially responsible for the evil that results from our ignorance? And if he is responsible, how is he worthy of worship? Could he not have made the illusion of separateness less vivid? If he creates from love, why does he allow natural disasters that cause so much suffering? Why does he create such harmful laws of nature? Could he not create better ones? Why could there not be a universe where we realize our oneness with God without such wholesale suffering? Why does he not miraculously intervene to prevent terrible disasters? Could we not realize our oneness with God even in a world where there are occasional exceptions to natural laws? If he does not intervene because it will spoil his game, how can he be perfectly loving or worthy of worship? How do we know that certain evils are necessary for the overall good? Since not every discordant note contributes to the beauty of a song, how can we be sure that singular evils contribute to the overall good? Even if in some cases evil leads to greater goods, why does there have to be so much evil? After experiencing unity with God, how can those howling in pain transmute the pain into joy? Why do innocents suffer? If the answer is karma and reincarnation, the question is “why accept the religious traditions that incorporate these ideas over others that do not?” If our moral practices make sense and our introspection and memory are generally reliable ways of knowing, how can we believe that evil is unreal? If evil is only maya, then why does humankind so overwhelmingly reject this idea? Even if evil is only appearance, how can believing this comfort someone who is suffering? In that case, why do we so frequently appear to suffer unjustly if there is an all-powerful, all-good God? Without providing further answers to such questions, Tagore’s view leaves too much unclear. Because Tagore’s variety of Hinduism leaves so many important questions unanswered, it provides an incomplete explanation of the evil in our world.[1]

[1] My thanks go to an anonymous reviewer for this journal for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Works Cited

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