(The Hindu perspective Researched and compiled by: Dr. Suresh Basrur )
In order to address this question, “How to reconcile the existence of God and human suffering?” we must first get an understanding of the relationship between God and human being. Hindu scriptures tell us that every human being has a soul (atman), which is in fact a part of the Supreme Being (Brahman). The goal of the human soul atman is to ultimately become one with the Supreme Being (Brahman).
How did the human soul atman become separated from Supreme Being (Brahman)? To understand this, we must look to Hindu scriptures. The scriptures state that the Earth is the only appropriate environment for regaining spiritual energy. Thus, Devas or gods, rishis or saints, all come to the Earth when it is necessary for them to perform austerities and tapas (deep meditation) to regain their spiritual energy, and then return to heaven.
In the same manner, the human soul atman when separated from Brahman, comes to the Earth to regain spiritual energy, and then become one with Brahman. The atman became separated from Brahman because it fell out of favour with Brahman, or became attracted to the illusory material world. The soul atman resides in a human body on Earth, and is given an opportunity to redeem itself, re-energize itself, so that it may ascend to the heaven, and ultimately become one with the Supreme Being Brahman.
Let us look at the existence of the soul atman in the material world.
Bhagavatam: Canto 2, Ch 5, Text 19
This says that the material world is manifested as matter, knowledge and activities. These modes put the living entity under conditions of cause and effect, and make him responsible for his activities. In this state, God’s external energy masks the living entity’s pure knowledge of its eternal existence with God, thereby resulting in ignorance; this ignorance causes maya or illusion, and no amount of scientific research can reveal what is beyond the illusion.
Bhagavatam: Canto 2, Ch 5, Text 21
Even though the material world is created by the Supreme Being, and is controlled by Him, the material world remains separate from Him, and the atmas (souls) therefore are attracted to the material world actively and subjectively.
Bhagavatam: Canto 2, Ch 5, Text 23
In this state of the human being, the atman residing inside the human form, has its mode of goodness transformed to modes of passion and ignorance.
Bhagavatam: Canto 2, Ch 6, Text 22
The universal globes, the different levels of heaven, the material world with all its qualities and senses are created by the Supreme Being. But, just as the rays of light from the Sun and the heat from the Sun are created by the Sun but are distinct from it, the souls on Earth are distinct from God.
The souls are given the opportunity to liberate themselves. The souls however, by the senses acquired by them, may engage in material activities. These can manifest in the form of greed, anger, lust, cruelty, dishonesty, etc.
The path taken by each person on Earth either (1) leads to liberation (atman becoming one with Brahman), or, (2) results in suffering in the present and future births (lives).
Every person born on Earth is subject to anguish, pain, disease, old age and death. This is called karma or the burden that must be carried by every person. Even the avatar Rama had to undergo suffering when he was banished to the forest by his step-mother. The efforts required to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth (and its associated suffering) may need to be extended over several lifetimes in order to work off all the accumulated karma.
Thus, human suffering is not caused by God, but is a result of the collective actions of each person from all of his/her previous births. Remember, even though each soul is part of the Supreme Being, the person in whom the soul resides acts independently, thereby either ascending towards liberation from the cycle of rebirth, or reaping the consequences as suffering.
Hence, we can conclude that the cause of human suffering is not God. Human suffering occurs in this illusory world. It is the result of the actions of the human being in the past (and possibly the present) births. Once atman is liberated from the illusory world, it becomes one with Brahman and the suffering ends.
So far we have described the causes of an individual’s suffering. We have also seen why a good person suffers. (Why bad things happen to good people. Because of accumulated karma from all previous lives.)
Now let us look at the issue of collective misfortunes such as war, and disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, plagues, etc.
There are two types of war: (1) war to defeat evil from the Earth, and (2) war waged by selfish persons to conquer, loot, destroy, and to enrich one’s ego and war chest.
The war to defeat evil from the Earth and its resulting killings, is not a negative act. If the war protects justice and removes evil beings from the Earth, it is justified. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, who is reluctant to wage war against his own relatives and teachers, that it is not immoral to kill those who have violated justice and dharma (proper conduct).
Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2 / Verse 32
This verse deals with the Righteous reason for war and it advises to consult TRUE MEN OF GOD when there is doubt about the classification of war into Right and Wrong. The verse says that the “Doors of heaven are open to persons who fight a Righteous battle and even if they die, they will reach heaven.”
In his commentary to Bhagavad Gita, Swami PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA says:
“During the time of the war in Spain (1936-1939), women and children were among the hundreds of thousands bombed. For my question to God in prayers expressing sadness as to their condition after death, I received the following divine answer: “Realize that life is a COSMIC DREAM. Birth and Death are experiences of the same. Those who were killed, I woke them from their nightmare to make them realize they were AWAKE in ME and safe from harm – alive in ME evermore. I freed them from the terrors of their existence.” ”
As for the second type of war, which is waged for purely selfish reasons, the perpetrators of such wars reap consequences of their actions in subsequent births (or even in the current life) in the form of immense suffering.
Disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and other calamities are explained as follows:
On a cosmic scale, the combined karma of groups of individuals (Social or Racial groups), or nations, or of the world at large, constitutes the mass karma of the Earth or portions thereof. This mass karma responds to the cosmic vibrations of the Earth’s cosmic neighbors according to the same laws that affect each individual, thereby inducing beneficial or malevolent changes in the course of world and natural events. A store of good mass karma from living in harmony with Divine laws and forces blesses man’s Earthly environment with peace, health and prosperity. Accumulated bad mass karma precipitates wars, diseases, poverty, earthquakes and other such calamities.
Many large scale calamities are precipitated by the actions of man. Global warming, spread of plagues, pestilence, floods, starvation, famine, extinction of animals, pollution, diseases resulting from biological experiments / biological warfare, injustice, etc. are man-made.
These mass calamities affect different souls: (1) those who will be liberated from the suffering – in this case, death is not a negative event but rather a positive event for these souls; (2) those who are provided with the opportunity to help others – these souls get guidance and protection from the Supreme Being; (3) those whose accumulated karma from previous lives makes them suffer in this life.
Persons affected by mass calamities who seem related by race, religion, ethnicity, blood relations, etc. are in reality unrelated souls who have been brought together by the cosmic forces to undergo the experiences in one of the ways described above.
Hence we can conclude that the cause of human suffering is not God. Human suffering occurs in this illusory world, due to the actions of human beings. Once atman residing in a human body is liberated from the illusory world, it becomes one with Brahman and the suffering ends.
Hinduism not only encourages efforts at liberation of atman from the cycle of rebirth, but also encourages good deeds to others less fortunate, caring for all living things, as well as being caretakers of nature and the world in which we live. When man does the opposite, such as being selfish, ignorant, cruel, doing bad deeds to others or destroying nature, suffering results.
Hinduism also describes how an avatar of God arrives on the Earth when the collective wrongs done by man become excessive. So, even though God does not intervene in individual cases of suffering, or even in cases of collective suffering, He does intervene when the suffering caused by man becomes excessive.
Bhagavad Gita chapter 4, text 8
The avatar Krishna says: “To deliver the pious and to annihilate the evil miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of righteousness, I myself appear, millennium after millennium.”
In conclusion: Hinduism guides us in the path of liberation from the suffering to reach the ultimate reality which is Brahman. It also tells us that human suffering is not caused by God but by our own collective karma.
Why does God not prevent suffering? A simple analogy is: Just as a baby learns to stand up and walk after falling many times and hurting itself, man has to liberate himself from suffering and rebirth by following the righteous path. If a parent were never to let go of a baby, the child would never learn to walk.
So, even though the universe functions by the will of God, and is the effect of God’s will, God does not intervene in man’s actions and sufferings, because man’s actions can lead to liberation from the cycle of rebirth, and the sufferings enable man to work of all the accumulated karma from his previous and current lives (births).