Chapter Six: The Nature of Evil
Evil deeds do not prosper.
The foundational scriptures of world religions all warn of the nature of evil. There are four essential characteristics of evil found throughout these teachings. The first three are: evil's basis in material greed, evil’s relation to ignorance, and evil’s attempted rebellion against and denial of the Divine order of the universe. These traits are interrelated to the point of mutual dependence. Only the ignorant, through obsession with transient materialism, attempt to satisfy insatiable desires and swim against the current of the eternal Way. Greed will lead individuals to succumb to their shortsighted, lesser nature and reject the universal compassion that corresponds with the Divine will. Those who deny the ultimately just order of the universe will seek sensory pleasures in this illusory realm at the expense of the well-being of other creatures. Finally, all six traditions hold that because of the limitless might of the Ultimate Divine as exercised through Divine Justice, evil is ultimately powerless. These common teachings on the nature of evil, found in all six holy texts, form a vital component of the universal Divine Message.
Actions and attitudes that are morally wrong - those stemming from greed, ignorance, and rebellion against the inescapable Divine Order - are the symptoms of the evil within humanity. These actions and attitudes arise from a rejection of the Divine within oneself, a refusal to acknowledge the Divine within others, and a preference for transient satisfaction over unceasing morality. The uniformity of the descriptions of evil found throughout the six texts is yet another compelling proof of the common purpose, goal, and Inspiration of these traditions. Humanity is instructed in every sacred text to avoid the self-destructive acts which are intertwined with evil.
In the Abrahamic faiths, "Satan" is presented as the archetypal evil entity. The Book of Luke contains a famous account of Satan tempting Jesus. Satan's stratagems for leading Jesus astray demonstrate the three-pronged nature of evil described throughout the texts quoted in this chapter. Chapter four, verses five through thirteen relate the following episode:
And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:
For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:
And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.
This dialogue illustrates the ongoing conflict between the evil and the virtuous elements of human thought, and demonstrates the essential link between evil and materialism. Satan appeals to carnal greed. In an act of rebellion against the Ultimate Divine, Satan instructs Jesus to acknowledge Satan himself as a being worthy of worship, promising in exchange unlimited earthly power and riches. Jesus does not dispute Satan's ability to deliver material might and glory. Rather, Jesus' refusal to obey Satan is rooted in the words of the holy texts of Judaism, which instruct humanity to acknowledge God alone as the source of life and the refuge from imperfection. However, Satan also cites the words of the prophets in his attempt to seduce Jesus. This demonstrates how religious texts can be misused for evil purposes. An individual must rely on his or her own inherent sense of right and wrong (an essential element of the Divine Spark within us all), rather than blindly follow "religious" dictums. Moreover, this passage from Luke shows evil to be ignorant. Despite all his power Satan mistakenly believes his attempts to entice Jesus with earthly pleasures will succeed. Finally, in the last line, we see that evil, when rejected by an individual, is ultimately powerless. The Devil leaves Jesus when he sees that his nefarious temptations have been rejected.
To further elaborate on the Biblical (and universal) perspective of evil, we can turn to chapter seven of the Gospel of Mark. In verses fifteen through eighteen, Jesus tells his disciples:
There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.
And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man.
For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:
All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
The source of evil is not what one consumes with the body, but rather what an individual's basic nature will cause him or her to say and think. One should note that all of the actions and attributes which Jesus says "defile" humanity are qualities and deeds which are rooted in materialism, are harmful to others, and reject the Divine. Evil proceeds from the imperfections of an individual. Humanity’s holy, inner nature is obscured by actions and attitudes that place one's material welfare over the ceaseless demands of compassionate morality. If a human being can conquer his or her base greed through knowledge of the Divine and acceptance of material impermanence, then evil is rendered powerless. These simple yet all-too-often ignored teachings are conveyed not only by Jesus, but by all Divine messengers.
The Buddha equates knowledge with the Divine, and conversely, ignorance with evil. This ignorance, like the descriptions of evil in all religious texts, is rooted in materialism. In the fifth chapter of the Dhammapada, verses three through seven, the Buddha warns:
The fool worries, thinking, "I have sons, I have wealth." Indeed, when he himself is not his own, whence are sons, whence is wealth? A fool who knows his foolishness is wise at least to that extent, but a fool who thinks himself wise is called a fool indeed. Though all his life a fool associate with a wise person, he no more comprehends the Truth than a spoon tastes the flavour of the soup. Though only for a moment a discerning person associate with a wise person, quickly he comprehends the Truth, just as the tongue tastes the flavour of the soup. Fools of little wit are enemies unto themselves as they move about doing evil deeds, the fruits of which are bitter. Ill done is that action doing which one repents later, and the fruits of which one reaps, weeping with tearful face.
Ignorance, greed, and a rejection of Divine Justice are the roots of evil. It is fundamentally ignorant to be more concerned about material distractions than one's own mental and spiritual welfare. Indeed, one who flounders in transitory illusion and greed is said to not be his or her own master. Those who continuously grasp for ultimately unsatisfactory external pleasures refuse to seek and recognize the Eternal Element within themselves. The last two lines reemphasize how evil is, in a sense, self-wrought and self-destructive. All souls must taste the ill-results of their own evil deeds. The workers of misdeeds are their own enemies. Given a theory of Divine Justice, this fact is manifestly evident. The doers of evil, in the long run of inescapable karma, only harm themselves. The willfully ignorant are blinded by their shallow desires and superficial illusions, but those who attune themselves to the Divine realities are able to comprehend the infinite goodness inherent in themselves and others.
Verses eight and nine from chapter nine of the Dhammapada give a succinct account on the powerlessness of evil over those who work earnestly towards self-perfection:
Just as a trader with a small escort and great wealth would avoid a perilous route, or just as one desiring to live avoids poison, even so should one shun evil. If on the one hand there is no wound, one may even carry poison in it. Poison does not affect one who is free from wounds, and for one who does no evil, there is no ill.
Buddhism teaches, as do all sincere religious traditions, that evil has no power over those who master themselves. Unlike the immutable strength of the Divine, and the inescapable laws of Divine Justice, evil can be avoided and overcome. It is our prerogative as thinking individuals to be swayed by greed and evil or to resist these temporary temptations. One can be in this inherently imperfect material realm, surrounded by suffering and ignorance, and yet remain inwardly free from the "poison" of evil. For those who steadfastly pursue and conquer their own base nature, evil can have no adverse affect. This promise is found throughout humanity’s most revered scriptures.
The nature of evil merits a lengthy account in the teachings of Hinduism. The passage from the Gita that describes evil parallels and supports the accounts in the other religious scriptures. Chapter sixteen, verses seven through twenty-one of the Bhagavad Gita contains a lengthy description of the attributes, actions, and fate of those who succumb to the inherent evil of materialism and reject the Divine Order:
Those who are demoniac do not know what is to be done and what is not to be done. Neither cleanliness nor proper behavior nor truth is found in them.
They say that this world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control. They say it is produced of sex desire and has no cause other than lust.
Following such conclusions, the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.
Taking shelter in insatiable lust and absorbed in the conceit of pride and false prestige, the demoniac, thus illusioned, are always sworn to unclean work, attracted by the impermanent.
They believe that to gratify the senses is the prime necessity of human civilization. Thus until the end of life their anxiety is immeasurable. Bound by a network of hundreds of thousands of desires and absorbed in lust and anger, they secure money by illegal means for sense gratification.
The demoniac person thinks: "So much wealth do I have today, and I will gain more according to my schemes. So much is mine now, and it will increase in the future, more and more. He is my enemy, and I have killed him, and my other enemies will also be killed. I am the lord of everything. I am the enjoyer. I am perfect, powerful and happy. I am the richest man, surrounded by aristocratic relatives. There is none so powerful and happy as I am. I shall perform sacrifices, I shall give some charity, and thus I shall rejoice." In this way, such persons are deluded by ignorance.
Thus perplexed by various anxieties and bound by a network of illusions, they become too strongly attached to sense enjoyment and fall down into hell.
Self-complacent and always impudent, deluded by wealth and false prestige, they sometimes proudly perform sacrifices in name only, without following any rules or regulations.
Bewildered by false ego, strength, pride, lust and anger, the demons become envious of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is situated in their own bodies and in the bodies of others, and blaspheme against the real religion.
Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the lowest among men, I perpetually cast into the ocean of material existence, into various demoniac species of life.
Attaining repeated birth amongst the species of demoniac life, O son of Kunti, such persons can never approach Me. Gradually they sink down to the most abominable type of existence.
There are three gates leading to this hell -- lust, anger and greed. Every sane man should give these up, for they lead to the degradation of the soul.
The first verse succinctly defines the nature of the evil beings - they do not know what actions to perform. Thus, this human life is a vital test to see who acts appropriately given the opportunities for goodness presented in an imperfect world (a common theme in all religions as discussed in Chapter Two). Correct actions and attitudes which recognize the Divine within oneself and others are the means to "passing the test" of this world. On the other hand, those who are evil become addicted to physical pleasure. They will inwardly deny the very existence of the Divine, and believe that material causes are self-explanatory and sufficient for understanding the order of the universe. They lack true wisdom, and are completely ensnared by material greed. Although they may be materially powerful, they are mentally and spiritually weak.
Note the congruence of this ancient text's description of evil and ignorance with the ideology and actions of the modern powerful, exploitative and materialistic individuals of this planet. The wanton greed of a minority of humanity is now causing a mass-extinction on the earth unparalleled since the demise of the dinosaurs. By rejecting all spiritual ideals and seeking satisfaction and power through ever-increasing consumption of our planet's limited resources and military aggression, certain leaders of our modern "civilization" threaten our very survival as a species. This passage from the Gita similarly condemns those who misuse religion, who "proudly perform sacrifices in name only." These self-deluded individuals, because of their erroneous beliefs and greed, will be chained by their material lusts into a descending spiral of undesirable rebirths to a point where "they can never approach" union with the Divine. This explanation of the Divine Justice to be visited upon the truly evil is strikingly similar to Christian and Muslim accounts of "hell". Indeed, how can one escape the inevitable destruction that accompanies physical life if such an individual rejects the very possibility of a spiritual order? The ignorant and evil are utterly and endlessly entrapped by material snares, and they seek the impossible goal of completely satisfying the senses and ego. Another symptom of these lost souls is an arrogance and over-reliance on their own power, wealth and capabilities. The Gita's description of "demons... envious of the Supreme Personality of the Godhead" is entirely congruent with Abrahamic accounts of a rebellious Satan. Finally, the simple prescription for escaping one's evil tendencies is to abandon anger, lust and greed. One who has overcome these imperfections can shut the very gates of hell. Evil is powerless over one who seeks true knowledge and self-control.
The three components of evil - desire, ignorance, and rebellion against the Divine - are further discussed by Krishna in chapter seven, verse fifteen of the Gita:
Those miscreants who are grossly foolish, who are lowest among mankind, whose knowledge is stolen by illusion, and who partake of the atheistic nature of demons do not surrender unto Me.
The material illusions prey on and destroy the potential goodness and knowledge of ignorant individuals, and they live in (attempted) rebellion against the Divine Order. Thus, they struggle eternally, chained by ill-karma and insatiable material lusts. Such fools let the transient, evil aspects of their nature flourish, at the expense of their innate Divine Spark. However, those who act kindly towards others, and who seek the eternal within, have no occasion to fear any evil.
The universal spiritual teachings on evil are found in the following dialogue from the Qur'an. The verses below tell the story of Satan's disobedience to God as the source of evil in the material world. Sura thirty-eight, verses seventy-one through eighty-five of the Qur'an give the following account of the nature (and origin) of evil :
Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: "I am about to create man from clay:
"When I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him."
So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together:
Not so Iblis: he was haughty, and became one of those who reject Faith.
(Allah) said: "O Iblis! What prevents thee from prostrating thyself to one whom I have created with my hands? Art thou haughty? Or art thou one of the high ones?"
(Iblis) said: "I am better than he: thou createdst me from fire, and him thou createdst from clay."
(Allah) said: "Then get thee out from here: for thou art rejected, accursed.
"And My curse shall be on thee till the Day of Judgment."
(Iblis) said: "O my Lord! Give me then respite till the Day the (dead) are raised."
(Allah) said: "Respite then is granted thee-
"Till the Day of the Time Appointed."
(Iblis) said: "Then, by Thy power, I will put them all in the wrong,-
"Except Thy Servants amongst them, sincere and purified."
(Allah) said: "Then it is just and fitting- and I say what is just and fitting-
"That I will certainly fill Hell with thee and those that follow thee,- every one."
The willful rejection of Divine commandments, ignorance and materialism are the root of evil. Satan (Iblis) was an angel who refused to honor the Breath of Allah, the Divine Spark within human beings, because humanity is made from clay, whereas angels are made from fire. From this we can see the materialistic viewpoint of evil. Because he considered himself the physical superior of man, Satan refused to obey Allah and pay homage to the Divine within humanity. Thus evil action is always materially-focused, and is an attempt at rebellion against the commands and the very nature of the Ultimate Divine. However, this account begs the question - wouldn't Satan, as a being capable of communication with Allah, be more intelligent than to rebel against the Omnipotent? There are two reasons for such rebellion - Satan lacked sufficient knowledge and thought he could successfully disobey and challenge the All Powerful, and Allah decided to use Satan's materialism to try humanity. Satan rejected faith, and Allah used this rebellion to try humanity. Perhaps the Divine Spark needs a realm of materialism, hatred, disorder, and other forms of adversity in order to grow and fully manifest Itself in our lives. The trial that is this world would not be possible without imperfection. However, one should always think and act with the knowledge that evil can and will be overcome. For one who trusts in the Divine, "sincere and purified", evil will have no power. Once the grand experiment of this universe is brought to an end, ignorance and greed will meet its recompense, and only truth and goodness will remain. All religious texts teach that evil shall be overcome.
The Tao te Ching offers clear accounts of what would be considered evil. The evil ones are those who reject the Tao, and refuse to obey the timeless instructions to act with ceaseless compassion and self-restraint. Section forty-six of the Tao te Ching further elaborates on the universally-described nature of evil:
When the way prevails in the empire, fleet-footed horses are relegated to ploughing in the fields;
When the way does not prevail in the empire, war-horses breed on the border.
There is no crime greater than having too many desires;
There is no disaster greater than not being content;
There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.
Hence in being content, one will always have enough.
Abundant desire and the will to modify and exploit the material world for personal gain are the essential characteristics of evil. If the Eternal Way is heeded, potential instruments of war are used for constructive purposes. When the Divine commands are not followed, an increase of ambition leads to an increase of violence. Indeed, there is “no crime greater” than excessive material greed. The actions of ignorance are never truly satisfactory, and lead to disaster for the greedy and self-misleading individual. Similarly to all the religious founders, Lao Tzu promises that, conversely, the ease of mind that comes from surrendering to the Divine Way can never be lost. Evil is a materialistic rebellion against the natural order of the universe, and an imperfection which will be defeated. Lao Tzu’s account of evil is entirely congruent with the teachings of other religions.
Section thirty of the Tao te Ching further explains how the deluded will act contrary to the nature of the Tao. This account will provide insights into the Taoist perspective on evil, a perspective which is found throughout the teachings of other religions:
One who assists the ruler of men by means of the way does not intimidate the empire by a show of arms.
This is something which is liable to rebound.
Where troops have encamped
There will brambles grow;
In the wake of a mighty army
Bad harvests follow without fail.
One who is good aims only at bringing his campaign to a conclusion and dare not thereby intimidate.
Bring it to a conclusion but do not brag;
Bring it to a conclusion but do not be arrogant;
Bring it to a conclusion but only when there is no choice;
Bring it to a conclusion but do not intimidate.
The attitude of self-importance, materialism, and arrogance is manifested in violence and a “show of arms". Taoism implies a preference for complete nonviolence. It is fundamentally ignorant to focus upon satisfying personal desires at the expense of the wellbeing of others. Bad results will inevitably follow overconfidence and violence. This passage threatens a "rebound" for such brutality. One more we see that evil is powerless, given the immutable laws of Divine Justice. When one is to act it must be from necessity, and not from lust for power or a will to dominate. Arrogance and materialism must be overcome in order to avoid evil.
The Analects, just like all the texts compared in this book, teach that evil is to regard material reward and personal satisfaction as superior to the eternal Virtue. Good deeds are the selfless service to others, and the right attitude is one of surrender to the way of Heaven. The interrelation of evil to materialism is found in the second verse of the fourth chapter of the Analects:
The Master said, "Those who are without virtue cannot abide long either in a condition of poverty and hardship, or in a condition of enjoyment. The virtuous rest in virtue; the wise desire virtue."
Materialism is inseparably tied to evil. Those who lack innate wisdom are swayed from the path of righteousness by the pleasures and trials inherent in this physical realm. Temporary conditions of abundance or poverty will distract foolish people from the Imperishable Way, and will lead to the abandonment of eternal virtue for fleeting material gain. Such fools are contrasted with the truly self-mastered, who constantly rely on their inherent and eternal goodness. The wise recognize the transience and imperfections of this world, and therefore seek self-improvement and live a compassionate life. These enlightened individuals will steadfastly cling to virtue despite hardships or pleasurable distractions, and constantly and earnestly rely upon morality.
All holy scriptures teach that evil has no power over those who live their lives in accordance with the Divine realities. At one point in his travels Confucius was nearly killed by a mob. Confucius exemplified the perfect reaction to the evil found in this often violent world in chapter nine, verse five of the Analects:
The Master was put in fear in K'wang.
He said, "After the death of King Wan, was not the cause of truth lodged here in me?
"If Heaven had wished to let this cause of truth perish, then I, a future mortal, should not have got such a relation to that cause. While Heaven does not let the cause of truth perish, what can the people of K'wang do to me?"
Confucius had unshakable faith in the invincibility of the way of Heaven. The Master's reaction to violence is one of enlightened fearlessness self-surrender. Confucius did not fear ignorance and corporeal force, nor those who seek to purposefully topple the Divine Order and snuff out the truth. This is because such fools will ultimately fail. Evil is recognized as powerless by the truly knowledgeable. These accounts of the ignorance, materialism, and ultimate powerlessness of evil found in the Analects fully harmonize with the other foundational religious texts.
The six religions examined in this book offer entirely complimentary accounts of evil. Evil is material greed, in that evil deeds are violent and exploitative of others. Evil can be thought of as ignorance, because it places more faith in a transient reality than in an Ultimate refuge. Evil is rebellion, because to act from lust and ignorance is to attempt to deny the Divinely-mandated laws of morality. Finally, evil is powerless. In the long arc of infinite justice, evil deeds are only truly harmful to those who commit them. These common aspects of evil, found throughout the six scriptures, are yet another example of the basic unity of their teachings. Together these holy books form a common narrative meant to reassure the compassionate, rectify the oppressive, and improve the human condition.