Karma, Newton, good and evil
Q: Is there good without God? Can people be good without God? How can people be good, in the moral and ethical sense, without being grounded in some sort of belief in a being which is greater than they are? Where do concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, come from if not from religion? From where do you get your sense of good and evil, right and wrong?
Good and evil are the original and most fundamental dichotomy of our lives. These seemingly countervailing forces give origins to the eternal debates as to right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, beneficent and malevolent. And the judgment of what constitutes good and evil--viewed through the prism of one's religious diktats--is perhaps the very genesis of every conflict and arena of violence we witness in the world today.
As human beings, we seek to set our compass to a God as the beacon. Imbuing God as an entity with every attribute that is "good," means that the physical laws of polarity necessitate another entity with attributes that are "evil"--a Satan perhaps. Being completely subjective, then, we find a Pakistani terrorist group donning the title of "Lashkar-e-Taiba," or Army of Good, while militant Christian anti-abortion activists and Hezbollah appropriate the name, "Army of God" very much believing in two very different Gods.
Essentially there can be no unity on what is "good" and what is "evil" as long as the definition is predicated completely on a literal, "because the Bible (or Koran or Torah or Vedas) says so."
It is here that a Hindu may take a different tack. Hinduism recognizes no devil or absolute evil. And the Divine, which is held to be our own true nature rather than a purely external agent managing the world's affairs, is beyond the "pairs of opposites" - good and bad, happiness and sorrow, right and wrong. Actions in themselves are amoral, neither good nor evil, if we eliminate the self-centered agent, or ego, from them. Hinduism holds that liberation comes from eradication of this ego, and the sense of separation it implies. Even recognizing the polarity of good and evil implies that we have not transcended the separateness.
Not confined by a scriptural definition of good or bad, Hindus reconcile the conflict of good and evil by the simple Newtonian equation that for every action there is an opposite reaction. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you", becomes quite natural and actions seen as "evil" in the normal course are avoided.
It is an amazingly simple means to premise a life--if we act to bring joy and happiness to others; if our life is lived unselfishly to fulfill that of others; if our joys are in seeing another's happiness, then the empirical laws of divine investments will see a return in this lifetime or another. The converse, of course, applies to deeds that bring on the opposite emotions in others.
Hindu masters teach that just as a balanced meal nourishes and energizes the body while gluttony of the same foods fill us with sloth and indigestion, good and evil are relative states created by our limited perceptions, judgments and intellect.
So while Hindus seek to do good, guided by Dharma (or code of conduct most conducive to liberation), they also seek to go beyond the pairs of opposites by recognizing their own real nature. Actions performed before liberation thus have both good and bad in them, depending on one's point of view. They are like the brilliance of fire, always accompanied by the cloudiness of smoke, and good and evil are relative states created by the ego's limited perceptions, judgments and intellect. We are simply expressing our own ignorance when we seek to judge the goodness or evil of another without understanding the "individual ego" as the fundamental basis of such judgments.
Never to leave the seeker without guidance, however, the Bhagavad Gita, in its summary of the hoary expanse of the Vedas, clearly lays out the qualities that are conducive to salvation, or liberation: honesty, charity; self-control; austerity; nonviolence; modesty and freedom from envy.
And the qualities that condemn man to endless cycles of birth and death delaying every soul's ultimate destiny are also as easy to identify as they are difficult to eschew: pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance.
But we do not need religion to understand these eternal truths because our true nature is Divine and thus we are naturally wired to gravitate towards "good." Our world is replete with the sheer absurdity of a multitude of conflicts in the name of God as too many demagogues exploit religion and lead us into false jihads and mayhem. Give me an agnostic or atheist to lead any day, if he or she is guided more by an innate realization that seeks self-control, nonviolence, modesty and right ethics. Because if that realization is not God, who needs Her?
October 28, 2009; 12:41 PM ET
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