Main The Origins Of Evil In Hindu Mythology

The Origins Of Evil In Hindu Mythology

"While focusing on the central problem of evil, O'Fiaherty illuminates every aspect of Hindu thought." --Choice
 "This is Dr. O'Flaherty's third book on Indian mythology, and the best yet. The range and number of myths handled is dazzling .... Moreover, her fluent and lucid style make reading a pleasure .... a major contribution to the study of religion in general and Hinduism in particular."--Times Literary Supplement
 "This scholarly work is a welcome and valuable addition to Hindu studies because it corrects the widespread belief that Hindu thought does not recognize the problem of evil. The author shows conclusively that the mythology of tribal societies and the Puranas deal with this question extensively. She traces certain conceptual attitudes towards evil from the Vedic period to the present day."--Library Journal
 "O'Flaherty has accomplished an important double task. She has reoriented our thinking on the Indian experience of evil as it has been given literary expression in the mythological texts of the Sanskrit tradition and to a lesser extent in the Tamil and tribal traditions as well. She has also provided, in this rich and exquisitely crafted book, a new set of vantage points from which to re-read familiar Indian myths and encounter new ones. . . Origins is both a superb piece of scholarship and a lively, witty and engagingly written book."
--South Asia in Review
 "The author performs a brilliant feat in her textually exegetical and hermeneutical handling of the numerous and many-faceted myths. The study is highly pertinent and valuable . . . The authorial translations from the Hindu and Pali texts are refreshing ... and her comments are illuminating. Thus the Hindu view of evil comes out as something not simplistic and arbitrary but as an approach which is careful, complex, and richly eclectic. . . . This is a highly readable volume written with verve, sparkle and occasional light touches of decent humor."--Asian Student
 "For serious students of mythology, theology and Hinduism, this book is must reading."--Religious Studies Review
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THE
ORIGINS
OF EVIL
IN HINDU
MYTHOLOGY

Wendy Doniger O^Flahcrty

THE
GRIGINS
0F EVIL
IN HINDIU
MYTHUL‘UGY
.

's
u
I'..

Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty

THE ORIGINS
MYTHOLOGY

OF

EVIL

IN

HINDU

By Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty
The problem ol-evil, in particular the question of
theodicy. has long been overlooked or misunder

stood by lndoloeistgwho have itMIIIldIIlCCl thaq
there IS no problem OfC‘Jll in Indian thought. 0‘
that it was “solved” by the doctrine ot
transmigration and karma. W'riters on lndian
philosophy have touched upon the problem but no
one has treated the extensive mythology ol-evil in
\

Vedic and Purinic texts, which ol'Te r the Full range

of Indian approaches to the problem. The intense
emotional weight of the question of evil drove
Hindus
to generate
literallyalternative
hundreds ifanswers.
diverse
and
often
cone’lradiCtory
—n
.——.-—-._._ _

Fire-supposing biit'quic ltlv transcending the logical
yet unsatisfying "answer" olii'ered by the doctrine
ot’ltarina. The very bulk of these texts indicates
the importance of the subject in Indian thought,
and the failure to take into cfi‘dsideration some of
the rather idiosyncratic ltfiian attitudes to this
most

basic problem has led

to widespread

niisunderstandiii'got Indian religious thought in
gen etzi l

""1 A

Dr. O'Flaherty marshals more than a thousand
myths from the t'ZIflITSE levels of Indian thought
(the Vedasl through con ejtpsra r)" tribal traditions.
grouping and malysin‘ them according to the

"villain" in each lPlOILQCi.AISlDII3lly abstractions
such as time, fate. or iieeesgii'. but more often

anthropomorphic flaillftfs of gods. tlemons. or
(rarely) men. Nli'iy or these myths hive
previously escaped the notice or liIClC'lOgHES; many
have never been translated before; all .m- newly
translated by the author and illuminated by inutiia‘l’
comparison -one mvrh explaining another—and
through ?ll¢3fIII(’flCI.IYIC'rIl approach which draws
upon textual exegesis and a stuth of the ritual

context
Indian rel; uctance
religion. to blame demons or
Ollie of
liindu's
men {or the origin OliCVll leads to a preponderance
of m ytlis in which demons ari- virtuous, while the

Q

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lhllN' 51 -2(lH—0386-8

4
Rs. 375

\X‘ENDY DONIGER O'FLAHLRTY [ms taught

lndlan rchgmu at thc \chunl 0f Uncut-Al .md
African Studies‘ Umvcrsny 01‘ [01111011, and flu
Umvmslrypf Cnliforma. Bcrkclcy. Sh;- 1» [hr
.nnhur of_ :1 sn'lm'xm and chuu/{ty :11 NW .dezm'vg) w!
Sim. Hindu ,Uytlls. :1 ‘Qounrlmol: Thins/am] hum Iii:

\mslvn. and mhcr works.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII
IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII

* @flflfligggfljfljyyunmnm"mm

SOME OTHER BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

Sexual Metaphors & Animal Symbols in Indian Mythology
Karma & Rebirth in Indian Classical Tradition
Dream, Illusion d Other Realities
Tales ofSex & Violence

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL
IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

WENDY DONIGER O'FLAHERTY

MOTILAL BANARSIDASS
Dellu'
Varanasi
Patna

Bangalore

Madras

First Indian Edition: Delhi, 1976
Reprint: Delhi, 1988

MOTILAL BANARSIDASS
Bungalow Road, Jawahar Nagar, Delhi 110007
Branehes
Chowk, Varanasi 221 001
Ashok Rajpath, Patna 800 004
24, Race Course Road, Bangalore 560001
120, Royapettah High Road, Mylapore, Madras 600004
By arrangement with the University of California Press
O 1976 by The Regents of the University of California
ISBN: 81-208-0386-8

PRINTED IN INDIA
BY JAINENDRA PRAKASH JAIN AT SHRI JAINENDRA PRESS, A-45 NARAINA
INDUSTRIAL AREA, PHASE I, NEW DELHI 110 028 AND PUBLISHED BY
NARENDRA PRAKASH JAIN FOR MOTILAL BANARSIDASS, DELHI 110 007.

for DANIEL H. H. INGALLS
and in memory of ROBIN ZAEHNER

Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

xi

I. INTRODUCTION: THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
1
1. The nature of theodicy, 1 2. The problem of evil in India, 3 3. The Indian
concept of evil, 6 4. The confrontation of evil in Hindu mythology,
7 5. Notes on method, 9 6. The questions and the answers, 12
II. TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN
14
1. The "solution" of karma, 14 2. The problem of the beginning of time,
17 3. Free will and the Fall, 19 4. The Indian myth of the Fall, 20 5. The
natural origin of evil, 22 6. Women and the origin of evil, 27 7. Hunger and
sin, 29 8. The chain of evil and the evil of civilization, 32 9- The end of the
Kali Age, 35
III. THE NECESSITY OF EVIL
1. God willingly creates evil, 46

46
2. God creates evil against his will, 50

IV. GODS, DEMONS, AND MEN
57
1. The consanguinity of gods and demons, 57 2. The ambiguous virtue of
demons, 63 3. The Fall of the demons, 65 4. Evil created by demons,
70 5. The three stages of alignment of gods, demons, and men, 78 6. The first
stage: Vedic sacrifice (gods and men vs. demons), 83 7. The second stage:
post-Vedic antiascetic orthodoxy (gods vs. demons and men), 88 8. The jeal
ousy of the gods, 89
V. THE PARADOX OF THE GOOD DEMON:
THE CLASH BETWEEN RELATIVE
AND ABSOLUTE ETHICS
94
I. Svadharma and eternal dharma, 94 2. The Vedas of the demons,
99 3. Indra against Tvastr, 102 4. Indra against Visvarupa and Vrtra, the
demon priests, 104 5. Indra against the treacherous nephews of Tvastr,
111 6. Indra against Agni and Soma, 113 7. Kaca, the son of Bthaspati,
against the daughter of Sukra, 115 8. Indra against Sanda and Marka, the sons
of Sukra, 116 9. Indra against Sukra, 118 10. Indra against Virocana, 122
II. Indra against Bthaspati, 123 12. Brhaspati against Sukra, 124 13. The

Vttt

CONTENTS
demon devotee: the bhakti revolution, 127 14. The virtuous demon king:
the perils of Prahlada, 131 15. The ambivalence of the demon priest, 137

VI. THE PARADOX OF THE EVIL GOD:
THE TRANSFER OF SIN
139
1. Evilariseson earth from partsof thebody ofGod, 139 2. The transfer of evil,
141 3. The expiation of Indra's Brahminicide, 146 4. The transfer of Indra's
Brahminicide, 153 5. The transfer of Siva's dangerous energy, 160 6. The
transfer of the evil of the gods, 164 7. Sin and pollution, 165 8. Thebeast and
the snare, 168
VII. THE CORRUPTION OF DEMONS AND MEN:
THE FALSE AVATAR
174
1. The corruption of demons by the gods, 174 2. Indra corrupts the sons of
Raji, 177 3. Siva corrupts the demons of the Triple City, 180 4. Visnu as
Buddha corrupts the demons, 187 5. Siva corrupts Divodasa, 189 6. Demons
and mortal Buddhists of the Kali Age, 198 7. The positive aspect of the Buddha
avatar, 204
VIII. THE BIRTH OF DEATH
212
1. The evil of death, 212 2. The conquest of death, 214 3. The victory of
death, 221 4. The office of death: Siva (Sthanu) opposes Brahma, 224 5. The
svadharma of death, 229 6. The death of death: Siva opposes Yama,
231 7. The devotee's conquest of death: Yayati opposes Indra, 237 8. The
tribal mythology of the origin of death, 243
IX. CROWDS IN HEAVEN
248
1. The danger of crowds in heaven, 248 2. The destruction of shrines on earth,
253 3. The earth overburdened by sinners, 258 4. The destruction of the
human race and the shrine of Dvaraka, 260
X. GOD IS A HERETIC
272
1. Daksa and the curse of heresy, 272 2. Siva as outcaste and heretic: the
Kapalika, 277 3. The problem of imitation, 286 4. Gautama and the Seven
Sages in the great drought, 291 5. Siva cursed in the Pine Forest: the "heresy" of
lihga-worship, 302 6. The curse of Bhrgu, 304 7. Siva enlightens the Pine
Forest sages, 310
XI. THE SPLIT CHILD: GOOD AND EVIL WITHIN MAN
321
1. The myth of Vena and Prthu, 321 2. The symbolism of cows and milk,
331 3. The stallion and the mare, 346 4. The good and evil mother,
348 5. The androgynous parent, 352 6. The split child, 353 7. The breast
that feeds itself, 355 8. The splitting of Gandhi, 357 9. Splitting and inte
gration, 360

CONTENTS

IX

XII. CONCLUSION: THE MANY PATHS OF THEODICY
1. The one and the many, 370 2. The varieties of Hindu experience, 376

370

BIBLIOGRAPHY

381

INDEX

397

A cknowledgments

This book was begun at Harvard with Daniel H. H. Ingalls and completed at
Oxford with R. C. Zaehner; and many other friends have read or listened to parts
of it over the years. I would particularly like to thank Professor Thomas Burrow,
Dr. John Marr, Dr. Richard F. Gombrich, and Professor Thomas R. Trautmann
for their painstaking reading of any early draft, and Dr. Rodney Needham, Mr.
Alex Gunasekara, Mrs. Audrey Hayley, and Professors Brenda Beck, A. M.
Piatigorsky and J. C. Heesterman for their inspiring comments on parts of the
second draft. I cannot express my gratitude to David Shulman, not only for
finding and translating all the Tamil myths that I have used, but for providing
many perceptive insights into these and the Sanskrit myths as well. To the learned
and energetic staff of the Indian Institute Library in Oxford, and in particular
to Mrs. de Goris and Mr. Alderman, I offer my heart felt thanks. Parts of the
book were originally published in the journals History of Religions and Art and
Archaeology Research Papers; chapter XI was read at a meeting of the Royal Asiatic
Society and chapter V at a conference at the School of Oriental and African
Studies, and I am grateful to members present at those meetings for their spirited
reactions.
Finally, I should like to thank all of my students and colleagues in England,
where I was so happily occupied during the past decade. Many of the ideas in this
book were inspired by talks with them, corrected by their criticisms, and
augmented by materials from their various fields of expertise. I can never forget
how much I owe to Professors Kenneth A. Ballhatchet and Christoph von
Furer-Haimendorf, my good genii, who steered the course of my teaching and
publishing through the deceptively still waters of English academia. I shall miss
them all very much.
Oxford, 22 March, 1975

Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord
hath not done it?
Amos 5:6

I
INTRODUCTION:
THE PROBLEM
OF EVIL

1. The Nature of Theodicy
Theodicy, the term used to designate the problem of evil and its attempted
resolution, is derived from the Greek theos, god, and dike, justice; it was put into
general currency by Leibniz,' who used it to signify the defense of the justice of
God in face of the fact of evil.
A clear formulation of the implications of theodicy is offered by John Hick: "If
God is perfectly good. He must want to abolish all evil; if He is unlimitedly
powerful, He must be able to abolish all evil; but evil exists, therefore either God
is not perfectly good or He is not unlimitedly powerful."2 In a similar definition,
C. S. Lewis emphasizes the absence of happiness rather than the presence of evil :
"If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if
God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished But the creatures are
not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both."'
It might appear that theodicy is a problem only in religions which presuppose
a single, benevolent, omnipotent god. If this were so, the problem of evil might
be solved if one were to accept any of three alternatives to benevolent monothe
ism: "Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to
good and evil, or else an evil spirit."4 Gananath Obeyesekere has suggested that
no fundamental logical contradiction need arise "either in polytheism, where
good and bad deities have their respective sphere of influence, or in Zoroastrian' Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Essai de Theodicee (Amsterdam, 1710).
2 Hick, p. 5.

' Lewis, p. 14.

< Ibid., p. 3.

2

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

ism, where [there are two forces], the one benevolent but not powerful, the other
powerful but not benevolent," or in the Indian doctrine of karma, which
dispenses with deity altogether.' Logically, a theodicy is necessary in any religion
where any god is regarded as invariably benevolent and omnipotent, though
typically it arises in monotheistic religions.6 But Max Weber extends the use of
the term theodicy to the existential need to explain suffering and evil," and Talcott
Parsons explains how, in Weber's view, such a theodicy arises from experiences
such as premature death:
Weber attempted to show that problems of this nature, concerning the discrepancy
between normal human interest and expectations in any situation and society and what
actually happens, are inherent in the nature of human existence They pose problems of
the order which on the most generalized line have come to be known as the problem of
evil, of the meaning of suffering, and the like. ... It is differentiation with respect to the
treatment of precisely such problems which constitute the primary modes of variation
between the great systems of religious thought.8
In this view, not only is theodicy not confined to monotheism, but it is the
touchstone of all religions, an existential rather than a theological problem.
Obeyesekere takes exception to Weber's definition but offers another, which also
extends theodicy to nonmonotheistic religions: "When a religion fails logically
to explain human suffering or fortune in terms of its system of beliefs, we can say
that a theodicy exists."9 Here, theodicy is regarded as a logical rather than a
psychological problem; ideas that fail to explain suffering or that pose logically
untenable contradictions incite theodicy. However, as we shall see, neither
theology, nor logic, nor psychology can be entirely excluded from the battlefield
of theodicy. Obeyesekete admits that "strictly speaking there can be no resolution
of a theodicy. I use the term 'tesolution' to describe the attempt to tesolve the
cognitive (logical) impasse posed by any theodicy."'" When logic fails, and
theology fails, irrational resolutions are offered by other modes of religious
thought- notably mythology-and these, proving psychologically satisfactory,
are acceptable to the members of that faith, howevet inadequate they may
appear to professional philosophers.
Arthur Ludwig Herman, in an extensive study of Western and Indian
theodicy, sets forth three criteria for a satisfactory solution: common sense,
consistency, and completeness." Anv "solution" which denies the perfection,
omniscience, or benevolence of God, or the existence of evil, "cannot be a bona
fide but only a spurious solution".'- Hindu myths do in fact deny any or all of
these hypotheses from time to time and so cannot be said to supply a logical
solution. Herman groups the classical "solutions" into five major categories, with
' Obeyesekere, p. 9.
6 Ibid., p. 8.
Ibid, p. 11.
" Parsons (1949), pp. 62-63.
•Obeyesekere, pp. 11-12.
'" Ibid., p. 39.
" Herman, p. 195.
'2 Ibid., pp. 139-140.

introduction: the problem of evil

3

twenty-one subdivisions: the aesthetic (the whole is good because, ot even
though, the parts are not); the idea of discipline (suffering builds character); free
will (evil is man's fault); illusion (evil is merely an illusion); and limitation
(God's choice at the time of creation was limited). " Within these five categories
he subsumes the arguments of contrast, recompense, and imbalance (good
outweighs evil); teleology; justice and rebirth; privation (evil is merely the
absence of good); and the concepts of prevention (our evils are necessary to
prevent greater evils), the impersonal wicked substance (evil matter), the per
sonal wicked substance (Satan), metaphysical evil (the imperfection of creation
itself), and, finally, the argument of mystery-the presence of evil cannot be
rationally justified. All of these appear in some form in Hindu mythology. All
have some flaw.
It is useful to note the different problems arising from three kinds of
evil: supethuman, (gods, powers, and fallen angels), human, and subhuman
(including animals and plants).'4 More important is the division into another
triad: moral evil (sin); suffering (teleological evil, sometimes further divided
into ordinary and extraordinary suffering), and natural evil (death, disease)."
One may further speak of the three theological hypotheses of the problem
of evil: the ethical thesis (God is good), the omnipotent thesis, and the omni
scient thesis;"' any one of these may be combined with the hypothesis of the
existence of evil without contradiction, but problems arise when this hypothesis
is combined with any two or more hypothetical properties of God.''. Herman
feels that the most satisfactory theodicy is offered by the Hindu Vedantists, who
account adequately for all three types of evil (supethuman, human, and sub
human),'8 absolving God from all blame by the hypothesis of lila, the playful
spirit in which God becomes involved in creation: "Who after all can blame a
child for acts done in joy and playful exuberance?"'9 The answer to this is simply
"The Hindus, that's who," for the Vedantic argument did not put an end to
Indian attempts-to solve the problem.

2. The Problem of Evil in India
Herman argues that although all the theses necessary to generate the theological
problem of evil can be found in Indian philosophical and religious literature,
with many interesting variations, and although all three theological theses have
been both accepted and questioned, defended and attacked,2" nevertheless the
Indians are "strangely silent" about the problem of evil, a problem that plagued
Western but not Indian philosophy:2' "Classical and medieval Indian philosophy
"Ibid., p. 200.
8 Ibid., p. 519.

"Ibid., p. 143.
"/W.,p.510.

" Ibid., p. 162.
"' Ibid., p. 145.
» Ibid, pp. 8,411,417,439-440.

''Ibid., p. 183.
" Ibid., pp. 1 and ii.

4

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

has not shown any great concern for the problem of evil in any of its theological
forms. . . . When a problem of evil appears, consequently, it appears as a practical
problem about evil, i.e. one states that all is suffering, sarpsara [the cycle of
rebirth] is itself evil. . . . When the problem of evil itself is discussed in the older
texts it is almost as an aside, or it appears secondarily in the context of Who made
the world?"22 This "strange silence" he attributes largely to the satisfactory
nature of the solution provided by the doctrine of rebirth. Similarly, John
Bowker maintains that, in the Indian view, "the problem of Job cannot arise,
because it may always be the case that occurrences of suffering are a consequence
of activities, not simply in this existence, but in previous ones as well."» We shall
see, however, that the doctrine of rebirth was not regarded as totally satisfactory
by all Hindus, nor, indeed, was it accepted at all by many. The "secondary"
occurrences of the problem of suffering- the problem ofJob-in texts about the
origin of the world form an enormous body of literature, on which the present
work is based.
The belief that Indians did not recognize the problem of evil is widespread.
"For Hindu thought there is no Problem of Evil," writes Alan Watts,24 and a
Hindu scholar concurs: "Hinduism is not puzzled by the Problem of Evil."2'
Similarly, it is often said that there is no concept of evil at all in India. Mircea
Eliade remarked that not only was there no conflict between good and evil in
India, but there was in fact a confusion between them. He suggested a reason for
this confusion: "Many demons are reputed to have won their demonic prowess
by good actions performed in previous existences. In other words: good can serve
to make evil. . . . All these examples are only particular and popular illustrations
of the fundamental Jndian doctrine, that good and evil have no meaning or
function except in a world of appearances."26 Sir Charles Eliot regarded this
tendency to confuse good and evil as an innate characteristic of pantheism, which
"finds it hard to distinguish and condemn evil."2" Statements of this kind are
generally based on Vedantic Hinduism and Buddhism, which are concerned
more with ignorance than with sin, valuing virtue only as an adjunct to
knowledge, by means of which the philosophic saint rises above both good and
evil; and many varieties of Indian religion regard suffering rather than sin as the
fault in the world.28 These beliefs do not, however, apply to most of Puranic
Hinduism.
Another source of the statement that Indians do not have a Problem of Evil is
the belief that evil is unreal in Indian thought. "Wrong ... in India is maya
[illusion], asat [nonexistent], by definition not real. . . . The problem of evil is a
false one, [and] the brahmin gives it the treatment false problems deserve."29 The
"ft;,/., p. 415 and p. 2.
n Bowker, p. 215.
•-* Watts (1957), p. 35.
"Buch,p.9.
"Eliade (1938), pp. 202ff., and (1965), p. 96.
-'8 Ibid., I, lxxii and Ixxix.
■ Smith, p. 10.

"Eliot, I, ci.

introduction: the problem of evil

5

counterargument is simply that, though many Vedantists did maintain that evil
was logically unreal, suffering was always subjectively accepted as real.'" From the
"other" Indian point of view-the same affective strain that rejects the implica
tions of karmaM -"evil, suffering, waste, terror, and fear are real enough. . . .
Therefore there is a sense in which evil is real, and a sense in which karma and
rebirth are real as well. The dogma of unreality is betrayed by the activity
and concern of the faithful."'2
Philosophers and theologians may set up their logical criteria, but a logical
answer to an emotional question is difficult both to construct and to accept. The
usual example of extraordinary evil given in Indian texts is the death of a young
child. If one says to the parents of this child, "You are not real, nor is your son;
therefore you cannot reallv be suffering," one is not likely to be of much comfort.
Nor will the pain be dulled by such remarks as "God can't help it" or "God
doesn't know about it." It is only the ethical hypothesis that is emotionally
dispensable: God is not good, or God does not wish man to be without evil (two
very different arguments). And this is the line most actively developed by Hindu
mythological theodicy.
That this theodicy does in fact exist was recognized by Max Weber, who,
though giving the doctrine of karma pride of place among the world's theodicies,
remarked: "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."» A very early example of an
explicit statement of the problem of evil-the justice of God-occurs in *
Buddhist text that satirizes the Hindus' failure to come to terms with the
problem:
The world is so confused and out ofjoint, why does Brahma not set it straight? If he is
master ofthe whole world. Brahma, lord ofthe many beings born, why in the whole world
did he ordain misfortune? Why did he not make the whole world happy? . . . Why did he
make the world with deception [maya], lies, and excess, with injustice [adhamma]?. . . The lord of beings is unjust. There is such a thing as dhamma,'4 but he
ordained adhamma."
The problem of evil is still an important part of contemporary Hinduism on
the village level, where "the cult presumes the existence of a dominant deity
(Vishnu, Siva or Brahma) who, though not all-powerful or all-kind in the
monotheistic sense, has enough power and compassion to assist humans in their
quest for salvation, and to grant the this-worldly aspirations of his devotees.""'
Throughout the mythology that spans the period from the Buddhist text to the
■ Herman, pp. 436-438

" See below, chap. II, sec. 1.

" Weber (1963), p. 139.

u See below, chap. V, sec. 1, for a working definition of this important

'2 Herman, p. 439.

term (Sanskrit dharma). » BhuridattaJataka, number 543, verses 153c-156. "' Obeyesekere, p. 23.

6

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

present, theodicy is present not only implicitly, in the stories, but in specific
questions posed by the sages to whom the myths are told: Why is there death?
How could God do such an evil thing? How did evil originate?
Scholars have also been wrongly led to deny the presence of theodicy in Indian
religion by the fact that many myths are about minor deities of an extravagantly
anthropomorphic nature, ludicrous clowns who commit countless peccadilloes
of the type notorious in the affairs of Zeus and Loki. This has tended to obscure
the fact that there is also an extensive mythology of a much more serious nature in
which the god commits evil actions of cosmic significance. Thus C. G. Jung
remarked,
Of course one must not tax an archaic god with the requirements of modern ethics. For
the people of early antiquity things were rather different. In their gods there was abso
lutely everything: they teemed with virtues and vices. Hence they could be punished,
put in chains, deceived, stirred up against one another, without losing face, or at least
not for long. The man of that epoch was so inuted to divine inconsistencies that he was
not duly perturbed when they happened.'"
This is a fair description of Indra in the Puranic period, and of Siva in some
Vaisnava myths, but it is not valid when applied to Indra in the Vedic period or
Siva in the Saiva myths; these gods do indeed have "absolutely everything," but
the wotshipper is perturbed by the implications of this, as the myths clearly reveal.
Myths of theodicy are perennial in India; they do not seem to arise, or to
proliferate, at any particular time, under stress of social, political, or economic
upheaval. The answers may change, but the problem itself endures.

3. The Indian Concept of Evil
The Oxford English Dictionary defines evil (adj.) as "the antithesis of GOOD.
Now little used . . . "; the noun is "that which is the reverse of good, physically or
morally," and the second cited example is "The greatest of all mysteries- the
origin of evil (Tait & Stewart)." The Sanskrit term papa- widely used, unlike its
English equivalent- may be applied adjectively or nominally and denotes both
physical and moral nongoodness. But Christian theology has always emphasized
the distinction between moral evil ("evil that we human beings originate: cruel,
unjust, vicious and perverse thoughts and deeds") and natural evil ("the evil that
originates independently of human actions: in disease bacilli, earthquakes, storm,
droughts, tornadoes, etc.").'8 This has led to a false distinction between "primi
tive" religions that are largely concerned with dispelling natural evils, and
"higher" religions concerned with sin.'9 In Indian religions, these two forms of
evil are logically distinguished but regarded as aspects of a single phenomenon,
for which a single explanation must be sought.
'' Jung (1954), p. 13.

'8 Hick, p. 18.

» See below, chap. VI, sec. 7.

INTRODUCTION: THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

7

Papa (henceforth to be translated as evil) in theRg Veda often has a moral
sense: people are evil-minded; adultery is evil; incest is evil.40 People can "do"
(karoti) evil, and this we might translate as "commit a sin." But even sin may
occur without the will of the sinner in Indian thought, so that a sense of personal
repentance is rare, and one may pray for deliverance from sins committed by
others in the same way as for those committed by oneself." Thus the Rg Vedic
poet prays, "O gods, deliver us today from committed and noncommitted sin
[enas]";4: both of these are evil. Similarly the Artharva Veda distinguishes be
tween natural and moral evil, but regards them as inextricably intertwined:
"Sleep, exhaustion, misery-these divinities called evils-and old age, baldness,
and greyness entered the body. Then theft, bad deeds, falsehood, truth, sacri
fice, fame and power entered the body."" This blurring of natural and moral evil
is further encouraged by the Indian tendency to regard sin as a mistake of the
intellect rather than the result of a flaw of character. "Since the intellectual
has no intentional error, he can only go wrong on imperfect information or mis
understanding, which is not really his fault. Wrongness is not sin, though it
may be unfortunate."44 If evil is not man's fault, karma cannot "solve" the
problem of evil. « There are some striking exceptional examples of a true sense
of sin and repentance in Hinduism, such as some Rg Vedic hymns to Varuna,46
some poems of Tamil Saivism, and a Sanskrit verse still recited by many sophis
ticated Hindus today: "Evil am I, evil are my deeds. . . ."4" But these are out
weighed a thousandfold by instances of sin regarded as the fault of nature.
Evil is not primarily what we do; it is what we do not wish to have done to us.
That evil which we do commit is the result of delusion (moba) or deception
(maya)-md it is God who creates these delusions and deceptions. Thus once
again we are forced to deny the ethical hypothesis: God is not good.

4. The Confrontation of Evil in Hindu Mythology
There would appear to be two good reasons why one should not write a book
about the problem of evil in Hindu mythology: Indologists have long main
tained that there is no problem of evil in Indian thought, and philosophers regard
the problem as one best confined to the discipline of philosophy (or theology)
rather than mythology. But one should never take too seriously the attitudes
either of Indologists or of philosophers, and I think these two objections cancel
one another out: scholars have overlooked the problem of evil in Indian thought
because they have sought it in philosophy rather than in mythology.
40 W4.5 and 10.10.
"AV 11.8.19-20.

" Rodhe, pp. 146-147.
" Smith, p. 10.

42 RV 10.63.8.; cf. RK5.85.8.

" See below, chap. II, sec. 5.

"•RV1.8").

' "Papo 'ham, papakarmo 'ham." Personal communication from Dr. Tapan Raychaudhuri,
of Oxford.

8

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

The theodicy that is developed in Hindu mythology demonstrates a more
popular, general, and spontaneous attitude toward evil than may be found in the
complex arguments of the Hindu theologians. Moreover, the myths are on the
whole far more provocative and original than the textual discussions, for reasons
which Heinrich Zimmer has pointed out:
Theologians very rarely produce first rate poetry or art. Their outlook on life's ambiguous
and ambivalent features is narrowed by their dogmatism. They lack (this is a result of their
training) that cynicism and that perilous innocence, candid and childlike, which are basic
requirements for anyone dealing with myths. They lack (and this is their virtue, their
duty) that touch of "amorality" which must form at least part of one's intellectual and
intuitive pattern, ii one is not to fall prey to predetermined bias and be cut off from certain
vital, highly ironical, and disturbing insights.'"
Since the main body of Hindu mythology-the medieval Puranas-was compiled
by Brahmins with a considerable knowledge of theology, some of these texts
degenerate into little more than the narrow-minded diatribes that Zimmer had in
mind. Other texts, however, rise to the true level of myth, and these provide a
more "candid and childlike" response to the problem of evil.
The theologians have a reply toZimmet, in defense of their hallowed territo.y:
In general, religious myths are not adapted to the solving of problems. Their function is
to illumine by means of unforgettable imagery the religious significance of some present
ot remembered fact or experience. But the experience which myth thus emphasizes and
illumines is itself the locus of mystery. • • . When this pictorial presentation of the
problem has mistakenly been treated as a solution to it, the "solution" has suffered from
profound incoherences and contradictions.49
But this pictorial presentation of the problem is in itself a great achievement
when the problem is, as we have seen theodicy to be, inherently contradictory;*'
the theologian wants answers, but the myth is content to ask, like Gertrude Srein,
"What is the question?" Moreover, the very forcefulness, or even crudeness, of
the myth may be its greatest strength; William James, describing the deep
melancholy and terror of the suffering sick soul, suggested that "the deliverance
must come in as strong a form as the complaint, if it is to take effect; and that
seems a reason why the coarser religions, revivalistic, orgiastic, with blood and
miracles and supernatural operations, may possibly never be displaced. "M The
philosophical pessimism and melancholy of the Upanisads, when confronted
with the orgiastic and evil gods of primitive Tanttism, resulted in the integrated
theodicy of Puranic Hinduism.
Another antimythological argument often maintains that stories about gods
and demons are irrelevant to the study of the human problem of suffering. This is
'" Zimmet, p. 179n. . *• Hick. p. 285.
pp. 29-30; Leach (1970), p. 57.

'8 O'Flaherty (1973), pp. 36-38; Levi-Strauss (1967),

" James, p. 168.

INTRODUCTION: THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

9

sheer nonsense. Myths are not written by gods and demons, nor for them; they
are by, for, and about men. Gods and demons serve as metaphors for human
situations; the problems of the virtuous demon and the wicked god are the
problems of ambitious low-caste men and sinful kings. Sir James George Frazer
once remarked that no country has ever been so "prolific of human gods" as
India;'2 the demons are even more human, and are explicitly said to represent
human impulses." The specific, factual, human nature of myth has been well
defended by Jung: "Myth is not fiction: it consists of facts that are continually
repeated and can be observed over and over again. It is something that happens to
man, and men have mythical fates just as much as the Greek heroes do.""
The myths of evil appear to be about origins, but implicit in them is a concern
for the way things are. The pseudo-historical framework is merely a manner of
speaking, a metaphor for theoretical ideas about the relation of good to evil,
gods to men, the individual to society. The myth elucidates the nature of evil
by means of an invented story of its origin. The techniques of philosophy are
necessary but not sufficient; they are presupposed, and often rejected, by the
myths. Philosophy supplies the vocabulary with which the problems can be
stated; myth begins from the premises of philosophy but is then driven by a
commonsense logic which discards the more elaborate solutions of the Vedantins
and seeks a more direct answer, an answer illuminated by the "coarse" ritual
imagery which philosophy scorns. Myth is a two-way mirror in which ritual and
philosophy may regard one another. It is the moment when people normally
caught up in everyday banalities are suddenly (pethaps because of some personal
upheaval) confronted with problems that they have hitherto left to the bickerings
of the philosophers; and it is the moment when philosophers, too, come to terms
with the darker, flesh-and-blood aspects of their abstract inquiries.

5. Notes on Method
In a study of Saiva mythology, I discussed various methods of analysis and ended
up using a somewhat modified structuralist technique because it seemed appro
priate to that particular problem." The problem of evil does not easily lend itself
to a structuralist approach, pethaps because so many of its jagged facets prove
stubbornly irreducible, pethaps because it is almost always viewed in conceptual
rather than symbolic terms (though symbolism is appropriate to certain aspects
of it'6). I have therefore used any tool that would do the job-a bit of philology,
a measure of theology, lashings of comparative religion, a soupcon of anthro
pology, even a dash of psychoanalysis- rather like a monkey piling up complex
» Frazet, I, 402.
" See below, chap. IV, sec. 4, and chap. XI, sees. 6-8.
"O'Flaherry(WS), pp. 11-21.
« See below, chap. XI, sec. 2.

"Jung (1954), p. 75.

10

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

scientific gadgets into a miscellaneous heap in order to pluck the banana from the
top of the cage. I trust that, though I may have misused the specialist's equip
ment, I have neither damaged it nor disgraced it. My only excuse for this undisci
plined trespass is that it seems to work, to render accessible at least some of the
answers I have sought.
In addition to the classical Sanskrit texts pertaining to this subject, I have
occasionally drawn upon myths recorded by anthropologists conversant with the
religions of Indian tribal communities. Although this material diverges from
that of the Puranas in many significant respects, it is nevertheless possible to
regard the two traditions as adjacent, if not actually contiguous; undoubtedly,
there has been considerable borrowing in both directions. Verrier Elwin, who has
produced many valuable studies of tribal mythology, has noted this continuity
between his materials and those of the "Sanskrit" tradition: "My collection
. . . will also provide material for the study of the diffusion of legends and will
indicate how far the influence of the all-pervading Hindu tradition has pro
ceeded. . . . The book may, in fact, be regarded as a sort of Aboriginal Purana.""
These tribal myths were all recorded during the last two centuries and are
therefore liable to show traces of the influence of Christian missionaries, but such
influences are usually immediately apparent, and the general agreement between
tribal and Puranic mythology is striking.
In an early draft of this book, I included a number of parallels from Greek and
Judeo-Christian mythology, which I subsequently decided to omit. Theologians
and scholars of comparative mythology do not need me to point out the native
varieties growing in their own backyards, and for the Indologists it is pethaps
better merely to indicate that many of the "Hindu" concepts do appear outside of
India (as the biblical citations at the head of each chapter are designed to
demonstrate) than to provide a sketch of the non-Indian myths out of their
context. Some ideas, such as the Fall or the loss of the Golden Age, are so
immediately evocative of their Western associations that it would be awkwardly
pedantic to avoid mentioning them; but these passing references are not meant to
substitute for a detailed comparative study. Indeed, it is my fond wish that the
present work may provide raw material for a single facet- the Hindu facet- of just
such a cross-cultural analysis, pethaps used in conjunction with such studies of
the Western approach to the problem of evil as the works ofJohn Bowker, John
Hick, C. G.Jung, C. S. Lewis, and Paul Ricoeur.
Even after omitting the comparative material, I found that the Hindu texts
alone provided an embarras de richesse. The Sanskrit Puranas are garrulous and
digressive, and in order to include as wide a selection of myths as possible I have
summarized rather than translated, omitting large bodies of material superfluous
'" Elwin (1949), pp. x and xi.

introduction: the problem of EVIL

II

to the present study, such as hymns of praise, ritual instructions, detailed
descriptions of people and places, and lengthy philosophical discourses. This
extraneous material is not only unwieldy but would have tended to obscure the
patterns that emerge from the more selective treatment. I have also omitted cer
tain portions of the text that seem hopelessly corrupt, and in some instances where
the meaning seems quite clear in spite of the garbled text, I have given the best
sense I could make of it; where obscurities remain, I have included the ambig
uous Sanskrit text. I have not (knowingly) added anything that is not in the
text, but I may omit in one version certain details that also occur in another. For
the sake of convenience, I have set long translations from the Sanskrit in italics
but these do not indicate word-for-word translations, as is the usual convention,
nor have I employed ellipsis points to indicate omissions, as these would have
occurred so frequently as to render the text unreadable. Long quotations from
secondary sources are printed in reduced type.
In attempting to trace the mythology of evil from the period of the Vedas to
the present day, I encountered a number of significant variations and contradic
tions, and it is difficult to generalize and set forth "the" Indian attitude to certain
pivotal problems. Where the attitude has changed in the course of time, I have
tried to trace it from the earliest known sources; where sectarian biases reverse the
original conclusions, I have so indicated. Historians of religion may regret that I
have not followed the historical development of the entire mythology of evil but
have instead treated the separate philosophical strands. There are two reasons for
this. In the first place, it is notoriously difficult to date Indian religious texts,
though it is reasonable to postulate several broad areas of Indian mythology:Rg
Veda (c. 1200 B.C.), Brahmanas and Atharva Veda (c. 900 B.C.), Upanisads (c. 700
B C), Mahabharata (c. 300 B.C.-A.D. 300), Ramayana (c. 200 B.C.-a.d. 200), early
Puranas (Brahmanda. Markandeya, Matsya, Vayu, and Visnu, c. 300 B.C.-A.D.
500), middle Puranas (Kurma, Linga, Vamana, Varaha, Agni, Bhagavata, Brahmavaivarta, Saura, Skanda, and Devi, c. a.d. 500-1000), later Puranas (all othets,
c. A.D. 1000-1500), modern Hindu texts. Wherever possible, within the discus
sion of a particular question, I have treated what appear to be the earlier texts first
and indicated the emergence of later concepts. In particular, I have found it
useful to distinguish three broad periods (or recurrent textual traditions): Vedic,
Epic-Puranic (orthodox or post-Vedic), and devotional (bhakti).
There is a more basic argument against treating the entire corpus of myths
through a history of the texts: There are several recognizably different conceptual
attitudes to evil, and I found it more illuminating to trace each one of these
separately than to divide the material into historical eras and summarize all the
different philosophical concepts of evil that emerge in each era. The final objec
tion to the historical method arises from the fact that there is no clear-cut devel

12

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

opment in Hindu mythology; Archaic concepts emerge again in late texts,
often in direct conjunction with contradictory later concepts. This is due in part
to the Indian habit of retaining everything old and simply adding new ideas like
Victorian wings built on to Georgian houses, but it may also indicate a basic
refusal to discard any possible approach to the problem of evil. Certain broad
historical trends may be discerned, nevertheless, and I have indicated these where
it seems most appropriate.
I must confess at the start to a violently Procrustean selection of my materials.
If the devil may quote scripture, surely a scholar may follow suit by citing only
those parts of scripture which give the devil his due and depict god in an
unfavorable light. I find myself here firmly on the side of the demons, who in
previous Indological studies have lacked an advocate. There are of course many
Indian texts that depict the gods as good and the demons as evil-^a va sans
dire-and a book based on these texts would be neither challenging to write nor
interesting to read (a consideration which has not prevented a number of scholars
from writing that book over and over again). The present study assumes that the
reader will assume that the Hindus assume their gods to be good, their demons
evil; proceeding from this chain of half-truths, I have set out to rectify the
imbalance by setting forth the less obvious corollary- that the gods are not good,
nor the demons evil, in any consistent or significant sense of these important
'vords.
I must also admit another lacuna in this work. One of Stephen Potter's best
ploys was the one in which the Lifesman, finding himself involved in a conver
sation on a subject of which he was totally ignorant, while Opponent was an
acknowledged expert, would simply remark from time to time, "Not in the
South."'8 1 fear that any Lifesman could go far with that phrase, were he forced to
discuss this book. South Indian Tamil texts are a world unto themselves,
encompassing theological tracts and local myths that treat the problem of evil in
a manner directly at variance with the attitudes prevailing in the texts on which
my work is based, Sanskrit texts predominantly from the North Indian tradition.
I have included a few Tamil myths when they were so apt that I could not resist
them; but one could write another long book on the Hindu mythology of evil,
using only the Tamil texts that I have not consulted. I am deeply indebted to
David Shulman for discovering and translating the Tamil myths that I have
cited; until he writes that other book let the reader be warned: not in the South.

6. The Questions and the Answers
The questions that I have tried to answer are basically threefold: What solutions
did the Hindus offer to the problem of evil? How did these arise and develop
'" Pottet, pp. 26-28.

INTRODUCTION: THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

13

historically? How, if at all, can these various solutions be subsumed under a
unified world view? Myths view problems in terms of characters, and there are
four possible candidates for the role of villain in this drama: man, fate, devils, and
gods. The first of these appears as a tentative solution in many Hindu texts
(chapter II), but the myths of the Fall ultimately blame fate, rather than man, a
logically consistent hypothesis, which is nevertheless ultimately rejected in its
turn: it is not emotionally satisfying, and it bypasses the essential components of
theodicy. Most Hindus preferred to believe that God was above fate, that he
programmed evil into his creation willingly or unwillingly (chapter III). More
over, the failure of Manichean dualism (chapter IV), and the belief that many
demons were good rather than evil (chapter V), passed the buck back to the
gods again. The benevolent motives of the god who recognized the necessity
of evil (chapter III) were now replaced by the malevolent needs of demonic
gods who thrust their own evil indiscriminately upon good and evil demons
and men (chapters VI through IX). But in bhakti mythology, though God is
still responsible for evil, he is benevolent once more (chapter X), and it is then
left to the individual man to resolve, within himself, the problem of his own evil
(chapter XI). These various approaches to the problem (chapter XII), most
of which might have been eliminated or at least modified by other religions
in order to strike a single theological note, are all retained in Hinduism in
a rich chord of unresolved harmony.

And when the woman saw that the tree was
goodforfood, and that it was pleasant to
the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one
wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did
eat, andgave also unto her husband with
her; and he did eat.
Genesis 3:6

II
TIME, FATE, AND
THE FALL OF
MAN

1. The "Solution" of Karma
It has been argued that "the most complete formal solution of the problem of
theodicy is the special achievement of the Indian doctrine of karma, the so-called
belief in the transmigration of souls."' This doctrine, simply stated, "solves" the
problem by blaming evil on itself: one's present experience is the direct result of
the action (karma), good and bad, accumulated in past lives and affixed to the
transmigrating soul. Karma is a thing that can be transferred to one person from
another, whittled away by good deeds performed in the present life, but never
entirely destroyed; it is the outward visible sign of past invisible deeds. The evil
that we experience is thus justified by evils of the past and will be balanced by
rewards in future births; it is not God's fault, nor man's fault, nor a devil's fault;
it is part of the eternal cycle, and ultimately all is justified and balanced.
The flaws in this solution are immediately apparent. The hypothesis of karma
violates the hypothesis of omnipotence2 and thus bypasses rather than resolves
theodicy. If God is under the sway of karma, he is not omnipotent; if, as some
theologians insist, God controls karma, then once again the blame is cast at his
feet: "While the problem of extraordinary or gratuitous evil can be explained by
a reference to previous Karma, this cannot, the plain man might feel, justify that
evil."'
Even if the doctrine can be made rationally sound, it is never emotionally
satisfying. This is apparent in village Buddhism in Ceylon (where some Hindu
influence may have occurred) as well as in Hinduism:
; Weber (1963), p. 145.

' Herman, p. 417.

' Ibid., p. 511.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

15

In the context of day-to-day behaviour the karma theory of causation presents
problems which arise from ordinary human social and personal "needs." ... It is
sible for the deities to help human beings to alter their karma because the
themselves are karma-bound. Yet, despite the theory, the human need for
supernatural intercession is manifest.4

logical
impos
deities
such a

In Buddhism, this results in "a behavioural position which involves a paradox of
the theodicy type whereby gods endowed with power to alter the state of human
grace are allowed to exist alongside a belief in karma which cannot be so altered. "'
In Hinduism, particularly in monotheistic devotional cults, karma becomes
relatively unimportant and can be overcome by devotion.6 This paradoxical
symbiosis of cognitive religion (here represented by the philosophy of karma)
and affective religion (devotion ro the gods) has been noted in the Buddhism of
Ceylon," northeast Thailand, and Burma.8 Ursula Sharma has observed a similar
process in village Hinduism, where she distinguishes three levels of theodicy:
cognitive (the problem of injustice), psychological (the need for comfort), and
theological (the classical problem of monotheism); karma answers the first and
obviates the need for the third, but it does not satisfy the second.9 This psy
chological level is so acute that, although the villagers accept the doctrine of
karma, they supplement it so that the afflicted person is protected from "feelings
of anxiety about past deeds."'0 (This anxiety may have been alleviated in the
classical texts by de-emphasizing sin in general: "The absence of sin introduces an
irrationality to life; for karma must be just, yet what appalling creatures we must
have been if we are only getting our just deserts all the time. It does not bear
believing."") Moral guilt does not constitute a special problem in village
Hinduism, as it would if karma were strictly inrerpreted; people do not believe
that there is nothing they can do to avoid or remove karma. Hindus often behave
as if they did not believe in karma, and some definitely claim that they do not
accept karma or believe in a supreme deity.'2 There is a clear gulf between
philosophy and cult here, as Devendranath Tagore recognized when he criticized
the Upanisads: "I became disappointed. . . .These Upanishads could not meet
all our needs. Could not fill our hearts."" It is the particular talent of mythology
to bridge the gap between the affective and cognitive aspects of religion- to fill
the heart.
This pattern of differentiation has been observed in another Hindu village as
well: the theory of karma generates anxiety and guilt about one's probable (but
unknown) past sins, as well as feelings of helplessness, but "the beliefs concerning
ways whereby fate can be subverted seem to function to allay such feelingsto give the individual mother some feeling of control over her social environ4 Obeyesekere, pp. 20 and 22.
" Tattinah, passim; Ung, passim.
'' Sharma. p. 350.

' Ibid., p. 23.

6Ibid., p. 24.

" Sharma, p. 350.

" Tagcre. p. 161.

" Gombrich (197 1), passim.

(J Ibid., p. 357.

" Smith, p. 10.

16

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

merit."'4 Ghosts and evil spirits, as well as semi-gods who have achieved powers
from asceticism, are "agents working outside fate"; devotion to God can over
come karma. " This simple faith has an elaborate, classical foundation in the
philosophy of Ramanuja, who maintained that God could "even override the
power of karma to draw repentant sinners to him.""' Thus the doctrine of karma
is deeply undermined by other important strains of Indian religion in which the
individual is able to swim against the current of time and fate.
Karma as a philosophy merely formalizes an intuition that has depressed most
of the pessimists among us at one time or another-the feeling that we cannot
escape our past, we cannot start fresh, that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "we beat
on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Placing the
initial wave of this current in a previous birth, or in a birth at some other point on
a circle, simply transfers the blame from the realm of known events to the realm
of unknown ones; in this way, the emotional intuition of the force of the past
becomes logically airtight. The idea of the Golden Age is also based on a
widespread (though by no means universal) intuition-a feeling that the skies
were bluer, apples sweeter, when we were young. The myth reintroduces these
underlying natural emotions into a philosophical framework which was in
vented precisely in o/der to form a rigid superstructure to protect that intuition
in the first place.
How did Indians come to accept these alternative, conflicting views of
theodicy? Obeyesekere, arguing against Weber's "existential" level of theodicy,
attacks this question:
In what sense could we say that a theodicy existed previous to the development of karma}
Certainly not in the classical European sense of theodicy, which is explicitly related to the
attributes of a monotheistic deity. ... In a culture which possesses a theory of suffering
like that of karma the problem of explaining unjust suffering simply cannot arise.''
But there are problems of the theodicy type in many texts of the Vedas and
Brahmanas, though karma does not appear until the later period of the
Upanisads.'" The concept of the sinful deity, which explains the origin of evil as a
result of the malevolence of gods toward men, definitely predates the doctrine of
karma and continues to prevail despite karma.'9 The wish to escape death (the
basis of the antagonism between gods and men) and the fear of premarure death
(one of the classical sources of theodicy) are also well attested in Vedic texts. In
karma-influenced texts this fear of death is changed into the wish to escape from
life, but this line is seldom developed in the mythology, which reverts to Vedic
assumptions, allows mortals to challenge death, and describes the resulting wrath
of the gods-and our resulting suffering. Thus the patterns of theodicy were
established before the doctrine of karma and continued to develop alongside it.
' ' Kolenda, p. 78.

" Ibid., pp. 76-77, and 79.

' " Obeyesekere, pp. 10-1 1 .

'8 Keith, pp. 570 ff.

" Basham, p. 332.
" See below, chap. VI, secs. 3-4.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

17

Karma is often used as a makeshift excuse to account for the temporary
weakness of a god: Bali is able to usurp Indra's thtone because of the evil karma
that Indra had amassed in destroying the foetus in the womb of Diti,2" and
Vajranga is able to steal Indra's treasures as a result of the same act. As the poet
remarks, "The immortals have become unhappy because of their own karma;
Indra has reaped the fruit of his evil act."-' The gods may also escape punishment
for their sins by blaming this same karma: when Indra had raped Utathya's
pregnant wife and hidden in shame, Bthaspati consoled Indra by saying, "Don't
worry. All this universe is in the sway of karma," and Indra bathed at a shrine and
became purified and powerful again.2- So too Gautama excused Indra for having
seduced Ahalya (Gautama's wife) and said that it was the fault neither of Ahalya
nor of Indra, but a result of karma.2' The gods simply cannot lose, for another
argument, that they are not ruled by karma as men are, is also cited in justification
of their immoralities: "What the gods do bears no fruit, good or bad, as it does for
men."24 This statement, that the gods are above the laws of karma, appears as
frequently as its converse.
2. The Problem of the Beginning of Time
One difficulty that arises directly out of the inadequacy of the karma solution is
the problem of origins. Karma "solves" the problem of the origin of evil by
saying that there is no origin-there is no beginning to time, simply an eternal
cycle where future and past melt into one another. But this ignores rather than
solves the problem; as Alan Watts inquired, "Why and how does the reincar
nating individual first go wrong?"2' One medieval Indian philosopher clearly
stated the paradox: "Though, originally, all beings were associated with par
ticular kinds of karma, . . . the original responsibility of association with karma
belongs to God."26 This, too, is no solution, for "at the time of original
association the individuals were associated with various kinds of karma and were
thus placed in a state of inequality."-" The quandary leads logically in the Indian
tradition to the myth of the Fall, calling upon an assumption that destroys the
effectiveness of rebirth as a solution.
The myth of the Fall, or the loss of the Golden Age, entails three presupposi
tions: there was a beginning of human action, a fitst wicked act, and a previous
period in which God had created everything in perfection.28 But how can this be
used to qualify the cycle of rebirth, which has no beginning? Herman states the
problem nicely:
Ifthe Vedas mention, as they do in their various cosmogenic moods (e.g. RVX.190; 129),
-" Vamana 49-50.
' AlSA. 12.258.42.

" Siva 2.3.14.18-24.
" Matsya4.6.

" Skanda 2.7.238-40.
» Watts (1964), p. 39.

" Sripati Pandita, cited in Dasgupta, V, 185.

" Dasgupta, V, 185.

" Herman, pp. 469-470.

18

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

origins of the Universe, then are these rather straightforward metaphysical myths to be
subjected to Procrustean therapy just to save a nasty puzzle? ... If the mythology of
creation does indeed say that there was a beginning in some sense of that word, in
non-being, or Purusa, or in an act of Indra or Brahmi, and if you are inclined to take your
sruti [Vedic canon] seriously, then isn't it the better part of philosophic valor to admit to
beginnings and face the philosophic music?29
The Indian answer to this paradox is simple, and brilliant: the Fall itself is
cyclical; it happens again and again, over and over, within the cycle of rebirth.
This is the Indian myth of the four Ages of man.
The myth of the four Ages is difficult to date. It is foreshadowed in the
Brahmanas in its broadest sense- the concept that the universe proceeds through
time cycles of definite duration M'-but its striking similarities to myths of Iran and
Greece may indicate that the three myths represent parallel syntheses of diverse
elements from all three cultures and from Mesopotamia, exchanged between the
eighth and the third centuries B.C." The four Ages decrease in goodness and
virtue. This idea, that man lives in an age of degeneration, may have evolved
simultaneously in Hindu thought with the whole cyclical theory of timereckoning;" or the progression may have been more episodic: first a cyclic
vision of time, then the myth of four Ages, then moral deterioration, and finally
periodic destruction in fire and flood." Even if the dharma element accrued to the
myth last, it is included in the earliest recorded Indian variants of the myth, c. 200
B.C.," and it may be obliquely challenged in an Asokan edict of the fourth century
B.C.» Certainly the theory of degenerative time is known to the Mahabharata,*6
and it is fully developed in all of the earliest Puranas.
However piecemeal its origins, the synthetic theory is totally consistent. The
inevitability of the decline, in spite of the original apparent balance of good and
evil, or even the original prevalence of good, is based on the Hindu view of the
relative activity and inactivity of evil and good: good is quiescent; evil is chaotic
and life-creating.'" "The growth of evil as theyugas [Ages} succeed each other is
due to an expanding realization or actualization of the inherent polarity in man
and the universe. . . . The Puranas tend to use a static conception of good and a
dynamic conception of evil."'8 The world begins over and over again; each time,
it is created out of water, and the Golden Age takes place. This Age degenerates
until finally the fourth Age is reached, the present Kali Age, which is destroyed
by fire and flood; all is once again water, out of which the world is created anew.
This myth not only provides the ideal framework for Indian cosmic mythol
ogy but itself reveals a number of profound symbolic insights:
29 Ibid., pp. 514-515.
" Kane, III, chap. 34.

™Sata. 13.6.2.9-10.

" Church (1973a), passim.

" Church (1971) and (1974), passim.

" Asoka's fourth rock edict.

'< Kane, III, xvii.

■ MBh. 3.188.9-13, etc.

i' O'Flaherty (1973), pp. 310-313, and (1975), 11-14.

'• Huntington (1964), p. 38.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

19

The [day of creation and night of destruction]motif can be understood either as ( 1 ) a root
metaphor, or as (2) a central idea. The metaphorical pattern can be expressed as follows:
(1) as full moon is to new moon, . . . spring is to winter; (2) good is to evil, dbarma is to
aSyarma; . . . The central idea can also be expressed simply: just as nothing lives forever,
nothing ever dies. In the Yuga Story it is time itself that maintains the balance of
opposites, the vehicle that unites both the dissolution and regeneration of all things."

3. Free Will and the Fall
Though the myth of the Ages accounts for the ultimate balance of good and evil,
it does not solve the problem of origins; it merely points out that the origin
happens over and over again. In India man is not usually held responsible for the
origin of evil, but this cannot be attributed to the absence of a belief in freewill.40
Though karma somewhat qualifies free will, it does not negate it. Indeed, as
Christoph vein Fiirer-Haimendorf has pointed out, in an important sense karma
is based on the assumption of free will: "The theory of karma presupposes man's
moral responsibility for each of his actions and hence the freedom of moral
choice."4' Karma is clearly distinguished from fate (daiva); the latter is used
often to explain otherwise inexplicable occurrences which even karma is re
garded as inadequate to justify.
Karma is the hand one is dealt; one can play it badly or well. (Of course, the
ability to play is also part of one's karma, and this leads to metaphysical
intricacies). This is not the place, nor am I the scholar, for a lengthy exposition of
the Indian doctrine of free will. Suffice it to say that Indian ideas on this subject
differ radically from Western ones; in particular, we must face the disquieting
ability of Indians to believe several seemingly contradictory tenets at once. Thus
we find, in varying proportions, the concepts of free will, fate, and God's grace
emerging from different texts at different periods. Moreover, there is significant
evidence of a difference of opinion on this subject within individual texts: When
the wicked Kamsa learris that he is "fated" to be killed by a child of his cousin, he
boasts, "This is a matter that concerns mere mortals, and so it can be accom
plished by us though we are mortal. It is known that people like me can overcome
fate and turn it to advantage by the right combination of spells, and herbal
medicines, and constant effort."42 Unfortunately for Kamsa, his fate does not
turn out to be surmountable (for the child fated to kill him is Krsna, no "mere
mortal"), and when Kamsa's scheme backfires he changes his tune, saying that it
was not he but fate that arranged events, that he could not overcome fate by mere
human effort. Yet the means that Kamsa set such store by must have been
accepted by many people in ancient India.
" Church (1971), p. 177.
« von Furcr-Haimendorf (1974), p. 549. Cf. Strauss, passim.
■ Hari. 48.39.
■ Hari. 47.1-15.

20

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

An early text combines the will of the godhead with karma in a way that seems
to leave no room for free will: "He causes him whom he wishes to lead up from
these worlds to perform good action; and him whom he wishes to lead down
ward to perform bad action."4' A medieval philosopher discussed the paradox
of predetermination, man's will, and God's grace implicit in the above text:
God only helps a person when he wishes to act in a particular way; or to desist from a
particular way of action. So a man is ultimately responsible for his own volition; which he
can follow by the will of God in the practical field of the world."
And a later commentatot on this second text further muddied the already muddy
waters but left more scope for free will:
It is . . . meaningless to say that it is He, the Lord, that makes one commit sins or perform
good deeds merely as He wishes to lower a person or to elevate him. Fot . . . God does not
on his own will make one do bad or good deeds, but the persons themselves perform good
or bad actions according to their own inclinations as acquired in past creations.4'
Here one's inclinations ate determined by the past-but one is nevertheless
responsible for them.
The belief that God intended man to live in a state of perfection, but that man,
by the exercise of his free will, destroyed this perfection and thus either brought
about the evils of the world or caused God to destroy him, arises very seldom in
Sanskrir texts. There the blame is usually cast eithet upon God (who through his
own shortcomings causes man to be born with the imperfections that are in
evitably to result in his downfall) or (rarely) upon demons who spoil the world
for mankind and cause the gods to destroy it: men ate good until evil gods
corrupt them. The belief that man himself is the author of his woes is, however,
entirely consonant with the early mythology of the degeneration of civilization
and the evil nature of man, and it teemerges in certain myths of heresy in which
men corrupt one another.

4. The Indian Myth of the Fall
There are a few, atypical Indian texts that blame man for the Fall; prominent
among them is the corpus of myths that account for low caste status as a result of
past sins. This concept appears in myths that attribute the status of demons to a
fall from caste and in others that describe the loss of the Golden Age as a process
of moral and social disintegration.46 Then: are also numerous local traditions of
this sort which rationalize the status of specific castes. Manu regarded the Greeks
and othet foreign "barbarians" as Sudras (servants) who had sunk from their
4' Kau. Up. 3.9.

" Srilamha on Brahmasutra 2.3.41, cited in Dasgupta, V, 89-

" Appaya Diksita on Srikantha, II, 47-48, cited in Dasgupta, V, 87.

4<' See below, chap. IV, sec. 3.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

21

former status as Ksatriyas (warriors, nobles) when they distegarded Brahmins.4"
The sect of Kapalikas are thought to have been Brahmins in former times. *8
According to Jain theory, all castes once professed Jainism, but certain groups fell
into false ways and became Brahmins who formulated a cult sanctioning the
slaughter of animals49-a myth that reverses the usual assumptions of the Hindu
myth and describes a fall into Brahmin-hood rather than from it.
Many castes consider themselves fallen Brahmins and justify their change of
occupation (when they move up the scale) by stating that they are merely
resuming their former status. Ambedkar revived the traditional myth when he
argued that the Untouchables, and many Sudras, were Buddhists who had
suffered from the hatred of Brahmins when the Hindu renaissance occurred.""
Local Hindus accepted the claim made by certain Untouchables that their
ancestors had been kings who had fallen to their present status through some sin ;
one variation of this myth states that, when fighting the Muslims, the Ksatriya
ancestors of certain Untouchables pretended to be Untouchables and were cursed
to remain in that state as punishment for their cowardice." Yet even this belief,
based on the philosophy of karma and an admission of one's own past guilt, is
denied by many low castes, who do not attribute their status to sinful past lives of
members of their castes but rather say that they were somehow tricked out of
their former high rank,'- just as the demons were tricked out of theirs.
The Rg Veda contains an unusual verse which states that "brotherless women,
deceiving their husbands, evil, lying, . . . have made this deep place."" The
commentator, Sayana, takes this "deep place" to be hell, but his reading is not
supported by any other Rg Vedic text. Later Vedic texts, however, do occasionally
revive this point of view. One myth that appears in the Brahmanas seems to imply
that man committed a moral error, which forced the gods to destroy him:
Prajapati created beings, but they were gripped by poverty and anxiety, and so Varuna
seized them. They treated him with disdain and left him. Prajapati then be
came Varuna and seized them.s*
Even here, the original impulse stems not from man but from some external force
that inflicts poverty and anxiety upon him; it is this "evil"-one can hardly call it
a sin-which drives man to reject Varuna, a sin for which he is punished. The
meaning of this rather obscure myth emerges more clearly upon comparison with
another Brahmana:
When they were created, all the creatures ate the barley corn belonging to Varuna, and
'" Manu 10.43-44.
" Prasad, p. 225.

" Gonda (1963), p. 210; and see below, chap. X, sec 2.
« Ambedkar, p. 78.

'' Pocock (1955), final par.; (1964), p. 303;

and personal communication from Pocock.

" Kolenda, p. 75; and see below, chap. IV, sec. 3.

"KK4.5 5.

" Tait. Br. 1.6.4.1 ; cf. Mait. Sam. 1.10.19 and Kafh. Sam. 36 5.

22

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

because of that Varuna seized them. They became swollen [ with dropsy, the punishment
sent by Varuna, god of the waters] but Prajapati healed them and freed them from
Varuna s snare, and his creatures were born free of disease or fault. Prajapati created
an abundance [offood] andfreed the creatures."
The original sin is here directly related to hunger, and the cure is simple: Prajapati
creates an abundance of food. The conflict between the two gods is apparent.
Prajapati creates man and protects him, while Varuna punishes him. Yet neither
acts as the devil, and the blame is laid upon man-though man is restored in a
manner acceptable to Vedic mythology, in contrast with the later Puranic myths
where hunger begins an irreversible process of decay.
It is in the tribal mythology of India, however, that one often encounters
myths corresponding to the Western idea that God is forced to destroy man
because of man's wickedness, and this may be due to Christian missionary activity
among the tribes, whose traditions were recorded only after such activity had
been taking place for some time. Many of these myths are used to explain the
origin of death, which may be regarded in simple terms as a manifestation of the
separation of man from god (i.e., mortal from immortal):
When God first made the world. He [created man and woman from ashes and] then
called the man by name, saying, "Manoo [Manu, the first man]," and the man replied,
"Hoo" instead of "Ha Jee" (Yes, Life) tespectfully, as he should have done. For this reason
was everlasting life denied him.'6
A similar myth is told among the Kuruk of Middle India:
[Mahapurub made a boy and a girl.] When they grew up they quarrelled. Mahapurub
called them and said, "You are disturbing me with your quarrels." He picked them up and
killed themr
The Jhoria believe that there was no death until men and gods began to fight
against each other; then Mahaprabhu created the waters of death and immortality
and tricked men into accepting the former.'8 Although the pattern of this myth is
that of the Vedic myths of the wars between gods and demons (who fight against
one another for the drink of immortality, which the gods obtain by tricking the
demons), the antagonism berween men and gods rather than demons and gods is
more characteristic of Puranic mythology."

5. The Natural Origin of Evil
In contrast with these scattered instances of evil originating from man's sin, most
Indian myths of the loss of the Golden Age do not blame man at all: he is
" Sata. 2.5.2.1-3 and 5.2.4.1-2.

" Dracott, p. 5. And see below, chap. IV, sec. 8, and chap. VIII.

sec. 8. Cf. Haimendorf (1974),pp541-543and548
s" Ibid., p. 510.

" See below, chap. IV, secs. 1 and 5.

'" Elwin ( 1949), p. 42.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

23

the victim, not the cause. This generally prevalent view first appears in the
Mahabharata:
Formerly Prajapati broughtforth pure creatures, who were truthful and virtuous. These
creatures joined the gods in the sky whenever they wished, and they lived and died by their
own wish. In another time, those who dwelt on earth were overcome by desire and anger,
and they were abandoned by the gods. Then by theirfoul deeds these evil ones were trapped
in the chain of rebirth, and they became atheists.6"
The reference to "another time" may signify the appearance of the Kali Age or
may simply describe the eventual appearance of the evil inherent in desire and
anger and the subsequent loss of purity and immortality. For the original people
are not mortals at all, but pure creatures who do not eat or die. They become
physically corruptible (i.e., subject to carnal decav and rebirth) when they are
morally corrupted; the two characteristics are inextricably linked, for in Hindu
mvthology embodied humans are corrupt, in both senses of the word. Although
this myth shares important assumptions with the myth of Eden, its emphasis is
on the development of the evil chain of rebirth implicit in the myth of the four
declining Ages.
This myth of a lost Golden Age appears in Buddhist texts as well as Hindu and
is widely distributed outside India as well. Charles Drekmeier has suggested a
reason for its widespread appeal:
The Buddhist doctrine shares much with certain theories of psychoanalysis. Freud never
postulated an idyllic natural state like the golden age that haunts Buddhist cosmogony.
Before men united in civil societies they were governed by the rule of the strong. But
there is a golden age in the life of man. The quest (explicit in Buddhism, innate in man
according to the psychoanalyst) is for this golden age before the organism had distin
guished itself from its surroundings."'
This analysis implies that the Golden Age is characterized by a lack of differen
tiation, an implication supported by those Indian texts which point out that
there was no need for class separarions in the Golden Age:
In the Golden Age, people were happy and equal. There was no distinction between high
and low, no law ofseparate classes. Then, after some time, people became greedy, and the
wishmg-trees disappeared, andpassions arose ,6'
But it is also dear that both the psychoanalytic view and the Indian view of this
golden time are more complex than Rousseau's theory that when man is at one
with nature and free of civilization he is "good." The "rule of the strong" applies
even without society; this appears in Hindu mythology as the "rule of the fishes,"
"• MBh. 3.181.11-20.
" Drekmeier, p. 105. Cf. Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" and Masson (1974a), p. 456; but
cf. Haimendorf (1974), p. 555.

62 Skanda 1.20.40.173-185.

24

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

whereby the big fish eats the smaller fish, a metaphor for the dreaded state of
anarchy.
Moreover, in the majority of Puranic myths, the Golden Age is only tempo
rary, a passing phase, rather than the basic or natural state of man. Inevitable de
cay characterizes another myth of the origin of evil:
In former times there was no king, nor was there any rod of chastisement; of their own
accord, and by means of dharma, all creatures protected one another. But then they
wearied of this, and delusion entered them. Religion and dharma were destroyed, greed
and desire overcame people, and the gods became afraid, saying, "Now that dharma is
destroyed, we will become equal with the mortals, for their dwelling will rise and ours will
fall when they cease to perform the rituals. " ( Then, for the benefit of the gods, Brahma
established government and Visnu created kings- Vena and Prthu. )6'
As in the usual Vedic view, the gods wish men to be virtuous so that they will
continue to offer sacrifice to the gods; but a hint of the later, opposing, Puranic
view appears in the statement that the gods fear not only their own decline but
the rise of men, a situation which in later mythology leads the gods to bring
about the moral corruption of mankind rather than to reestablish dharma among
mortals on earth.64 Sheer boredom seems to suffice to sow the seed from which
corruption must develop, for it is dharma that bores them, dharma of which they
"wearied." Stemming from these same assumptions, several lawbooks use the
premise of the destruction of man's original dharma to justify coercive authority,
the chastising rod of the king."
The Purinas relate the story of man corrupted by nothing but time (kala) :
In the beginning, people lived in perfect happiness, without class distinctions or property;
all their needs were supplied by magic wishing-trees. Then because of the great power of
time and the changes it wrought upon them, they were overcome by passion and greed. It
wasfrom the influence oftime, and no other cause, that theirperfection vanished. Because
of their greed, the wishing-trees disappeared; the people sufferedfrom heat and cold, built
houses, and wore clothes.'*
Unlike the myths justifying the establishment of kingship, this text seems to
imply that civilization -property and clothing-is a source of further greed and
sin, not a cure for them. This much the Hindu philosopher shares with Rousseau,
but his basic attitude lies closer to Hobbes: with the passage of time, man's
inherent evil must come to the fore. The Hindu myth views the necessity of
clothing as a sign of the loss of simple physical innocence: people are no longer
immune to the weather. Greed, however, is regarded as a sin, and it is this sin that
destroys the magic fruit of paradise.
" MBh. 12.59.13-30; and see below, chap. XI, sec. 1.
" See below, chap IX, sec. 1. and chap IV, sec. 8.

" Narada Smrri 1.1-2.

66 I'j,, i 8 "_88

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

25

The belief that time is morally destructive is the basis of the myth of the four

Ages:
In the Golden Age, dbarma was complete. There was no sorrow or delusion or old age or
misery, no injury or quarrels or hate orfamine. Men lived a long life. . . . In the Dvapara
[ the third] Age, dharma was only halfleft, and injury, hatred, falsehood, delusion, evil,
disease, old age, and greed arose. Castes became mixed.6'
A Buddhist text offers what may well be a satire on this facile view of the
corruption of man:
Atfirst, all sages were virtuous ascetics, but then came a reversal, and they began to covet
one another's wealth, wives, and horses, and to slaughter cows. Indra, the gods, demons,
and Raksasas cried out against this adharma; and thus the three original diseases (desire,
hunger, and old age) developed into ninety-eight.6"
Though the gods' disapproval of the adharma on earth links this myth with the
Vedic concept of the need for sacrifice and virtue, the manner in which the myth
offers the expansion of three evils into ninety-eight as an "explanation" of the loss
of virtue may be a travesty of Brihmanical number mysticism. The text does not
indicate whether the plague of evils arises directly from the loss of the sages'
virtue or from the subsequent indignation of thegods-and, significantly, of the
demons-but the perversion occurs in the first place simply in the course of time.
The power of time reasserts itself in spite of the moral efforts of the corrupted
mortals:
When the Treta [the second] Age began to wane, after a long time, and because of the
change in creatures, greed andpassion arose; and because ofthis change in them, causedby
time, all the wishing-trees were destroyed. People thought about this, and as they
meditated truly, the trees reappeared. . . . But in course of time greed again returned to
them, and they tore up the trees. Then the dual sensations arose, and they were oppressed by
cold rain and hot sun, thirst and hunger. Again theirperfections appeared, and rain fell,
and again the trees appeared. But again passion and greed arose in them, because of the
inevitablefate ordainedfor the Treta Age.69
At first the trees vanish of their own accord when men become greedy; then the
greedy men themselves tear up the trees. But the original impulse is caused by
time, an impulse that reasserts itself over and over again despite the strenuous
moral efforts of men.
This degenerative process seems to imply a belief in original sin, or at least in
an original tendency to sin. The Brahmanas do not assert the inheritance of
original sin, for one early text states, "As little guilt as there is in a child just born,
" Brhaddharma 3.12.1-24.
" Lmga 1.39.23-56.

68 Sutta Nipata, Brahmana-dhammika Sutta, pp. 51-55.

26

THE ORIGINS OF EV". IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

so little guilt is there in him who performs the Varunapraghasa sacrifice,"''0
implying that a newborn child is more or less guilt free; but this view was
certainly not shared by later Hindus; Manu states that the elaborate birth
ceremony is necessary to remove the impurity which the newborn child inherits
from the womb and the seed."' In the Hindu view, human beings caught up in
the process of time are inherently, naturally inclined to fall prey to evil. The pure
creatures of the original Golden Ageaje not a part of time at all; for them, karma
doesn't exist; they are beyond good and evil. Their "fall" consists of passing from
eternity into time; once caught up in the flow of time, they are no longer immune
to evil. The creatures of the Golden Age, though they may dwell upon earth, are
not the first members of the human race; almost by definition, as soon as they
become "human" the Golden Age must immediately disappear. The Hindu
concept of the Golden Age thus lacks any vision of pristine human innocence or
the corresponding belief in a separate agency of evil. To the Hindu, the original
state of perfection is doomed to quick extinction from within, and there is no
need for a serpent or a devil to initiate the process.
Max Weber interpreted this Hindu relativity of paradise and sin in sociological
terms:
The conception of an "original sin" was quite impossible in this world order, for no
"absolute sin" could exist. There could only be a ritual offense against the particular
dharma of the caste. In this world of eternal rank orders there was no place for a blissful
original state of man and no blissful final kingdom. Thus there was no "natural" order of
men and things in contrast to positive social order."2
Though it is true that ritual offenses usually occupy in Hindu myth the place
Weber allots to "sin," there is a contrast throughout the mythology between the
positive social order and the "natural" social order which becomes so quickly
corrupt. Moreover, although the individual could offend against his caste law,
the caste as a whole could violate a more universal law-the law of dharma-as is
evident from the myths of Brahmins who "fall" to become Untouchables ot
demons.
The fleeting and insubstantial nature of the original paradise, and the pessi
mistic view of the nature of man, characterize the Hindu myths. In these myths,
men-and even demons-are originally good, but evil passions inevitably appear
soon after creation, and this is the natural (albeit not original) state of man. The
inability to explain the loss of the Golden Age prevails even in tribal mythology.
The Todas believe that once, long ago, gods and men inhabited the hills together.
"The Todas can now give no definite account of their beliefs about the transition
from this state of things to that which now exists.""'
'" Mait. Sam. 1.10.10 and Kath. Sam. 36.5; cf. Heesterman (1971), p. 13.
' Manu 2.27. Cf. also Tanaya 18.1.24, Sata. 2.5.2.22, 4.4.5.23, Kau. Br. 5.3.
Weber ( 1958), p. 144.

'' Rivets, p. 183.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

27

6. Women and the Origin of Evil
The connection between procreation and evil, the implication that sexual
creation is the epitome of sin, recurs constantly in the Hindu mythology of evil;
women are not only the abstract cause of a number of evils and sins in the world,
they are also used as the specific instrument of the gods to corrupt individual
sages and demons. This is the natural consequence of the general misogyny of the
Indian ascetic tradition and the Upanisadic doctrine of the chain of rebirth:
reproduction traps men in the painful cycle of existence. Orthodox Hinduism,
too, was prone to misogyny in its caste laws restricting the freedom of women.
As this tendency' developed, abstract goddesses were cited with increasing
frequency as the cause of evil on earth. Death, originally a male god, began to
appear as a goddess; the stallion, the symbol of Aryan supremacy in the Vedic
period, was now replaced by the dangerous mare, in whom the doomsday fire
lurked, ready to destroy the universe.'4 In the Epic myths of the origin of evil, the
goddesses of disease and destruction initiate the downfall of mankind; the vague
"natural tendencies" of corruption are replaced by anthropomorphic (pethaps
one should say gynecomorphic) goddesses of doom.
According to the Mahabharata, men originally lived without fear of death and
did not know of sexual intercourse; in the Treta Age people were born by
imagination, but in the Dvapara there arose copulation, and in the Kali Age,
pairing; then there was death."' The distinction between copulation and pairing
is obscure, but the latter may refer to twins, the brother and sister who are the
(incestuous and therefore immoral) primeval couple in Vedic mythology (Yama
and Yam!) and who appear in Jain and Hindu creation myths:
When Brahma first performed creation, he meditated upon truth, andfrom his mouth he
createdpairs (ofhuman beings) who were made oftruth; from his breast he createdpairs
made ofpassion; from his thighs those made ofpassion and ignorance;from his feet, those
made ofignorance. All ofthese pairs loved one another and began to mate. But although
they had intercourse, women did not menstruate andso they did not bear offspring. At the
end oftheir life-span they broughtforth a pair (ofchildren to reproduce themselves). They
were free of strife and hatred and jealousy. They lived without houses, and they were
without desire, remaining happy and righteous. All were equal and remainedyoung for
four thousandyears, without any affliction. As time went by, people began to be destroyed,
andgradually theirperfections vanished. When they were all destroyed, liquids fellfrom
the sky, andfrom this liquid wishing-trees arose, which formed houses andfood. Then, in
time, without any cause, lustfulpassion arose, and because of their passion women began
to menstruate, and they conceived again and again. Then, after an interval oftime, greed
came over them, and they fenced in the trees, and because ofthis misdeed the trees perished.
People became hungry. They built cities.™
'O'Flaherry (1971a), passim.

'AfflA.12.200.M-40.

'6 Mark. 46.1-35; Kirma 1.28.15-40.

28

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

Although degenerative forces of time reappear constantly in this myth, which
even states that lustful passion arose "without any cause," the motif of sexual
passion is also clearly essential. In keeping with Hindu beliefs that fertility and
eroticism are not necessarily connected and that it is necessary to control sexual
passion even while procreating,'' mankind encounters its greatest difficulties
not when sexual reproduction appears, but only when passion appears. It is clear,
however, that reproduction also entails an element of evil, for the first troubles
begin, not when people merely reproduce, but when they begin to increase- that
is, to produce more than a pair of children. This increase is symbolized by the
menstrual flow, which reappears throughout Hindu mythology in association
with sin and pollution. Before menstruation, intercourse did not cause the trees
to disappear-because, in this myth, there are no trees, nor any need for them,
before the original fall takes place.
The significance of the increase in population is linked with Indian ideas of
food and death and their connection with sexual reproduction. As in the
Mahabharata, death arises only when sexual increase appears; dearly, this is a
result of the Hindu fear of overpopulation, which is manifest at a surprisingly
early period, at a time when, because of high infant mortality, it may not have
been a realistic worry on a major scale. Transition from rural to urban life at this
time may have produced pockets of actual overpopulation and contributed to a
more general mentality of overcrowding and a resurgence of the Vedic lust for
Lebensraum. Bluntly expressed, the logic implicit in the Indian fear of overpopu
lation's simply that if too many people are born, some must die; if death is feared,
birth must be feared. The connection with food is equally obvious: not only are
hunger and desire two basic appetities, but they are closely associated in Indian
mythology, and they are interconnected through the theme of overpopulation:
when too many people are produced, food becomes scarce-the trees vanish. This
may be the significance of the strange liquid that falls from the sky when the
perfection of mankind is destroyed. The liquid that is associated with man's
ensnarqment in the cycle of rebirth may be traced back to the Upanisads: men,
upon cremation, are transformed eventually into clouds; they rain down, grow as
plants, are eaten and emitted as semen." One translator of this myth either
misunderstands this verse or has a different text, for he seems to associate it with
the myth of the Fall from heaven: "Men [in place of "liquids"] fell down from
the sky.""9 The translator, or his text, may have been influenced by the Buddhist
myth in which beings from the brahma-world fall to earth when their merit is
exhausted,8" beings further reminiscent of the pure creatures of the Mahabharata
"" O'Flaherty (1973), pp. 255-292. I am indebted to Professor Anne Draffkorn Kilmer for her
insighrs inro problems of ancient .myths of overpopulation.
"• Pargiter (1904), 49.27 (p. 239).

"8 Ch. Up. 5.10.6.

"" Visuddbimagga 13.44; see below, chap. VIII, sec. 7.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

20

myth, for they are self-luminous until they begin to eat (i.e., to have bodies) and
to crave, whereupon their light leaves them. The magic liquid becomes necessary
when people cease to live on their virtue alone; if man is prey to passion, he must
have food.
The literal fall of men from heaven (as well as the fall of liquids) recurs in
William Buck's interpretation of the Mahabharata myth of the Fall:
At the beginning of Time men lived in the clear air and moved at will without any effort.
Then the Earth was honey, sweet and delicious, and, tew by few, men dipped down from
the sky to taste her. Then they took more than a taste, though they needed no food to live,
and as they ate they became too heavy to fly and their wings dropped off from them, while
Earth grew crusted and dry and made her seeds, and the rains began to fall.8'
The fall of rain is simultaneous with the fall of man-it is the beginning of
dangerous fertility, the jungle-like growth of plants and creatures heralding the
end of Eden. In another text, the Golden Age is characterized by the absence of
lust, rain, and time: "No one desired another man's wife; everyone was born and
died in equal proportions; the clouds did not rain, and there was no development
of time."82 Yet even this age cannot last forever.

7. Hunger and Sin
The symbol of paradise is the self-creating source of food, the magic tree. In India,
the magic trees are meant to be eaten. When the trees disappear, sin appears, for
hunger is born. This is merely another way of saying that evil is natural to human
being; the original pure creatures had no lust or hunger-but they were not
human beings. Once we appear upon the scene, hungry and lustful, the Golden
Age is doomed. This assumption is challenged in other myths of this corpus:
men remain virtuous until the source of food begins to diminish, and only then
do they become evil. This is pethaps the closest that the ancient Indians ever came
to the concept of a virtuous natural state of man, who violates the moral law only
when threatened by an external force.
Yet the very nature of that external force was given moral overtones in some
texts. This is evident from a medieval Jain myth that begins, like the Buddhist
and early Hindu creation stories, with the postulation of limitless food coming
from the wishing-trees:
But with thepassing oftime in thatplace, thepower ofthe wishing-trees became weak, like
that of ascetics who have violated their vows. As if by some evil fate, the trees had been
changed, replaced by others. As the consequence of such a time, passions such as anger
appeared in people, who informed their king ofthe sins that had arisen. He ordainedfood
for them to eat, and a fire arose from the branches of trees rubbing together, andpeople
"' Buck, p. 318.

8' Skanda Purana, Sahyidri Khanifa 2.45-51.

30

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

began to cook theirfood. When they werefrightened ofthefi re and asked the king what it
was, he replied, "This fire arises because of the fault of a time that is both harsh and
smooth. It does not exist in a period that is altogether harsh nor in one that is altogether
smooth. " Then he began to institute social order and laws of conduct and punishment. "
As is usual in such myths, time is made to bear the major portion of the guilt, and
the workings of an evil fate (durdaiva) are also suggested, for time and fate are
closely linked. But nature herself seems to have moral qualities, which inevitably
decline. The trees waste away, not because of the sins of mankind but because of
the loss of power of the trees themselves, a power that is likened to a loss of
chastity-the sin usually associated with the people who lose the trees. When
moral law further decays, the king provides food, first raw and then cooked;
civilization enters at this point, and the king's explanation of the birth of fire is
significant: fire is symptomatic of the ambiguous time-a mixture of good and
bad-that characterizes the Hindu universe84 (though the Jain text states that we
now live in a completely harsh era, the fifth of six). This text thus makes explicit
what is implicit in all the myths of this cycle: that man and nature inevitably
interact in such a way as to corrupt one another; that man's sin causes food to
decrease, and hunger causes man to violate the moral law. Once more we are
caught in a circle of evil.
The connection between hunger and evil is an ancient one. In Vedic texts,
hunger and drought do not merely causeevU (i.e., moral evil, sin) ; they themselves
are evil, and are listed in Vedic texts describing evil-natural evil. In the
Brahmanas, hunger is demonic; the demons create hunger as a weapon against
the gods, but it rebounds against them.'" Elsewhere, hunger is a demonic part of
human beings; the demonic half of the serpent Vrtra becomes the stomachs
of men.86 The Rg Veda says: "The gods did not give us hunger as an instrument
of slaughter; for various deaths overcome one who has eaten."8" But creators'
intentions often miscarry, and by the time of the Brahmanas a more realistic and
cynical attitude toward hunger and thirst prevailed: "Whenever there is drought,
then the stronger seizes upon the weaker, for the waters are dharma."88 When
Brahma began to create in his passionate form, he produced hunger whence was
born anger and the starving Raksasas; and when Siva created the Rudras they
threatened to eat him.89 In many creation myths of this type, the first evil
creatures that the creator produces are hungry, and they trouble the universe unril
they are assigned suitable food. Thus it is said that Prajapati feared that Agni
would eat him, since there was no other food, and he satisfied Agni by offering
" Trqatfisaldkapurusacantra I (Adlsvaracaritra) 2.148-163; 2.893-894; 2.941-944.
M Levi-Strauss (1970), pp. 136-195; and see below, chap. IlI, sec. 1.
" Tait. Br. 1.6.7.2.
■ Sata. 1.6.3; see below, chap. V, sec. 4, and chap. VI, sec. 4.
cf Brhadaranyaka Up. 1.2.

"8 Sata. 11.1.6.24.

6' RV 10.117.1;

« Vijttu 1.5.41-43; Brhaddharma 3.12.26-41.

TIME, FATE, AND THE FALL OF MAN

31

him a wife, Svaha (the oblation), the food of fire.90 It is significant that the
original threat posed by hunger is ultimately removed by the satisfaction of the
closely related sexual drive; Svaha is both Agni's food and his wife.
This link endures in a much later Puranic myth:
The demon Ruru attacked the gods, who sought refuge with the Goddess. She created
goddesses who killed Ruru and his army, but then they asked for food. The Goddess
summoned Rudra Pasupati, who offered them thefood that pregnant women have defiled,
and newborn children . and women who cry all the time. They refused this disgustingfood,
and at last Rudra said, "I will give you the two balls resembling fruits below my navel.
Eat those testicles and be satisfied. " The goddesses were delighted andpraised him."
Both forms of the food offered to the goddesses are sexual in nature; the first is
closely associated with the pollution of procreation and with procreative women
in particular and emotional women in general; the second is more crudely sex
ual. Another, earlier version of this same myth omits the second food, for the
goddesses immediately accept the original offer of food defiled by pregnant wom
en and others;'2 this part of the myth also follows the pattern of those stories
in which an evil force is distributed among sinful mortals'"
A tribal myth preserves the basic link between the dangers of hunger and
sexual desire: "[A man saw a beautiful maiden] and he wanted to devour her, for
he had no penis and he could only find pleasure in swallowing. [Mahadeo came
there and made sexual organs for the man and the woman.] The world was
saved. "•" As is often the case, the tribal myth recognizes the same basic problems
that are treated in the Hindu texts but is content to settle for a solution of the
immediate quandary without considering the implications of the enduring
philosophical conflict.
In human terms, hunger is the epitome of apad-dharma, the extremity in
which normal social conventions cease to function:
Once there was a twelve-year drought, when Indra sent no rain. All dharma was
destroyedandpeople ate one another. The great sage Visvamitra came to a place inhabiied
by outcastes who ate dogs; seeing a dead dog, he tried to steal it, reasoning that theft was
permissible in time ofextremity. An outcaste tried to stop him from committing the sin of
eating a dog, but in vain. Visvamitra ate the rump ofthe dog and burned away his sin by
performing asceticism, and eventually Indra sent rain.n
The initial premise of a twelve-year drought is a frequent motif in later myths of
heresy, as is the complete reversal of moral roles-the sage being instructed by the
outcaste.
" Sata. 9.1.1.1; 2.2.4.1. " Padma 5.2691-125; cf. Lmga 1.106.1-27; Matsya 252.5-19; 179.7-187.
''2 Piutiiw 96.1-144.
"Seebelow, chap. Vl.secs. 3and6.
M Elwin (1949), p. 261.
- MBh. 12.139.13-92; see below, chap. X, sec. 4.

32

THE ORIGINS OF EVIL IN HINDU MYTHOLOGY

In fact, the satisfaction of hunger, rather than hunger itself, is often considered
the cause of the evil: "When the starving creatures devoured one another,
Adharma was born. His wife was Nirrti [destruction], who had three terrible, evil
sons: Fear, Terror, and Death.""' Improper eating (the basic caste tabu) is the
source of sin. A Pancaratra myth dating from the fifth century a.d.9" seems to
connect the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil with the Fall
from Eden,98 but there is a significant difference: "Here the ground idea seems to
be not that any devil has spoilt the world but that ignorance is necessary for the
world process, for otherwise mankind would be one with God and there would
be no world."99 The myth itself is brief and obscure:
Knowledge became a cow, with a portion ofherself, that is, she became a cloud. Then the
milk called "the year" flowedfrom her and became food. But all the Manus, who had
been omniscient, ate that milk ofknowledge and lost their knowledge. Thereupon the Text
was promulgated by the Manus.'00
The Text is the Pancaratra canon of the author of this myth. An immediate
reversal of the Judeo-Christian theme is apparent: the first beings lose their
omniscience by eating of the fruit of knowledge. This apparent paradox results
from the Indian emphasis on ignorance (darkness, delusion), loss of knowledge,
in place of sin-loss of virtue resulting from acquisition of knowledge. This
"knowledge" in the present myth, however, may be orthodox scriptural knowl
edge as contrasted with the intuitive knowledge that is supposedly contained in
the Text. The myth has been interpreted as signifying that "souls have naturally
unlimited knowledge," which "for some reason becomes limited and obscure, so
that religion is necessary to show the soul the right way.""" But these absolute
statements must be qualified. Souls once had unlimited knowledge for a brief
time, but the casual manner in which this knowledge was destroyed indicates the
necessity of religious law (just as it justifies regnal law) -particularly of theText
which is appropriate to the lowly condition of fallen man.

8. The Chain of Evil and the Evil of Civilization
In some of these myths, the corrupting influence- sexual passion or hungersimply arises in the course of time; other myths, however, sought an explanation
for this inevitable corruption and found it in the doctrine that "former sins"
caused the loss of the Golden Age, the doctrine of karma: evil is a chain that has
no beginning or end.
An interesting Buddhist example of this chain of reasoning may be considered
here, but it must be taken with a grain of salt. The Buddhist doc