Traditionalist response to the problem of evil and suffering
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Traditionalist response to the problem of evil and suffering

Traditional wisdom solves the problem of suffering by the partnership of what we may call “Tragedy” and “Comedy”

Post by on Saturday, July 2, 2022

First slide

Before we present the Traditionalist way of dealing with the problem of evil and suffering, we need to first understand the important background within which Traditional wisdom perceives the Reality and the existence of suffering. The very first point that we need to note is that the source/origin/essence/ground of Reality in Traditional wisdom is what is referred to as “God” (understood as Absolute here). Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s essay “God is Reality” in his book ‘The need for Sacred Science’ best explains this point. By the phrase ‘God is Reality’ is meant that “God” is what we refer to whenever we refer to whatever is the ultimately “Real” i.e. “al-Haqq”- in relation to which everything else enjoys only “relative” reality i.e. borrowed reality. Quran’s description of God as “as-samad” beautifully clarifies this subject i.e. by God we mean the ultimately independent self sustaining essential “substance” which is the source/ground of everything else. Now let us proceed.  


God as “Absolute” is “infinite” from which everything emanates and comes forth-the source/origin/essence of everything. In its infinitude, God contains all possibilities/potentialities. Among this infinite possibilities, there is a possibility of manifestation i.e. the possibility of self-disclosure & thus existence/world comes into being. It is in the nature of Absolute as infinite to manifest and thus we are here. Wisdom traditions, therefore, describe this existence/creation as the manifestation of the multiplicity of the Divine names/possibilities.


These Divine names presented in the Quran contain both what are called as “jalaali” names i.e. the names of majesty, power, distance/otherness from creation and as well as the “jamaali” names i.e. the names of gentle, merciful nature i.e. immanence/nearness/closeness to creation. The world in-front of us is dialectic of these Divine names. Life/reality/world in front of us is a dialectic of life and death, day and night, meeting and farewell, light and darkness, pain and pleasure- what Chinese wisdom refers to as “yin-yang”- i.e. world is run by the wheel of opposite traits, which in larger scheme are complementary to each other and together go to make one total wholesome reality. Without this dialectic i.e. motion/dynamism of opposites, the existence would cease to exist. God is muhiyy and as well as mumeet.


Having understood this, we come to another crucial point- i.e. it is only “Absolute”/infinite which is “complete” in itself (with all possibilities within it) and thus Absolute is the only harmonious equilibrium. The moment manifestation happens (i.e. distance from Absolute/God) and the moment different possibilities come to be; then the different things start reflecting different names of God, and thus none of the existing objects exhausts all possibilities of Absolute. An animal realizes certain possibilities, a tree some, & so on and so forth. The world, therefore, is a place of “disequilibrium”. It is this disequilibrium that gives rise to what humans call “evil” in their anthropocentric setting. This is because nothing on the dialectic plane/creation is complete/absolute/whole/harmonious/perfect/God.


One of the names of God, for example, is az-Zaar which means ‘the one who inflicts harm’; now if we visit jungles for example, we will get to witness how wild animals tear each other apart. Or in general, we may note that the whole movement of life or nature itself is actually sustained by death. One can for example watch few epic moments of David Attenborough from BBC on his outings in nature and the wild (available on YouTube) and see the beautiful awesome breathtaking display of some of the Divine names on creative plane through immense diversity of life and death in the wild. When one understands this ‘creative plane’ infront of us as the radiant display of Divine names, one is instantly transported to the perspective of wholesome Divine pervasiveness, one starts to see dialectic as a whole which solves all frustrating dualities and binaries. Now let us come to the problem of suffering.


Traditional wisdom solves the problem of suffering by the partnership of what we may call “Tragedy” and “Comedy”. In Tragedy, human beings come to know about the difficulties of life and world, one witnesses multiplicity and dialectic of opposites but then on the other hand more importantly it is complemented with the second part i.e. human being realizes the one true Spirit beneath all manifestation, which is realizing its diverse potentialities, and thus at once the human being transcends the whole wheel of terrifying multiplicity. It is only when human beings start perceiving themselves as ontologically or eternally disjointed from Reality that creates existential angst, alienation and horror within. When one dies, one does not fall into the pit of “alien realm” so to speak. We come, live within and go back to the same single essential reality and thus there is no reason for alienation ever.


Realizing the essence of one spirit behind all creative manifestation is like “waking up” from a dream (of apparent multiplicity in reality) or it amounts to a “successful interpretation” of a “nightmarish dream” which instantly leads to “cure”. Perception of this essential unity (at a fundamental level) helps human being gain a total holistic insight into the whole drama of life; human being (as a partner of spirit) participates in God’s disclosure and expression and thus attains liberating/enlightening transcendence.


The day-to-day detailed individual concrete suffering may never go away completely simply because we continue to live with a body and a psyche within space-time but the deep realization of the Spirit which is the innermost essence of everything that exists- which alone eternally abides- and manifests itself in diverse shapes and forms, helps human being gain a new transformative experience and a new perspective. Connecting with, or participating in this Spirit- which deep down is the one single innermost reality of all the apparent multiplicity- helps one transcend the individual fragmentary suffering situations (seen separately).


The objective of catharsis, for example, within Greek plays actually trace back to mystery play of Dionysus, where in the “participant”, in the ritual, identified himself not with the “individual dying body” but rather with the very “life” itself, i.e. the very principle of “continuous life”, i.e. God or eternal source. One’s own individual self, as a particular manifestation may not be “perfect” in any way but the very principle of life is. If one is able to identify with it, he/she lives eternally with it. Through it, one silently witnesses dance of creation. One recalls here Victor Frankl’s words from his brilliant book called Man’s Search for Meaning where he narrates a story of a woman in concentration camp, who knew she was going to die in a few days; she had made a “friendship” with a tree which was in view through her window, to “console” her.  She talked to the tree and it conversed back. When Victor asked as to what the tree said to her, she replied, “It said to me, ‘I am here- I am here- I am life, eternal life’”.


This recognition of the eternal principle of life shifts the person’s centre of attention from “individual” manifestations to the One universal life itself, which celebrates its disclosure on creative plane for sheer joy, and this participation/recognition/realization of the individual in this play opens up for him/her the access for ecstatic joy. The person still lives in the whirlpool of dialectic life but now has gained an essential transcendent perspective. It is like Nietzsche’s acceptance (yes to life) of the “eternal recurrence” (put in his own style). Quran tells us that the world is a play i.e. “la’ibun” (game) but then it also provides us with the continuous background understanding of “aakhirah”- i.e. what is “later or “behind” or “deeper” which gives us knowledge of the essential reality.


Human beings see life from a “sentimental” reference point (owing to a certain portion of their personality) but life or Reality as a whole rises above sentimentalism. Reality is “total” or “whole”, comprising all opposing elements and its source lies beyond this creation; its source is Beyond Being which is pure from all dialectic. The “Absolute” owing to the possibility of manifestation, manifests; it is independent and above all sentimentalism i.e. logically prior to all the dialectic and then later on when creation happens we are invited to make sense of it. Our sentiments do not override reality as it is i.e. zaat or suchness. Zaat does not have this or that purpose; it just is.  


If this whole discussion seems a little abstract to us then let us look at our own selves; when we look inward into our own selves, what do we find there? We ourselves are composed of light and dark, good and bad, yin and yang; and at the centre of our being there is oneness absorbing all contradictions.


A human being, who recognizes this truth of worldly dialectic/motion on the periphery of the circle and at the same time Divine silence/rest/eternity/permanence at the centre of the circle (i.e. the one principle of spirit at the essence of apparent multiplicity), then he knows the total Reality comprehensively. He continues to live in the world of dialectic but at the same time he remains connected to the Divine centre (metaphysical truth) and thus attains repose of being. “The devotee is expected to contemplate the [both aspects of Reality; Tragedy and comedy]. Through this exercise his spirit is purged of its infantile, inappropriate sentimentalities and resentments, his mind opened to the inscrutable presence which exists, not primarily as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with respect to his childlike human convenience, his weal and woe, but as the law and image of the nature of being” (Campbell).


Now, one last point which often confuses many people, that is the question of “purpose” of existence and of human life. Human being is created for “test”, says the Quran. This again gets clarified when we look at it on the same two planes of absolute/essence/origin and creation/dialectic. God creates not because he has to achieve some ends like human being- He creates because he is infinite gushing forth with possibilities. Some ancient traditions describe God’s activity as “play” because Absolute does not need to achieve anything or prove anything. He is complete and infinite- simply disclosing himself freely out of sheer organic expression. At this plane of absolute, there are no anthropocentric purposes, we don’t dictate terms to it but rather God’s own nature (of disclosure) is its purpose. Now, once the creation/dialectic is set in i.e. multiplicity comes into being i.e. dualism of good and bad comes into being (on earthly plane) it is only then the human purpose of “test” comes into being i.e. human beings (existing within this dialectic) are invited then to side with the gentle names of God (haadhi) and avoid the action of majesty (mudhil). This purpose is not the sole overriding “purpose” which should be used to confine or arrest activity of God/Absolute/Beyond-Being. He is limitless.



(Author is pursuing masters in philosophy from JNU, Delhi. Email:

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