Your recent article in Philosophy East and West¹ discusses the age-old problem of evil in theology. What attracted you to this particular question?

I’ve been interested in questions related to human suffering since my undergraduate years. As I began to think of a topic to pursue for my doctorate, the topic of suffering was a natural choice. Initially, I was interested in the idea that God causes instances of suffering for God’s devotees in order to bring them closer to God—this is an idea found throughout the Bhagavata Purana. This naturally led me to focus on the problem of evil and how it has been formulated and advanced in contemporary philosophy.  

Which version of the problem are you responding to?

I primarily respond to the evidential problem of evil.  

In the Middle Ages, Catholic theologians, among others in different traditions before and after them, developed theodicies to reconcile the existence of suffering with God’s existence. How much has the debate in the modern literature moved on from these classical formulations?  

To a certain extent, many of the ideas of these theologians are still found in the modern literature. Eleonore Stump wrote a relatively recent book defending Thomas Aquinas’ views on the problem of evil for example.² Free will continues to play an important role in most current theodicies, and has done for centuries. What’s different about the modern literature is how it incorporates many of the tools of analytic philosophy, but you can still see the many intellectual inheritances from earlier times.  

One old argument is that God gave people free will, such that evil, especially man-made evil like wars and economic inequalities, are not divinely ordained but are perhaps permitted because we were made free. How does the free will view in the contemporary literature differ from this?

You can still find this view in the literature, but generally there is more of an attempt to identify additional goods that result from evils. One common line of thinking is to say that evils and suffering lead to soul-making and help individuals develop a better moral character. Other responses might say that suffering helps individuals grow closer to God by deepening their devotion to God.  

Your article explores Hindu responses to the problem of evil with a focus on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. What should readers know about this text to better understand your argument?

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa is one of the most important Hindu sacred texts, and it largely focuses on the deity Krishna, who can plausibly be conceived of as an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God.  

Also all-powerful, Krishna is the complete sovereign of the world. Is he a God comparable to the God of the Abrahamic religions?

With respect to these divine attributes, I would say yes. There are differences in other areas. For example, Krishna has a divine, spiritual body, whereas God is not considered to be embodied in the Abrahamic traditions.  

What are some of the reasons that such a God would produce suffering in his followers?

One reason is to deepen the devotion of God’s devotees. In times of crisis, individuals often pray to God more fervently and sincerely, and on the whole this intensification of devotion is a valuable good in the context of the Bhagavata Purana, as the ultimate aim in this text is for individuals to develop a loving relationship with God, which requires a certain purity to an individual’s devotion.  

Another reason for suffering is that it can teach individuals certain moral lessons that shape their character. For instance, by experiencing pain, you can develop a greater sensitivity to others by reference to your own pain.  

An additional reason for suffering is that it can enable one to develop a dispassionate outlook toward the world. This is important within a Hindu context, because attaining liberation from the world and love for God requires that one devote oneself wholeheartedly to God—and worldly attachments can sometimes impede the development of this devotion.  

You mention a story in the Mahābhārata that is about forgiving even an act of horrific suffering. Does this mean that even such suffering can be reformative and develop us morally?

Yes, even intense moments of suffering can be reformative—even if not immediately. In a Hindu context, experiences of suffering leave “impressions” that persist in an individual’s “subtle body”—a mental body that individuals remain associated with as they reincarnate across various physical bodies. An experience of suffering can leave a strong impression, which can mould an individual’s psychology in a beneficial way, even if the effects of this are not immediate. For instance, a painful car crash may give a strong impression of pain. Initially, there may be some trauma, but once this has been processed, an individual may be, for example, more sensitive to the pain of others and more aware of the harsh realities of the world—which is a realisation that can propel them on a path toward God. This formation of moral character can also persist as an individual reincarnates.  

We are not always best qualified to measure the real significance of events that may seem evil to us, and which from a God’s-eye view may look quite different. What do you think are this argument’s implications for ethics?

That is an interesting question. I think that as far as ethics goes, individuals should try to do their best according to what they deem moral (for Hindus, this will involve consulting Hindu scriptural texts on certain issues). While it is true that individuals don’t have a full God’s-eye picture of everything, it is also true that it is not an individual’s duty to try to fulfill God’s ultimate plan. All one can do is try one’s best and act in accordance with God’s will (which, for theists, involves acting ethically according to injunctions of scripture), and God can sort out the rest.  

What other texts in the Hindu tradition are or should be read as companions to contemporary debates in the philosophy of religion?

There’s not a whole lot of work out yet. There’s an exchange on karma in Philosophy East and West involving Whitley Kaufman, Monima Chadha, and Nick Trakakis.³ That’s worth checking out. There is an upcoming volume on Vaishnavism, to be published with Routledge and to be edited by Ricardo Silvestre and Alan Herbert. The International Journal for Hindu Studies had a recent issue on theodicy as well.⁴