Thought Bite: Contemplation on Responding to Evil

Today's Thought Bite is a contemplation on the nature of ourselves and of what we call evil.

Here's the question which was asked by a student in a Yoga Sutra study group I am leading: What do we do in circumstances when a person is truly "evil"? I am talking about the extent of someone having pleasure in killing, raping little kids and doing other vile acts.

To help find an answer, you are invited to go through the following process:
Let's take the issue in steps. Please contemplate and answer each of the following questions before going on to the next one.

  • First: Are sharks and tigers evil for the killing they do? If so, why? If not, why?
  • What about cats torturing mice before killing them. Evil?
  • What about white blood cells killing germs that entered the body, evil? If so, why? If not, why?
  • What about soldiers killing in the line of their duty? If so, why? If not, why?
  • What about soldiers killing outside of the line of their duty? If so, why? If not, why?
  • What distinguishes an "evil" act from one that isn't evil in humans?
  • Now, does doing an evil act make a person evil? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • What about a person who does many good actions and also some evil ones. Is s/he evil? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • What about a person who kills to protect his people. To those he kills and their families, is he evil? What about to his own people?

So, how do you distinguish between an "evil" and "good" person? Where is the line?

Now let's change gears.

In yoga philosophy there are two eternal principles: Puruṣa and Prakṛti. Puruṣa is being and consciousness, and Prakṛti is material and although unconscious it has the semblance of consciousness because of its association with Puruṣa.

So, in the evil people the question mentioned, is their Puruṣa evil? According to the Tradition, the Puruṣa is ever pure, ever free, untainted. So how can it be evil?

So that leaves Prakṛti.

Prakṛti is composed of several "devolutes", buddhi (the highest "intellectual" faculty that makes discriminations, distinctions, and choices), manas (the lower mind that is connected to the senses), ahamkāra (the "I maker", or ego), and citta (the energy field/stuff of the mind that contains memories). So which part of this package is evil? Where is the evil?

So are you talking about a person being evil or doing evil actions?

What could cause a person to do evil actions?

Can a person who does evil actions change? If s/he changes and does loving, healing actions, is s/he still evil? Was s/he evil in the first place?
Please deeply consider all of these questions and please let me know (in comments) what you discover and conclude.

Now, as to what to do when someone exhibits behaviors you consider evil, what does Yoga Sutras 1:33 say? It says "The purification, clarity, joyfulness of the mind is gained by cultivating love for the happy, compassion for the suffering, joy for the good, and maintaining equanimity toward the evil" (paraphrasing translation by Swami Veda Bharati). I suspect that you are thinking that remaining neutral in the face of greatly harmful actions is wrong, and you are correct. The sutra isn't saying to do nothing. Doing nothing may violate the yoga ideal of ahimsa, non-harming. Sutra 1:33 only addresses the emotions, saying to remain emotionally calm and neutral rather than becoming full of rage and hatred. An emotionally calm person can take action to prevent harm much better than a person can who is full of emotion. You don't have to hate a black widow spider to keep away from it or move it out of your house.


19 Dec 2021;
07:00PM - 08:00PM
Full Moon Meditation 2020