A Yogic Perspective on Evil

by Darren Main • December 2001
I wrote this essay in response to the September 11th attacks when many of my students were trying to make sense of such unbridled brutality.

Since September 11 people in the United States and across the world have been searching for answers. While the questions are many, solid answers seem hard to come by. How could such awful things happen to innocent people? What would motivate someone to kill themselves and thousands of others in the name of God? What would inspire a person to develop anthrax and then mail it to other human beings?

There are no easy answers to these questions. The human mind is a very complex and unknown place. What motivates a person to act in such extreme ways is truly unknown. One word that is touted a lot, however, is the word “evil”. It is not just religious leaders and people of faith who use this word. News reporters, political commentators and politicians from the left and the right can barely speak a sentence without using the “E” word.

While calling a person or a group of people “evil” may be effective in providing a generic answer to our many questions, it has the unfortunate effect of rising many more. Not the least of which is, “What is evil?” and “Do we have any control over evil?” Of course, every religion in the world addresses these questions in its own way and different people may find these explanations helpful. Yoga is surprisingly quiet on the issue of evil.

In the Yoga sutra and the Bhagavad Gita, there is no real mention of evil. The concept doesn’t really exist in yoga, and for a very good reason. The very concept of evil takes responsibility for “bad” behavior and places it outside one’s own mind. Statements like, “The devil made me do it.” Don’t hold much weight in yoga. Because the body (action) is always under the command of the mind (will).

Yoga asks each of us to take complete and full responsibility for our actions rather than projecting that responsibility outward. To talk of evil is to say that there is some dark force larking around every corner waiting for a soul to be deceived by its cunning and lies. From a yogic point of view, that darkness can only exist within the mind, and the solution to dealing with that darkness is to allow that mind to be illumined by Spirit.

In the case of September 11th, it is easy to call Osoma Bin Ladin evil, dust off our hands and be done with it. But that doesn’t solve the problem. We are left with our emptiness, grief and anger. Osama Bin Ladin (or someone like him) will continue to create problems and the cycle of violence will continue. Calling him evil may provide a temporary sense of satisfaction, but in the long run it only allows for additional violence.

According to yogic philosophy, all minds are connected. It is in this principle that we find both the problem and the solution. It is the problem because if we are not vigilant, someone like Osoma Bin Ladin, whose mind is obviously very distorted, can invite other minds to join him. This is obvious in the case of the terrorists who carried out the attack on 9/11. But it is also true of each of us if we allow our own minds to become angry, bitter and cynical.

The good news about having our minds connected is that we have the ability to invite healing in the minds of others simply by healing our own minds. In other words, if we choose peace over violence an compassion over cynicism the darkness that lives in the corners of so many minds can not exist. In maintaining our own center we invite others to find theirs as well.

As long as we view evil as something outside of the human heart and mind, it will always exist as an elusive and mysterious force. But when we see “evil” in the world and turn to a spiritual practice such as yoga or meditation, our own minds find the light of Truth and other minds can gradually make that same decision.