03 February 2012


I WAS SITTING AROUND earlier today thinking about evil, as you do, and it occurred to me that I had never looked up pāpa in the dictionary. When I did I found quite an interesting story. Pāpa is the same in Pāli and Sanskrit and is almost always translated as 'evil'. Interestingly pāpa and evil were once closer in meaning than they are now. However let us start from the beginning with some etymology.

The Proto-Indo-European root of pāpa is: pē(i)-, - or - 'to hurt, scold, shame'. Words from this root come into English via two routes: via Germanic *fijand- 'hating, hostile' (with the regular change from /p/ to /f/ known as Grimm's Law), and Old English fēond 'enemy', we get English fiend; via the Latin patī 'to suffer, to endure' come words like passion, passive, and patient. (AHD). A Greek form is pēma 'misery, calamity' though I don't think we have any English cognates of this.

Looking more closely at the Latin derivatives, passion is a suffering that one is forced to endure passively. This is why it is applied to the martyrdom of saints (though martyr itself means 'witness'). Their horrible fates over took them against their will, and they simply had to endure them. A 'patient' is someone who endures suffering, and 'patiently' (the adjective) suggests 'waiting, forbearance and passivity'. A doctor's 'patient' is (or was) also the passive recipient of medical treatment. The meaning of passion as 'strong emotion' came into English via Old French in about the 14th century. Passion as 'sexual desire' is attested from the 1580s, and 'enthusiasm' from the 1630s. The word seems to have lost it's passive sense, but not entirely. Passion now is something active, and often positive, but is not something we have direct control over. We are all encouraged to be passionate about life, our work, art, or sport, etc. But on the other hand we don't really seem to chose what we are passionate about. Since the Romantic period suppressing our passion has been seen as a bad thing.

The word evil is probably from PIE *wep- (AHD) or *wap- (OEtD), and therefore unrelated to pāpa, but some of the main etymological dictionaries do not include this root. "Evil was the word the Anglo-Saxons used where we would use words like "bad, cruel, unskilful, defective (adj.)"; or "harm, crime, misfortune, disease." (OEtD). This is not so far from the original sense of pāpa. It is not until the 18th century that evil takes on a more abstractly moral tone, and a more active wickedness.

The Sanskrit and Pāli word pāpa is defined by the dictionary as 'bad, wicked, vicious, evil' (MW). The word 'sinful' is often included in dictionary definitions but I don't think this is helpful. The underlying concept is an action which is 'hurtful, blame-worthy and something to be ashamed of.' As such, as I've suggested with respect to Buddhist morality it refers to how we relate to other people. Sin is a theological concept, which is mainly about how we relate to an overseer god.

What's interesting is that there doesn't seem to be an abstract concept of evil in Sanskrit or Pāli. One could not even ask the question: "what is evil"? One has to ask, or at least imply, the question: "what kind of action is evil?" And the answer is that an evil action is one that causes harm to other people. This chimes with the view that I expressed in my essay Morality in Relationship. Good and evil are primarily modes of how we treat other people.

Buddhists, and most Indians, believe that we live in a world in which suffering is predominant, but which includes the possibility of escaping from that suffering through deliberate actions that affect our post-mortem fate. This world is one with the possibility of permanent escape from the recycling. Of the other worlds some are good, but some are pāpikā gatī 'harmful destinations'. Here again though frequently translated as "evil destination" (by Thanissaro for instance) what the phrase really means is 'a place of suffering', a place in which we will come to harm. The destination is not abstractly evil, but practically harmful. In the case of the so called 'hells' some rather Gothic descriptions of the torments that await one there have been enunciated, just in case hypothetical suffering is not motivating enough.

Incidentally hell is another possible import from Iran and Zoroaster. There are some vague references in Ṛgveda to something like hell, but a fully fledged hell as a rebirth destination for evil-doers only emerges in India in Buddhist literature. Meanwhile Zoroastrianism had a well developed idea of hell as a post-mortem destination, apparently based on the Egyptian ideas of being judged in relation to the law. These ideas are found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The Lord of Saṃsāra is sometimes referred to as Māra i.e. Murderer. Death is considered to be a great suffering by most cultures, and most people delay it if they can. Māra is 'the one who kills'. His name derives from the causative form of the verb 'to die' (√mṛ) so literally means 'causing to die'. I've already written about how death affects us (The Abyss of Death), and how the the consolations for death are often in the form of afterlife beliefs. In saṃsāra according to Indian tradition, we die again and again (punar mṛtyu), and Māra presides over our repeated death. This emphasis on death is present in the Bṛhdāranyaka Upaniṣad (e.g. BU 1.2.7), but interestingly the Buddhists decided to conceptualise the idea as repeated birth. It is harder to see as birth as undesirable: after all, we all want more life, more chances, more time; whereas no one wants to die even once. I suspect that in the West we would be better off referring to re-death to avoid the possibility of a positive spin.

Māra is sometimes referred to English as 'Māra the evil one' which translates Pāli māro pāpimā; where pāpimā is the nominative of pāpa-mant, literally 'possessing pāpa'. Despite the standard translations it might be more accurate to render pāpimant as 'hurtful' (c.f. MW s.v. pāpman). Inevitably people compare Māra with the Christian Satan, but the mythological functions are quite different.

Māra's main intervention is to cause people to doubt the possibility of escape. He wants people to believe they can make the best of saṃsāra, and attempts to keep beings in his realm where they continue to suffer. I suppose wherever there is a story about the afterlife, and precisely because it is a story rather than a demonstrable fact, those who hear the story will come to have doubts. It is quite an interesting facet of this branch of theology that doubt is an aspect of evil personified. For some reason doubt itself is seen as harmful. One can imagine a benign aspect to this, but it does seem to play out in unfortunate ways. I've seen some quietly manipulative attempts to make people believe that rebirth is the truth and that being a Buddhist depends on not having any doubt on this matter. Religieux often do seem to feel threatened when one doubts their belief system - though responses from Buddhists are often more passive than theistic religions.

Evil in Buddhism, then, is not an abstract concept - there is no equivalent to the notion of 'pure evil'. Evil is synonymous with doing harm or being harmed. We're all capable of inflicting harm, even if it is unintended. The goal is to be someone who minimises the harm we cause.

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