Choosing Between Evils

Jaya and Vijaya were gatekeepers at Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu. They once stopped the preeminent sages Sanaka and brothers from entering the Lord’s chamber and, by their unuttered curse, were cast down into the mortal realms to be born as Asuras. When Lord Vishnu petitioned the kind souls to forgive his servants, the sages said that the two could return to the service of their Lord after 7 births as his devotees, or 3 births as his enemies. They choose the latter option and were born as notorious Asuras and sworn enemies of Lord Vishnu, to be slayed by the Lord’s various avataras in each life. At the end of the third life, they returned to Vaikuntha to serve the Lord eternally.

There is much imagery and food for thought in this story, several questions raised and many insights to be gained. It would be impossible for us to discuss all of those, but there is one idea that I want to consider in some detail. Jaya and Vijaya had to be born as Asuras – there was no escaping that evil. They could be born as devotees of the Lord or as his enemies. One would think that it is better to choose the lesser of the evils. However, they consciously chose the greater evil so that it will end the whole matter much sooner. This is a very close representation of some situations in life that involve choosing between evils, and the effects of that choice is not always obvious.

Consider a system of government that is hopelessly flawed, and there are only two options for a ruler – both corrupt and evil to differing degrees. Is it better to choose the lesser evil? In this case, if it is the system that is at fault, then installing the lesser evil in power is not going to make things better. What is required is for the system to be broken down and revamped. That process can be accelerated by installing the greater evil on the throne, which will hasten the demise of the system.

Those in power will want to bend the system to serve their purpose, at the same time being careful enough not break it. Resisting it with a force that is insufficient to straighten things up will only prolong the situation. On the other hand, a small force in the same direction will probably suffice to break the system and free everyone. The system is their goose that lays golden eggs. We only have to encourage them to kill it.

Choosing between evils - Narada encourages Kamsa to do greater evil so that his reign will come to an end sooner
Pleased at how Vasudeva kept his word by offering his newborn son to Kamsa, the latter had agreed to kill only the eighth son (who according to prophesy would kill Kamsa) and let the others live. However, the celestial sage Narada confused Kamsa by noting that cardinality depends on where you start counting from, and that Devas are known to resort to trickery. The sage thus encouraged Kamsa to a greater evil so that it will make the end of his evil reign inevitable.

A similar principle is used in martial arts when faced with a force that is too strong to oppose. It is better to yield to that force, add to it, and then take control of it. This is applicable to defeating opponents that one cannot win against by resisting. By yielding to the point that they become vulnerable or can be caught off-guard and, then with a massive stroke, overthrown. The key to using this strategy effectively is to know the ripe moment to take control. A little too early and the opponent has a chance to pull back, a little too late and the opponent will regain their stability.

In the struggle against temptations, we sometimes run into a similar situation. If I am attracted to a particular pleasure, over-indulgence will result in a state of aversion, which can be used to completely break off from its control. It is not sensible to yield in to temptation to achieve this state of aversion, because we never know when it will come – but if we end up in such a state, it is wise to use it to our advantage and free ourselves of its influence. Take, for example, the case when I smoke too many cigarettes and get tired of it. This state is not going to last long. But when it does, if I throw away my pack of cigarettes, it will make it more difficult for me to smoke when the desire returns. The problem with conscious over-indulgence is that each time we do it, we would be increasing the threshold of aversion, and beyond some point this strategy will become absolutely impractical.

These are scenarios in which we know that the greater evil can potentially be liberating, but it is not a choice that we can make ourselves. The scriptures say that we are bound in this cycle of birth and death by our karmapunya (good karma, resulting in happiness) and papa (bad karma, leading to sorrow). Punya is like a smooth golden chain and papa is a thorny iron chain. The problem with the smooth chain is that it weakens the desire to break free. Of course, what is being advised here is not to indulge in papa, but to resist the lure of punya as well. 

For a person who walks the road of entrepreneurship, there are two ways to fail. One is to fail fast and unambiguously, in which case he will be forced to face the truth and do something about it. The other is a slow, torturous failure in which there is a slight ray of hope till the very end by when it is too late to do anything. Again, the lesson here is not to make your venture fail miserably right at the beginning, but to look out for signs of slow decay which is potentially more dangerous.

Coming back to the question of whether we must choose the lesser evil or greater evil in a practical situation such as when voting in a flawed election that does not offer any real choice, I agree that the decision is difficult and depends on the specific case. While most of the times we don’t have to be the greater evil or be instrumental in its victory (instead just be equally wary of the lesser one), there are some rare instances in which it makes sense for us to lend our strength to the greater evil in the interest of a better outcome in the long run. 

Related reading – If you liked this post, you may also be interested in the author’s views on how Hitler helped end colonialism.  

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