Q: Is there a Devil in Hinduism and what is the devil in Hinduism?
A: Once again we have a question here that highlights the difference between Hinduism and Christianity. Or, actually, the difference is more generally between Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Western monotheistic religions, specifically, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. To answer the question, I’m going to invoke three different categories: devil, trickster, and evil spirit.
What most people mean today by “devil” is a concept that is at home in the Western monotheistic religions; in fact, it is only really possible in these religions because the very nature of this character is as “antagonist” or “adversary” to God. The essence of this being is that he is the negative counterpart to God. Here are some examples of how the devil functions in these religions. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) he is called “Satan,” and, though he does not show up very often, we find him in the first chapter of Job trying to undermine Job’s credibility, and, thereby, God’s own discernment. If Job is not as righteous as God thinks, then God is not as smart as he thinks either. That, at least, is Satan’s stratagem. Then, in the New Testament, the devil attempts to counteract God’s work of redemption at every point. So, we see him early on in Christ’s ministry (Matthew 4 and Luke 4) tempting Christ himself to veer from his path.
There is also a devil in Islam. He is called Iblis as well as Satan, and the Qur’an tells us that he was too prideful to bow down before Adam along with all of the other angels, as God (Allah) had instructed them (Qur’an 2:34). Ever since then he has worked at luring people away from devotion to God.
The religion in which the devil perhaps plays the greatest role is the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism, which has persisted into our time under the name of Parsiism. In this religion God (Ahura Mazda) is believed to be opposed by the devil (Ahriman) to a greater extent than in any of the others. Ahriman has close to the same powers as God, and he opposes all of God’s works—truth, justice, beauty, light—with his own distortions—lie, injustice, ugliness, darkness. The entire religion is structured around this opposition between God and the devil.
Now, I have given all of these examples in order to show how the full-blown concept of the devil usually works: There is the good God, and there is a mighty evil spiritual being who opposes God. When you come right down to it, the devil is still a creature who owes his very existence to the fact that God made him, but he does not let this fact stand in the way of his making himself God’s adversary whenever possible. The religions differ in how much power they ascribe to the devil, but they all have that basic plan. There is a fundamental opposition between the good God and the evil devil.
Let me make a difference between this idea of the devil and the concept of a trickster that appears in various religions, including tribal and traditional cultures. A good example of a trickster is the coyote in Native American mythology. He causes mischief for the creator god and people by causing harm from time to time, but he is not downright evil, just nasty. A trickster may do good if it should please him, and he will do evil if it suits him. Frequently, it all comes down to how people treat him. To mention another example, in the religion of the Yoruba tribe in Africa, there is a god named Esu who should always be worshipped ahead of the other gods (the “orisa”). If people worship him at the outset of a religious ceremony, Esu will not only be pleased, but he will also make sure that the other gods hear the persons’ prayers. But if people should forget to go to him first, or if they should offend him in some other way, then he might make his presence known by causing harm: making someone fall of a roof, letting a child die, and so forth. A trickster, then, is not a thoroughly evil being, just an obnoxious one who has to be dealt with very carefully because he can be extremely capricious.
Then there is a third category, namely evil spirits. Whenever people believe in these beings, they usually think that there are very many of them. They are seen as just plain malevolent, basically causing harm to whoever might get in their way at any time or place. One needs to protect oneself against them with rituals and sacred objects, such as bracelets or amulets. But the struggle against these beings is not cosmic, it is an everyday warfare of the human against the evil spirits, not of God against his chief adversary. Most of the time these evil spirits are considered powerful, but not with unlimited power.
So, these are the three models: the single devil as God’s main adversary, the trickster, and the multitude of evil spirits. To which one does Hinduism subscribe? The answer is the third one, but with a twist.
In Hinduism there is no single devil as there is in the Western monotheistic religions. Since there is no single God, neither can there be a single adversary to God. Instead, there are many evil spirits, but there are also superior evil beings. Indian religions, including Hinduism as well as Buddhism and Jainism, espouse a universe populated by many spirit beings. There are the spirits that live on the lowest rungs of the cosmos in hell; there are the hungry ghosts that roam the earth; there are the many spirits that indwell homes, rice fields, and forests. But then there are also the mighty devil-gods, called the asuras, who have great power.
In some of the earliest writings of Hinduism, we read of two kinds of divine beings, the devas—“gods”—and the asuras—“lords.” Originally there is no particular distinction between them as good and evil, but in the stories about them there ensues warfare between them, and the devas win out. For example, the deva Indra defeats the asura Varuna. As Hindu thought develops, the asuras assume increasingly the role of malicious beings, causing harm for people and creating conflict with the gods (devas). In the epic poems and the puranas, demon kings (asuras) are the enemies of the great heroes, such as the evil lord Ravana who was defeated by Rama and his able assistant Hanuman.
But here’s the hitch: one should not think of the asuras as essentially and thoroughly evil. They frequently do quite evil things, and there is no question that they are the enemies of the devas. Still, in the end they are only after the same thing as the devas, namely power and glory. And, for that matter, the devas themselves are morally pretty hazy. When one reads the stories of Indra, Shiva, Krishna, not to mention the blood-thirsty Kali, one realizes that the gods are not necessarily all that good either. On the whole, they act better than the asuras, but they are not all-good, just as the asuras are not truly all-evil. (And, furthermore, in the monistic, Vedantic Hindu tradition God—Brahman—is ultimately beyond good and evil.)
So, then, this is the situation: in Western monotheism there is an all-good God, who is opposed by an all-evil devil. In Hinduism, on the other hand, there is a set of gods who are more or less good, who are opposed by a group of beings who are more or less evil. There is a fundamental ambiguity underlying the entire scheme. There can’t be a genuine “devil” when there is not a genuinely good God.