In the three religions that are based upon the prophetic tradition of Abraham we find many claims that God is benevolent. In Islam, for example, a frequently recited prayer speaks of Allah as “the beneficent, the merciful”. But the Koran belies this optimistic description of God by continually referring to hell and hellfire. I do not know if anyone ever counted the number of times that the term “hellfire” appears in the Koran and compared that sum with the number of times that Allah is said to be merciful. I would hope that references to “mercy” would be as numerous as references to damnation, but I cannot be sure. It is no surprise that the Koran gives us the impression that Allah is not benevolent.
I would like to contrast this frightening picture of Allah with the portrayal of Vishnu in the writings of the Hindu philosopher and theologian Ramanuja. Ramanuja states that Ishvara (God or Vishnu) is all benevolent. This phrase means that He is never harsh or cruel. Ramanuja’s God matches the portrayal of Vishnu in a charming little myth, in which the sage Narada decides to test the tempers of the three Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva by giving each a kick. Brahma and Shiva become angry at Narada, but Vishnu is concerned that Narada might have hurt his foot.
Philosophically speaking, it is the law of karma that allows Vishnu to be all benevolent and truly compassionate when Allah is not. Most people have an innate sense of justice that leads them to expect a reward for virtue and a punishment for evil. At the same time, we readily perceive that the expected reward or punishment for our actions does not often materialize in any one lifetime. But the sages who first revealed the law of karma taught that the universe reacts automatically to our good or evil deeds, and that we will inevitably experience the appropriate rewards or punishments for our actions in another life if not in this one.
Lacking a conception of karma, the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam must make their God a judge who deliberately sentences evil doers to hell. The problem for the faithful in these religions is that it is difficult if not impossible to completely love a God whom we fear. Fear and love cannot easily coexist in one heart. Contrast the God who is feared with the Ishvara who only tries to save us from the results of our misdeeds. It is easy to love such a God, with the result that the kind of sweet devotion that is called bhakti is probably more widespread in Hinduism than in the religions of Abraham.
Commentators upon the Bible sometimes claim to find evidence that a doctrine of karma was once taught in Judaism and Christianity. If so we must believe that someone removed all references to karmic law from the “good book”, making a neurotic preoccupation with sin inevitable. In sensitive Christians like St. Augustine and Martin Luther this has resulted in an unwholesome stress upon the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death. Jesus supposedly died in order to appease the anger of a wrathful God. And yet Christians are supposed to pray to “our Father”. It is not difficult to see that human fathers are more merciful than the heavenly one in any religion that lacks a belief in karma.
Below: A bronze statue of Vishnu.