The argument has been going on forever: “why does God permit evil to exist?” and “if the Divine constitutes everything, where do the hostile forces come from?” John Milton, in his Paradise Lost, posited ‘fallen angels’ who were thrown out of heaven as the cause of evil in the human world. Goethe, in Faust, provided the idea of a wager between God and the devil as bringing about the issues, tests and pressures that a seeker after knowledge and spiritual understanding must face. The Bible recounts the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden to convince the human residents there to disobey God’s instruction and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The story of Jesus being tempted in the desert, and the story of the Buddha being tempted by Mara are several additional examples of conscious opposition being described to those who were leading the spiritual development of their time. The Greeks told the tale of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods to provide it to mankind, and who was made to suffer for his act of delivering technology to humanity.
Sri Aurobindo points out that the hostile forces actually play a role in the evolutionary cycle of development. They act, first of all, as a brake on too fast forward movement that could create imbalances in the creation. They stand for the status quo, the existing order of things, more or less as a conservative principle. Anything that challenges the existing ways of doing things is subjected to endless opposition, tests and delays, until finally all of the issues are worked out and the progressive step can take place without disrupting other elements of the creation. Just as we see in our own human sphere the formation of an ego nexus for action, so the forces that are invested in the status quo also can take a proprietary interest in that status and their role in that status. When threatened they react with all their power to prevent change or the overthrow of their regime. Just as we see in the human world, when a being craves power or feels threatened, he may respond with violence and, through a perverted limitation of understanding and action, may strike out with malevolence, so such forces may become conscious opponents of the evolutionary impetus in the creation.
As we have seen in all of the legends, the seeker after knowledge, the leading edge of humanity eventually becomes better, stronger, more capable under the pressure of these forces and the need to develop a more comprehensive and integral solution to the riddle of life.
Sri Aurobindo writes: “The hostile forces have a certain self-chosen function: it is to test the condition of the individual, of the work, of the earth itself and their readiness for the spiritual descent and fulfilment. At every step of the journey, they are there attacking furiously, criticising, suggesting, imposing despondency or inciting to revolt, raising unbelief, amassing difficulties. No doubt, they put a very exaggerated interpretation on the rights given them by their function, making mountains even out of what seems to us a mole-hill. A little trifling false step or mistake and they appear on the road and clap a whole Himalaya as a barrier across it. But this opposition has been permitted from of old not merely as a test or ordeal, but as a compulsion on us to seek a greater strength, a more perfect self-knowledge, an intenser purity and force of aspiration, a faith that nothing can crush, a more powerful descent of the Divine Grace.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286