The last few years have not been peaceful for Indians in particular, and for the rest of the world in general. In just about twenty years’ time we saw several natural calamities of gigantic proportions. Earthquake in Maharashtra and Gujarat, tornado in Orissa, tsunami now, and a host of other smaller shocks in India. Earthquake in Turkey, the Florida disaster, and such others in the rest of the world.
Millions have perished, and millions have been wounded, left homeless. No one has the strength to stop the heartrending cries of the bereaved. Children, helpless because of losing their everything, don't even know how to cry. They are shocked. Thousands are being orphaned. There can be no power to wipe the tears that have been flowing since the tragedy struck Asia.
No body can say with certainty what is in store for us, with the death toll of tsunami mounting every moment. All this raises several questions in our minds:
1. Why do such things happen?
2. Is there a merciful God?
3. Why are innocent people suffering?
4. Why is there such injustice in creation?
5. What can we do to the suffering?
It is a grave situation, and the questions too are important. Such are the times when we lose faith in everything—religion, God, etc. It is necessary to attempt answers to these questions, and we shall take them up one by one.
1. Why do such things happen?
When such sufferings come, when terror strikes in such a devastating manner, we ask this important question. The answer is, it is not possible for human beings to be all knowing. If we had been all knowing, we could have announced that tsunami could strike any time. We could have saved countless lives. Yet we couldn't do this, and that, in spite all the scientific advancement.
Therefore we must understand that there is a complex process going on in this universe. It is impossible for limited minds to understand the why and wherefore of things. We cannot, for instance, understand why some are good and some bad; why some are happy while others are miserable; why some suffer while others enjoy, and so on. No genetics can explain why someone is born blind, while others are not. Genetics cannot say why someone has congenital disease, while others do not. All logic fails here.
Then comes the great theory of Karma, a contribution of India to the world. The sages of India were not just mendicants; they were scientists. They studied everything thoroughly and came to conclusions. So there is the great theory of karma. This is one special theory that fits in very well into things. It is extremely reasonable Yet karma must not be used to explain everything according to our viewpoint. We sometimes try to twist things according to what we think is true, and use karma theory. Karma theory is the best theory and the most perfect explanation for events in the world. Karma theory says that as we sow, so we reap. This is nearest to the truth.
Now, many people ask an important question, which is a corollary to the above question: Was it due to their karma that people die tragically? Who can say? Krishna has declared in the Gita: "Gahanaa karmano gatih, the ways of karma are difficult to understand.” God Himself has declared that karma is inscrutable. So we should never judge. This is simply because we cannot understand everything. We are puny little brains, and we cannot analyze everything using our little brains. Yet the karma theory can be used for other purposes. What are the others?
Now, if we think that it because of my karma that I suffer, we must also think that it is our karma to serve the living and suffering. If we don't serve our fellow beings who are suffering from calamities, we shall have to endure similar suffering—this is using karma theory again. So karma theory, if it can be applied to negative things, can also be applied to positive things.
It is all a chain reaction. And a direct offshoot of this reasoning is that we are all one. All human beings—though we are from different races and colours, different castes and religions—are one. This leads us to another theory: that of collective karma. We are all collectively heading either towards glory or towards disaster. But the thinkers of the theory of karma never say that anyone is doomed. According to sanatana dharma everyone will attain the highest—from the lowest little amoeba to the greatest man, all will attain liberation or the highest. So all are one. All our karmas are a comprehensive whole. If someone is suffering, it me that is suffering in him. If someone is enjoying, it is me that is enjoying. So events like this show us that we must be wide-awake.
Thus the answer to why such things happen is not necessary. On the contrary, let our karma now be to serve the Lord through the suffering masses. We cannot understand why things happen the way they do, we cannot anticipate events, we cannot stop unwanted events—all because our vision is myopic. It is like this: We see only one little piece cut off from a reel of a big movie, say of about 30 reels, and comment that we know the whole story. How can we?
Therefore we should not try to explain away every thing using our little minds. Rather, every event should make us learn lessons: that we are helpless creatures; that we are here to know ourselves; that we should serve fellow beings with devotion, and so on.
2. Is God merciful? Swami Vivekananda remarks: ‘Today God is being abandoned by the world because He does not seem to be doing enough for the world. So they say: “Of what good is He?” Shall we look upon God as a mere municipal authority?’
Further, we ask another question: what is He doing when such things happen? These are interesting questions, but God must have become tired of hearing people criticizing and insulting him. Or, God is perhaps the most patient person because he has to endure such a lot of criticism always. For anything that happens, our first casualty is God.
For everything that happens, we blame God. The first victim of everything that happens is God. But if something good happens, we don't thank God for it. Good, we say, came because of our intelligence, our power, and our capacities. Only whatever bad happens is because God is ruthless.
This is of course not the way. We should be reasonable in blaming God for everything. Let us take two consecutive incidents. Let us say that we see a tragedy in which some innocent lives are lost. We begin to blame God: ‘Ah! What is God doing?’ Let us say God listens to it. A few decades later, we see some rich persons. Comparing ourselves with their fortune, we blame God: ‘Ah! Just see how unjust God is! He has made them rich, while he has left others poor.’ Now let us say God will think in this way: ‘What sort of people are these? When the innocent persons died, they blamed me. In their next birth I made them rich and happy, and these people again blame me. If I do good, I am blamed. If I do something ‘so-called’ bad, I am blamed. What shall I do?”
Therefore, when such things happen, let us not blame God. Let us not use our little minds to understand cosmic phenomena and judge God. Let us not judge everything from our points of view. Millions of such sad events—earthquakes, cyclones, and famines—have taken place on this earth, and we have died millions of times over and over again. Many more will come, who knows? Yet we have also been experiencing the joys and pleasures of the earth. We are not always sad. Nobody is dying every day. It is not always that we suffer.
Is God not merciful then? Of course He is merciful. He sends us knowledge always. He wants to help us out of suffering always. But we are ourselves weaving the cobweb of suffering around us. What can He do? Are we seeking Him? Are we praying to Him earnestly? Are we doing our daily duties, which have been prescribed by our scriptures? Are we free from sins? Are we just? Are we truthful? Let us judge ourselves before judging God. Let us look back and judge our own conducts first. Then we shall understand that God is really merciful towards us. If we read all the blessings we have received in life, we shall be stunned to see the way God is protecting us. God is indeed protecting us. But our karmas are not. What we did is undoing us. Let us do good now, and we shall have better lives tomorrow. ‘Aye, says the Vedanta, it is not the fault of God that this partiality exists, that this competition exists. Who makes it? We ourselves…. The mercy of God is eternal and unchangeable. It is we that make the differentiation,’ says Swami Vivekananda.
3. Why should innocent people suffer?
The third important question that comes to our minds when we witness such tragedies is, why should innocent people suffer? The answer, again, is nobody knows why. We cannot understand everything in creation. Therefore Sri Ramakrishna said: “You are here to eat mangoes; not to count the number of leaves in the mango tree.” Eating mangoes here means to serve the Lord and His creation, thereby uplifting ourselves. All through history, thousands and thousands of innocent people have been suffering from natural and human-made calamities. Good people have cried endlessly for them. Yet none can stop such things. This world is a mixture of good and evil. It is always like this. Therefore let us understand that it is impossible to understand all aspects of creation.
According to the theory of karma, we have lived thousands of lives in the past, and shall live a thousand more if we don’t realize that we are not the bodies and the minds, but the Atman. Our lives on earth are only to work out our karma, express our innate Self, and to know who we are. We are not the bodies. Bodies, according to our scriptures, are like clothes worn by us. When they are worn out, they are thrown, and we wear new ones. The sufferings, diseases, pains, and other problems that the bodies suffer from are all reactions to our past deeds. We are working our past deeds out. This is one way of looking at things—perhaps the best way. Yet we cannot explain everything.
As we said, if others are suffering due to their karma, it is our karma to serve them, looking upon them as God. This is what Vivekananda says. He says: ‘Unselfish work is more paying, only people do not have the patience to practice it.’ By serving others unselfishly, thinking of them as God, we shall benefit immensely. Our bodies may be different, but it is the same God that is inherent in everyone. Unless we accept this spiritual aspect of life, we cannot comprehend the deeper aspects of existence. We cannot understand why we are here, why we are experiencing so many things, why we continue to live life after life, and so on. So the fundamental principle we should understand that life has a meaning: it is not meaningless. Secondly, we are potential divinities. Our goal is to know our innate divinity. We quote from Swami Vivekananda again: ‘The hope lies in you—in the meek, the lowly, but the faithful. Have faith in the Lord; no policy, it is nothing. Feel for the miserable and look up for help—it shall come. … This is the gist of all worship—to be pure and to do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary. He who has served and helped one poor man seeing Shiva in him, without thinking of his caste, or creed, or race, or anything, with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples.’
4. Why is there such Injustice in Creation?
This next question can be said to be a corollary to the earlier ones. We all tend to ask: ‘Why is there such injustice in creation? Why do the good suffer while the bad thrive?’ But we can perhaps understand that such injustice is not there. There is no injustice in the world of God. There is injustice, however, in our world. Whatever happens to us is all our own creation—from the karmic point of view. What should happen to us in the future will also be our own creation. Yet this is only from the individual point of view, and not from the collective viewpoint. At the individual level, karma is the best theory. If we want to be good tomorrow, we should begin working from today. If something is wrong with us now, it was because we did something wrong in the past. Can’t past be nullified? Of course it can! Prayer, worship, noble deeds, and so on are powerful tools which cleanse all our past bad deeds. So Vedanta is always positive: it always gives us hope. It is never fatalistic. It always promises a bright future. Nobody is condemned or damned. All are great, and all have a bright future. What about tragedies like tsunami? Whether we were Vedantins or not there would be such tragedies. It is not in human hands to stop such tragedies. So let us not think that because we are Vedantins such things happen. Let us, on the contrary, think that because we are Vedantins we know what we should do next. There is no point in worrying about the past. The present moment is in our hands, and that is what Vedanta says.
The goal of Vedanta is to make us better persons—better in every way, by telling us the truth about ourselves. Infinite power of the Self, brought to bear upon matter, evolves material development. Brought to bear upon the mind makes for intellectual excellence. Brought to bear upon itself makes of man a God. These were the words of Swami Vivekananda. Infinite potential is within each one of us. Life after life we waste in not knowing it. Body after body we get chances to develop ourselves, yet we forget. Life is a gymnasium for us to know the Truth. Yet we don’t. If we try, we can, today, to become good and great.
5. What can we do to the suffering?
Finally, the last question. What can we do to the suffering? So many are suffering now. Millions are homeless and without relatives. What is our duty now? We and the suffering people are non-different. We are all one. ‘The Background, the Reality, of everyone is that same Eternal, Ever Blessed, Ever Pure, and Ever Perfect One. It is the Atman, the Soul, in the saint and the sinner, in the happy and the miserable, in the beautiful and the ugly, in men and in animals; it is the same throughout. It is the Shining One,’ declared Swami Vivekananda.
There is one Infinite within all of us, though we appear different. The rich and the poor, the literate and the illiterate, the wise and the ignorant—all are just one Self. Knowing this, we must serve the suffering with devotion. There are several ways in which we can do serve the masses:
a. Physical Service: If we can, we can go and join hands with some institutions which are serving the suffering now. Individual service is not effective in colossal tragedies like tsunami. Secondly, we may contribute what we can to the numerous organizations wanting funds for service. We can also send clothes, dry food items, medicines, and so on by collecting them from others. We can organize groups of youth to help the suffering. Adoption of the homeless children, caring for the elderly and so on are other ways. Thus there are countless ways in which we can serve God in the living beings.
b. Mental Service: We can keep in touch with those who have lost their near and dear ones and console them. We can provide moral support to them. Suppose we are in far off regions, from where we can hardly do anything. We can be of such psychological help to the suffering.
c. Spiritual Service: Even the field of medicine has accepted now that prayer is the most powerful tool. Swami Vivekananda says that if we think some noble thoughts sitting in a remote cave, these thoughts will penetrate through the stonewalls of the cave and influence the world. Such is the power of thoughts. Such is the power of prayer. So let us pray day and night for the well being of our brothers and sisters who are suffering. We may collect some of our friends and go to some religious place, and offer collective worship in memory of the departed. We can do some pious acts like feeding the poor in memory of the departed. Further, we may light lamps in our own shrines, or in temples, churches, etc, in memory of the dead.
Through these and several other means we can benefit our suffering fellow beings in many ways. We should never imagine that we are safe and it is not our business if others suffer. Anything could happen any day to anyone. Life is a single whole. So let us assume responsibility for the tragedy by praying silently for the suffering. This is dependence on God. Let us depend on the supreme Power rather than depending upon our own intelligence, or rather than blaming God for all that happens here. This is the way of wisdom. We shall end with these powerful words of Swami Vivekananda: ‘This life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive.’
Editor comments – We must focus on positive karmas/action and improve the lives of people who are not as fortunate as us. We must be empowered by the power of knowledge, not accept oppression mental, physical and economic.