Tragedy of the Century
Millions have perished, and millions have been wounded and left homeless. Tsunami has shown its lethal power. Somehow, due to unknown reasons, India has remained in the ire of nature. We have been suffering consistently due to natural calamities. One after another, deadly blows are being given to the nation. Whenever we are trying to rise our head, we are given a blow. But this time, it is not just India, but a huge chunk of Aryavarta, the land of the Aryans, now called Asia, that is suffering immensely. Indonesia has suffered the utmost, with over 80,000 passing away. Sri Lanka comes next. And then, it is India.
No one has the strength to stop the heartrending cries of the bereaved. Children, helpless because of having lost their homes, parents, and everything else, don't even know how to cry. They are shocked. Elders are suffering mental torture. Thousands have been orphaned. There can be no power to wipe the tears that have been flowing since the tragedy struck Asia. The heartfelt condolences, sympathies, and affection of all sane individuals go to everyone who is suffering today. The physical shock, the mental agony and trauma, the spiritual loneliness- - all have joined together to attack the soul of the suffering. Let there be strength enough in everyone's heart to bear the pain of suffering, is our earnest, humble prayer.
Tsunami now, and earthquakes and tornados earlier, have been raising some important questions in our minds.
1. Why do such things happen?
2. Is there a merciful God?
3. Why are innocent people suffering?
4. What can we do to the suffering?
These are very important questions, and should not be brushed aside. Such disasters definitely bring faithlessness in human hearts. When even ordinary blows can shake our faith in God, such colossal incidents will definitely create many atheists. It is therefore good to think of these questions.
Question 1: Why do such things happen?
Everything was all right before the incident. Perhaps mothers were cradling their children, thinking how big and great these little ones would become in time. Perhaps fathers were concerned about the education of their sons and daughters. Perhaps, since it was a Sunday, many were dreaming of a wonderful day ahead, and a wonderful new year. But it came. And it swept away not only dreams, but the dreamers, their possessions, their all, and everything too. Why? What went wrong?
The simple 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. We can't say what will happen the next moment. We can't understand why things happen the way they do. What to speak of our human capacities, we in spite all the scientific advancement couldn't measure this event beforehand, and when we tried to do that, it was a false alarm, creating panic and confusion.
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. Being involved in the process, we cannot understand the process fully at any time. 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.
The Law of Karma
There is, however, a great theory of Karma, a contribution of India to the world. 'Karma' means 'action'; it also means 'reaction' to action. Whatever I do is karma: breathing, blood circulation, every voluntary or involuntary act is karma. But what we do will not end in our doing. It will produce its effect - - good, good; bad, bad. So that also is generally called karma. The actual word should have been karma-phala. As we sow, so we reap: this is the fundamental principle of karma. We are what we are today because of our karma. This is NOT fatalism. We must remember this. Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion, is never fatalistic. It is optimistic. How? If I am what I am today because of my past deeds, I have absolute freedom to do such things as to improve my condition tomorrow. I am my own master. I am my own creator. This, then, is the great law of karma.
The sages of India were not just mendicants; they were scientists. They wanted to know why some children are born blind while others are not. They wanted to know the reasons behind congenital diseases. They wanted to know why some are deprived while some are not. They wanted to know why some are suffering while others are not. They studied everything thoroughly and came to great conclusions. So they contributed the theory of karma. This is one special theory that fits in very well into many things. It is an extremely reasonable argument too.
Yet karma should 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. We want to look at the world according to our viewpoint, and we therefore make use of whatever law we can to suit our purposes. If something wrong happens to me, it is because God is merciless. If something wrong happens to my enemy, everything is his karma!
Therefore, if we think that it because of our karma that some of us suffer in life, we must also think that it is our karma to serve the suffering. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the prophet of the modern times, declared this great truth. If it is in someone's karma to suffer, it is in our karma that we must help that someone. If we don't serve our fellow beings who are suffering from calamities, we may have to endure similar suffering- - this is using karma theory again. Who knows who is safe in this world? So karma theory, if it can be applied to negative things, can also be applied to positive things. The wise will apply this theory only to positive aspects of life: of improving oneself by good work, of serving others, and so on.
The direct offshoot of this reasoning is that we are all one. All human beings - - though we are from different races and colors, different castes and religions - - are one. There is only One, manifesting as many. That One is wearing countless bodies.
This leads us to another theory: that of collective karma. 'Collective karma' shouldn't be misunderstood as the karma of a country or group. People of similar karma come together. So the evil done by others may affect us, even as good done by others affect us. It is like this: when we are in the company of evil-minded people, we suffer. Just the opposite is the case when we are with good people. So 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 the eternal religion (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; and all are marching towards Light. This world is a school: we learn lesson after lesson here and thus march towards our Self. Until then, we must know that we are all one'whatever be our religion, culture, faith, etc. All our karmas are a comprehensive whole. If someone is suffering, it is me that is suffering in him. If someone is enjoying, it is me that is enjoying. So tragic events like the tsunami disaster show us that we must be wide awake.
Thus the answer to the first question, as to why such things happen, is not necessary. On the contrary, let our karma now be to serve the Lord through the suffering masses. Let us think in this way: 'We don't understand why so many died; why so many are suffering. But we understand that we have an opportunity to serve our fellow beings that are in deep trouble.' 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.
Why can't we understand events? 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? One still picture from a big movie can never tell the whole story of the movie. But we say we are able to understand the whole story, just by seeing a still picture.
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.
Question Two: Is God Merciful?
The second important question is: 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?'
This is the answer to this question. God is not a municipal authority, who must go on giving everything to us as we want. Further, we ask another question: 'What is He doing when such things happen?' It is as if we have been paying him to be there. These are interesting questions, though. 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 victim is God.
For everything that happens, we blame God. But if something good happens, we don't thank God for it. On the contrary, good, we say, came because of our intelligence, our power, and our capacities. Only whatever bad happens is because God is ruthless. And all that is bad happens because some fools created a theory called God. This is our usual argument.
We should be reasonable in blaming anybody or anything, what to speak of God. Let us take two consecutive incidents for instance. 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?' This is just by way of example.
Therefore, when such things happen, let us not blame God. Let us not use our little minds to understand cosmic phenomena and to judge God. Millions of sad events'earthquakes, cyclones, famines, floods'have taken place on this earth, and we have died millions of times over and over again. Many more may come in the future, who knows? Yet we have also been experiencing the joys and pleasures of the earth. We are not always sad and gloomy. Nobody is dying every day. It is not always that we suffer.
God is Compassionate
Is God merciful then? Of course He is merciful. He sends us knowledge always. He wants to help us out of suffering always. Sri Ramakrishna, the great master of Swami Vivekananda, says: 'God is the Kalpataru, the Wish-fulfilling Tree. You will certainly get whatever you ask of Him. But you must pray standing near the Kalpataru. Only then will your prayer be fulfilled. But you must remember another thing. God knows our inner feeling. A man gets the fulfillment of the desire he cherishes, while practicing sadhana. As one thinks, so one receives. Pray to God. He is full of compassion. Will He not listen to the words of His devotee? He is the Kalpataru. You will get whatever you desire from Him.'
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 free from corruption? Are we truthful? Let us judge ourselves before judging God. '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.
Question Three: Why should innocent people suffer?
The third important question that comes to our minds when we witness tragedies like tsunami 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. Eating mangoes means to live for the purpose we have been born. Our purpose of life is to know God, to know who we are. We are not here to change the world, to teach lessons to God, or to bring about a revolution in creation.
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. It is like this with a purpose: and that purpose is to make us realize that this world is not our final destiny; that the enjoyments of this world are not our final goal. We are here to work out our bad karma, and to perform fresh good karma so that we may be released from bondages of limitations. Therefore let us understand that it is impossible to understand all aspects of creation.
Why is this world a mixture of good and evil? Why are things like this here? According to the Indian philosophy, 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. Suppose the pearl thinks that it is the paper that covers it, how foolish would it look like! Similar has been our cases. We are the Atman, but we think we are the outer shell, the body.
Until we know who we are, we shall keep on coming and going. Our lives on earth are only to work out our karma, express our innate Self, and to know who we are. Bodies, according to our scriptures like the Gita, are like clothes worn by us. When they are worn out, they are thrown, and we wear new ones. We are not the minds either. Mind is fluctuating, and it also is a product of food. What is eternal, and the real 'WE' is the Atman.
This has a corollary. We and the suffering people are non-different. We the people of the world, the animals, the plants---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. This Atman is the real Truth, God, Omnipotence, etc. Since we are one, we should consider the sufferings of others as that of ours. Sri Ramakrishna used to live in different bhavas or moods. He was to be so because he has to teach the world. In one particular mood, he was standing on the banks of the Ganga one day. Suddenly, two boatmen quarreled and one beat another on the back. Sri Ramakrishna, who was standing far away, writhed in pain: a red mark of fresh beating had appeared on his back. This is to show that we are all one.
Vivekananda further says: 'Unselfish work is more paying, only people do not have the patience to practice it.' Selfish work is that which makes us work for money, name, and fame. Unselfish work is that which we do for the good of others, without thinking of personal benefit. Or, unselfish work is that which we do and offer its fruits to God.
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. And this is the fundamental truth. So the fundamental principle we should understand is that life has a meaning: it is not meaningless, and that the real meaning to life comes when we have higher purpose of knowing the Truth.
Here, we may think that this is all high philosophy, and not for us. Anticipating this, Swamiji said: '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.'
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 it makes for intellectual excellence. Brought to bear upon itself it makes of human being a God. These were the words of Swami Vivekananda.
Let us serve our fellow beings. That much is enough. Yet we don't want to do this.
Question 4: What can we do to the suffering?
Finally, the last question. What can we do to the suffering masses? So many are suffering now. Millions are homeless and without relatives. There is no water to drink, food to eat, and no facilities for personal cleanliness. People who had never stretched their hand all their lives for food are begging food now. What is our duty now?
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:
Physical Service: If we can, we can join hands with some institutions which are serving the suffering now. Perhaps individual service is not effective in colossal tragedies like the tsunami disaster. 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 the youth of our area to help the suffering. Then there are the schemes of adoption of the homeless children, caring for the elderly and so on. Countless institutions and individuals are working day and night now, to alleviate the suffering of the masses. We too can be one with them. Thus there are countless ways in which we can serve God in the living beings.
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.
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 stone walls of the cave and influence the world. Such is the power of thought. 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 also indirectly means 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.'