The Karma of Misfortune

Some victims of natural disasters would link their suffering to past karma. How do we make sense of tragedy?

This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in January, 2001, after an earthquake killed thousands of people in Gujarat, India.

An earthquake does more than shake up the world; it shakes up our worldview. It forces us to ask that most difficult question of all: Why? And not just why me, but why us?

There are three distinct yet interrelated ways of answering these questions: through science, through God, and through the Hindu concept of karma.

Science states simply that the cause of this particular suffering isnatural in origin. Earthquakes are the result of tectonic activity, and ifwe happen to be in the wrong place, we're simply victims of a randomoccurrence. Our fate is determined by statistical contingency.

Science deals with causes, not purposes. "What purpose does a volcano have in blowing up?" is the wrong question for a scientist to ask,for "purpose" presupposes a conscious principle at work. If no suchprinciple exists, then we're helpless.

Would we rather feel guilty than helpless? This is where religion enters in.One strand in religious thinking identifies God as the supreme consciousprinciple. Once we do that, the whole line of questioning takes a different turn. When causation becomes conscious,there's a

reason

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why we suffer. We're compelled to respond like Yesica del Carmen Berrius, the coffee picker from El Salvador. After witnessing thekiller quake that hit his country, he asked, "What have we done that God haspunished us like this?" (Time, January 29, 2001, p. 5)

We run into the problem of Job and come out with the conventional responsefrom theism - that the will of God is inscrutable. The gulf fixed betweenus creatures and the creator is so vast that we cannot comprehend God'sactions no matter how hard we try, no more than a dog can comprehend hismaster's. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Kushner, have proposed a lessforbidding response: that God is doing his best to manage the world, butsometimes he slips up too. In that sense, even God can err.

But to err is human too, and tragedy could in some way be a punishment forour sins. This is precisely what Mahatma Gandhi claimed of the earthquakethat devastated Bihar in India in 1934: that it was God's punishment for thesin of untouchability practiced by the Hindus. Of course, many did notaccept this explanation. Rabindranath Tagore, the rationalist and Nobel laureate, was vehement in his opposition, condemning Gandhi for promoting irrational and even superstitious thinking.

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