The Karma of Misfortune

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

BY: Arvind Sharma

 
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 is natural in origin. Earthquakes are the result of tectonic activity, and if we happen to be in the wrong place, we're simply victims of a random occurrence. 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 such principle 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 conscious principle. Once we do that, the whole line of questioning takes a different turn. When causation becomes conscious, there's a

reason

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

We run into the problem of Job and come out with the conventional response from theism - that the will of God is inscrutable. The gulf fixed between us creatures and the creator is so vast that we cannot comprehend God's actions no matter how hard we try, no more than a dog can comprehend his master's. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Kushner, have proposed a less forbidding response: that God is doing his best to manage the world, but sometimes 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 for our sins. This is precisely what Mahatma Gandhi claimed of the earthquake that devastated Bihar in India in 1934: that it was God's punishment for the sin of untouchability practiced by the Hindus. Of course, many did not accept this explanation. Rabindranath Tagore, the rationalist and Nobel laureate, was vehement in his opposition, condemning Gandhi for promoting irrational and even superstitious thinking.

The principle of karma plays a key role in the Hindu moral universe. It's a principle which can operate on its own like any natural law, such as that of gravitation. Many victims of the recent earthquake in India would account for the suffering inflicted by the earthquake in terms of past karma.


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