Arvind Sharma is a professor of religious studies at McGill University. He spoke with Beliefnet about Hinduism's views on God's omnipotence and how Hinduism grapples with the question of why God allows catastrophes to happen.

How does Hinduism deal with the fact that awful things, like Hurricane Katrina, take place without God stepping in to prevent them?

There's no neat, cut and dry answer to this, because Hinduism is a plural tradition. The basic difference between mainline Hinduism and other forms of theism--Judaism, Christianity, or Islam--is that Hinduism has the idea of karma. Karma is the sum total of an individual's actions, and the individual is believed to be responsible for it. God is omnipotent but has given human beings the freedom to do what they like and to reap the dessert of what they do. So ultimately, you might say, this limits God's omnipotence. If God in His omnipotence wants to wipe me out, He's limited by the fact that He has given me the freedom to be a moral creature, and if I am a moral creature than He can't wipe me out, by His own laws.

I am the master of my individual destiny, according to Hinduism. I have done things in the past as a result of which I am what I am now. How I act now and how I react to these situations will determine what will happen to me in the future. God is called the supervisor of karma. You might think of him as a judge who sees how people act and dispenses rewards or punishments depending on how they act.

This will happen to me irrespective of whether I believe in God or not--just as the law of gravity will influence us whether we believe in it or not. Given this situation, when a disaster like Hurricane Katrina happens the Hindu attitude is to look for what might the people have done to bring this on. This is a very delicate issue because it involves the question of moral causation and physical causation. Katrina is a storm caused by natural reasons. One school in Hinduism believes these natural events are a way in which karma works itself out.

What is Hinduism's attitude toward the question of whether God is omnipotent? Could He have stepped in to prevent tragedy?

There are two basic models of how God interacts with the world. I call them the architectural model and the creative model.

In the first, God is not the creator but the architect of the world, which would compromise the idea of God's omnipotence in the Western sense. That is, the atoms that make up the universe exist eternally along with God. So when God creates, He doesn't bring the universe into being out of nothing, but he brings the atoms together in such a way that the universe manifests itself. In this model, you can regard matter, human souls, and God all existing eternally. But the first two are dependent on God, and at the time of creation, God manipulates atoms to create the universe so that the souls can follow their course of karma in it. But the souls and the atoms have not been created by God. They have been their from the very beginning along with God.

Opposed to this is the creative model, in which God creates everything out of nothing, which is the classical Christian idea. The creative model gives more power to God than the architectural model.

Coming directly to the question of God's omnipotence, there are some schools of thought in Hinduism that believe that God may not be omnipotent, especially in some of his incarnations. Krishna, for instance, is involved in the negotiations to prevent the outbreak of the Mahabharata wars. He fails. Does it mean that God's power is limited? In this case, we have the answer of Krishna himself. He says sometimes God cannot avert a disaster. All He can do is damage control. And here again you see the working of karma. People have brought on themselves a certain condition. God cannot just overthrow his own laws.

"Past karma becomes involved here. "

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  • In addition to the story about Krishna, how do the different incarnations of God differ when it comes to these questions?

    The story of Krishna's response is the only instance I can recall in which the divinity admits that God's role is, so to speak, damage control in some situations.

    What about the destructive aspects of Shiva or Kali, (two deities associated with seemingly random destructiveness)?

    Some people say the whole idea behind Kali's destructiveness is to emphasize the fact that unless you fully accept suffering as a part of life, you haven't accepted life. In relation to Shiva, it's been pointed out that Shiva's destruction is always creative. Shiva destroys the old world so the new world can come into being. Shiva can destroy sin. Shiva can destroy rebirth. These are positive consequences. Destruction per se is something we needn't get upset about.

    Is the Hindu attitude that God chose to send this hurricane as a punishment or is it that nature brings hurricanes and that's just the way the system works and God doesn't step in and change nature?

    There are two ways of looking at this, because there are two views of karma. One view is that everything that happens to us is determined by what we do--everything, in the most minute detail, is determined by our moral actions. The other view is that physical laws have their own role to play in life, and moral laws have their own role. For instance, if I trip, I fall. This is a natural law. If I embezzle money, I get imprisoned. That's moral/legal in nature, it's not natural. So adversity can have both natural causes or moral causes, and some schools of Hinduism like to distinguish between the two.

    So one school would say this is a natural calamity, and we should react to it with creativity and vigor; that's our duty as human beings. The other school would say--and this was Gandhi's view--that many of the natural calamities that come to us are the result of our collective sins. So imagine Gandhi saying that this is the punishment for racism, for instance; when there was an earthquake, he said it was God's punishment for the sin of untouchability. But he was criticized severely for that by many Hindus.

    Along the lines of the criticism Gandhi got, a lot of people who lost love ones or their property during Katrina would have great difficulty accepting that that it's because they, on some level, deserved it as karmic punishment.

    It might appear to you at this moment that you have not done anything to deserve it, but Hindus believe in past lives. So past karma becomes involved here.

    But the idea that you are responsible for what happens to you is not meant to make you despondent, but to give you the courage to act in the best and most vigorous manner in the face of calamity. Because that's how you build good karma. It's true that it can be depicted as blaming the victims, but it is really encouraging the victim to do the best he or she can and not feel overburdened by the sense of guilt. Such events, when they are punitive, are also redemptive. They get rid of the old karma. When something bad happens to you, it happens because you did something to deserve it, but you get rid of that past karma also. So you can look forward to a better future. So blaming the victim is not the psychology underlying the doctrine. You cannot be blamed.

    In addition, blaming tragedy on past karma and doing nothing about it is bad karma. The real question is not why a certain disaster takes place but what to do in the face of that disaster. In Hindu terms, it's a question of karma and dharma, one's duty. On the question of blaming the victims, it is not our duty to say it was their bad karma that led them to be affected by this disaster. The duty, the dharma, of those who observe this suffering is to help them.

    "God is not responsible, in a sense. "

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  • Many people look at the tragedies of the world and say that it can't be true that God is both all powerful and all good--if He was, he would have had to step in and halt these disasters. What is the Hindu response to this question?

    This is the classical problem of theodicy. The basic Hindu answer to the problem of theodicy is karma. In the Hindu doctrine of karma, God is not responsible, in a sense. You may still hold responsible for the law of karma, but you cannot hold God responsible for the individual acts which you and I perform.

    Why is there karma at all is a more fundamental question. Why doesn't God just dispense with karma and do what He can? This has to do with the question of whether we can have an unstructured universe. Let's suppose that Katrina is a product of certain natural forces. These are the very natural forces that are maintaining the rest of the universe. To suspend one is to suspend the whole system. The question is whether God can make individual exceptions--that can lead to there being no law left, no structure.

    One point which we often overlook is that our questions are very self-centered. We are the question: Why me? And, why did God cause this? Suppose I have cancer. I am heart-broken. But that is my point of view. Suppose--I think this is somewhere in Tolstoy--there are two brothers. One is a potter and one is an farmer. They live in two huts side by side. It rains. The potter is distraught because he can't make his pottery. It's all washed away. The brother with the farm is now happy because the farm will now flourish. So was it good or bad? For one brother it was good, for the other it was bad. When we see something as a calamity, we are self-centered and present-centered. This is a calamity now. What about its long-term effects?

    How does one counsel the victims of this? Where's the comfort in this system?

    One answer is that the bad karma that brought this about is now wiped out. And I have heard from Hindu mystics that adversity saves us from calamity. The idea is that we think it's a disaster, but it's saved us from a greater disaster of some kind. It's God's way of minimizing.

    Another way of viewing things is that everything happens for the best. It's hard to accept. But we might not have an idea of the complete picture. Only God has the complete picture.

    Some mystics point out that when such things happen like Katrina, which we can't make sense of, that is a way of our being told that the universe doesn't add up. And if it doesn't add up, then you ask basic questions about what is the universe, what is God, what is creation. These serve the purpose of raising these fundamental issues for you. If you feel that Katrina was unjust, then you have to ask, Do we live in a just world? And then you ask, If the world doesn't add up, is it a real world? Or is it a world of appearance and not reality itself? Is reality an obligation to be consistent? If the universe is not consistent, could it be only an appearance?

    Some people would argue that these are intended to bring you to the verge of these highly mystical visions. The world which you are seeing, which you take for granted as real--do you really think it's real? It doesn't add up. It will draw attention to the fact that it isn't real, so you can commence your inquiry into its actual nature. [Hinduism believes that our world is maya, and that we must strive to see through and understand that illusion.] We normally lead our lives without inquiring into this. But if it doesn't add up, and if reality must be consistent and logical, and the world doesn't seem to be that way [trails off]. but this is highly mystical and not everyone approves of it. It's certainly not intended as a soft option, in the sense that the world is a dream and therefore we do not do anything. It's not intended to do that at all, but to lead to a profound metaphysical investigation into the nature of the world.

    There is no fully satisfying solution. But the main thing is to do something about it, about which there are no two views--we must help the people.

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