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.

But just as there were two views regarding the extent to which God might be complicit, there are two views of how karma might be involved.

According to the more fatalistic version of karma, the suffering caused by the earthquake would be present-day payback for the victims' past misdeeds. According to a more Buddhist version, however, only a Buddha's insight could determine whether the actual earthquake was a purely natural event, or in the nature of a moral event, involving punishment for bad karma. And if bad karma, whose bad karma? Is the Chinese occupation of Tibet the outcome of the past bad karma of the Tibetans, or simply the perpetration of bad present-day karma by the Chinese?

Clearly, any "explanation" is profoundly ambiguous. If we are religious and accept a conscious God, we face ambiguity -- is our suffering caused by our failing or God's? If we decide to go past God and rely on karma, we still face ambiguity as to whether the earthquake was a karmic or natural event.

Our suffering is straightforward. Our responses -- whichever route we take -- lead us into ambiguity. So should we give way to despair?

I don't think so. For ambiguity contains within it the possibility of choice. In fact, ambiguity makes our choice genuine. If we knew for certain that an earthquake was the outcome of only natural causes or divine causes or karmic causes, would we be free human beings? For if ambiguity comes with choice, then with choice comes freedom.

To sum up: Perhaps we should be thankful that we can't be sure whether earthquakes are solely a natural process or are to some degree a punishment for sins. Not knowing helps us function--without feeling completely powerless in the face of natural disasters, and without feeling complete despair when confronted with our past misdeeds.

After all, no matter to which chain of causation we are bound, we're entirely free to help the victims. At another level, we may find the noble resolution of ambiguity in such altruism.

According to news reports, one victim of last week's devastating earthquake was a schoolteacher who used to ask his students: "What remains when everything is lost?"

He is no longer with us to provide the answer, so we must: "The future."

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