The teachings of the Bhagavad-gita help us see beyond the apparent randomness of tragedy.
I had Just Turned eleven when our small island town was gripped with terror. Mary Kelly had disappeared three days earlier, and now her mutilated body had been found in the woods just a mile from where I lived. The intensive, frantic search was over, leaving everyone stunned with disbelief. In our town, people rarely locked doors unless they were to be away for an extended time. But from that day on, our family began sliding our front door’s shiny brass chain into its groove. That night as I lay in bed under my covers, I recited the same prayer I’d recited since I was a small child. “Father, thank you for the night and for the pleasant morning light, for rest and food and loving care, and all that makes the world so fair. Help us to do the things we should, to be to others kind and good. Amen.” Then I added my usual P.S.: “Please take care of my mother, my father, my brothers, my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and all the good people in the world.” I finished my prayer still feeling shrouded in loneliness, fear, and doubt. As my heart pounded in my chest, my eyes scanned the darkness for any movement or abnormalities. Previously, in fearful moments I’d found comfort in the thought of an almighty, omnipresent God watching over and protecting me. Today’s events had shattered that image.
While I had not known Mary Kelly very well, we rode the same bus to school, walked the same halls, and ate in the same cafeteria. Why would God protect me and not her? I concluded that tragedy occurs randomly and I was as vulnerable as anyone else. I lay awake all night, falling asleep only when a faint light of dawn broke the darkness. An hour later my father’s voice broke through my deep sleep and called me to prepare for school. I considered asking to stay home from school but quickly dismissed the idea, realizing I would be alone all day in an empty house. Dazed, I dragged myself out of bed and got ready for school. School that day was business as usual. We wanted to forget what had happened and try to reclaim an illusion of safety and well being. But I couldn’t forget. Mary’s death raised questions and doubts that haunted me.
The Tragedy Lottery
To make sense of it all, I compared personal tragedy to winning the lottery. Both involved the luck of the draw. Since I had never won anything, I thought, perhaps that same “bad” luck would also keep me safe from harm. This convoluted thinking pacified my mind to some extent. Still, for the next several years I often lay awake at night imagining sinister footsteps in our quiet, dark suburban house. I so much wanted to regain the lost feeling that God, angels, or someone was looking after me. But for the rest of my childhood, that sense of protection never returned. Instead, I kept an uneasy truce with Lady Luck, who seemed to hold my fate in her hands.
Later, in college, I read Bhagavad-gita and learned about the law of karma, which states that whatever good or bad comes our way is the consequence of good or evil deeds we have done. Since the soul is eternal, karma can even result from deeds done in past lifetimes. Learning of karma made me question the role of luck in life. I began to consider that my own past deeds, good and bad, had to play out and I would get what I deserved. It also occurred to me that what I was doing today would create something I’d have to live with tomorrow. This gave me a new sense of self-determination. I felt stronger. Then another shock shattered my security.
One evening I went to visit my friend Mark at his fraternity house. He was downstairs playing cards with his friends, and I was about to join them when I was suddenly overcome with a strong desire to work on a school assignment. The paper wasn’t due for two weeks, but instead of hanging around downstairs, as I would have usually done, I returned to the small library upstairs to study. Suddenly I was jolted by the deafening sound of a gunshot, then screams of “Oh my God! Oh my God! He’s dead!” Panicked, I ran down the steps. A young man barred me from going any farther and routed me out of the building. His only explanation was that there was a lot of confusion and I had best get back to my dorm. As I walked down College Avenue, sirens pierced the quiet spring evening. Police cars and an ambulance sped by towards the fraternity house. I could imagine what had taken place. Was it someone I knew? Was it Mark? Who shot the gun and why? My mind flashed back to the time Mary Kelly’s body was found in the woods just a mile from my home. This time, a fatal gunshot had occurred only a few feet away.
That night Mark called. I was relieved to hear his voice. He explained that a student, somewhat intoxicated, was fooling around with a sawed-off shotgun. Not thinking it was loaded, he pointed the gun at a boy named Chuckie and pulled the trigger. To everyone’s shock and horror, the gun—fired from two feet away—blew Chuckie’s head off. Chuckie was a friend to both of us, and I felt overwhelmed by sadness and disbelief. Over the next few days, as I reflected on the tragedy, I remembered my readings about karma. I began to feel a strong conviction that what had transpired wasn’t just a random series of events but was being arranged by a higher authority. But why Chuckie? Why Mary? What had they done to deserve such a fate? And why not me?
The Problem of Evil
Some years passed, and I remained uncertain about the conflicting roles of luck and karma. At one point I read a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner entitled When Bad Things Happen To Good People. He postulated that, although God created the world and set it into motion, He has no control over what goes on. God is good, but because of His lack of direct involvement, He is not to blame for our blunders. Thus Rabbi Kushner reconciled God’s existence with tragic events happening to good and innocent people.
As I pursued my study of Bhagavad-gita, I came to understand that the Vedic conclusion is quite different. The Lord not only sets the creation into motion, but He personally accompanies every living entity into this material world to assist us in rectifying the consciousness that has separated us from Him. Krishna, God, creates us to love Him. But love must be voluntary, so He also gives us the free will to reject Him if we choose. When we reject God, we enter this world of matter, where suffering prevails. Out of His love for each of us, Krishna guides us back to His service. He uses the agency of karma, the system of reward and punishment, to help us decipher right from wrong. As our desires become more in line with His desires, He personally takes charge of our lives, guiding us on our journey back to Him. Krishna assures us of this in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66). He tells Arjuna that as we give up all other engagements and serve Him exclusively, according to His desires, then He will protect us from all the reactions of our past karma.
Maybe Yes, Maybe No
Returning to Rabbi Kushner’s exploration of “bad” things happening to good people, let us consider what is bad and what is good, as illustrated by the story of a wise old Chinese farmer. One day the farmer’s horse disappeared. All his neighbors exclaimed, “Ah, what misfortune.” The wise farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” The following day the horse returned with three wild horses. At this turn of events, the neighbors all said, “What good fortune!” Again the wise farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” In the days that followed, the farmer’s son was training one of the wild horses when he fell off and broke his leg. The neighbors came to console the farmer. “Oh, what terrible fortune! Your son has broken his leg and can’t work.” Again the wise farmer simply replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Shortly thereafter war broke out and the army came to recruit the farmer’s son. Because of his condition, they rejected him. At this the neighbors joyfully proclaimed, “Just see your good fortune! Because of your son’s broken leg, he has been spared from the war!” Again the wise farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” And so the story goes. This story shows how our limited vision prevents us from evaluating what is actually good or bad in any given situation. Unless we can understand past, present, and future, how can we possibly understand the ramifications of an event on someone’s life?
I learned from the Bhagavad-gita that only Krishna has the total picture and only He knows what is truly in our long-term interest. Knowing this, advanced, learned devotees of the Lord are not affected by the dualities of the material world. Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita (2.15) that a person undisturbed in happiness or distress and steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation. Shrimad-Bhagavatam gives many accounts of learned devotees who underwent severe tribulations and reverses and continued to have full faith in the Lord and love for Him. One example is the great king Pariksit. An inexperienced brahmana boy cursed saintly Pariksit to die in seven days. The king accepted the curse as part of the Lord’s greater plan. As a result, he heard the Shrimad-Bhagavatam for the last seven days of his life. By the time death arrived, he was fully self-realized and departed for the spiritual world. Without knowing the Lord’s greater plan, we might have concluded that the event was a tragedy because of the loss of a saintly king. But in fact his death benefited not only the king but also countless generations of Shrimad-Bhagavatam readers.
The Bhagavatam teaches us to see death and suffering from a higher perspective. We learn that in our original position in the spiritual world we are fully enlightened and completely happy, and we never die. As long as we accept the material world as our home and try to be happy here, we’re cheating ourselves. But God, our all-powerful and dearmost friend, arranges everything in our lives to encourage us to return to our spiritual home. We resist, though, and continue to live in material bodies because we harbor desires to enjoy separate from the Lord. And as long as we live in material bodies, death comes. If we grasp the full scope of our existence, we can understand the significance of each event that we struggle through. Since most of us lack such vision, we need to develop faith that Lord Krishna arranges everything for our ultimate benefit, even if at present we cannot understand how.
Krishna instructs Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita (18.57) that in all activities we should just depend upon Him and work fully under His protection. He further explains that the mood of dependence on Him is itself devotional service. The more we enter into that mood, the more we will be conscious of Him and see so-called happiness and distress as equally the Lord’s mercy. No Fear Becoming conscious of the Lord means no more fear. The material world is called kuntha, “full of anxiety and fear” for the living entity. But the Lord’s abode is called Vaikuntha, “free from fear and anxiety.” Vaikuntha consciousness manifests more and more as we chant the Lord’s names, following the recommendation given five hundred years ago by Krishna Himself in His incarnation as Lord Chaitanya. By chanting the Lord’s name, we cleanse our heart of the impurities that prevent us from understanding the truth about the Lord and ourselves. Through chanting I have gained faith in the Lord’s plans for me and have recovered my long-lost childhood sense of safety and protection.
Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine 34-01, 2000 © BBT International; all rights reserved