Why Is God So Cruel? How Should We Answer This Question?
By Shrutadev Das
(I originally wrote this in 2004 but since then there have been earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand, and Japan as well as massacres, suicide bombings and so many other tragedies, most recently the shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut where 20 young children were murdered.)
The recent tragedy in Southeast Asia (2004) caused by an earthquake and the ensuing Tsunami has led millions of people all over the world to re-evaluate their beliefs and faith in God. If God is a truly loving God, then how could such a catastrophe “of Biblical proportions” taken place. Tens of thousands of “innocent” people, many only young children and infants, have died or have been left to suffer, without family, food, or shelter. Their suffering, their pain, their misery is truly unfathomable. Why? The question echoes around the globe in the hearts of millions. Why?
In truth, God’s compassion and loving kindness is unlimited. His only wish is to see our pain and miseries end. Yet He also gives us the gift of choice – free will. Without that we would be no different than a dead stone or a machine. And for real choice to exist, there must be alternatives to choose from. If there are no real alternatives there is no meaning to choice and free will. So it is very important for us to first of all take responsibility for our actions and the results of those actions. That is the law of karma.
Our problem is that we forget that we are a spiritual being, a spirit soul, separate from the body and mind. And instead we misidentify ourselves with the body and mind. If a person happens to be born in America he considers himself an American, if he is born in France he considers himself a Frenchman, and so on. We also identify ourselves according to our sex, race, creed, social status, etc. This is something like driving a Mercedes Benz and thinking I am German. Or driving a Toyota and thinking I am Japanese. But all these qualities apply only to the body, not the soul. Therefore embracing them as our true identity causes us to forget the Lord and our relationship with Him, and to see ourselves as independent enjoyers of His material nature. The Vedic literature explains that human activity, when devoid of service to the Lord, is governed by a subtle law known as the law of karma. This is the familiar law of action and reaction as it pertains to what we do in this world and the enjoyment or suffering we experience as a result. If I cause pain to another living being, then as surely as the wheel of life turns, I will be forced to suffer similar pain. And if I bring happiness to another, a like pleasure awaits me. At every second, with every breath, our activities in this material world cause enjoyment and suffering. And to facilitate these endless actions and reactions, there must be more than just one life. There has to be reincarnation.
Until recently the idea of reincarnation, while universally accepted in India and other Eastern countries, had found few adherents in the West. The Church banned the philosophy of reincarnation centuries ago. This is a long story dating as far back as the history of the early Christian Church between 300 A.D. and 600 A.D. Recounting this controversy is not within the scope of this article, but the denial of this important concept has left a void in the world view of the Western peoples.
However, in the last decade or so many thinkers in the West have begun to take the idea of reincarnation seriously. For example, Dr. Michael Sabom of Emory University Medical School has written a book entitled Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation (1982), which details his studies confirming the out-of-body experiences reported by cardiac arrest patients. Sabom writes, “Could the mind which splits apart from the physical brain be, in essence, the soul, which continues to exist after the final bodily death, according to some religious doctrines?” And Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1966), has documented and verified past-life memories in young children. Other studies using such methods as hypnotic regression indicate that the idea of reincarnation may soon gain acceptance among mainstream scientists in the West.
The Vedic literature makes reincarnation of the soul a central feature in its explanation of human destiny. And the logic is obvious when we consider a simple question like the following: Why is one child born to wealthy parents in the United States, while another is born to starving peasants in Ethiopia? Or why did seemingly innocent children die in the terrible tsunami? Does that mean that God favors some of His children over others? No! Only the doctrine of karma and reincarnation—reward and punishment carried over many lifetimes—answers this question easily.
Man prides himself on being a creature of reason, above the lowly beasts. Yet it seems that when he applies his reason to unlocking the secrets of nature for his benefit, he sinks deeper and deeper into a quagmire of intractable problems. The internal combustion engine gets us where we’re going faster, but also results in choking air pollution, the greenhouse effect, and a dangerous dependence on oil. Harnessing the atom gives us cheap energy, but also leads to weapons of mass destruction, Chernobyl, and a rising tide of dangerous radioactive waste. Modern agribusiness produces a dizzying variety and abundance of food at the supermarket, but also results in the death of the family farm, the pollution of ground water, the loss of precious topsoil, and many other problems. And where all these problems are leading the world to in the future nobody knows.
Nature’s arrangement, set up by the Lord, maintains the birds and beasts: the elephant eats his fifty kilos per day, the ant his few grains. If man doesn’t interfere, the natural balance sustains all creatures. Any agriculturalist will tell you the earth can produce enough food to feed ten times the present human population. Yet political intrigues and wars, unfair distribution of land, the production of cash crops like tobacco, tea, and coffee instead of food, and erosion due to misuse ensure that millions go hungry, even in wealthy countries like the United States. We must understand the laws of nature from the viewpoint of the Supreme Lord, who has created these laws. In His eyes all the earth’s inhabitants—whether creatures of the land, water, or air—are His sons and daughters. Yet we, the human inhabitants, the “most advanced” of His creatures, treat these sons and daughters with great cruelty, from the practice of animal slaughter to destruction of the rain forests. Is it any wonder that we suffer an unending series of natural disasters, wars, epidemics, famines, and the like? That is the law of karma. We are not willing to live simply and be happy spiritually. By the way of materialistic life: not being satisfied by the basic necessities of life, people ambitiously create extra demands through so-called economic, industrial and technological improvements, and their illegal desires are checked by the laws of nature, or the laws of God, appearing as famine, war, pestilence and similar catastrophes.
A relevant story concerns the early life of Lord Buddha. Raised as a prince, he led a sheltered existence and never knew anything of the world outside the palace grounds. On the very first day he ventured outside the palace, however, he met a man suffering from a terrible disease. He asked the man what was wrong, and the man replied, “I am afflicted by disease.”
“Will I also be afflicted by disease?” asked the young Buddha.
“Yes,” the man replied. “Everyone eventually becomes diseased,”
Next he met a man debilitated by old age. The sheltered young prince had never seen such an aged person. “What is the matter with you?” he asked.
“I am simply old,” the man replied.
“Will I also grow old?”
“Yes, of course.”
Finally, Lord Buddha saw a dead body. He was told that this was death and that it would happen to him also. But rather than accept what he saw as “the hard knocks of life,” the Buddha entered into deep meditation to understand how one could escape from such suffering. The human being is unique among the living species because he can seriously inquire: “Why do I have to suffer? Who am I that am subject to so many miseries? How can I get free?”
Srila Prabhupada once asked some of his disciples, “If it were possible to live a life of eternal happiness with an endless variety of enjoyment—singing, dancing, loving and eating—wouldn’t everyone want that?” One disciple answered, “But Srila Prabhupada, people don’t believe that such a life is possible.” “Never mind that,” Srila Prabhupada said. “Whether it is possible we can discuss at another time. But if there could be such a life, would you not find it desirable?” Unending happiness. Love, affection, enjoyment with friends eternally. Yes, it would be very desirable. But does such happiness exist? Before we can understand eternal happiness, we first have to clear away one almost universal misconception. That misconception is the idea that the individual self is the same as the material body. We must realize “I am not this body. In my real identity, I am a spiritual soul.” If one thinks that he is the body and so thinks in terms of material designations—”I am an American,” “I am Indian,” “I am black,” “I am white” and so on—he remains in ignorance. One should understand that the self is beyond the mind and body. That is the starting point of yoga. Real yoga is meant to remove our material ignorance. It is not meant to increase our bodily pleasures. Real knowledge is the realization that the soul cannot be killed. The real person, the soul within, is unborn, eternal, ever existing, undying. He is not slain when the body is slain.
As long as the material body exists, one has to meet the demands of the body, namely eating, sleeping, defending and mating. But a person who is in pure bhakti-yoga, or in Krsna consciousness, does not arouse the senses while meeting the demands of the body. Rather, he accepts the bare necessities of life, making the best use of a bad bargain, and enjoys transcendental happiness in Krsna consciousness. He is callous toward incidental occurrences—such as accidents, disease, scarcity and even the death of a most dear relative—but he is always alert to execute his duties in Krsna consciousness, or bhakti-yoga. Accidents never deviate him from his duty. He endures all such incidental occurrences because he knows that they come and go and do not affect his duties. In this way he achieves the highest perfection in yoga practice.
At the same time, it is not that a servant of the God becomes callous to others’ suffering. No. He is even more compassionate and concerned for others’ suffering. And because he understands the real cause and the real solution he dedicates his life selflessly to teaching others. If one has a bird in a cage, he doesn’t just polish the cage. If someone is drowning in the ocean simply saving the coat is worthless. One must feed the bird inside the cage, not just polish the cage. One must save the drowning person, not just the coat. Helping the eternal soul is the real solution to the problems of life – not just trying to help the body. The body is only a covering like the cage and the coat. The soul is the real person. The real you.
So to become free from suffering we must pray to the energy of the Supreme Lord (Hare is the energy of the Lord) and to the Supreme Lord, “Please pick me up. Please pick me up. I am in this bodily concept of life. I am in this material existence. I am suffering. Please pick me up to the spiritual platform so that I will be happy.” Because as soon as you come to the transcendental platform, you become joyful, happy. It is not that simply you say that “I am in the transcendental meditation.” No. Actually you have to become happy. And that can be achieved by chanting this Hare Krishna mantra.
So our request is that you give it a try. You simply chant. There is no restriction that “You have to chant this Hare Krsna mantra in such and such place, in such and such condition.” There is no restriction of time and circumstances or atmosphere. Anywhere, at any time, you can meditate. No meditation is possible while you are walking on the street. But this meditation is possible: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. And go on with your work. You are working with your hands? You can chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. So this is very nice. So kindly accept this Krishna consciousness movement. Krishna is the perfect name. Krishna means all-attractive. And Räma means the supreme pleasure. So if God is not all-attractive and supreme pleasure, then what is the meaning of God? God must be. He must be the supreme pleasure. Otherwise how you can be satisfied with Him? Your heart is hankering after so many, so many pleasures. If God cannot satisfy you with all the pleasures, Räma, then how He can be God? If Krishna cannot be attractive to any person, then how He can be God? He is attractive actually. So we are chanting Hare Krishna. But if you think, “Oh, this is Indian name, this is Hindu name. Why shall we chant? Why shall I chant the Hindu name…?” There are some sectarian people, they may think like that. But Lord Chaitanya says, “It doesn’t matter. If you have got any bona fide name of God, you chant that. But you chant God’s name.” That is the prescription of this movement. And do not think that this movement is a proselytizing movement from Christian to Hindu, or Hindu to Jew. No. You remain Christian, Hindu, Jew, or Muhammadan. It doesn’t matter. Our process is that if you are really trying to perfect your human form of life, then try to learn, develop your dormant love of Godhead. That is perfection of life. That is perfection of life. You profess any type of religion—then just test whether your religion is perfect or you are perfect, whether you have developed your love for God than any other love. We have distributed our love in so many things. When all our love will be concentrated simply on God, that is the perfection of life.
So God is giving us the choice to surrender to Him or to act independently and suffer the consequences. But He is begging us, “Please surrender and be happy.” And that surrender is very easily achieved simply by chanting this maha-mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. So please chant this mantra and make your life sublime.
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