Sickness A Friend and Teacher
From Back to Godhead
By Vamsi Vihari Dasa
Though illness may restrict or halt our normal spiritual activities, it can provide spiritual benefits we might not otherwise gain.
After seven days of sickness, malarial fever had broken me down to the bones, and loss of appetite and hallucinations added miseries. I struggled to practice my daily chanting of Hare Krishna. But in those seven days I gained in ways that would not have been possible had I not been sick.
We have to accept the truth that we will inevitably fall sick. Lord Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita (8.15) that suffering is in the nature of this world. So whoever we may be, we can’t be too optimistic about living a disease-free life. But the process of Krishna consciousness can help us avoid emotional breakdown while we are sick, provided we keep our attitude right.
Besides the physical distress, we dislike sickness because it puts us off our routine life. Our lives tend to center on a particular activity, like a business or a service, and any hindrance to that is perceived as a threat to our sustenance.
My illness threatened my spiritual life, so when I fell sick I asked myself, “Why do we assume that only good health is favorable to serving Krishna? Can we not serve when sickness forces us to be less active?”
Sickness need not be nondevotional; it can be highly spiritual. Devotional service is described as apratihata, or uninterrupted in any circumstance. In other words, no material situation is powerful enough to obstruct devotional service. Though our bodies and their sicknesses are material, devotional service is transcendental to them. Sickness might inactivate our body, but by choosing the proper attitude we can act on the platform of soul.
We have examples. The Gaudiya Vaishnava Saint Srila Haridasa Thakura chanted many holy names of Krishna daily even as old age was stealing his strength. And even on his deathbed, Srila Prabhupada continued his devotional service of translating the Srimad-Bhagavatam. [See the sidebar“Srila Prabhupada’s Example.”]
Seeing Krishna’s Purpose
If we can understand why Krishna is putting us in this predicament, the bitterness of sickness can reduce or even turn into sweetness. We have to be convinced that Krishna is our best friend (Gita 5.29) and does not send us unnecessary suffering. Since time immemorial we have loaded our existence with a boundless burden of sinful activities. That burden is a barrier in our journey toward Krishna (Gita 7.28). To bring us back to Godhead, Krishna needs to purify our existence sometimes by giving good health and allowing us to perform various devotional services, and sometimes by giving us sickness and suffering. Just as fire purifies gold, the fire of suffering purifies us of sinful reactions. Sickness also teaches us important lessons not only critical for our internal growth but difficult to learn otherwise.
One of my devotee friends shared his realization that Krishna takes the risk of being blamed: “Oh! I am trying to serve You, Krishna, and You are giving me problems. What kind of God are You?”