The Complex Karma of Haiti

By Vineet Chander for Om Sweet Om on 10 Feb 2010

Haiti is just the latest example of mass suffering in the material world.
It is natural, though never pleasant, to question the workings of the Divine when we see (and feel, and weep over) suffering on a grand scale.   

In the West, philosophers like Epicurus and David Hume lay it out for us. (Their Eastern counterparts do the same, by the way). Either God wants to prevent suffering but is not able to do so, or he is able but not willing to prevent it. In either instance, the existence of suffering (or evil) in the world is a real challenge to the notion of God — or to a God worth worshiping, at any rate.
One could try to explain the existence of evil actions that people perform (like murder or terrorism) by arguing that God allows us our free will; I touched on this in a blog post about the Mumbai terror attacks a few months ago.
But what about the suffering that is unleashed by an earthquake or hurricane or a baby who dies of SIDS in his crib? What about the horrible, sickening, painful things that “just happen” one morning? What about a tragedy like the devastating 7.0 earthquake in Haiti.?
Does Hinduism have something to say about Haiti?
I think it does. But first, some more illumination on the problem before us.
In his thoughtful BBC piece, philosopher David Bain explores this problem in some detail. Here’s a sampling:
Doesn’t our world contain a surplus of suffering? People do truly awful things to each other. Isn’t the suffering they create enough for soul-making? Did God really need to throw in earthquakes and tsunamis as well?
Suffering’s distribution, not just its amount, can also cause problems. A central point of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s was that we mustn’t exploit people – we mustn’t use them as mere means to our ends. But it can seem that on the soul-making view God does precisely this. He inflicts horrible deaths on innocent earthquake victims so that the rest of us can be morally benefited.
That hardly seems fair.
It’s OK, some will insist, because God works in mysterious ways. But mightn’t someone defend a belief in fairies by telling us they do too? Others say their talk of God is supposed to acknowledge not the existence of some all-powerful and all-good agent, who created and intervenes in the universe, but rather something more difficult to articulate – a thread of meaning or value running through the world, or perhaps something ineffable.
But, as for those who believe in an all-good, all-powerful agent-God, we’ve seen that they face a question that remains pressing after all these centuries, and which is now horribly underscored by the horrors in Haiti. If a deity exists, why didn’t he prevent this?
Newsweek’s Lisa Miller echoes Bain’s why in her own piece, poignantly (and sarcastically) titled “Why God Hates Haiti.”
Now, with as many as 100,000 dead in last week’s earthquake, a sensible person of faith has to grapple with the problem of what scholars call theodicy. If God is good and intervenes in the world, then why does he make innocents suffer? Why, as Job might have said, would God “crush an impoverished people with a tempest and multiply their wounds without cause? He will not let them get their breath.”
Over the next weeks, sensible clerics will struggle with what to say. “The really smart ones,” says Ehrman, “will be saying that God is mysterious and we can’t explain everything.” Others will teach that the earthquake is the work of the Devil or that believers can find blessings in the calamity, for in heaven the dead will finally find tranquility and repose. As a Roman Catholic blogger wrote last week, “This world is not all there is.”
Both Bain and Miller also quote — and take issue with — loudmouth TV evangelist Pat Robertson’s predictably crude suggestion that the earthquake was God’s curse on Haiti for a supposed pact their forefathers made with the Devil. (Bain and Miller weren’t the only ones to call Pat out on this. Over at Huff Po, my Princeton colleague and friend Rev. Paul Raushenbush told Mr. Robertson exactly where he could go.)
That Robertson’s spewing should emerge as a legitimate “religious” response to Haiti is itself a tragedy worth questioning the existence of God over. Thankfully, though, there are other faith perspectives out there.
Which brings us back to Hinduism’s view of the Haiti tragedy. How does my own faith answer the question? Much like other thoughtful people of faith, with a lot of head scratching and admissions that the mind of God is not easily read.
Still, we can say something. Hindu scholar Ramdas Lamb did a good job, I think, in this blog post.
After reading Lamb’s post, I reflected on three ways that my own understanding of Hinduism informs the way I try to make sense of Haiti:
This material world is a place of suffering.
Okay, so I know that it isn’t the most optimistic view of the world, and it may strike some as unnecessarily harsh. After all, isn’t Hinduism all about recognizing the divinity in all; shouldn’t we see this word as spiritual as well? Yes, In a sense. In the Bhagavad Gita (7.6), Krishna declares that this world emanates from him. And yet the same Bhagavad Gita (9.34) tells us that this world is temporary (asasvatam) and full of suffering (dukhalayam). And in the Gita’s 8th chapter, Krishna elaborates: “This world is a fleeting, ephemeral place of sorrow,” he explains, “and for all beings in it, from the ant to the gods, there is the day of birth and the night of death. But there is another, hidden place. That Supreme abode remains even when this world is annihilated. Those who go there never return.” The world of matter, it seems, is rigged — booby-trapped, if you will — towards suffering. It is the nature of the beast, designed by a Divine personality who wants us to return to our rightful, blissful home rather than get too comfortable here. Asking why there is suffering in such a world is a little like asking why the surface of the sun is so hot. Better to realize (truly and deeply) that, as the Roman Catholic bloger said, “this world is not all that there is.
Did all the victims of the Haiti earthquake do something horible to deserve such suffering? Did the nation violate some kind of cosmic law and is now reaping the fruit? Not quite. The idea of karma is not that simplistic or blindly mechanistic. At the same time, we don’t know exactly what cosmic baggage (the accumulation of several lifetimes perhaps) the victims of the Haiti earthquake were carrying with them. And consider that even the age we live in — what the Hindu sacred texts cal the age of Kali, the darkest winter of cyclical time — carries its own karma. It is an age marked by discord and strife, where suffering is especially palpable. Our age implicates us — not just Haiti, but all of us — in actions and reactions full of exploitation of the earth and other beings. As residents of this age, we are born into a certain karmic milieu. And tragedies and catastrophes that seem cruelly random and brutally arbitrary may be all a part of the collective karma we share.
Suffering Leads to Spiritual Growth.
Suffering is not, Hinduism asserts, meaningless. It is full of lessons to teach us exactly what we need to learn. We can never know what was in the hearts or minds of those hundred thousand people who faced death. But we can imagine that in many instances these people had opportunities to make tremendous spiritual advancement. It is entirely possible that at least some of these people achieved a certain state of enlightenment or union with the Divine even, perhaps especially, in the moments when every shelter of this material world was stripped away from them and the ground was literally pulled out from beneath them. And for those who survived, or are grieving the loss of loved ones, or are mourning the tragedy from oceans away– beneath the tears and grief and anger, there are lessons there too. There is an opportunity to grow deeper in our own spiritual identities, and to be forever and fundamentally changed. Rather than simply going “back to normal”, we can choose to be transformed.
In the final equation, I don’t think that Hinduism has “the answer” to the age-old Problem of Suffering question any more than Christianity or Judaism does. And whether you call it a “curse” or “bad karma,” a spiritually immature practitioner’s attempts at philosophizing suffering away does much more harm than good. (Just ask Sharon Stone, whose “bad karma” explanation for the devastating 2008 Chinese earthquake went over about as well as Pat Robertson’s Haiti comments.)
Still, for me, Hinduism helps me to reconcile a stark and sobering view of suffering in the world with the idea of compassion. I’m reminded of a famous Hindu parable involving a sadhu (monk) and a scorpion:
A sadhu was meditating by a strongly flowing river when he saw a scorpion struggling against the current, about to drown. Feeling great compassion, the monk picked the creature up. Immediately it stung him, causing the sadhu to drop him into the river. Again, the scorpion began to struggle, again the monk picked him up, and again the scorpion stung. The scene repeated itself several times, until finally the sadhu was able to place the scorpion safely on dry land. A friend of the sadhu happened to be passing through and had witnessed the scene from some distance. Astonished, he came to the monk and asked him to decipher the strange scene he had just seen. The monk smiled shyly and explained: “Everything has its God-given nature. The nature of this river is to move swiftly. The nature of the scorpion is to sting. But the nature of a compassionate man is to be compassionate, even when stung.”

Posted in In the News.