Uttarakhand musings: Why does tragedy strike pious people?

by Vembu  Jun 27, 2013 16:19 IST

#Faith   #Psychology   #Religion   #Resilience   #Uttarakhand floods  

Of tragic narratives that cleave the soul, the Uttarakhand flash floods have offered plenty in the past two weeks. But for sheer poignancy and parental pathos, it’s hard not to grieve in solidarity with one Chandigarh-based family, the Sharmas, whose faith has been severely tested by their recent pitiful experience during a pilgrimage to Kedarnath.

The Sharmas – Ashutosh and Dimple, along with their son and daughter and Dimple’s mother – were caught in the flash floods in Kedarnath. The parents and their son were rescued after a giant wave knocked them down, but there’s been no word on their 10-year-old daughter Anandita and Dimple’s mother. After a futile search that yielded no leads, the Sharmas have returned to Chandigarh, bearing an Anandita-shaped hole in their hearts. (More on their experience here.)

Pilgrims, who were stranded in Kedarnath weep on arrival at the railway station in Secunderabad. AFP

Pilgrims, who were stranded in Kedarnath weep on arrival at the railway station in Secunderabad. AFP

The heart bowed down with the weight of woe will cling to the weakest hope. Ashutosh says that he will hold on to the hope of seeing his daughter and mother-in-law again, even if that takes a miracle – until he sees their bodies.

It’s a hollow hope that I can empathise with, having ‘lost’ a loved one in other tragic circumstances. To this day, even 25 years later, the fanciful mind conjures up reunion scenarios that haven’t been dimmed by the anguish of repeated disappointment. It’s a hope I know I will carry to my pyre.

Psychologists say that grief is doubly compounded when it is open-ended, as it is in circumstances like these. Closure, they say, can be brought about if there were certain knowledge of the death of a loved one (as opposed to the emptiness of a void when a person goes ‘missing’). Under the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act, a person is presumed dead if s/he is missing for seven years. But the hapless heart cannot reconcile itself and turn the page even after a lifetime of silent sorrow.

In the Sharmas’ case, as with many others who lost their loved ones in Uttarakhand, the pain of unexplained loss also tests the faith of belief, given that the family was on a pilgrimage when tragedy struck. “We went to receive god’s blessings, and we cannot believe this happened to us,” says Ashutosh.

His wife is even more unforgiving of the gods she went to pay obeisance to. “I was so angry when this happened that I refused to offer pranams to Kedarnathji,” she says with justifiable anguish.

Scriptural parables tell us that Dimple’s sense of tragic bewilderment over her own circumstances — and over the fallibility of her gods — may have been more widely shared down the ages and across cultures. The life-story of the Buddha narrates the episode of a young mother, whose only child died of some ailment. Grief-stricken and tearful, she appears before the Buddha and asks him to revive her. After a moment of contemplation, he consents, on the condition that she bring a mustard seed from a household that has never been visited by death. That exploration leads her to the realisation that the Buddha intended: that her circumstances, while tragic, were not unique.

Likewise, biblical accounts of Job, whom god uses as a guinea pig of sorts in his battle with Satan don’t make it easy to comprehend the myriad ways in which he moved. In that perverse narrative, for instance, it was not that god was punishing Job for sinning; in fact, as god himself says, Job is “blameless and upright”. Job was evidently made to go through his trials because he was among the most faithful, not because he was the worst.

All these may, in the end, have been intended as solace to the faithful who find themselves severely tested by their gods. But what is faith worth if it cannot buy insurance from tragedies and heartbreaks? Why do bad things happen to ‘godly’ people?

The answer may lie in the fact that religion as a social construct was not intended to be ‘transactional’. A pious life is, in that sense, no guarantor of peace of mind or immunity from tragedy. A spiritual practice that truly elevates can, however, take one to the state of being a stoic — or a stitapragnya, where neither fire nor ice, neither tragedy nor joy, can overly disturb one’s sense of equanimity.

I mourn in spirit for the Sharmas; I hope they will find their daughter, or at least that they will find solace in their moment of grief. But as someone who’s been down a similar tragic road, my only wish for them is that they will over time find the resilience of spirit — the elasticity and buoyancy to recover from the experience of enduring suffering and pain — without the felt need for any divine props. Their gods may or may not have let them down, but if they never allow their human spirit to be crushed, however tragic their circumstances, they will have drawn on the true essence of their faith.