Understanding Karma and The Hindu's Response to Suffering

Summer is rarely kind to India and the summer of 2013 has been no exception. In June, the northern state of Uttarakhand was devastated by flooding that left over 800 dead and tens of thousands displaced. The Uttarakhand floods were purported to be the worst in nearly eighty years in the region.

In early July, a quarter million people in the state of Assam, in northeast India, fled as their homes floated away. Mass displacement during the summer monsoon season is not unusual. Five million people were dislodged from their communities in 2012, although "only" 100 died.

But what garnered more attention in the U.S. was a mass pesticide poisoning in July of school lunches near Bihar that killed twenty-three schoolchildren, all below the age of twelve. India boasts the largest school lunch program in the world and news of the calamity, perhaps like the Newtown massacre, rocked the country. The headteacher of the school, Meena Devi, has been arrested.

I lived in India for seven months in 2009-2010 working at an NGO in Udaipur, less than 200 miles Pakistan. Aside from my duties as a communications intern, I spent substantial time studying Eastern religious texts with a special emphasis on Hinduism. Twice I traveled to Haridwar to observe the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage and festival held once every twelve years along the Ganges River. Tens of millions of people poured in Haridwar over a four-month period, which was reported to be the largest human gathering in the world.

As catastrophe followed tragedy this summer, I wondered what Hinduism had to say to the innumerable and needless suffering experienced in her home of origin. Christians and Jews can look to Job, Buddhists to non-attachment, but what about Hindus?

Gadadhara Pandit, an author, lecturer and advisor of Hindu Religious Life at Columbia University and New York University, recently published a spiritual memoir, Urban Monk: Exploring Karma, Consciousness, and the Divine. When asked about the Hindu response to suffering, he offered an expected answer, "In response to any crisis - natural disaster, epidemic - some of Hinduism's most important tenets is compassion and nonviolence. Hinduism suggests we should extend our compassion to all beings, especially to those who are suffering. Within Hinduism, everyone is a child of God and so, to please God, naturally you want to please God's children."

Though noble, this fails to distinguish Hinduism from any of the world's major religions. In each of them, we find lengthy passages about the salience of compassion, charity, and nonviolence, though Hinduism has a stronger historical track record on pacifism than the Abrahamic religions.

Gadadhara Pandit offered that the Hindu philosophy of karma or the natural cycle of cause and effect, played a role in the disasters. Hinduism is predicated on the belief in multiple lives for the same soul. If a person lives virtuously, then he or she establishes positive karma, paving the way for a rebirth that enables a deeper spiritual life and eventually, breaks the karmic cycle to become united with God.

But if a person can develop positive karma, it follows that he or she can also gather its' negative counterparts. Poor karma can lead to a host of problems in this life and the next, including the kinds of disasters witnessed this summer. Does that mean that the children deserved to be poisoned thanks to mistakes in a past life? Did the flood victims sow the seeds of their destruction?

Dr. Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, suggested two ways of understanding karma. "Most Hindus are comfortable with the idea of individual karma. That is, if I do "X," then "Y" happens. But Hindus are less comfortable with this idea when many people die. In that case, karma can be understood as societal or the totality of causality."

As Dr. Soni pointed out, India has long been plagued by corruption, and the school lunch program has not remained immune. In some cases, food proprietors have profited handsomely at the expense of the quality and quantity of the meals served. In the case of the poisonings in Gandaman, the negative, collective karma thriving off systematic corruption resulted in the deaths of the children, not the individual karma of the children themselves.

Gadadhara Pandit noted the same trend related to the flooding and the cumulative effect of society's treatment of the environment.

"This is the reaction to our exploitation of the planet Earth. We are digging deep into Mother Earth, she is giving us what we need to survive - air, water, food - and we take more than we need in a very extreme way. When we treat the Earth like this, how can we not expect the Earth to react back? Anytime a living thing is being taken advantage of, it reacts. This is not about punishment, but cause and effect."

If other theologies are burdened by the impositions of a divine plan or grand design, Hinduism offers a naturalistic explanation rather than paternalistic. Hindus are not necessarily at the mercy of a Celestial Overseer(s).

"Ancient Hinduism," as phrased by Dr. Soni, regards the individual as wholly responsible for their ability to escape the karmic cycle. The collective karma of contemporary Hinduism reflects the trend in liberal Christian theology to take into account the salvation of the whole, rather than the part; and to examine our participation in a system that produces poisoned food, environmental disaster, or easy access to assault weapons.

Emphasizing collective karma will not bring back dead children or destroyed communities; it will not account for why tragedy falls on the innocent (nor will any other theology); but it can sustain the push for social justice movements that once produced the world's first freedom struggle against British colonial rule, which, not coincidentally was rooted in non-violence. Progressive, collective Hinduism will not solve tragedy, but it will ensure Hindus never stop fighting societal wrongs.