Why do bad things happen to good people?

Good evening to all alumni members and their spouses assembled here today.

Mr. Biswas has been kind enough to have introduced me to you all. Before I begin, let me tell you how I came to be here today.

I know Dr Subramanian, the Jt Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan through his younger brother Mr. Gopal Krishnan. I have interacted with Mr. Krishnan for quite some time now. Shilpamandira has signed an MoU with Tata Motors regarding training and placement of our automobile technicians. It was Mr. Krishnan who made this happen. He had introduced me to Dr Subramanian. One day, about a fortnight ago, Dr Subramanian came to my office along with Mr. Biswas and asked me if I could address this gathering. Before I could say yes or no, Mr. Biswas said to me, “Maharaj, please choose a catchy topic, something that will be attractive to the alumni members and will be intellectually stimulating to them.” Well, there he actually caught me – with ‘intellectually stimulating’. I said yes, I would go to address the alumni gathering. But then, I pleaded for some time to choose the topic. I then told them about what had happened in our Vedanta Society of Northern California long ago. There was a monk there long ago called Swami Prabhavananda. He was supposed to give a lecture every Sunday in his Center. Over a period of time he found that the number of people attending his weekly lectures started dwindling. He wished to increase the attendance in his lectures. So he came up with an ingenuous plan. He gave an advertisement in the local papers saying “This Sunday, Swami Prabhavananda will speak on ‘How to make money’ at such and such address.” The hall was overflowing, with people having no place even to stand; so many had turned up. He slowly walked up to the rostrum and told them, “Well, I don’t know how to make money. But, if I hadn’t advertised like this, so many of you wouldn’t have come here. Now that you have all come here, I will tell you about Vedanta which I do know. Please listen.” We had a good laugh about it. Today’s evening also is something of the same sort, I am afraid! Anyway, I had asked for some time to decide on the topic. Then I went about my day’s work in Shilpamandira. I had a series of meetings with various departments that day. One of my lecturers came to me with a personal problem. And in the course of our discussion, he asked me this question – why do bad things happen to good people? That was when I immediately messaged both Dr Subramanian and Mr. Biswas that this would be my topic.

So much for the background; now I will inform you my plan for this evening. I will speak for so long as one of us – either you or I – gets bored. Then I will throw the house open for questions. Now, let me elaborate on today’s topic of my lecture.

While introducing me, Mr. Biswas said that I was an Engineer before I became a monk. I in fact studied in the same college in Bangalore as Mr. Biswas’s son studied in. Just as the introduction got over, Mr. Amitava Chakravarti here pointed out that my becoming a monk was indeed a good thing for me, but must have certainly been a bad thing for my parents! I will come to that point a little later in my lecture. That is the whole problem with this question. Good and bad certainly seem to be vague and naïve categorizations.

We will all agree that this is a question that we have all asked ourselves sometime or the other in our lives. I will point out to you some of the important points concerning this question. Then I will try to explain to you what Vedanta has to say on this question. You see, I am a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission. I represent Swami Vivekananda’s ideas and they are basically Vedanta ideas, with some important deviations.

I believe that all of us in this hall will agree that we all consider ourselves to be ‘good people’. There will be no one here who will claim to be a bad person. You know what most of us think about ourselves? ‘I am a good person. I do admit that I have some weaknesses, some short-comings, but then, I am not a bad person at all!’ This is what most of us feel about ourselves. Am I not right? And as a corollary of this self-concept, we ask ourselves, ‘I am a good person; how could such a bad thing happen to me?!’

This brings me to an important idea that seems to be pervasive among all human beings. That is the idea that if we are good, only good things ought to happen to us. Since I haven’t done anything wrong, how can something bad happen to me? This is the line of thinking that seems to be pervasive all over the world, irrespective of culture, race and religion.

I wish to point out one important fallacy with this line of thought. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who once said, ‘We are excellent advocates of our short-comings and the cruelest judges of the mistakes that others commit.’ We seem to be unable to make an unbiased judgment about our own actions. Hence we always judge ourselves to be correct and hence ‘good persons’. Others, on the other hand, seem to be committing a hell of a lot of mistakes and hence they ought to be receiving blows after blows for their ‘bad’ actions! How correct is this judgment?

Then there is the thing about the point of us being all good. What exactly is the basis on which we judge ourselves to be good? Since we never committed a ‘bad’ act, we claim to be good. Not being bad – is it necessary and sufficient condition to be categorized as ‘good’? Let me tell you a small story: A couple developed some trouble between themselves and their marriage was getting rocked. They approached a marriage counselor. The counsellor told the husband, ‘Go home and listen to what your wife says. She has something to say to you about many things. Just listen to what she says.’ So the husband went back home and went on listening attentively to all that his wife had to say. A month later he came to the marriage counsellor. The counsellor asked him, ‘Well, how is the situation now?’ The husband said, ‘A little better.’ Then the counsellor advised, ‘Now, go back home. This time, along with listening to all that she says, listen very carefully to all the things that she doesn’t say!’ Very similar is our condition too, I guess. We, of course, don’t commit crimes. But then, how many of us here can claim that we go out of our way and perform acts of real goodness? Most of us cannot claim that. And yet, we are quite hasty in classifying ourselves under the group ‘good people’!

Somehow we all seem to assume that life is quite logical in its unfoldment. We assume that there is a linear logic governing our lives. This feeling is pervasive in all of us. But, is it really linear? Listen to a story. A man was once walking along a road. He saw that two policemen were walking behind him, a little far away. He stole a look at both of them. He suddenly felt that their faces and their animated body language seemed to tell him that both of them were discussing about him and that they suspected him about something. A fear enveloped him and he bolted. As soon as the two policemen saw that the man before them was running, they gave chase. He came across a huge iron gate. He jumped over it and entered a graveyard. There was a freshly dug out grave. He jumped into it and hid there. But it wasn’t long before the law enforcement officers caught him there. They asked him why he was hiding there. When they asked him that question, he realized that he had acted in haste and that he was never a suspect in the first place. He gave an answer which I appreciate a lot. He said, “Officer, you have asked a simple question. But I assure you that I cannot give you an equally simple answer to that question. All I can safely tell you is this – I am here because of you both, and the both of you are here because of me!” So, within small circles of events, there does seem to be linear logic working in our lives, but when you consider the events of our lives in larger circles, in larger periods of time, linear logic doesn’t seem to be operative.

Anyway, be that as it may. This is a question that is asked by people all over the world, at all times and under every conceivable situation. I hold that if there is some tendency that is pervasive in human beings, then, it means that that tendency ought to serve some universal benefit. If it did not serve a universal purpose, it wouldn’t be present in such a pervasive manner. Vedanta claims that this tendency present in us – the tendency to seriously ask ourselves – ‘why do bad things happen to us?’ is meant to serve some purpose in our lives. In other words, Vedanta says that it cannot answer this question, but it can show you how you can put this tendency to ask this question, the capability to feel suffering, to good use.

This is one characteristic feature of Vedanta. It says that just because you ask a logical question, there is absolutely no guarantee that a logical answer can be given. That is Vedanta’s stand. This is a question that cannot be answered satisfactorily at all. It is impossible to give a logical answer to this question. However, that doesn’t mean Vedanta is not interested in the question. Vedanta is interested in this question because, it can show you a way to put the faculty that gave rise to this question to a wonderful use and enable us to achieve a marvelous objective for yourself.

Semitic Religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism have attempted to answer this question by a simplistic method. They posit two entities – God and the Devil. All that is good comes from God. All that is evil comes from the other side!

Vedanta doesn’t accept such an approach. There is no attempt to hook moral judgments onto God. Vedanta does posit a God, a creator-preserver-destroyer. And everything comes from Him. Good comes from Him. Bad too comes from Him. Why does Vedanta say such a thing? This is because, categorization of people or events into two water-tight compartments of good and bad is very naïve. Any person with sufficient maturity will understand that such compartmentalization is impossible. Let me explain this by telling you a story. I read this story long ago. I guess it was written by Leo Tolstoy. There was a man living in a Russian village. He had a strange habit of saying that everything that happened was for his good. His friends did not agree. They made fun of him saying that events were either good or bad and his outlook that everything that happened was good was stupid. One day, this man’s only young son went hunting with his friends. During that hunt, his son broke his leg. He came back home and his situation was so bad that there were doubts if he would be able to walk again at all. This man’s friends now approached him and asked him how he felt about this event. As usual, the man held that this had happened for his own good. They concluded that he was a fool and was incorrigible and went away. Some weeks later, Russia entered into a war and the Czar issued a decree that all able-bodied young men should join the army and fight on the battle field. Now the man ran to his friends and pointed out that while all of them had to send their sons to the army, he was exempted because his only son couldn’t walk yet! So, wasn’t he right in his claim that the accident that had occurred was actually good?

Thus, the very scheme of things in this world seems to be such that the border line between good and bad keeps shifting. What we considered good at one time, under one set of situations may turn out to be bad a little while later, under a different set of situations. When such is the actual situation, it is quite right that Vedanta chooses to ignore answering this question of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ and instead focuses on putting the tendency to ask this question to some better use.

Vedanta focuses on discovering something inside us that is eternal. Vedanta claims that the core of our being, in each one of us, is perfect, is undying, and is pure. Vedanta says that although perfection is so close to us, rather closer than anything else, we don’t know it. And that makes us go towards it is suffering. Suffering opens our eyes. I agree that this statement appears harsh, cruel, even unsettling. But then, this whole business of dealing with the Truth is only for those with the stoutest hearts. In the Mahabharata, there is a prayer by Kunti, a marvelous prayer. She prays to the Lord as follows: ‘O Lord, give me more and more suffering, so that I can remember you so much more.

Look at this artifice. Suffering brings us in closer contact with the Lord. In other words, suffering brings us in closer contact with our inner core. Hence, it makes sense in asking for more and more suffering so that we can get closer to our inner core so much earlier and sooner! Western psychology speaks of a type of persons called ‘Masochists’. These persons also seek pain and suffering. I however hold that Vedanta is not masochism. The reason why a masochist seeks suffering is because he gets a perverse happiness in undergoing pain. A Vedantist seeks suffering so that he can move further inside himself towards his inner core.

How does Vedanta expect us to go deeper within ourselves using the experiences we get in our life? There is a great mental block regarding spiritual unfoldment. Most of us feel that we need to lead a dedicated life, a life consisting of only devotional practices and meditation for spiritual growth. In no other way can we grow spiritually; this seems to be the popular conception. Well, Vedanta does have some such practices too. There is a path called Raja Yoga. It prescribes that one should lead a secluded life. Not engaging in any activities other than meditation and pranayama, one is expected to lead a totally isolated existence. There are endless rules and regulations about how & what to eat, about what to think and what to speak, about how much to exercise and how much to sleep and what to wear and things like that. If one chooses to follow such a path, of course, one has to completely forget one’s social life, one’s family and friends and become a monk. You will immediately ask me – what will happen to my family? And my business?

Vedanta prescribes a wonderful path called Karma Yoga for the masses. Most of the other paths like Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga are for a very special type of people. Karma Yoga is for you and me. What is this Karma Yoga? How does one practice it? What developments occur in us as a result of practicing this Yoga? I will tell you a small story to indicate these things. I will elaborate on this topic some other day, if we meet again. For now, I will just give you some broad indications of the actual scope of Karma Yoga in our daily lives.

 

 

Most of us think that Karma Yoga means catching some poor beggars, destitute people and distributing some clothes and food to them; or, running a dispensary. Indeed, that is a type of Karma Yoga, where we do something to someone who can never repay us; something done selflessly. But the main form of Karma Yoga is something else. It is practiced in the context of our daily life itself. All of us have to work. There is a particular mode with which we can work and reap enormous benefit from it.

 

I will tell you a story that Swami Vivekananda recounted in his seminal book ‘Karma Yoga’. This story is taken from the Mahabharata. It concerns a Vyadha. Vyadha is a Sanskrit term for a butcher, one who kills animals and sells their meat for his living. The story is as follows:

“A  young  Sannyasi  went  to  a  forest;  there  he  meditated,  worshipped,  and  practiced  Yoga  for  a long  time.  After  years  of  hard  work  and  practice,  he  was  one  day  sitting  under  a  tree,  when  some  dry leaves fell upon his head. He looked up and saw a crow and a crane fighting on the top of the tree, which made him very angry. He said, “What! Dare you throw these dry leaves upon my head?!” As  with these words he angrily glanced at them, a flash of fire went out of his head — such was the Yogi’s power — and burnt  the  birds  to  ashes.  He  was  very  glad,  almost  overjoyed  at  this  development  of  power  —  he  could burn the crow and the crane by a look. After a time he had to go to the town to beg his bread. He went, stood at a door, and said, “Mother, give me food.” A voice came from inside the house, “Wait a little, my son.” The young man thought, “You wretched woman, how dare you make me wait! You do not know my power yet.”  While  he  was  thinking  thus  the  voice  came  again:  “Boy,  don’t  be  thinking  too  much  of yourself. Here is neither crow nor crane.” He was astonished; still he had to wait. At last the woman came, and he fell at her feet and said, “Mother, how did you know that?” She said, “My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest. If you want to know something higher than this, go to the market of such and such a town where you will find a Vyadha (The lowest class of people in India who used to live as hunters and butchers.) who will tell you something that you will be very glad to learn.” The Sannyasi thought, “Why should I go to that town and to a Vyadha?” But after what he had seen, his mind opened a little, so he went. When he came near the town, he found the market and there saw, at a distance, a big fat Vyadha cutting meat with big knives, talking and bargaining with different people. The young man said, “Lord help me! Is this the man from whom I am going to learn? He is the incarnation of a demon, if he is anything.” In the meantime this man  looked  up  and  said,  “O  Swami,  did  that  lady  send  you  here?  Take a seat until I have done my business.” The Sannyasi thought, “What comes to me here?” He took his seat; the man went on with his work,  and  after  he  had  finished  he  took  his  money  and  said  to  the  Sannyasi,  “Come  sir,  come  to  my home.” On reaching home the Vyadha gave him a seat, saying, “Wait here,” and went into the house. He then washed his old father and mother, fed them, and did all he could to please them, after which he came to the Sannyasi and said, “Now, sir, you have come here to see me; what can I do for you?” The Sannyasi asked him a few questions about soul and about God, and the Vyadha gave him a lecture which forms a part of the Mahabharata, called the Vyâdha-Gitâ. It contains one of the highest flights of the Vedanta.

When the Vyadha finished his teaching, the Sannyasi felt astonished. He said, “Why are you in that body? With such knowledge as yours why are you in a Vyadha’s body, and doing such filthy, ugly work?” “My son,” replied the Vyadha, “no duty is ugly, no duty is impure. My birth placed me in these circumstances and environments. In my boyhood I learnt the trade; I am unattached, and I try to do my duty well. I try to do my duty as a householder, and I try to do all I can to make my father and mother happy. I neither know your Yoga, nor have I become a Sannyasi, nor did I go out of the world into a forest; nevertheless, all that you have heard and seen has come to me through the unattached doing of the duty which belongs to my position.””

This is the path prescribed by Karma Yoga for all of us. The inner growth occurs as a result of intense self-introspection and self-correction when we face blows in the course of our daily life.

If you think Kunti’s prayer is strange, wait till you hear about the Bodhisattva. The Buddhists have something called the Bodhisattva Ideal. The Bodhisattva is a person, or rather, a state of mind, in which a person starts feeling that he should suffer all the pains of all beings in this world so that every being should be happy! Actually the Buddhists appropriated this ideal from Vedanta. The Vedanta speaks of an ancient King called Rantideva. This king too had his own prayer which was as follows:

Na tvaham kaamaye raajyam, na svargam, na punarbhavam;

Kaamaye duhkataptaanaam praaninaam aarthinaashanam.

“I do not desire for this kingdom, or for heaven, or even for another birth. What I desire is that I should suffer all the suffering of all beings that are in pain!”

Let us pause for a moment here. We began our deliberation today by asking ourselves as to why bad things happen to good people. In other words, why do good people suffer? Or again, in other words, how can good people [like ourselves] avoid suffering. And now, we find here some characters from the Vedanta who are apparently seeking for more and more suffering, in each case with an end in view. While Kunti sought more suffering so that she could remember the Lord more, King Rantideva sought suffering so that other beings could live happily. Just see how strange this mentality is from the mentality that we all possess right now.

When I was a young boy and read such stories in our holy books, I used to feel that they were all fiction and that in reality people like you and I could never raise ourselves to such a standard. Then I got introduced to Swami Vivekananda and I am afraid I have had to change my views about this. This transformation is very real, very possible and in fact, such a transformation seems to be our destiny! Let me highlight two incidents from the life of Swami Vivekananda to explain what I mean.

The first incident I speak about is when he was about 18 or 19 years old. His father was a rich man with a roaring legal practice. He hailed from a famous family right here in this city. He was very intelligent, highly talented and had an extremely bright future ahead of him. Exactly when everything seemed so right for him, his father died. His father had obviously not planned for his early death and hence overnight, Narendranath found himself in deep debt that he inherited from his father. He also inherited innumerable family legal suits and with all his talent, intellectual achievements and excellent family background, he was unable to get a decent job anywhere in this large town. Further, he was in such a bad shape that he couldn’t afford two square meals for himself and his mother and brothers and sisters. Yet, he continued to practice his daily devotions to the Lord. His mother observed this trait in him and one day chided him with this question that we began our discussion today. When his mother asked him that question, the young boy Narendranath was tongue-tied. He had no answer.

The second incident I refer to is to a letter that Swami Vivekananda wrote sometime in 1901. In that letter he writes, ‘I am ready to go to hell [i.e. undergo endless suffering] if I can bring even one man to the Light’. See what a transformation in a person in a matter of just 12 or 15 years! So I got the conviction that such a transformation is indeed possible in this very life.

Before I end my lecture, I will address just one more aspect of this topic. Some of you may think that the question would make more sense if I had asked ‘Why do good things happen to bad people?’ In other words, it seems really horrible that bad people seem to be having a very good time, while good people go on suffering. Why does that happen? Frankly speaking, I don’t know. But I will tell you a story.

You all know that Bhagawan Buddha, before he arrived at the Truth, was an earnest seeker by the name Siddhartha Gautama. One summer day he was walking in the forest and he came upon a beautiful lake. It had cool, clear water and he felt like taking a bath. He slowly entered the water, had a bath, felt refreshed and as he was about to come out of the lake, he saw some beautiful lotus flowers in bloom at the far end of the lake. He went near the flowers, bent down and smelled the heavenly fragrance of the flowers. Then he came out of the lake and started wearing clothes. At that moment, a Yaksha, a demigod materialized before him. The Yaksha said, “Say, young monk, how dare you enter my lake without obtaining my permission?” The Yaksha berated Gautama for quite some time. Gautama’s head was bent down in shame. He wanted to say that he had no idea that the lake had a caretaker, but he never got a chance to put in a word; the Yaksha was relentless in his scolding. In the meantime, a King’s nobleman rode up to the lake on horseback. He too saw the cool, clear waters on that hot summer day, tied his horse to a tree, tore his clothes apart and jumped into the lake. He splashed around for a long time, making the clear water all murky. When he had finished his sporting in water, as he was about to come out, he too eyed the beautiful lotus flowers in bloom. He went to the corner of the lake, roughly plucked a handful of flowers for his sweetheart at home, came out of the lake, wore his clothes and rode away. All this while, Gautama was thinking, ‘I did nothing in comparison to what this nobleman is doing and I was berated so badly; perhaps the Yaksha will strike this man down dead any minute now!’ But, when the nobleman went away safely, Gautama said to the Yaksha, “Well, Yaksha; I now understand you. I am a gentle person and hence you scolded me to your heart’s content. I saw that you did nothing to that nobleman. Of course, how could you? He is a big, powerful man.” The Yaksha’s reply is worthy of our meditation. The Yaksha said, “Gautama, I scolded you because you proclaim to follow a very high ideal in your life. That nobleman is an ordinary man, with simple goals in his life. The standards of behavior are different for you and for him.” so by claiming to be a good person, our responsibility increases greatly.

I have tried to give you some ideas about today’s topic. I have also tried to explain to you Vedanta’s stand on this subject. With this, I end my lecture. I now open the topic for a Q&A session. Thank you for a patient hearing.

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Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

3 thoughts on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

  1. This is a wonderful blog filled with Vedantic truth and wisdom so needed in society today. Keep spreading the light of our unchanging divine nature.
    Sending blessings your way!
    Love & Jai Ma
    Andra

    Like

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