Seeing Krishna’s hand in the tragic death of devotees
The devotee community of ISKCON Mumbai was recently anguished to learn that an air crash had tragically killed eight dedicated members of their congregation. As the community gathered to lament the untimely demise of their dear fellow-devotees, one question arose repeatedly and insistently: “If Krishna is truly the protector of His devotees, then how can we make sense of such a ghastly accident?” This question has resonance far beyond any particular event to the overall pattern of Krishna’s interactions with His devotees.
Tragedies like these are, no doubt, emotionally devastating, even for those who are serious aspiring devotees and who know that “we are not our material bodies.” The path of bhakti doesn’t ask us to suppress our emotions or reject them as illusory; it urges us to sublimate our emotions by connecting them with Krishna. Radhanatha Swami, the spiritual leader of the Mumbai devotee community, poignantly expressed this insight with the gentle exhortation: “Let your every tear be a tear of gratitude to Krishna.”
How can we possibly be grateful to Krishna in the face of such tragedy? The bhakti scriptures explain that love, spiritual love for Krishna, is indestructible, even by death. Once we enter into that life of love by practicing devotional service, everything that happens thereafter is an opportunity to go deeper into that love. It is for these opportunities that we can be grateful even when we are heartbroken when those opportunities come in the form of tragedies.
The Door Out of the Disaster Movie
All of us long to love and to be loved. Most of us seek that love at the material level and thereby unwittingly become participants in a disaster movie.
Disaster movies generally show people caught in some natural calamity, trying heroically to save themselves and others from impending doom. Though disaster movies may be popular, not many of the people who like disaster movies would like to find themselves in an actual disaster; there’s no guarantee of a fairy tale ending. Even fewer are the people who realize that all of us are already living in a real-life disaster that’s unfolding before our eyes. A hundred percent of the people reading this article will be wiped out a hundred years from today. The name of this all-consuming disaster is death.
Despite this cent-percent casualty rate, most of us don’t feel that life is like a disaster movie. One reason is that the movie of life unfolds in slow motion, making it possible to forget the direction of its motion if we want to. And we fervently want to. Why? Because the reality of death is inconvenient and unpleasant for us. It spoils, even ruins, our hopes for success and glory in the material realm. So we want to forget it. And forget we do.
But even if we forget it, the disaster movie is real. And we are not spectators. We are actors who dream of being victors but end being victims.
This is our unfortunate fate as long as we seek love in the material realm. Bhakti shows us a way out of this doomed fate by connecting us with an eternal object for our love: Krishna. This connection doesn’t stop the disaster, but enables us to come out of the path of that disaster.
Resolving Our Essential Dilemma
The Bhagavad-gita (2.11-30) informs us that we as eternal souls can’t even be touched, let alone destroyed, by anything material even death. The Gita (18.65-66) further reveals how Krishna offers us a standing invitation to a life of eternal love, a life outside the disaster-prone area of material existence. All we need to do is redirect our love towards him.
When we start redirecting our love devotionally, Krishna expertly starts orchestrating our life and thereby providing us opportunities to increase our love for him. Frequently, Krishna’s orchestration provides us increased facilities to practice devotional service. However, the world simultaneously allures us with promises of material pleasure and distracts us from utilizing these devotional opportunities. This underscores our essential dilemma as aspiring devotees who are practicing spiritual life in material existence: we need to act on both the spiritual and material levels. At the spiritual level, we try to increase our love for Krishna by remembering him internally and serving him externally. At the material level, we act to utilize the material in service of the spiritual. Nonetheless, the material always has the potential to tempt us and mislead us away from Krishna. Whatever attachments we have to the material are hazardous distractions on our spiritual journey. Throughout our lives we struggle to protect ourselves from these allurements. Krishna helps us in our struggle by periodically showing us the in-substantiality of the material through the distress and disaster that characterize material existence.
Krishna-bhakti may or may not change the way material nature acts, but it definitely changes the way those actions of material nature affect us. So, though material nature may take its normal distressing course and cause tragedies even in the lives of devotees, the effect of such tragedies on devotees is different from that on non-devotees.
For those who have lived in forgetfulness of Him, Krishna as death appears to take away everything; they as naked souls have to go to the next life with nothing but the burden of their karma. For those who have been cultivating devotion, however, Krishna as death takes away that which may have caused distraction from the treasure of bhakti.
This in fact is the vision with which Vyasadeva consoles Yudhisthira Maharaja, who was grieving the untimely death of Abhimanyu. In the Mahabharata, Vyasadeva says, “No enjoyment in this world would be able to entice Abhimanyu away from where he has now gone, O King. He shines like a god in a splendid new body. We should grieve for those still living rather than those who have attained such an end.”
Thus, for devotees, death is a transition that takes them from the arena of distraction to the arena beyond distraction. To our finite material vision it may appear that this transition takes place gracefully for some devotees; they may depart surrounded by other devotees chanting and praying for them. And, to our finite material vision, it may also appear that this transition happens in a dreadful way for some other devotees; they may depart in a tragic airplane crash, or in some other shocking way. But our finite material vision doesn’t show us how Krishna is lovingly and expertly doing whatever it takes to clear off the residual distractions of those devotees, and enable them to come closer to Him, undistracted.
The Vision of Faith
Of course, every devotee has his or her own material distractions to remove, and we know very little as compared to Krishna what the best way is for increasing their devotional focus. That’s why though we may not know why things happened in a particular way for them or where exactly they went after their death, we do know that during their lives they placed themselves in Krishna’s hands and those are the safest hands that ever existed. So we can be assured in our faith that Krishna has guided, even escorted, them to a level where they can focus primarily, or even exclusively, on their greatest treasure of devotion.
Srila Prabhupada urges us to adopt this vision of faith in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.16.37, after discussing how throughout history various exalted devotees have severely suffered: “Seeing all these reverses affect devotees, one should not be disturbed; one should simply understand that in these matters there must be some plan of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Bhagavatam’s conclusion is that a devotee is never disturbed by such reverses. He accepts even reverse conditions as the grace of the Lord. One who continues to serve the Lord even in reverse conditions is assured that he will go back to Godhead, back to the Vaikuntha planets.”
To conclude, it is natural that we feel agonized at the sudden loss of the association of our fellow-devotees and it is natural that we shed tears of sorrow. At the same time, death reminds us that we have been gifted with a treasure that survives, even trumps, death, and that we need to urgently enrich our hearts with that treasure before it is too late. We feel grateful to Krishna for having given us that treasure, for having connected us with devotees who by their living and especially by their leaving have increased our appreciation of the value that treasure.
Thus does the sudden death of our fellow devotees cause us to shed tears of both sorrow and gratitude: sorrow because death has ended our connection with them in this world and gratitude because Krishna has gifted us the opportunity to connect with him and his family of loving devotees at a level that death can never end.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his site thespiritualscientist.com.