A devotee responds to a friend’s query about
the effect of a serious accident on his belief.
“Do you still believe in God when He didn’t or couldn’t protect you in His own temple?” This blunt question in my college friend’s email brought a smile to my face.
On June 21, 2011, in the early morning hours, I slipped on some spilled water in the ISKCON temple at Juhu, Mumbai. The fall was minor, but the pain was severe. A subsequent x-ray showed a cervical hip fracture that had dislocated the bone at the neck.
I was rushed to Bhaktivedanta Hospital, a devotee-run hospital in Mumbai, where the orthopedic surgeon Giriraja Dasa (Dr.Girish Rathore) performed four-and-a-half-hour surgery and then advised a three-month rest to facilitate the rejoining of the fractured bone parts.
When a former college roommate came to know of the fracture, he wrote offering his good wishes for a speedy recovery. After a couple of email exchanges, he asked his blunt question. I knew he had a good heart, but he had always found it hard to understand why I had thrown away a bright career to become, of all things, a monk. His question about my continued belief in God had reminded me of his loving exasperation with my life’s choice.
After prayerful contemplation I replied to him as follows (I am withholding his name to protect his privacy):
Thank you for your email with your question. I’m sure several of my acquaintances have the same question, but you alone had the forthrightness to raise it, so I appreciate your candor.
In a reciprocation of candor I will give you my answer: It’s a resounding yes. Not only do I continue to believe in God, but this accident has increased my faith in Him enormously.
Let me explain why.
First, I would like to remind you of an incident from 1993 when we were staying in the same hostel room during our first year in college. One night I was gripped by an agonizing pain in my abdomen. I couldn’t reach a doctor till the next morning because it was Sunday night and the day after a public strike. We didn’t know what to do. We were away from home and in a new place where we had arrived only a few days earlier. As I lay moaning in pain you tried your best to help me, but little could be done for me till the next morning when a doctor dealt with the kidney stone that had been piercing me (biting would be a better word).
A Subconscious Tolerance Strategy
My recent fall was just as painful probably more so. But my suffering was less. Here’s why.
When I fell I instinctively tried to remember Krishna not out of devotion but as a subconscious tolerance strategy. Since my college days I have read many self-help books and have been struck by a consistent theme in them: the enormous role the mind has in shaping our perceptions. Life presents problems to all of us, but we or rather our mind determine their sizes. When we let our mind dwell on a problem for too long, we blow it out of proportion and thus increase our misery. If we take our mind off the problem whenever we are not doing something specific to deal with it, we can prevent the problem no matter how big it is objectively from overwhelming us, and can go on with other aspects of our lives.
This strategy to deal with the mind’s influence seems sensible and extremely impractical. It seems that problems have a powerful in-built adhesive that lets them stick to the mind. Despite knowing that I was wasting my mental time and energy fretting over something unsolvable, I often found myself utterly unable to take my mind off the problem.
It was only when I started practicing Krishna consciousness that I discovered the practical means to counter the adhesive power of problems. The first and foremost principle of Krishna consciousness, as suggested in the name itself, is to always be conscious of Krishna, for this increases our desire for and devotion to Him, as stated in the Bhagavad-gita (12.9).
A fringe benefit of keeping our mind on Krishna is that it no longer dwells on problems. Over the fifteen years I have been practicing Krishna consciousness, I have repeatedly experienced that irritating or painful situations become less troublesome when the mind is taken off the disturbing stimuli and fixed on Krishna. Consequently, I have tried to cultivate the habit of calling out Krishna’s names whenever I have to do something unpleasant, be it as routine as a cold water bath on a frigid morning or receiving an occassional injection in a sensitive part of my body.
On the fateful morning of my fall, as soon as I hit the marble I felt pain like no other pain I have experienced before. It seemed as if a live electric current was shooting up and down my thigh. After several awfully long minutes and a few desperate prayers, I got the idea from within to start reciting verses from the Bhagavad-gita. Within moments, as if by magic, I found my mind becoming absorbed; a calming, comforting relief swept over me. For the next several hours, as I was taken first to the x-ray clinic, then to the hospital, to the CT scan center, and to a hospital bed, I continuously recited verses. Thanks to the many opportunities to study, speak, and write about the Gita that Krishna has presented me with most of the Gita’s verses are just a recall away. As I recited the verses I found myself relishing one of the most sublime experiences of my life. I had just recently taught the full Bhagavad-gita to a group of devotees, and the discussions on many Gita verses based on the commentaries of various acaryas, especially Srila Prabhupada and Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, were also fresh in my mind. Those discussions enhanced my absorption in the Gita verses. I have often found contemplating the Gita absorbing, but this time the absorption was unparalleled. The main reason for the absorption, obviously, was not devotion but necessity. Letting the mind wander from the Gita verses meant it would, by default, return to the pain, which was intolerable.
When the doctor at the hospital saw my x-ray and then saw me, he remarked in surprise, “Normally a patient with a fracture like this is not as calm as you are; he is screaming in pain.” When I reflect now on his comment I know that I too would have been screaming in pain as indeed I was back in 1993 in the hostel. But thankfully, I have discovered Krishna consciousness.
I remember an incident where my spiritual master, His Holiness Radhanatha Swami, asked an ailing godbrother, “How are you?” When the godbrother candidly answered, “Suffering,” my spiritual master replied, “Suffer happily.” When I first heard this anecdote I thought the words “suffer happily” as a delightful play on words. Now I have had a glimpse of their profound import: Even when the body is suffering, we can still be happy by cultivating Krishna consciousness.
From Cricket to Krishna
In the months since the fracture, I have been analyzing that extraordinary experience of pain relief. Was it due specifically to Krishna consciousness, or was it merely due to mental absorption irrespective of the object of that absorption? If I had been a cricket lover, could I have tolerated the pain by absorbing myself in thoughts of cricket?
The decade before I was introduced to Krishna consciousness I was a passionate cricket lover; I could effortlessly rattle off the names of not just the players of all the cricket-playing countries but detailed statistics of their stellar performances. From my own experience I can say that absorption of any kind can offer relief; I vaguely recollect seeking relief by mentally going over cherished cricket memories and fantasies while lying in pain from my kidney stone. But experience has proven to me that the relief from remembering Krishna is substantially greater. Moreover, Krishna-absorption differs from mundane absorption in two fundamental ways:
1. It is independent of externals: Absorption on anything mundane has nothing to do with my essential being, the real “me.” The real “me,” the Bhagavad-gita (2.13) explains, and cutting edge science reiterates, is a soul. When I as the soul seek happiness or even just relief by absorbing myself in cricket, I do so by a chain of misidentifications with temporary externals: I, the soul, identify first with the material body I presently have, then with the country in which that body was born, and the game currently popular in that country. As these externals change both unpredictably and beyond my control, so does my happiness. If India wins I rejoice; if India loses I lament. But when I seek happiness by absorbing myself in Krishna, I identify myself with the truth of myself, with what I am eternally: a beloved part of the all-loving Lord, Sri Krishna. Truth doesn’t change. That’s why happiness coming from Krishna-absorption remains accessible no matter what happens around me even if India loses or my body breaks. Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.25.23) describes the transcendental, matter-independent nature of divine absorption: “The devotees do not suffer from material miseries because they are always filled with divine thoughts.”
2. It is enhanced by Krishna’s reciprocation: Absorption in Krishna is not only real but also reciprocal. Krishna is a living, loving person who graciously reciprocates with our attempts to think of Him. In stark contrast, cricket is just a game; it can’t reciprocate. Even if we think of specific cricketers, they, being limited persons like the rest of us, can’t reciprocate in the ways Krishna can. They are not even aware we are thinking of them. Krishna describes in the Gita (18.58) how He reciprocates with those who think of Him, “If you become conscious of Me, you will pass over all obstacles by My grace.” This verse became a reality for me, thanks to my accident: I passed over the obstacle of intolerable pain with the divine grace of absorption in Krishna. I know from experience that this divine absorption is not automatic or mechanical; it is a gift from Krishna. I have recited verses from the Gita before and after the accident and, though I generally find such recitation relishable, I have rarely been able to replicate the sublimity of the absorption during the post-fracture period.
The Protective Value of Pain
Now, coming to your insinuation that Krishna didn’t protect me, my response is He did. First, he protected me from the intense pain by giving me His remembrance. Second, he protected me from the complications that could have resulted from the fracture by arranging to send me to a state-of-the-art devotee-run hospital for treatment under a caring, competent devotee-doctor. Third and most importantly, he protected me from the painful illusion that life in this world can be peaceful and joyful.
You will probably be surprised by my words “painful illusion.” Let me explain with the example of a medical disorder called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA). Children with CIPA feel no pain, nor do they sweat or shed tears. They are highly vulnerable to injuring themselves in ways that would ordinarily be prevented if they felt pain. They often have eye infections because they have unwittingly rubbed their eyes too hard or too frequently or scratched them in their sleep. CIPA children often play recklessly; they’re not afraid to bang into anything. From a child’s short-sighted perspective, obliviousness to pain may seem a blessing that grants fearlessness. But from a mature perspective, that same obliviousness to pain is a curse because it impels foolhardiness. Parents of CIPA children often have one prayer: Let our children feel pain.
Just as intellectual maturity helps parents understand the protective value of pain, so spiritual maturity helps us grasp the same lesson. Unfortunately, we are kept spiritually immature by our present materialistic culture, which by its incessant promises of worldly pleasures causes us to forget or neglect the unpalatable yet undeniable signs of suffering that surround us: acquaintances with agonizing cancers, energetic people who are mortifyingly immobilized by old age, thousands who are instantaneously wiped out by a sudden tsunami. Thus we unwittingly become like CIPA patients, recklessly playing our corporate and family games, oblivious to the dangers that may befall us at any moment. And when the dangers come as they inevitably will we often resent having been unfairly singled out for misfortune. But the fact is, everybody is being singled out sooner or later. Though the specifics of how different people suffer varies depending on individual past karma, the universal fact is that everyone suffers the inescapable onslaughts of old age, disease, and death. Serious contemplation of these miseries, the Bhagavad-gita (13.9) informs us, begins our spiritual maturation.
With spiritual maturity we understand that the sufferings of this world:
a. Protect us from the futile and fatal illusion that we, as eternal beings, can be happy in this temporary setting.
b. Provoke us to redirect our material desires to the spiritual, where we can reclaim the eternal happiness Krishna wants us to relish.
I chose to redirect my desires about fifteen years ago when I made cultivating Krishna consciousness my life’s primary focus. For me, the recent accident with its physical pain and spiritual relief served as a strong validation of my choice. Of course, the accident also showed me that I still have a long way to go in redirecting my desires; during the accident’s aftermath, I chanted not with devotion but out of necessity. But Krishna also says in the Gita (7.16) that necessity can be the mother of devotion. I hope and pray that in the future a day will come when I will chant the Gita’s verses with devotion. I feel confident that such a day will surely come if I continue diligently cultivating my absorption in Krishna. But till that day comes, I am happy and grateful to seek relief in Krishna-memories (and not cricket memories).
Given the fact that pain is inevitable for all of us, and that we have only the two unpalatable options of complaining publically or suffering privately, why not explore the third option offered by spiritual growth joyful transcendence?
Your loving friend in the service of Lord Krishna,Caitanya Carana Dasa
Caitanya Carana Dasa is an associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe to his free cyber magazine, visit thespiritualscientist.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org