Somehow I managed to get out before New York City was shut down. Moving at a snail's pace across the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, my car was one of the few vehicles in an exodus of pedestrians crossing to safety in Long Island City. I looked south from the bridge into a cloud of gray smoke and ash that covered lower Manhattan. Those of us close enough to feel the tremor or see two mountains of concrete and glass crumble went into a dreamlike daze, like sitting in the front row of a disaster film, surrendering rational thought to energies and sensations way beyond our control. The impossible was playing itself out in front of our eyes. The World Trade Towers were an inevitability on the skyline of New York, an immovable permanence and they just disappeared, as if someone had passed over them with a giant eraser. It was one of the world's most feared nightmares.
Truth be told, we've always known it might happen. The Towers held a place in our collective subconscious as one of the few targets whose destruction would instantly sever America's main financial artery, garner headlines on every front page and newscast in the world, and make an indelible mark on history. What terrorist could possibly fail to envision their destruction?
What came to mind at that moment on the bridge was how naively we define ourselves by our impermanent surroundings. We are New Yorkers, so we expect to see the Towers when we look up at the skyline of our world. Yet the landscape of reality anywhere in the world is no more than a chimera, a gleaming semblance of truth that induces a false security, dulls our senses, puts us to sleep. The constructs of our petty lives, both physical and psychological, are like a Hollywood movie set that exists for a while, then gets struck with a few blows from a hammer, deconstructed, and put back into storage.
The risk in awakening to the impermanence of the world is an erroneous assumption that action is consequently irrelevant. What does it matter how we live, what we eat, whether we extend ourselves to others or not? It's all illusion. The Bhagavad-gita clarifies this mistaken impression.
"Not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction, nor by renunciation alone can one attain freedom." (3.4)
"On the other hand, if a sincere person tries to control the active senses by the mind and begins karma-yoga [in Krsna consciousness] without attachment, he is by far superior." (3.7)
"Whatever action a great person performs, common people follow. And whatever standard he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues." (3.21)
"One who is unattached to the fruits of work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic not he who lights no fire and performs no duty." (6.1)
"Acts of sacrifice, charity and penance are not to be given up; they must be performed. Indeed, sacrifice, charity and penance purify even the great souls." (18.5)
Sensitive To Suffering
How do devotees respond to such crisis? The people I am privileged to call friends in Krsna consciousness wept copiously for the victims of the tragedy, for their families and friends. Knowing, as devotees do, that everyone in this world struggles to make sense of his or her life softens the heart, makes people more sensitive to the suffering of others. On an action level, the Krishna Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed to support and strengthen the mission of the Krsna consciousness movement, is serving as a conduit for contributions from temple communities worldwide, with all funds going to appropriate New York relief agencies. Devotee educators and child development professionals are preparing a booklet for people working with children, offering recommendations and suggestions for frequently asked questions. And the Oxford Center for Vaisnava-Hindu Studies is editing a special edition of the ISKCON Communications Journal addressing issues raised by the recent tragedies.
On a personal level, I feel that we as a spiritual collective must move up a notch in our seriousness and commitment to devotional practices. What more startling proof could we ever witness to substantiate the urgency of nurturing our spiritual life? This was a rude, shocking wake-up call, and we can be grateful for being among the tiny handful of people graced with the knowledge that there is something else; that when the dust of our petty dreams and stubborn enterprises finally settles, there will be Krsna, ready to welcome us home.
Yogesvara Dasa is senior vice president at Ruder Finn, New York's largest public relations and communications firm. His office is forty-eight blocks from the former World Trade Center.