Finding Shelter in Times of Suffering

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Even in the most hopeless situations there is hope—when we turn to Lord Krishna.

“Can you please speak to my relatives,” a doctor friend requested me after a Sunday feast program in our temple. “Their youngest son died in an accident recently, and they are much traumatized.”

I agreed and went to meet the family in a corridor outside the temple hall. The father told me how the son had gone to a picnic with his friends and had drowned in a river. He was just eighteen. I listened sympathetically, and when they asked questions I offered answers I thought would give them hope in their painful situation. After half an hour, some of the family members seemed consoled, though the mother had been silently shedding incessant tears.

As we parted, my thoughts veered to another story I had heard. It, too, took place near a lake and was a sudden catastrophe that struck a family, but the attitude of the victim turned a life-threatening crisis upside-down.

Nightmare on an Excursion

Once a mighty elephant named Gajendra, the head of his heard, went to a lake to bathe with his many wives, children, and other members of the herd. Thoroughly refreshed by the cool, clear water, they sported by spraying water over each other with their trunks. When everyone was laughing and enjoying water sports in the crystal-clear lotus-filled lake, a crocodile suddenly attacked Gajendra and would not let go. The elephant, sure of his mighty strength, fought valiantly but could not free himself. Seeing him in that grave condition, his wives cried. The other elephants tried to rescue him by grasping him from behind, but because of the crocodile’s great strength, they could not succeed. The fight continued for a long time, slowly draining away the elephant's strength.

The Inevitibility of Disaster

This story, which is not over yet, is narrated in the Srimad-Bhagvatam, which through many such narrations offers us valuable life lessons. Gajendra can represent anyone afflicted by misery. He was living what anyone would consider an ideal life—terrific power, presitige, and control, loving family and friends, and all the luxuries he could want. But now he found himself trapped in the jaws of a crocodile. Similarly, our world is full of agents of misery. They may not look as menacing as a crododile, but can cause just as much pain. They come in different forms, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, corruption, disease, and exploitation. These crocodiles are built into the world. We may feel safe now, but they are there, just a step away, waiting to clench their mighty jaws upon us. That is the world we live in.

We may feel that problems are indeed part of life and that we should fight them with courage and determination. But what is our usual strategy for crisis management? We pitch our personal strength, intelligence, and money, or garner support from friends, relatives, and political leaders. But sometimes all our support systems fail. Diseases, accidents, and terrorists don't avoid the rich, the famous, or the beautiful.

Someday when all our support systems fail, then what? Whom will we turn to?

For the answer, let us go back to Gajendra.

Surrender to the Supreme

When Gajendra saw that he had no power to defend himself and that none of his friends, relatives, or wives could help him, he became extremely afraid of being killed. He thought for a long time and finally decided, “It is by the will of providence that I have been attacked by this crocodile, and therefore I shall seek shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is always the shelter of everyone, even of great personalities.” ( Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.2.31-33)

Gajendra prayed from his heart, and soon God (Lord Narayana, Vishnu) manifested right before him. Despite his great pain, Gajendra took a lotus flower in his trunk and with great difficulty offered it to the Lord, who pulled both Gajendra and the crocodile out of the water. Then the Lord severed the crocodile's head with His disc, thus saving Gajendra.

When faced with our own problems, we should consider applying Gajendra's approach—he turned to God. We, too, can find the ultimate shelter. Krishna Himself might not come to us, but surely His help will.

A Creation of Calamities

We may feel reluctant to approach God for a solution, and we may want to just wait, either because life is comfortable or because we feel that the current tragedy will not last. But such inertia stems from ignorance of the powerful unseen dynamics that control this world.

The Vedic texts teach us that God creates the material world for us rebellious souls who have turned away from God to enjoy independent of Him. Being a loving father, He has created a place for us to enjoy to our hearts' content. But He wants us to enjoy the best, and not just be happy with the imitation. Therefore, He has employed His representative, Durga Devi, the supervisor of material world, to gradually bring us to proper knowledge. Along with advice from scriptures and sages on how to transcend this world and go back to God, we have Durga Devi's crocodiles biting us—to shake us out of our inertia and make us want to escape this miserable place.

The moment we come to the material world these crocodiles have us in their grips. Despite our best hopes and efforts, they won't let go. We can break loose from the crocodile jaws of the material energy only when, like Gajendra, we totally humble ourselves, realizing that we are completely helpless, and then surrender to Krishna, the Supreme Lord.

We are not aware of our predicament. And even if we sometimes are, we think it will go away. But unless we surrender to Krishna, it won't.

Krishna, Our Companion in the Darkest Times

In every situation, even the most extreme, Krishna is always there to help us. He never lets His devotee down. He is suhridam sarva-bhutanam: everyone's best friend. He is right there within our hearts, just waiting to give us a completely blissful life. No matter what we do, no matter what we have done, Krishna never leaves us. Who could be a better friend? Birth after birth we have totally betrayed, blasphemed, and rejected Him, but He is still with us. His love is unconditional; He never leaves us. He is always waiting, always willing to give us a chance. At no time will Krishna not deliver us, if we just turn to Him, as Gajendra did.

We have to choose the Lord's shelter moment after moment throughout our stay in the material world. At times when the crocodiles are not biting into our flesh, it is easy to forget Lord. Then our dormant desires to enjoy the illusion raise their heads again. We should learn from Gajendra in this regard. After being liberated, he was not thinking of enjoying again in this world. If that had been his desire, then Krishna would have left him here. Krishna would have said, "Oh! You want to enjoy here, but there is going to be another crocodile. You are not out of the real crocodile's mouth." But after Gajendra was freed from the crocodile, he didn't want to do anything except serve the Lord, love the Lord. He was so grateful. Krishna saw that Gajendra had no material desire, that he had lost all faith in maya's false promises in this world. Therefore, Krishna not only freed him from the crocodile, but He put him on an airplane and sent him directly to Vaikuntha, the spiritual world.

The Holy Names: The Only Hope

In this age the holy names of the Lord incarnate to liberate us from the crocodile jaws of the material energy and take us back home to the eternal world of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So in the spirit of Gajendra, we should learn to surrender to the Lord with a humble and sincere heart—not tomorrow but today. Filled with the spirit of humility and grateful tolerance—whereby we offer all respects to others and expect none for ourselves—we can actually take shelter of the Lord. That's the meaning of "surrender." At a superficial level, "surrender" means doing what you are told. But deep-down surrender means to have the type of humility expressed by Lord Chaitanya: "My Lord, I am Yours. You can trample me, embrace me, or break my heart. Whatever situation You put me in, My Lord, I am Yours." (Sikshashtaka 8)

The spirit of Gajendra and the lesson of Srimad-Bhagavatam are to welcome adversities and transform them into blessings by sincerely and intensely taking shelter of the holy names of the Lord. Material existence is designed to give us the optimum situation in which we can really, seriously, from our hearts cry out Krishna's holy names, following in Gajendra's footsteps. In every situation the crocodile of suffering and death is immanent. Supreme liberation is the rightful claim only for one who takes shelter of the Lord when difficulties come. When setbacks, intrusions, impediments, and disturbances come into our lives, we must welcome them with folded palms and grateful hearts, thinking, "I deserve worse, and this is only a token trouble given by Krishna."

Krishna is inviting us into His eternal transcendental pastimes for total relief, shelter, and ecstatic joy. Our body will die—today, tomorrow, someday. If we can once take shelter of Krishna and sincerely cry out His holy names, we can be delivered. Therefore, all dangers are blessings from Krishna, helping us to cry out to Him.