Pandemic: Finding Meaning Amid Suffering

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Crises such as pandemics can be impetuses for us to reexamine how we see our place and purpose in the world.

A pandemic can seem monstrously meaningless. A virus from one corner of the world can mean death for thousands, disease for millions, and disruption of daily life for billions.

No one likes suffering. But what we especially dislike is meaningless suffering. If we are given an injection, we accept the momentary pain as part of the cure. But if a thorn pricks us while we walk on a road, we find that pointless pain especially annoying.

To face suffering gallantly, we need to see it as meaningful, as a part of some intelligible bigger picture. Making sense of what is happening can give us a sense of purpose and a sense of power. We get a sense of purpose on understanding how we can play a part in the bigger picture. And we feel empowered when we leverage the resources we have for playing that part.

Amid a crisis such as a pandemic, the Bhagavad-gita can help us in our search for meaning, purpose, and power.

Meaning: How Can I Make Sense of It?

The Gita was spoken at a time when its protagonist, Arjuna, faced an excruciating ethical dilemma that made him ask a fundamental question: What makes life worth living?

A similar question confronts us when we face a threat such as a killer virus. Adversity can prompt both action to deal with the immediate threat and contemplation about its ultimate significance. Amid catastrophe, we might get into a frenzied struggle for the things that have survival value – or even the things that only seem for the moment to have survival value Additionally, impending catastrophe can impel us to think deeply about what brings value to our survival.

Questions about our mortality acquire an unneglectable urgency when we understand that death might be not just at our doorstep, but on our doorknob, in the form of an invisible but incurable virus. What would we want to do if we had only a month to live?

In our modern world, we have become accustomed to a life that is comfortable but superficial. We live to consume mindless entertainment. We give too much importance to our careers. We place way too much stock in our positions and possessions. We act as if we are machines for producing and consuming. We reduce happiness to physical sensations and emotional stimulations. When our mind-numbing pursuits are suddenly brought to a screeching halt, we are forced to ask what really matters. Therein lies our opportunity to evolve spiritually. Spiritual evolution is essentially a change in our conception of the spirit that drives us: “What is really of value? What actually counts?”

The Gita is spoken as a guidebook to aid spiritual evolution. It explains that the world we live in is a broken place, prone to distress and death (8.15). The bodies we have are breakable, prone to deterioration and destruction. While unsentimentally stating these undeniable truths, the Gita urges us to consider a daring possibility: Might death be a comma, not a full stop? Might there be a core to us that exists beyond bodily destruction?

Given that death is the ultimate destroyer of meaning in a materialistic worldview, given that a materialistic worldview is as much a metaphysical truth-claim as a more spiritual worldview, given that materialism has left millions with a haunting lack of meaning, we might do well to be open to a worldview that helps us find deeper meaning in life and in death. Indeed, becoming receptive to a more meaningful worldview is the way we can have karuna (compassion) on ourselves.

Guiding us in our search for meaning, the Gita (2.13) asserts that, at our core, we are indestructible spiritual beings. In our current context, this implies that beyond our virus-prone bodies, we are virus-proof souls.

Gita wisdom explains that we all are on a multilife journey of spiritual evolution. In that journey, every experience, be it enjoyable or miserable, can help us evolve. While the destructibility of our bodies can make our life seem meaningless, the indestructibility of our souls can become the foundation for our search for meaning. Even when life sends us suffering that seems meaningless, we can pursue spiritual evolution and therein find meaning.

A crisis like a pandemic can assume meaning when seen as a reminder to focus on the things that bring value to our survival. Maybe we can shed some of the many superficialities that have crowded and clouded our inner and outer worlds. Maybe we can start doing the things that really count.

Purpose: What Part Can I Play?

While many things in the world are beyond our control, especially amid a crisis, some things are still in our control, even amid a crisis. The thing that is most in our control is our own consciousness. It is our first resource, the resource that enables us to use all our other resources. If we are agitated, we can’t properly use our intelligence, our talent, our contacts, our money, our life itself. By appropriate spiritual practices such as chanting Hare Krishna, we can calm our consciousness and increase our readiness to face life’s inevitable sufferings.

For suffering, karma is often thought of as the Gita’s causal explanation. Yet Gita wisdom doesn’t offer any simplistic explanation for all suffering; it cautions that the ways of karma can be incomprehensible (4.17). And the Gita never uses karma to shame the sufferer; blaming the victim is reprehensible. Rather than speculating about who has done what karma, we can focus on what is our dharma, the right thing to do. The Mahabharata, the epic within which the Gita is situated, is driven by the search for dharma – all the major characters are repeatedly confronted by misfortune, and they deliberate how to respond effectively. Rather than obsessing over the often-unanswerable question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” the epic focuses on a more pragmatic question: “When bad things happen to good people, what do good people do?”

A motif that runs through the Mahabharata is the power of human choice. Distress befalls everyone in the world. What characterizes the wise is their response – they act in ways that decrease distress, not increase it. We gain a sense of purpose when we stop obsessing over the cause of suffering and start focusing on the cure, specifically on our part in the cure.

However bad the situation we are in, we can always make it worse. That we can make things worse implies we can also make them better. The question “What can I do to be a part of the solution, even if my part is small?” is our compass for finding purpose amid suffering.

Power: How Can I Play My Part?

Medical knowledge can empower us to adopt the best practices for protecting our and others’ health. Similarly, spiritual knowledge can empower us to act positively by reminding us that we can be agents of a healing force far greater than ourselves. The Gita (15.7) explains that each one of us is a part of the whole, the Supreme Truth – Krishna. Krishna is not a judgmental being sitting atop the clouds to hurl thunderbolts on the sinful; He is the universal indwelling companion, situated in the chariot of our body, helping us fight our Kurukshetra on the field of life.

We can play our part in harmony with Krishna if we let ourselves be guided by a service attitude: “How can I serve? How can I contribute?” That service attitude can be the flashlight to see the path ahead. We know that we can do better. If we stop complaining or panicking or blaming, we can be calmer and steadier. The flashlight of our service attitude can show us our path more clearly.

Amid a pandemic or other crisis, whatever we can do can seem like a tiny flashlight in a vast darkness. Yet every flashlight counts. Every step taken in the right direction makes a difference. If our flashlight can show the way for even one person, we are contributing that much to the solution. Small acts of kindness can bring warmth to those facing the abyss of loneliness. We can’t change the world, but we can change one person’s world.

And because we are all parts of Krishna, we can become channels for His light to manifest through us. If we offer ourselves as pliable and capable instruments, His light radiating through us can transform us from penlights to floodlights. If we diligently do the things we can do, divine grace may well empower us to many of the things we thought we couldn’t do.

In a corona crisis, each one of us can be an agent of karuna.

About the Author: 

Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Chaitanya Charana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Mumbai. He is the author of twenty-two books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, "Gita-daily," visit thespiritualscientist.com.