It’s early March this year when I enter the doctor’s waiting room. On the loudspeaker I can hear a speech, or so it seems. As I take my seat, I watch the waiting patients trying to strain their ears, their faces glued to the spot of the emerging sound. The receptionist nervously struts around inside her cubicle, oblivious of anyone’s presence, and turns up the volume of the radio. I then realize it is the bail hearing of Oscar Pistorius, who has recently made international news headlines. Unfortunately, this time it isn’t for being the world’s fastest paralympian blade runner, but for being charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentines Day. The shocking news has caused an international uproar, with South Africa under the spotlight.
The gold medalist who had made South Africans proud, who had been an inspiration for those with physical disabilities and an example of achieving success despite his shortcomings, has now caused heartbreak and confusion among all race groups in the country, especially his fellow people, the Afrikaners (the white race in South Africa, of Dutch descent).
The people in the waiting room are Afrikaners who are alarmed and disturbed because the crime involved a famous role model of their race, someone of whom they were proud.
The woman sitting opposite me says in a hushed voice, “What do you think? How could he have thought it was a burglar in the bathroom and shot four times through the door without even asking who was there?”
Other patients, overhearing, shoot glances at her in disbelief. I feel their stares shift to me, but I remain silent. To share such an opinion in public without concrete evidence was surely courageous, and it initiated a discussion.
“Without proof, it would be difficult to contradict his defense,” remarks an elderly man. “With the rate of violent crime in our country, there is every reason for paranoia and rash behavior. Besides, a lot of people keep guns to defend themselves.”
The worried and disappointed looks on their faces show that besides the ailments for which they are visiting the doctor, they are suffering from something else as well—anxiety about this high-profile crime and danger in general in their country. Although statistics show that the rate of crime has dropped during the past year, this tragic incident is enough to remind them of their precarious situation.
As I try to understand some of the jargon used in the hearing, I reflect on Lord Brahma’s words in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.14.58): “In this world there is danger at every step.” In the Bhagavad-gita (12.7) Lord Krishna describes this world as mrityu-samsara-sagara, an ocean of birth and death. And Srila Prabhupada would refer to it as the slaughterhouse of material existence. Just as animals in a slaughterhouse make themselves comfortable, not realizing their imminent danger, we enjoy the comforts of material life while facing a similar predicament.
Srila Prabhupada sometimes quoted a Bengali song: “Because of a great desire to have all happiness in life, I built this house. But unfortunately the whole scheme has turned to ashes because the house was unexpectedly set on fire.” Our bodies and possessions are all “set on fire” at death. If we focus our time and energy only on things that will eventually be set on fire, what kind of sanity is that? We are distracted in many ways by temporary pleasures and trivial pursuits that do not save us in a world where our path is set with thorns. This may sound pessimistic in a time when “positive thinking” has become the slogan for success. Yet in a place like South Africa, where looking over our shoulders has become a normal way of life, we are reminded more often of our unsafe position. The reality of danger glares in our faces.
It’s been a long wait to see the doctor, but no one seems to mind. The sounds of the bail hearing drift in the background. The patients are engrossed in a more relevant discussion—their views of the crime crisis, and their overall dissatisfaction of the state of affairs. With the Oscar Pistorius investigation, it seems the judicial system is on trial as well.
I ponder over the fact that these people, like all of us, need to feel safe and secure, to be able to trust and depend on their superiors for protection. But this need leads to frustration and disappointment. The Vedic scriptures assure us that we cannot place our faith in fallible human beings, nor can we hope for them to give us shelter. Still, in Vedic times qualified leaders, or kshatriyas, who were guided by the spiritually elevated brahmanas, gave protection to their citizens. They not only cared for their people’s physical well-being, but also gave them direction in spiritual aspects of life. With God as the supreme protector and guardian, people sought refuge in His guidance and love. Thus, people lived in harmony and respect for one another, knowing they were all part of God’s family.
I am reminded of a speech given by Indradyumna Swami at a traditional national cleansing ceremony meant to restore the moral values of the nation. In the presence of the South African President, the king of the province of Kwazulu-Natal, and other prominent leaders, he explained that God is one, irrespective of what we may call Him.
In a mood of universal brotherhood, he elaborated, “It is important to understand this, for to achieve perfect social cohesion, we must transcend even our religious differences. In other words, we must unite on the spiritual platform by realizing we are all part of the greater family of God. When speaking of family, there is a saying that ‘blood is thicker than water.’ Family attachment is so strong. If we broaden our understanding that God is the Supreme Father and we are all His children, the bond among us will be very strong.”
The Vedic literature elucidates that there is hope for peace and unity if we see with equal vision, are guided by spiritually advanced persons, and abide by the laws of God. God’s instructions are like boundaries that keep us safe by saving us from sinful life.
As if reading my thoughts, the woman opposite me says, “It’s unbelievable. The newspaper nowadays is painful to read. Car hijackings, burglaries, rape, murder—it’s endless. What makes people do such things?”
Thinking of how to explain simply what the Vedic scriptures reveal, I say, “Lust, greed, and anger blind them and drives them to do anything that will satisfy their desires. They do not understand that doing the wrong thing will make them suffer.”
“But they so easily get away with it,” she interjected.
“Ah, not for long,” I say. “No one can escape the results of bad actions. I’m sure you’ve heard the biblical saying ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ It is a statement of the law of karma. One cannot escape reactions for bad acts, whether one pays in this life or the next.”
She nods her head in agreement. I use the opportunity to say more.
“We can only depend on God in these situations and see that He is teaching us something. If we lead our lives with strong spiritual values, then we are not carried away by anger, lust, and greed. Society lacks these values and principles.”
“Yes,” she agrees, “Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself.”
She clearly is getting the idea.
After a while, she says, “South Africa is such a beautiful country. Warm, friendly people, perfect climate, diverse cultures, a Rainbow nation. If it weren’t for the crime, it would be perfect.”
No Perfection Here
I smile, knowing well there is no perfect place on this planet or anywhere else in the material world. No matter where we are, we are faced with the same troubles and frustrations, the same dangers lurking in the shadows. There are many stories of South Africans emigrating to other countries, thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, only to return after finding similar or different challenges. There is no escape. Birth, disease, old age, and death are inevitable. Yet, even in South Africa, we are thinking that no danger will touch us, that it will happen to the next person. The influence of maya, the illusory energy that hides reality from us, is so strong that we think we will live eternally pursuing material happiness. The reality is that we are eternal spiritual beings, and true happiness can come only from our eternal spiritual relationship with God. It is the only permanent asset that will remain with us when all else is gone.
This doesn’t mean that this material world is devoid of value. It serves a purpose: It is meant for us to become detached from material pleasures and surrender to the Lord. We may see Krishna’s hand trying to reform us and life experiences teaching us lessons to grow towards Him. We may also see suffering as an impetus to become detached from material life, and a reminder that taking shelter of Krishna will free us from maya’s grasp. As Lord Chaitanya said, “Krishna is compared to sunshine, and maya is compared to darkness. Wherever there is sunshine, there cannot be darkness. As soon as one takes to Krishna consciousness, the darkness of illusion (the influence of the external energy) will immediately vanish.”(Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya22.31)
The Hare Krishna temples and centers are spiritual sunbeams, enlightening people about their true spiritual identities in relation to Krishna, addressing the root cause of suffering and how to ultimately end it, and giving hope and shelter in a time when people are confused and lost. The spiritual programs, including prasada distribution, spiritual discourses, elaborate festivals, and chanting of the holy names, are meant to purify diseased hearts. When the condition of hearts changes, then only will there be unity, peace, harmony, and a crime-free world.
While I’m seeing the doctor, the magistrate’s voice booms over the loudspeaker. The Oscar Pistorius case is an alarm for South Africans to examine their fears, to see the reality of the material world, and to seek understanding into spiritual aspects of life.
Again I reflect on Lord Brahma’s words, which Srila Prabhupada frequently quoted: “For those who have accepted the boat of the lotus feet of the Lord, who is the shelter of the cosmic manifestation and is famous as Murari, the enemy of the Mura demon, the ocean of the material world is like the water contained in a calf’s hoof-print. Their goal is param padam, Vaikuntha, the place where there are no material miseries, not the place where there is danger at every step.”
I leave the doctor’s office feeling fortunate and peaceful and knowing that because “life’s too short” and there’s “danger at every step,” I have to focus more on what’s really important—my eternal relationship with Krishna, who is my most dear friend and well-wisher.
—Nikunja Vilasini Devi Dasi