By Vamsi Vihari Dasa
Though illness may restrict or halt our normal spiritual activities, it can provide spiritual benefits we might not otherwise gain.
After seven days of sickness, malarial fever had broken me down to the bones, and loss of appetite and hallucinations added miseries. I struggled to practice my daily chanting of Hare Krishna. But in those seven days I gained in ways that would not have been possible had I not been sick.
We have to accept the truth that we will inevitably fall sick. Lord Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita (8.15) that suffering is in the nature of this world. So whoever we may be, we can’t be too optimistic about living a disease-free life. But the process of Krishna consciousness can help us avoid emotional breakdown while we are sick, provided we keep our attitude right.
Besides the physical distress, we dislike sickness because it puts us off our routine life. Our lives tend to center on a particular activity, like a business or a service, and any hindrance to that is perceived as a threat to our sustenance.
My illness threatened my spiritual life, so when I fell sick I asked myself, “Why do we assume that only good health is favorable to serving Krishna? Can we not serve when sickness forces us to be less active?”
Sickness need not be nondevotional; it can be highly spiritual. Devotional service is described as apratihata, or uninterrupted in any circumstance. In other words, no material situation is powerful enough to obstruct devotional service. Though our bodies and their sicknesses are material, devotional service is transcendental to them. Sickness might inactivate our body, but by choosing the proper attitude we can act on the platform of soul.
We have examples. The Gaudiya Vaishnava saint Srila Haridasa Thakura chanted many holy names of Krishna daily even as old age was stealing his strength. And even on his deathbed, Srila Prabhupada continued his devotional service of translating the Srimad-Bhagavatam. [See the sidebar “Srila Prabhupada’s Example.”]
Seeing Krishna’s Purpose
If we can understand why Krishna is putting us in this predicament, the bitterness of sickness can reduce or even turn into sweetness. We have to be convinced that Krishna is our best friend (Gita 5.29) and does not send us unnecessary suffering. Since time immemorial we have loaded our existence with a boundless burden of sinful activities. That burden is a barrier in our journey toward Krishna (Gita 7.28). To bring us back to Godhead, Krishna needs to purify our existence—sometimes by giving good health and allowing us to perform various devotional services, and sometimes by giving us sickness and suffering. Just as fire purifies gold, the fire of suffering purifies us of sinful reactions. Sickness also teaches us important lessons not only critical for our internal growth but difficult to learn otherwise.
One of my devotee friends shared his realization that Krishna takes the risk of being blamed: “Oh! I am trying to serve You, Krishna, and You are giving me problems. What kind of God are You?”
But as a true well-wisher, Krishna is concerned not about being blamed but about ending our material existence as soon as possible. Of course, during difficulties He also provides the strength we need to endure.
Like a doctor intent on healing a patient, Krishna works hard to purify us. Accepting His ways without complaint and blame encourages Him to continue His treatment, whereas an uncooperative attitude may encourage Him to stop. Therefore, we should be grateful that Krishna is spending so much of His energy for our benefit.
Sickness humbles us. We may normally be very active, but sickness puts a break on our activity. We may be proud of our abilities and strengths, but sickness reveals our total dependence on Krishna for these.
Sickness can reveal the true level of our spiritual connection by showing whether our foundation is shallow or deep—that is, based on a genuine desire to practice Krishna consciousness in any circumstance. If we are open, we may find the revelation humbling, which in spiritual life is helpful. So, illness can be a turning point in our life. We may understand that we have forced Krishna to put us into this predicament to take us out of the illusion that life in the material world is “the good life.”
During sickness, our reduced activity and daily spiritual practices and our increased dependence on others may humble us in front of friends and peers, hurting our false ego. But, for Krishna, our purification and reconnection with Him take priority over protecting our false ego.
Years ago I read the poem “Reduced,” by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami:
My list of Things to Do
falls to the side.
All I do is rest.
Yet one cry to Krishna
is worth a hundred days
of marching in pride.
Sickness can become a golden opportunity for us to realize our smallness and helplessness and take shelter of Krishna.
Good health may give us a feeling that we are independent and don’t need others’ help. That attitude is unhealthy for spiritual life. To cure it, Krishna mercifully takes away our health, and we are forced to accept our dependency on others for such basic activities as eating, cleaning our body, taking medicine, and moving around.
I used to have the attitude that if I am not taking service from others, then others should not expect service from me. Sickness breaks this solid rock of impersonalism and selfishness. Taking care of others is an essential element of Vaishnava behavior. It leads to gratitude and helps us develop good relationships. Taking service from others humbles us and inspires us to serve them in return. We realize the futility of our own strengths, and we realize our need for others in maintaining even our material life, what to speak of our spiritual life.
Sometimes our hectic daily routine doesn’t allow us to come close to people at work or in our personal life. But sickness provides an opportunity to understand our need for people and their prayers. When we are sick, devotees, especially, open their hearts and pray for our welfare.
Sickness can bring devotees closer to each other. When someone is sick and most in need of our service, that is a good time to show him or her our love. For five years I was fortunate to serve sick devotees in our temple. I witnessed many friendships beginning and flourishing during that time.
When we please others, especially devotees of Krishna, Krishna bestows His unlimited mercy. He always wants to serve His devotees, and when He sees that we are helping Him do so, He becomes obliged to us.
Sickness can also contribute to relationships by helping us develop empathy. As the saying goes, “A barren woman can’t understand the pain of childbirth.” Our own sickness can help us feel the suffering of others when they are sick and can inspire us to offer them service in friendship.
Turning Knowledge into Realization
In an incident from the Mahabharata, someone asked Yudhishthira, the king of Hastinapur, to tell the most amazing thing in this world.
“Every moment we see that others are dying,” he replied, “but we think we will never die.”
We are no exception to the inevitability of death, though we may tend to forget it time and again. When things are going well, old age and death seem irrelevant or far away from us.
Sickness, especially chronic, bursts the illusory bubble that things will go smoothly forever. Parikshit Maharaja, the last heir of the Pandu dynasty, learned that he would die in seven days. Someday we may be informed, “You have only four months left” or “Now you have to live with this disease.”
Disease reveals our attachments. Are we happy that Krishna is purifying us? Or we are disturbed that we will lose our body and things related to it? One day we’ll have to leave everything behind. Sickness gives a glimpse of the inevitable and provides an opportunity to prepare. The Sri Vaishnava king Kulashekhara wrote, “My Lord Krishna, I pray that the swan of my mind may immediately sink down to the stems of the lotus feet of Your Lordship and be locked in their network; otherwise at the time of my final breath, when my throat is choked up with cough, how will it be possible to think of You?”
Each one of us should aspire for such Krishna consciousness and liberation from bodily consciousness.
Feel Krishna’s Love
Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (7.16) that distress helps one take shelter of Him. A devotee of Krishna doesn’t wait to become sick to take shelter of Krishna, but when he becomes sick he tries to see Krishna’s mercy in the whole affair.
Rather than focusing on our dwindling body, if we somehow become spiritually aware we may feel Krishna’s presence and love in difficult times. Hare Krishna devotees do that by chanting a fixed number of Krishna’s names every day, even in illness if possible. By practicing such spiritual activities, we realize that Krishna is our mother, father, and best friend.
We have to remember that if Krishna is allowing something to happen to us, it must be good. I have met devotees who feel that the best time of their Krishna conscious lives was when they were going through some difficulty. Not finding any other shelter, they intensely took Krishna’s shelter and felt His presence more evidently than at any other time. That’s why Kunti Devi, the glorious mother of the Pandavas, prayed to Krishna for more and more calamities. “Because,” she reasoned, “calamities inspire me to see Your lotus face, which means I’ll no longer see the face of repeated birth and death.” We need not imitate Kunti Devi by asking for more hardship, however; our destined calamities should be enough for us to turn to Krishna.
Taking Care of the Body
Because our body is an instrument with which to perform devotional service, taking care of it is not a material activity. Anything used in the service of the Lord is spiritualized. Besides, our body is God’s property, and that’s another reason we should take care of it.
The Chaitanya-charitamrita relates an instructive incident in this regard. Sanatana Goswami once had pus-oozing boils all over his body. Ignoring them, Lord Chaitanya embraced Sanatana. Disgusted, Sanatana decided to commit suicide by throwing himself under the wheels of Lord Jagannatha’s chariot during the Rathayatra festival. When Lord Chaitanya came to know of Sanatana’s intentions, He rebuked Sanatana: “Your body belongs to Me. And one who destroys someone else’s property is considered a thief.”
Therefore, we should not think that unless we do something physically we cannot contribute to the society of devotees. Sickness is inevitable for everyone, sooner or later. During sickness we can keep our spirits high and be grateful. By doing this we can set an example for others by turning our sickness into a sweet blessing. What could be a better service than inspiring others in spiritual life?
If we regain our health, we need not imitate Kunti Devi and invite sickness again, but neither should we regret our period of sickness, complain about it, or blame Krishna. We can start appreciating spiritual things we might otherwise have taken cheaply. That attitude will open for us the doors of the spiritual world, where there is no birth, death, old age, or disease.