By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Everything we experience as aspiring devotees is an opportunity to deepen our devotion to Krishna.
Sometimes devotees meet with fatal accidents, as happened in June of last year when an air crash tragically killed eight dedicated members of the ISKCON Mumbai, Chowpatty, devotee congregation. As the community gathered to mourn the loss of their dear fellow devotees, one question arose repeatedly and insistently: “If Krishna is truly the protector of His devotees, then how can we make sense of such a ghastly accident?” This question resonates far beyond any particular event and relates to the overall pattern of Krishna’s interactions with His devotees.
Tragedies like these are, no doubt, emotionally devastating, even for serious aspiring devotees who know that “we are not our material bodies.” The path of bhakti doesn’t ask us to suppress our emotions or reject them as illusory; it urges us to sublimate our emotions by connecting them with Krishna. Radhanatha Swami, the spiritual leader of the Chowpatty devotee community, poignantly expressed this insight with the gentle exhortation: “Let your every tear be a tear of gratitude to Krishna.”
How can we possibly be grateful to Krishna in the face of great tragedy, especially when our fellow devotees are involved? Once we begin practicing devotional service to awaken our love for Krishna, everything that happens in our life is an opportunity to go deeper into that love. For that we should be grateful—even when opportunities come in the form of heartbreaking tragedies—because love for Krishna is indestructible, even by death. Let’s understand this spiritual love better.
The Door Out of the Disaster Movie
All of us long to love and to be loved. Most of us seek love at the material level and thereby unwittingly become participants in a disaster movie.
Disaster movies generally show people caught in some natural calamity, trying heroically to save themselves and others from impending doom. Though disaster movies may be popular, not many of the people who like them would want to find themselves in an actual disaster; there’s no guarantee of a fairy-tale ending. Even fewer are the people who realize that all of us face a real-life disaster that’s unfolding before our eyes. The name of this all-consuming disaster is the relentless approach of death: A hundred percent of the people reading this article will be wiped out a hundred years from today.
Despite this hundred-percent casualty rate, most of us don’t feel that life is like a disaster movie. One reason is that the movie of life unfolds in slow motion, allowing us to forget the direction of its motion if we want to. And we fervently want to. Why? Because the reality of death is inconvenient and unpleasant for us. It ruins our hopes for success and glory in the material realm. So we want to forget it. And forget we do.
But even if we forget it, the disaster movie is real. And we are not spectators. We are actors who dream of being victors but end up being victims.
This is our unfortunate fate as long as we seek love in the material realm. Bhakti shows us a way out of this doomed fate by connecting us with an eternal object for our love: Krishna. This connection doesn’t stop the disaster of death, but enables us to come out of its path. To understand how, we need to review the philosophical fundamentals taught in the Bhagavad-gita.
Resolving Our Essential Dilemma
The Gita (2.11–30) informs us that we as eternal souls can’t even be touched, let alone destroyed, by anything material—even death. The Gita (18.65–66) further reveals how Krishna offers us a standing invitation to a life of eternal love, a life outside the disaster-prone area of material existence. All we need to do is redirect our love towards Him.
When we start redirecting our love devotionally, Krishna expertly starts orchestrating our life and thereby providing us opportunities to increase our love for Him. Frequently, Krishna’s orchestration provides us increased means to practice devotional service. However, the world simultaneously allures us with promises of material pleasure and distracts us from using these devotional opportunities. This underscores our essential dilemma as aspiring devotees practicing spiritual life in material existence: We need to act on both the spiritual and the material levels. At the spiritual level, we try to increase our love for Krishna by remembering Him internally and serving Him externally. At the material level, we act to use the material in service of the spiritual. Nonetheless, the material always has the potential to tempt us and mislead us away from Krishna. Whatever attachments we have to the material are hazardous distractions on our spiritual journey. Throughout our lives we struggle to protect ourselves from these allurements. Krishna helps us in our struggle by periodically showing us the insubstantiality of the material through the distress and disaster that characterize material existence.
Krishna-bhakti may or may not change the way material nature acts, but it definitely changes the way those actions of material nature affect us. So, although material nature may take its normal distressing course and cause tragedies even in the lives of devotees, the effect of such tragedies on devotees is different from that on nondevotees.
For those who have lived in forgetfulness of Him, Krishna as death comes to take away everything; as naked souls they have to go to the next life with nothing but the burden of their karma. For those who have been cultivating devotion, however, Krishna as death takes away whatever may have caused distraction from the treasure of bhakti.
This in fact is the vision with which Vyasadeva consoles Yudhishthira Maharaja, who is grieving the death of his young nephew Abhimanyu in the Kurukshetra war.
In the Mahabharata, Vyasadeva says, “No enjoyment in this world would be able to entice Abhimanyu away from where he has now gone, O King. He shines like a god in a splendid new body. We should grieve for those still living rather than for those who have attained such an end.”
Thus, for devotees death is a transition that takes them from the arena of distraction to the arena beyond distraction or at least an arena closer to Krishna. To our finite material vision it may appear that this transition takes place gracefully for some devotees; they may depart surrounded by other devotees chanting and praying for them. And, to our finite material vision, it may also appear that this transition happens in a dreadful way for other devotees; they may depart in a tragic airplane crash, or in some other shocking way. But our finite material vision doesn’t show us how Krishna is lovingly and expertly doing whatever it takes to clear off the residual distractions of those devotees and enable them to come closer to Him, undistracted.
The Vision of Faith
Of course, all of us have our own individual material distractions to remove, and Krishna knows much better than us the best ways to increase our devotional focus. That’s why—though we may not know why things happen in a particular way, or where exactly someone will go after death—we can be sure about the safety of those who place themselves in Krishna’s hands, for His are the safest of all hands. So we can be assured in our faith that Krishna has guided, even escorted, our departed devotee-friends to a level where they can focus primarily, or even exclusively, on their greatest treasure of devotion.
Srila Prabhupada urges us to adopt this vision of faith in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.16.37, after discussing how throughout history various exalted devotees have severely suffered: “Seeing all these reverses affect devotees, one should not be disturbed; one should simply understand that in these matters there must be some plan of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Bhagavatam’s conclusion is that a devotee is never disturbed by such reverses. He accepts even reverse conditions as the grace of the Lord. One who continues to serve the Lord even in reverse conditions is assured that he will go back to Godhead, back to the Vaikuntha planets.”
It is natural that we agonize over the sudden loss of the company of our fellow devotees, and it is natural that we shed tears of sorrow. At the same time, death reminds us that we have been gifted with a treasure that survives, even trumps, death and that we need to urgently enrich our hearts with that treasure before it is too late. We feel grateful to Krishna for having given us that treasure, for having connected us with devotees who by their living, and especially by their leaving, have increased our appreciation of the value of that treasure.
Thus the sudden death of our fellow devotees causes us to shed tears of both sorrow and gratitude: sorrow because death has ended our connection with them in this world, and gratitude because Krishna has given us the opportunity to connect with Him and His family of loving devotees at a level that death can never bring to an end.