Claims of victimhood prevail today, but at the root of all our suffering are the choices we make with our own free will.
By Vishakha Devi Dasi
Instead of blaming others for our suffering, we’d do better to understand that we’re all fundamentally complicit in our so-called victimhood.
A victim is a person who suffers from a destructive action. Often we think of victims as innocent and neither responsible nor accountable for what’s happened – for example, people who are randomly shot or children who are abused.
There are victims, however, who may not be completely innocent – for example, a chain smoker who’s aware that smoking may be hazardous to his health yet who gets fatal lung cancer after forty years of smoking. One could argue that that person should have had the intelligence and self-control to stop smoking (or to have never started). Or one could point out that the tobacco industry purposefully made cigarettes highly addictive by adding extra nicotine. Has the smoker created his own misfortune, or is he a victim of the tobacco industry? (In a number of cases, the courts decided that smokers were victims of the tobacco industry and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to them.)
Another example: If I knowingly continue to associate with a person who abuses me, am I a victim, or am I simply foolish? Again the answer is not straightforward, as emotional, social, and economic factors may be involved. Each case is individual, and the degree of the victim’s responsibility is unique to each case. In other words, the issue of victim/perpetrator may be more complex and nuanced than a first glance reveals.
Another meaning of victim is a person who is adversely affected by a force, which includes a person who is deceived by his or her own emotions or ignorance. It is in this sense that, through the eyes of the scriptures, we can explore victims and their innocence or lack of it.
In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna makes it clear that we have free will. We are not incapable, helpless pawns. After instructing Arjuna He says, “Deliberate on this fully and then do what you wish to do.” (Gita 18.63) As adults, each one of us has some ability to decide how we want to act; we have some self-mastery and personal power, and therefore we are responsible for our actions. Yet, at the same time and perhaps surprisingly, the scriptural view is that those of us who are not strong devotees of Krishna are victims – victims of Krishna’s illusory energy. We are adversely affected by Krishna’s material nature. Srila Prabhupada explains:
The material world is called illusory because it is a place of forgetfulness of the transcendental service of the Lord. Thus one engaged in the Lord’s devotional service in the material world may sometimes be very much disturbed by awkward circumstances. There is a declaration of war between the two parties, the illusory energy and the devotee, and sometimes the weak devotees fall victim to the onslaught of the powerful illusory energy. (Bhagavatam 3.10.5, Purport)
The idea is that we, spirit souls, are pure because we are an integral part of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the supreme pure. When we come under the grip of Krishna’s material energy, we become a victim of the three modes of material nature, namely goodness, passion, and ignorance. Then whatever we do, we do under the influence of those modes. Thus we are victims. The Bhagavad-gita (3.27) confirms:
“The bewildered spirit soul, under the influence of the three modes of material nature, thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by nature.” And a bit later (5.14):
“The embodied spirit, master of the city of his body, does not create activities, nor does he induce people to act, nor does he create the fruits of action. All this is enacted by the modes of material nature.” In other words, if we’re without proper knowledge, we’re in the hands of the material energy in the form of goodness, passion, ignorance, or some combination thereof, and we suffer. Due to ignorance, we’re deceived by material nature.
How much are we innocent victims, and how much are we culpable? “According to Srila Madhvacharya, persons above the age of fourteen are considered capable of distinguishing between good and bad and are thus responsible for their pious and sinful activities. Animals, on the other hand, being merged in ignorance, cannot be blamed for their offenses or praised for their so-called good qualities, which all arise ultimately from ignorance.” (Bhagavatam 11.21.16, Purport) If I remain ignorant and continue to misidentify the body and mind as my self, then I also remain bewildered and weak and a victim of Krishna’s powerful illusory energy. My basic misidentification makes me prey to a cascade of difficulties and suffering. Therefore Bhagavad-gita begins with the spiritual instruction that no one is their body or mind but each one of us is a spiritual being existing within the body and mind. Forgetting this, I become a victim of whatever befalls my body and mind.
To stop being a victim, I need to address its root cause – that I’ve misidentified the body and mind as my self – and correct that misconception. My misidentification creates three kinds of mundane urges: the urge to speak, the urges or demands of the mind, and the demands of the body. In Prabhupada’s words, “When a living entity falls victim to these three types of urges, his life becomes inauspicious. One who practices resisting these demands or urges is called a tapasvi, or one who practices austerities. By such tapasya one can overcome victimization by the material energy, the external potency of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (The Nectar of Instruction, Text 1, Purport)
Those of us who are unused to austerities may cringe at the thought of doing any. The very word austerity may induce a shudder. But practically everyone already performs austerities, sometimes severe ones. For example, students spend long hours studying or sitting in classes; workers and businesspeople spend long hours getting to their place of work and back, and long hours working in less than ideal circumstances; parents must deal with difficult children; everyone deals with difficult relationships; and so forth. Like it or not, austerities are already integral to our lives. By the right kind of austerities, however, we can forever end our victimization at the hands of material nature. Srila Prabhupada explains,
In executing penance, one must be determined to return home, back to Godhead, and must decide to undergo all types of tribulations for that end. Even for material prosperity, name and fame, one has to undergo severe types of penance; otherwise no one can become an important figure in this material world. Why, then, would there not be severe types of penance for the perfection of devotional service? An easygoing life and attainment of perfection in transcendental realization cannot go together. The Lord is more clever than any living entity; therefore He wants to see how painstaking the devotee is in devotional service. The order is received from the Lord, either directly or through the bona fide spiritual master, and to execute that order, however painstaking, is the severe type of penance. One who follows the principle rigidly is sure to achieve success in attaining the Lord’s mercy. (Bhagavatam 2.9.24, Purport)
We begin by accepting, even theoretically, that because we are spiritual beings temporarily inhabiting a material body and mind, we can never be satisfied by trying to enjoy matter in whatever form it takes. Without this acceptance, our indefatigable desire to enjoy matter will continue, and with it our continued victimization. We escape such false promises of enjoyment by the process of bhakti, devotional service to Krishna, the Supreme Lord. Instead of allowing our senses to try to gratify themselves materially, we use our senses in the service of the master of the senses, Krishna. Take, for example, the sense of hearing. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “If human society gives itself to the process of hearing the Vedic literature, it will not become a victim to the impious sounds vibrated by impious men who degrade the standards of the total society.” (Bhagavatam 2.2.36, Purport)
In other words, we as spiritual beings are actually the lord of our senses and mind, although temporarily we have become victims of their influence. By bhakti-yoga, Krishna consciousness, we may resume our rightful position as master of our mental and sensory faculties. At that point, whatever happens externally, we are heroes instead of victims. “Material activities are false heroic activities,” Prabhupada writes, “whereas restraining the senses from material engagement is great heroism.” (Bhagavatam 4.25.25, Purport)
When I fail to master my mind and senses, I may feel bitter about my experiences. “Why did this happen to me? I didn’t do anything to deserve this!”
While the scriptures agree that we’re victims in the sense that we’re adversely affected by material nature, they don’t accept the bitterness that can accompany victimhood. Rather, that anger and bitterness is evidence that I’m allowing myself to be even further victimized. Lord Krishna says, “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises. From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again into the material pool.” (Gita 2.62–63)
Srila Prabhupada explained in a lecture, “So how we become victim of this maya, that is described here, that from anger, delusion arises. . . . I have forgotten completely that I am not this body, I am spirit soul, aham brahmasmi; I am part and parcel of the Supreme Brahman, spirit, absolute whole. That I have forgotten.” (Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 2.62–72, December 19, 1968, Los Angeles)
Devotees do not become angry and bitter about their fate. Instead, they use their apparently negative situation to make spiritual progress, accepting that ultimately the source of the problem that created their suffering is within them, not without. Our purification from material consciousness demands that we accept responsibility for our circumstances. If we get bitter it means we haven’t accepted that responsibility, which makes it difficult to get better.
A Victim’s Freedom
To stop thinking of myself as a victim I’ve started to ask myself, “What is it about the situation that has me so triggered?” Is my self-esteem threatened, my good name, my loss of what is rightfully mine, or have I been hurt by false assumptions? Whatever the case, what will gradually uplift me is to understand and accept my actual eternal identity as a spiritual being, an integral part of Krishna, and to try to act in that capacity.
If that’s the situation, the question then becomes how might I respond in a way that helps this understanding? How can I shift my focus away from victimhood?
A first step may be humility. Years ago, when a devotee absconded with a life member’s money, Srila Prabhupada told that life member, “Do not be angry with the instrument of your karma.” Who knows what we’ve done in the past to create our present situation? We can only know that what we’ve experienced as well as our present circumstances are not accidents, because there are no accidents in Krishna’s creation. Somehow or other, what happens in Krishna’s creation is Krishna’s plan, directly or indirectly. The unhappiness suffered by a sincere devotee is technically not a karmic reaction; it is rather the Lord’s special mercy to induce His devotee to completely let go of the material world and return home, back to Godhead.
There are many examples in the Srimad-Bhagavatam of devotional responses to injustice. One prominent one is Maharaja Parikshit, who was cursed to die for a small mistake. Srila Prabhupada writes, “[T]he best example is Maharaja Parikshit himself, who was a recognized sinless, pious king. But he also became a victim of the offense he had committed against a brahmana, even though he was ever unwilling to commit such a mistake. He was cursed also, but because he was a great devotee of the Lord, even such reverses of life became favorable.” (Bhagavatam 1.19.7, Purport)
Maharaja Parikshit did not wallow in his misfortune. He did not rail against the brahmana who cursed him or the brahminical class for fostering such an unqualified person. Rather, he took his impending death as an opportunity to rid himself of all distractions and concentrate exclusively on understanding a person’s duty, especially his duty – the duty of one about to die. As a result, he heard the beautiful Srimad-Bhagavatam concerning the name, fame, form, activities, qualities, and teachings of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krishna. Maharaja Parikshit brilliantly arranged his life to elevate his consciousness.
Granted, this is an exalted example that many of us, myself included, are not ready to fully embrace. But we can take responsibility for our situation, avoid blaming others, and remain confident that if we simply try to see our situation spiritually, Krishna will help us, although we can never know exactly how He will help. Trying to understand our situation from a spiritual perspective can open us to a more meaningful and positive attitude. Krishna’s perspective, after all, may be different from ours; but we should know for certain that He wants the best for us.
“My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.” (Bhagavatam 10.14.8)
Often, if we can simply express what we’re going through to an empathetic devotee, it will help us start to heal and engage more positively.
It’s easy to think of myself as a hapless victim just as it’s easy to blame someone for my mistakes rather than to accept responsibility. Once a small group of leaders was in Srila Prabhupada’s room discussing a difficulty. These leaders agreed that the cause of the difficulty was another leader, who wasn’t present. Prabhupada wryly pointed out how convenient it was to blame someone who wasn’t around to defend himself. The easy way is not always the best way. However difficult it may be, we can start to take some responsibility for our circumstances.
As a child learning to walk will regularly fall down and get up to try again, we may sometimes fall into blaming others and then get back up to continue our heroic efforts. Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter (October 26, 1967):
In the material world there is a constant fight between maya & the living entity. Maya is very strong & we can fall a victim at her hand at any moment. The only means of protecting us from the attack of maya is to be fully Krishna Conscious. The proportion in which we fall back in Krishna Consciousness is filled up by the influence of maya. It is exactly like the proportion of negligence of our health is subsequently resulted in our falling ill. The person who is very careful about his health does not generally fall ill. Similarly a person who is always fixed up in Krishna Consciousness cannot be defeated by maya. Sometimes in spite of our full Krishna Consciousness we fall a victim to maya but that is temporary just as seasonal changes such calamities do come & pass away & we have to endure them.
In other words, let’s never stop trying to live our lives meaningfully and heroically, in full awareness of our identity as an integral part of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.