Should we suppress or express our emotions of sorrow when our fellow-devotees pass away in sudden tragedies?
Question: When our fellow-devotees pass away in sudden tragedies, should we express or suppress our emotions of sorrow? Won’t expressing such emotions indicate that we have not understood that they are not their bodies and have actually not died? At the same time, won’t suppressing our emotions make us hard-hearted?
Short Answer: The path of bhakti offers us a balanced holistic middle path between ignorant sentimentality and hyper-intellectualized hard-heartedness. This middle path centers on sublimating our emotions by connecting them with Krishna.
Tragedies like these are, no doubt, emotionally devastating, even for those who are serious aspiring devotees and who know that “we are not our material bodies.” The path of bhakti doesn’t ask us to suppress our natural emotions or reject them as illusory; it urges us to make our emotions into pathways that take us towards Krishna instead of away from Krishna. HH Radhanath Swami, the spiritual leader of the Mumbai devotee community that lost several of its beloved members, 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 such tragedy? The bhakti scriptures explain that love, spiritual love for Krishna, is indestructible, even by death. Once we enter into that life of love by practicing devotional service, everything that happens thereafter is an opportunity to go deeper into that love. It is for these opportunities that we can be grateful – even when we are heartbroken when those opportunities come in the form of tragedies.
The door out of the disaster movie
All of us long to love and to be loved. Most of us seek that 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 disaster movies would like 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 are already living in a real-life disaster that’s unfolding before our eyes. A hundred percent of the people reading this article will be wiped out a hundred years from today. The name of this all-consuming disaster is death.
Despite this cent-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, making it possible 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 spoils, even ruins, our hopes for success and glory in the material realm. So we want to forget it. And forget we do.
However, 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 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, but enables us to come out of the path of that disaster.
Resolving our essential dilemma
The Bhagavad-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 facilities to practice devotional service. Krishna-bhakti may or may not change the way material nature acts, but it changes the way those actions of material naturel affect us. So, though 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 non-devotees. For devotees, these tragedies become gateways for them to move closer to Krishna and away from the distractions of the world.
Shrila Prabhupada urges us to adopt this vision of faith in his purport to Shrimad-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.”
Every devotee has his or her own material distractions to remove, and we know very little as compared to Krishna what the best way is for increasing their devotional focus. That’s why though we may not know why things happened in a particular way for them or where exactly they went after their death, we do know that during their lives they placed themselves in Krishna’s hands – and those are the safest hands that ever existed. So we can be assured in our faith that Krishna has guided, even escorted, them to a level where they can focus primarily, or even exclusively, on their greatest treasure of devotion.
To conclude, it is natural that we feel agonized at the sudden loss of the association 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 that treasure.
Thus does the sudden death of our fellow devotees cause 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 gifted us the opportunity to connect with him and his family of loving devotees at a level that death can never end.