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Understanding the Tsunami

Tsunami-Indonesia-2010

On 26th December 2004, a devastating earthquake with an intensity of 8.9 on the Richter scale rocked Indonesia.  The upheaval in the sea created a huge Tsunami wave which spread all around hitting several countries in South-east Asia, specially Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India.  An estimated 225,000 were killed, thousands were reported missing and lakhs were rendered homeless. Large masses of land were inundated, entire towns and villages were reduced to rubble. The television and the media brought stark pictures of the devastation, the immense loss, the sorrow and the suffering to viewers all over the world.  There has been an immediate and spontaneous response from all sides, from individuals, associations, and national Governments, and relief, help and succour in all forms have poured in.

But, such calamities naturally raise many disturbing issues in the minds of persons who are sensitive and who are looking for deeper and truer answers.  We have therefore taken up the main questions, from the large number of emails we have received, and we will try here to provide some answers through the revealing insights and words of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

The first question which often arises in such a situation is:

Are these catastrophes the result of the play of blind forces or does Nature do this on purpose?  

The Mother in her talks explains:

“It is said that when there is an earthquake, for instance, or a volcano erupts, if there are men staying nearby and these events cause their death, obviously it is for these men a catastrophe.  But we could very well imagine that for Nature it is not so! We say, “What a terrible wind!” naturally, for men it is “terrible”, but not for Nature. It is a question of proportion…

*

It is man in his relative proportion with Nature who judges like that.  When there is an earthquake, many islands are engulfed, millions of people are killed.  People say, “This Nature is monstrous.”  From the human point of view this Nature is monstrous.  What has it done!  It has wrought a cataclysm…  For us, our little consciousness, ever so little, appears so formidable, but after all it is quite simply a confusion somewhere upon earth (not even in the universe).  We are speaking only of the earth.  What is it?  Nothing at all.  Just a tiny little plaything in the universe….

You are walking on a street, there is an army of ants going from one nest to another (you do not look down, you are talking to someone); very negligently you put one foot and then the other, and you crush hundreds of ants without even being aware of it.  If you were an ant, you would say: “What a wicked and beastly force!”  You are just walking.  You have not paid attention.  But suppose there are beings of this kind for whom we are just tiny little ants.  They put one foot and then the other and millions of people are killed.  They are not even aware of it!  They have not done it on purpose.  They were just walking along, that’s all…”

One of the reasons why we are unable to understand or accept these apparently senseless deaths and this misery, is because we attribute our notions of morality and ethics to Nature.  We ask:

Are these catastrophes punishments from Nature or a retribution for the violence men have committed or for some past Karma?”

But Sri Aurobindo says that Nature does not act or behave according to our laws of morality and justice.  He writes:

“Why should earthquakes occur by some wrong movement of man?  When man was not there, did not earthquakes occur?  If he were blotted out by poison gas or otherwise, would they cease?  Earthquakes are a perturbation in Nature due to some pressure of forces…”

*

“On earth the first energy is the physical; the lines of the physical energy creating the forms, deploying the forces of the material universe are the first apparent conditions of our birth and create the practical basis and the original mould of our earthly existence.  And what is the law of this first energy, its self-nature, Swabhava and Swadharma?  It is evidently not moral in the human sense of the word: the elemental gods of the physical universe know nothing about ethical distinctions, but only the bare literal rule of energy, the right track and circuit of the movement of a force, its right action and reaction, the just result of its operation.  There is no morality, no hesitation of conscience in our or the world’s elements.  The fire is no respecter of persons and if the saint or the thinker is cast into it, it will not spare his body.  The sea, the storm-wind, the rock on which the ship drives do not ask whether the just man drowned in the waters deserved his fate.”

*

“Take the popular account of reincarnation and Karma – it is based on the mere mental assumption that the workings of Nature ought to be moral and proceed according to an exact morality of equal justice – a scrupulous, even mathematical law of reward and punishment or, at any rate, of results according to a human idea of right correspondences. But Nature is non-moral – she uses forces and processes moral, immoral and amoral pell-mell for working out her business. Nature in her outward aspect seems to care for nothing except to get things done – or else to make conditions for an ingenious variety of the play of life.”

We may feel that Nature does not punish, but perhaps it is God working through Nature who does so. So the third question which often arises is:

Are these catastrophes a punishment by God for the sins of men and for their past actions?  

When the Mother was asked, she replied through an interesting anecdote from her personal experience, pointing out the limitations and foolishness of such notions about God. She said,

“This reminds me of what happened in Paris when I was seventeen or eighteen. There was a “charity bazaar”. This charity bazaar was a place where men from all over the world came to buy and sell all kinds of things, and the proceeds of the sale went to works of charity (it was meant more for amusement than for doing good, but still, charitable works profited by it). All the elegance, all the refinement of high society was gathered there. Now, the bazaar was very beautiful but not solidly built, because it was to last only for three or four days. The roof was of painted tarpaulin which had been suspended. Everything was lighted by electricity; the work was more or less decently done, but naturally with the idea that it was only for a few days. There was a short-circuit, everything began to blaze up; the roof caught fire and suddenly collapsed upon the people. As I said, all the élite of society were there – for them, from the human point of view, it was a frightful catastrophe. There were people near the entrance who tried to escape; others, all ablaze, also tried to reach the door and run away. It was a veritable scuffle! All these elegant, refined people, who usually were so well-mannered, began to fight like street rowdies…

Now, a Dominican priest, a well-known orator, was asked to give a speech over the tombs of the unfortunate who had perished in the fire. He said something to this effect: “It serves you right. You did not live according to the law of God and He has punished you by burning you.”

And every time there was a disaster this story was repeated. Naturally many people protested and said, “Here’s a God whom we won’t have!” But these ideas are quite typical of ordinary humanity.

“Sinning” humanity is altogether a Christian idea, which falsified our idea of the Divine – a Divine who punishes poor people because it is their misfortune to be born “sinners” would not be very generous!…”

*

There are teachings… which take Karma in an altogether superficial and human sense and tell you: “Oh! you have met with this accident because in a former life you did something bad, so that comes back upon you in the form of an accident.” This is not true, not at all true. This is but human justice, it is neither the justice of Nature nor the justice of the Divine.”

Another similar question was once put to the Mother.  She was asked:

“Someone has said that disasters and catastrophes in Nature, earthquake and deluge and the sinking of continents, are the consequence of a discordant and sinful humanity and with the progress and development of the human race a corresponding change will come about in physical Nature. How far is this true?”

The Mother said that this was not so.  It was not a relationship of cause and effect.  And she explained the true cause of the calamities and accidents:

“Perhaps the truth is rather that it is one and the same movement of consciousness that expresses itself in a Nature ridden with calamities and catastrophes and in a disharmonious humanity. The two things are not cause and effect, but stand on the same level. Above them there is a consciousness which is seeking for manifestation and embodiment upon earth, and in its descent towards matter it meets everywhere the same resistance, in man and in physical Nature. All the disorder and disharmony that we see upon earth is the result of this resistance. Calamity and catastrophe, conflict and violence, obscurity and ignorance—all ills come from the same source. Man is not the cause of external Nature, nor external Nature the cause of man, but both depend on the same one thing that is behind them and greater, and both are part of a perpetual and progressive movement of the material world to express it.”

The Mother says that it is not the Divine Will which causes the catastrophes.  It is rather the resistance and inertia in Nature and man to the working and manifestation of the Divine Will and Action which leads to these large disorders and destructions.  She says:

“The resistances of the inertia that is in every consciousness and in Matter mean that this Action, instead of being direct and perfectly harmonious, becomes confused, full of contradictions, clashes and conflicts; instead of everything resolving itself “normally”, so to say, smoothly—as it should be—all this inertia that resists and opposes, gives it a tangled movement in which things collide and there is disorder and destruction, which become necessary only because of the resistance, but which were not indispensable, which might not have existed—which truly speaking should not have been—because this Will, this Power is a Power of perfect harmony where each thing is in its place, and it organises things wonderfully. It comes as an absolutely luminous and perfect organisation, which one can see when one has the vision; but when it comes down and presses on Matter, everything begins to seethe and resist. Therefore, to attempt to impute the disorders and confusions and destructions to the divine Action, to the divine Power, is another human foolishness.  It is the inertia—not to mention the bad will—which causes the catastrophe. It is not that the catastrophe was intended, nor even foreseen, it is caused by the resistance.”

*

“The upsetting is always caused by a resistance. If there were no resistance there would be no upsetting. So it can be a resistance which is the cause of cataclysms, earthquakes and cyclones, tidal waves, engulfment of continents, volcanic eruptions, etc.”

“Accidents are due to many things; in fact they are the result of a conflict of the forces in Nature, a conflict between the forces of growth and progress and the forces of destruction. When there is an accident, an accident that has lasting results, it is always the result of a more or less partial victory of the adverse forces, that is, of the forces of disintegration, disorganisation.”

But the question persists.

Why do so many innocent and good people have to suffer and die? How can God or Nature permit this?  

This is not a simple question. It raises some of the most important and difficult issues which various philosophies and religions have tried to answer in their own way. It is not possible to take up this question here in depth. We will merely quote a brief excerpt from a letter of Sri Aurobindo related to this topic, which gives a different insight, though not a complete answer:

“Nature in her deeper aspect as a conscious spiritual Power is concerned with the growth, by experience, the spiritual development of the souls she has in her charge – and these souls themselves have a say in the matter. All these good people lament and wonder that unaccountably they and other good people are visited with such meaningless sufferings and misfortunes. But are they really visited with them by an outside Power or by a mechanical Law of Karma? Is it not possible that the soul itself – not the outward mind, but the spirit within – has accepted and chosen these things as part of its development in order to get through the necessary experience at a rapid rate, to hew through, even at the risk or the cost of much damage to the outward life and the body? To the growing soul, to the spirit within us, may not difficulties, obstacles, attacks be a means of growth, added strength, enlarged experience, training for spiritual victory? The arrangement of things may be that and not a mere question of the pounds, shillings and pence of a distribution of rewards and retributory misfortunes!”

No doubt there is somewhere the hidden working of a Divine Will and Power behind every movement in the creation. But what could be the purpose of the Divine Power behind these destructions?

The Mother explains that it is not the Divine Power which causes the destruction. It is rather due to the resistance from man and Nature to the transforming Power of Kali. She says,

“Behind all destructions, whether the immense destructions of Nature, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, floods, etc., or the violent human destructions, wars, revolutions, revolts, I find the power of Kali, who is working in the earth-atmosphere to hasten the progress of transformation.

All that is not only divine in essence but also divine in realisation is by its very nature above these destructions and cannot be touched by them. Thus the extent of the disaster gives the measure of the imperfection.

The true way of preventing the repetition of these destructions is to learn their lesson and make the necessary progress.”

But we must realise that the destructive power of Kali which breaks all resistances is only one aspect of the divine working. Simultaneously there is the Divine Grace, Love and Compassion which are there to help, protect and save those who call for the Grace or who are open. As the Mother says,

“And then, there is added the vision of the action of Grace, which comes to moderate the results wherever possible, that is to say, wherever it is accepted. And this explains why aspiration, faith, complete trust on the part of the earthly human element, have a harmonising power, because they allow the Grace to come and set right the consequences of this blind resistance.”

The question arises:

What should be our attitude in the face of such calamities?  Can our attitude have an effect or change the circumstances themselves?  It is said that the best always happens.  What does it mean exactly?

The Mother explains:

“Is it really the best that always happens?… It is clear that all that has happened had to happen: it could not be otherwise— by the universal determinism it had to happen. But we can say so only after it has happened, not before. For the problem of the very best that can happen is an individual problem, whether the individual be a nation or a single human being; and all depends upon the personal attitude. If, in the presence of circumstances that are about to take place, you can take the highest attitude possible—that is, if you put your consciousness in contact with the highest consciousness within reach, you can be absolutely sure that in that case it is the best that can happen to you. But as soon as you fall from this consciousness into a lower state, then it is evidently not the best that can happen, for the simple reason that you are not in your very best consciousness. I even go so far as to affirm that in the zone of immediate influence of each one, the right attitude not only has the power to turn every circumstance to advantage but can change the very circumstance itself. For instance, when a man comes to kill you, if you remain in the ordinary consciousness and get frightened out of your wits, he will most probably succeed in doing what he came for; if you rise a little higher and though full of fear call for the divine help, he may just miss you, doing you a slight injury; if, however, you have the right attitude and the full consciousness of the divine presence everywhere around you, he will not be able to lift even a finger against you….

I have had innumerable examples of the power of right attitude. I have seen crowds saved from catastrophes by one single person keeping the right attitude. But it must be an attitude that does not remain somewhere very high and leaves the body to its usual reactions. If you remain high up like that, saying, “Let God’s will be done”, you may get killed all the same. For your body may be quite undivine, shivering with fear: the thing is to hold the true consciousness in the body itself and not have the least fear and be full of the divine peace. Then indeed there is no danger. Not only can attacks of men be warded off, but beasts also and even the elements can be affected.

I can give you a little example. You remember the night of the great cyclone, when there was a tremendous noise and splash of rain all about the place. I thought I would go to Sri Aurobindo’s room and help him shut the windows. I just opened his door and found him sitting quietly at his desk, writing. There was such a solid peace in the room that nobody would have dreamed that a cyclone was raging outside. All the windows were wide open, not a drop of rain was coming inside.”

*

One last question remains:

What can we do to provide a true and a permanent help? Can we do something so that these catastrophes do not recur?

The Mother has given a clear and a categorical answer. Even a few of us with the right aspiration and sincerity can bring about a major change. She says,

“Now if there is awakened somewhere upon earth a receptivity and openness sufficient to bring down in its purity something of the Divine Consciousness, this descent and manifestation in matter can change not only the inner life, but the material conditions also, the physical expression in man and Nature. This descent does not depend for its possibility upon the condition of humanity as a whole. If we had to wait for the mass of humanity to reach a state of harmony, unity and aspiration, strong enough to bring down the Light and change the material conditions and the movement of Nature, there would be little hope. But there is a possibility that an individual or a small group or limited number may achieve the descent. It is not quantity or extension that matters. One drop of the Divine Consciousness entering into the consciousness of the earth could change everything here.”

We do not think that all the questions are answered. But we do hope that we now have a slightly deeper understanding of why natural disasters take place and what should be our attitude when we ourselves face them or even when they strike others.

We give at the end a poem of Sri Aurobindo called ‘The Lost Boat’, which we feel provides some deep insights and is very relevant in the present circumstances.

The Lost Boat

At the way’s end when the shore raised up its dim line and remote lights
from the port glimmered,
Then a cloud darkened the sky’s brink and the wind’s scream was the shrill laugh
of a loosed demon
And the huge passion of storm leaped with its bright stabs and the long
crashing of death’s thunder;
As if haled by an unseen hand fled the boat lost in the wide homeless forlorn
ocean.

Is it Chance smites? is it Fate’s irony? dead workings or blind purpose of
brute Nature?
Or man’s own deeds that return back on his doomed head with a stark
justice, a fixed vengeance?
Or a dread Will from behind Life that regards pain and salutes death with a
hard laughter?
Is it God’s might or a Force rules in this dense jungle of events, deeds and
our thought’s strivings?

Yet perhaps sank not the bright lives and their glad venturings foiled,
drowned in the grey ocean,
But with long wandering they reached an unknown shore and a strange
sun and a new azure,
Amid bright splendour of beast glories and bird’s music and deep hues, an
enriched Nature
And a new life that could draw near to divine meanings and touched close
the concealed purpose.

In a chance happening, fate’s whims and the blind workings or dead drive
of a brute Nature,
In her dire Titan caprice, strength that to death drifts and to doom, hidden
a Will labours.
Not with one moment of sharp close or the slow fall of a dim curtain the
play ceases:
Yet is there Time to be crossed, lives to be lived out, the unplayed acts of the
soul’s drama.