[This, in some way, is related to my earlier post Fate and Human Endeavour]
1.1. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final but incomplete novel the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov , the argumentative intellectual among the three brothers, is highly disturbed by the apparent senseless suffering in the world. Ivan proclaims that he rejects the world that God has created , because it is built on a foundation of suffering; especially the suffering of the innocent children. In an impassioned speech he tells his brother Alexei (a.k.a. Alyosha) that nothing can justify the suffering of innocent children; nothing can console it; nothing can compensate for it; and, nothing can restore a sense of order and purpose in the world in the face of a child’s suffering. What good any theology can do for children who are suffering, he demands.
To deny the reality of a child’s suffering ;and, pretend to justify that in the name of religion and ethics , he bursts out, is nothing but piling up falsehood, ignominy and perhaps worse. It is cruel to the suffering child.
Ivan then says, “Listen! If everyone must suffer in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer. I would rather remain with my un-avenged suffering, and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. The whole of truth or harmony is not worth such a price. If I am an honest man, out of love of humanity, I must give my ticket back. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return His ticket.”(The Brothers Karamazov; Part Two; Book V; Chapter 4; Rebellion)
1.2. Why do we suffer? Why do innocent children have to suffer so horribly? It is a question that assails every parent bringing up a handicapped child. I found a resounding echo of that question and of Ivan’s outburst in Arun Shourie’s book ‘Does He know a mother’s heart?’ (Harper and Collins India; 2011). I could, in some way, relate to both.
2.1. Shourie’s book is a probing and an honest outpouring of a father, straight from his heart, in humility and out of immense love for his 34 year old son Aditya, suffering from cerebral palsy. Aditya ‘cannot stand or use his right arm; his vision is impaired ; and, he speaks haltingly. He has the mind of a child’. Looking after him has been a major preoccupation for Shourie and his wife Anita, for past thirty-four years. Life has neither been easy nor kind to them, with each day bringing up new complications- including Anita Shourie’s own painful bout with Parkinson’s disease. Now in his 70th year, Arun Shourie is at a loss, as he faces questions that have no answers, such as: “Who will lift Adit out of bed as I weaken with age?” and “Who will look after him when we are gone?”
2.2. It is a moving and an intensely personal book written as a mature and a reflective father mellowing in age and sorrow attempts to grapple grief, anguish and anger while he is bewildered by ‘Why’ of all unjust suffering. In his suffering he is lonely and helpless, as are most of the parents saddled with handicapped, autistic and such other children.
3.1. To start with, Shourie, just as Ivan, relentlessly indignant, questions god’s ways. Why does He subject children to such sufferings? Why does god make someone perfect while some are inflicted with imperfections? Aren’t we all equal in his eyes as we are told to believe? Isn’t his love for all the same? Then why are some discriminated… He is angry how a kind, benevolent and all-knowing God could allow innocents to be in agony.
3.2. Pain is a universal equalizer. It grinds down all to the irreducible; to their minimum. Shourie goes through range of emotions before he arrives at a rational approach to manage the reality of all life: the suffering. He goes beyond fate and faith; and accepts the reality of suffering; discards the ‘props’ ; learns to take the child upon himself without passing him on to a god or a Guru; or without hiding behind a theoretical abstraction about suffering as handed down by someone else.”Suffering is real. Anything that dismisses it as ‘Maya’ or unreal is to mock at the pain of the other.” He shares his experiences; and urges all such parents to realize and give expression to the power of selfless love that is within them. He dedicates the book to the suffering mothers of the Special Children. He also lists out suggestions to manage such children.
4.1. Arun Shourie goes beyond “Why me?” crosses over to “Why?” and looks for explanations to human suffering as offered by numerous religious texts and the sages. His search for answers to these question forms the bulk of the book (I wish he employed the services of a good editor). First; Shourie examines the texts of the Semitic religions, comparatively and in the light of modern knowledge. Then he focuses on the explanations given by religious thinkers of modern India, like Gandhi, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramana Maharishi and J Krishnamurti. Next he puts to scrutiny the classical explanations for the cause of misery; of karmic beliefs; of notions of illusion and unreality of the suffering. Further, he investigates metaphysical props such as god, fate and god-men. He also talks of the sheer desperation that drives the parents to irrational occult practices imposed by the Babas. He then analyzes s the numerous alternatives that emerged.
4.2. As regards the god, he finds that god is a complex idea; each a product of its culture. The concept of God has changed over the centuries as human needs and knowledge too has changed. He finds all those notions do not provide adequate answers to the problems of suffering in life . He is disappointed at the explanation that a child’s suffering is in some way related to the whole process of problem-solving that is happening in a totality of the whole universe. “No cosmic purpose is served by our suffering or that of those dear to us. Just as no cosmic purpose is served by our being born or by our dying and that for the simple reason that there is no cosmic purpose”…. “We have no clue, hence god comes in as a filler of a mysterious unknown”… “On the simple elementary fact, which the religion tries to hang on to god, that concept does not stand to examination.”
4.3. He is dismayed at the oft repeated logic of prarabda karma adduced to justify suffering: “Your child suffers for sins committed in a past life”; “and your child will enjoy great joy in his next life for the pain in this”. If someone tells the mother “Your child suffers for your sins”, it is insensitive ; and, it is an insult to motherhood. No mother can be asked to prove she ‘loves’ her child. He cries out “Does He know a mother’s heart?”
According to him “The explanations that scriptures proffer for the occurrence of pain and suffering do not stand up to the slightest examination”. And, “Suffering refutes religions.”
4.4. When a distressed mother seeks the help of a Swamiji or a Baba it is an act of desperation, more in hope than in faith. These are truly most agonizing experiences for the mother, as the hopes raised by the Baba soon crash down when nothing good happens to child. The pain, disappointment and helplessness grow many folds. Another is the anger and frustration that builds up nearing the point of explosion. It is the mother who suffers most. Is there a threshold for her pain? How much and how long can she bear the pain and sorrow?
The most noticeable feature of faith deposited in a Baba is that very few questions are allowed. Any question, no matter how reasonable or incisive, is dismissed with a simple “God’s ways are inscrutable” or “Our minds aren’t evolved enough to understand His higher purpose” or “All will be made clear at the End of Days”.
5.1. In a way of speaking, relying only on divine intervention, begging, beseeching the Swamis and Babas to cure the child ; and, to relive the child of painful suffering , basically mean handing over our burden and our responsibility to someone else; and, expecting them to solve our problems. We surrender all decision-making, our attitudes to life and to suffering to Babas and others. And, they are more than eager to act like pack leaders or like life-guards at the beach perched on high stools throwing instructions to a drowning person. Such help does not always work. Should we rest our hopes on a phantom reed?
5.2. Gods and god men are facilitators who aid our own introspection and internal growth. They are, at best, the props. Unless we learn to discard the props, strive to stand on our own and to fight our own battles there is no reasonable way out of the distress. Let’s stop doing things by proxy.
6.1. That veers Shourie towards the Buddha. Our Teacher recognized suffering the way it is, as the reality of life. He asked each one to formulate his attitude and to work out his salvation without relying on props or merely looking for explanations. “There is no use looking for explanations to suffering. Instead, attend , on priority, to the problem at hand, as if you are attending to a man whose hair is on fire or to the one who is shot with a poisoned arrow”… “Whether the world is finite or infinite or both; whether the Tathagata survives after death or not , these are matters of speculation …there is birth, there is aging, there is death, there is sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair .These are the realities. They have to be dealt with….” And there is a way of dealing with that. The only way is to accept it and deal with it rationally.
When the Buddha finally says ’workout your salvation with diligence’ he places the responsibility on us alone, relying on our effort and our experiences.
7.1. Viktor Frankie, a survivor of Nazi death camps, believed that ‘the last of human freedoms’ is the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances; to choose one’s own way. It is not the freedom from conditions; it is the freedom to take an attitude towards the conditions. This he calls it as ‘the last of the human freedom’. And there were always choices to make.
Taking a cue from that, Shourie says “Everyone struck a blow will find his own ways to cope – if it works then each of them is valid”.
7.2. When we see the helplessness of our child we are filled with anger, bitterness and lot other emotions questioning the very sense of our existence. Then, observe those emotions that swell up just as an outsider who looks at an object. That will help you to look at things as they are.
8.1. The child is as much a victim of circumstances as are his/her parents. The everyday pains, aches and suffering surround both. But, so are the moments of joy and laughter. The helpless child laughs, loves and loves to be loved. Let not the parents’ unhappiness dampen the spirit of the little one battling the affliction. Do the chores that have to be done, in good cheer. Thank him for letting you help.
8.2. Most emphatically what is needed is not pity, and not even sympathy. Empathy is the word – not feeling sorry for; not even feeling for. But getting into the skin and feeling like what the child must feel. It is hard to attain that except by the mother who ‘Loves –till it hurts’. It is said; ‘If you want to be truly selfish, do help (love) someone who cannot do anything in return’.
8.3. Learn to look at the suffering and also at the child as a sort of teacher who taught you patience, non-attachment and above all to love unselfishly. We need to look at the situation afresh. Stop asking “why this has happened to me?” But ask “how do we put the lessons we learnt to work for us as also for others?” It is extracting a purpose from debris. Do whatever has to be done, promptly, without postponing. Perseverance is as relevant as reflection.
8.4. The suffering of a helpless child forces us to subordinate our interests and our pursuits to his needs. It teaches us to empathize others suffering. It might possibly lead to the path of service, in even the smallest way possible, contributing whatever skills or resources we have. Perhaps, pain is a sort of megaphone that awakens humanity in man.
The issues raised in the book concerns almost all who suffered ‘a blow’. One may agree with or sharply refute the book. Regardless of that, his conclusions offer a perspective to the problem of pain; and to the realization of the power of love.
Shourie lists the lessons he learnt in the light of his experiences.
8.5. Shourie’s outlook is life-affirming. He states that he found the strength to equip himself “to take the first step towards dealing with the suffering that we have to confront…. the illness is beyond our reach, but the quality of love we pour into the child and to his service, the extent to which we reach out to serve the one we love dearly , is in our control… the circumstance remains but what fills our mind now is not the circumstance, it is the thing that we have to do for the one dear to us”.