An earthquake does more than shake up the world, it shakes up our worldview. It forces us to ask that most difficult question of all: Why? And not just why me but why us? If it is just I, perhaps it is the retribution of some secret vice of mine catching up with me but if there are so many, a change in quantity does amount to a change in quality (pace Marx). In an earthquake the scale creates the phenomena, and similarly, philosophically and theologically, the scale creates the issue: it can no longer be buried.
Why should a natural disaster such as an earthquake occur at all—claiming so many innocent lives.
What causes an earthquake?
There are three distinct although interrelated ways of answering this question: through science, through God and through karma.
The principle of causation involved is a natural one from the point of view of science. Earthquakes occur on account of subterranean fault lines. They are the result of tectonic activity and if we happen to be at the wrong place then this is a random happening. We live in a world of scientific causation in which our fate is determined by statistical contingency. Just because we happened to suffer as a result, we search for a “deeper meaning” in our suffering. But perhaps we should have the courage to stop at the surface and resist the temptation to be unduly profound. Science deals with causes, not purpose. What purpose does a volcano have in blowing up? It is a wrong question to ask—for purpose presupposes a conscious principle at work and if no such principle exists then one is helpless! But would one not rather feel guilty than helpless?
One strand in religious thinking, as opposed to the secular thinking described above, identifies God as this supreme conscious principle. Once we do that the whole line of questioning takes a different turn. When causation becomes conscious, it acquires a moral dimension. Now one can speak of the will of God at work. One is compelled to ask, like Yesica del Carmen Berrius, the coffee picker, who reacted to the killer earthquake that struck El Salvador, by asking: “What have we done that God has punished us like this?” (Time, January 29, 2001, p. 5). The natural fault-lines of science turn into moral fault-lines in theology. We run into the problem of Job and come out with the conventional response from theism—that the will of God is inscrutable. The gulf fixed between us creatures and the creator is so vast that we cannot comprehend God’s actions no matter how hard we try, no more than a dog can comprehend his master’s. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Kushner, have proposed a less forbidding response, also echoed in process theology, that God is doing his best to manage the world but sometimes he slips up too. In that sense to err is not just human. But to err is human too and the tragedy could in some way be a punishment for our sins.
This is what the moralist Mahatma Gandhi precisely claims that the earthquake which devastated Bihar in India in 1934 was: God’s punishment for the sin of untouchability practiced by the Hindus. At this the humanist but also rationalist Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore joined the issue with him, for promoting irrational and even superstitious thinking.
The principle of Karma plays a key role in the Hindu moral universe, a principle which can operate on its own, like any natural law, such as that of gravitation. Many victims of the recent earthquake in India would then tend to account for the suffering inflicted by the earthquake in terms of past karma. But just as there were two views regarding the extent God might be complicit, there are two views on how Karma might be involved. Suffering would be the present outcome of the past misdeeds of the victims experienced collectively, according to the more fatalistic version of Karma. According to a more Buddhist version, however, only a Buddha’s insight could determine whether the actual earthquake was a purely natural event, or in the nature of a moral event, involving punishment for bad Karma. And if bad Karma, whose bad Karma? Is the Chinese occupation of Tibet the outcome of past bad Karma of the Tibetans, or simply the perpetration of bad present Karma by the Chinese?
Note that all these lines of explanation involve a profound ambiguity. First, science. The universe as it hangs out there is existentially ambiguous—one could offer a purely scientific account of it and one could offer an equally convincing theistic or karmic account of it. Second, God. Even if we accept the theistic view we face an ambiguity—is it the outcome of our failing or God’s failing? Third, Karma. If we decide to go past God and rely on Karma, we still face an ambiguity as to whether the earthquake was a karmic or a natural event.
So our suffering is clear but our responses—whichever route we take—lead us into an ambiguity. But should we then give way to despair?
I don’t think so. For ambiguity contains within it the possibility of choice. In fact ambiguity makes our choice genuine. If we knew for certain that the earthquake was the outcome of only natural causes or divine causes or Karmic causes, would we be free human beings? For if with ambiguity comes choice, then with choice comes freedom.
After all, no matter to which chain of causation one is bound, one is entirely free to come to the help of the victims. In such altruism then, at another level, one may find the glorious resolution of ambiguity.
One person who perished in the devastating earthquake in Bhuj in Gurarat, India, was a school teacher who used to ask his students “What remains when everything is lost?”
As he is no longer with us to provide the answer, I must: “The future.”