As layer upon layer of debris is gradually hauled away to reveal to us the numbing scale of death and destruction in Uttarakhand, you can’t but help wonder whether it could trigger a crisis of faith and redefine the complicated relationship involving man, society and god. The prevailing contours of this relationship are fraught with elements conducive to the severity with which disasters strike India.
All natural calamities, from tsunamis and earthquakes in Asia to tornadoes in America, fundamentally challenge the notion of god as omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving. This challenge now seems enhanced manifold as the tragedy in Uttarakhand also befell the thousands who were on pilgrimage to the four dhams — of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Their religious fervour pulled them to the Himalayas, in the hope of earning benediction and salvation. For them to die in what was for them moments of extreme piety, or see their relatives perish in torrents of water or get crushed under rolling boulders, not only seemed frightfully irrational but an unpardonable betrayal by the god (or gods) who they had gone to worship.
No doubt, the unpredictable ferocity of nature, indiscriminate construction, and environmental degradation combined to wreak mammoth destruction in Uttarakhand. Yet the believer, irrespective of whether or not his or her religious heritage entails treating reality as illusion, can’t but ask the questions that the atheist typically poses: is not god supposed to protect people, at least the pious ones, from calamities? What wisdom does god have in raining down destruction on the world?
These questions constitute the arsenal of philosophers who argue against the existence of god. They broadly divide evil into two categories — horrific actions man perpetrates against others and disasters or accidents which claim lives. If god existed, all-powerful and all-loving, wouldn’t he have created a world without evil, unless, obviously, he derives perverse pleasures from the suffering of people? Their ideological rivals counter it saying a world without evil would have made free will redundant, and blurred distinctions between good and repugnant.
The free-will argument is relevant to the evil that man wilfully spawns, such as massacres, but can’t be extended to devastating earthquakes and floods. It is a consequence of, from the perspective of faith, the will of god. Yet, as the votaries of faith argue, the scale of destruction can be mitigated through measures humans can take. For instance, constructing buildings resistant to earthquakes in areas vulnerable to this geological phenomenon, or keeping ready a disaster management plan, or, as in Uttarakhand, not raising structures in flood plains or denuding forests that help check landslides.
Though the atheists justifiably cite the economic costs some of these measures entail — the owner of a thatched hut can’t make it earthquake-resistant, can he? — to argue against the existence of god, the believer, nevertheless, could incorporate elements of the atheist’s arguments to revisit and redefine the idea of god.
Unfortunately, the disaster in Uttarakhand has triggered a contrary response. Many believe the dead were blessed for they were called to the abodes of gods, or holy places, to breathe their last, glossing over the torment they must have experienced as their life withered away. This is almost a universal response to pilgrims dying, say, in a stampede in the Haj or kumbh melas , and underscores the attempts of humans to reconcile themselves to what is cruelly incomprehensible. Yet, it is contradictory for the pious to praise God in the same breath for choosing some to die, and for saving many others from being crushed, as has happened in Uttarakhand.
Through such beliefs we seek to rationalise the randomness of life and inject meanings into absurd situations. From this perspective, god is turned into an imperious lord, killing people or keeping them alive in accordance with his whims. Obviously, the faithful believes the actions of god have a higher reasoning beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals, who are condemned to take birth or die at an appointed hour.
In our attempts to reconcile to what is seemingly incomprehensible we have not only turned irrational but also compromised the value of human will. Despite the terrible tragedy in Uttarakhand, there is a whisper of astonishment at the Kedarnath temple having remained intact even as several buildings around it were washed away in the floods. A leading Hindi daily, boasting multiple editions, featured on the front page of its national edition two photographs of the area in which the Kedarnath temple is located, depicting the scene before and after nature wreaked havoc. The combined caption to the photographs says, “Nature destroyed everything but call it coincidence or miracle, no harm came to the abode of Baba Kedarnath.”
In the second frame, clicked post-devastation, are also visible a few structures, which the caption blithely ignores. We don’t know whether those buildings were damaged or defied the fury of nature because of “coincidence or miracle.” This selective assigning of meaning portrays God as selfish, raining down havoc on people even as he insulated a place of worship from devastation.
Could there not be geological or architectural reasons for the Kedarnath temple withstanding the impact of gushing waters? Is it not possible that the building material of the Kedarnath temple, presumably sourced locally, was superior to the bricks and mortar constructions of the present times? Might not this world view explain our indifference to, say, building laws, sound architectural principles, and rapacious violation of the environment?
Such questions are not largely asked as commercial gains accrue from promoting a religiosity of an irrational kind. Traditionally, pilgrimage and yatras symbolised a rite of passage, an enduring of physical hardship and spiritual confusions, to pay respect to gods in their abodes. Modernity has made possible instant spirituality, as thousands are ferried by buses and cars, even helicopters, for paying obeisance to god.
What is needed is to rescue god from meanings and attributes we assign to him. In this, the priestly class could play a vital role. But what hope can we derive from stories of pujaris walking away with the donations, running into lakhs of rupees, of which a portion must have been the contribution of those who perished in Uttarakhand?
(Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
In our attempts to come to terms with the destruction in Uttarakhand, we have turned irrational and indifferent to the violation of the State’s environment