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I was asked by some people to address this question after they read about an interview with Pope Francis where he was asked why he thought God would allow children to suffer. The Pope said, “I have no explanation for that.”
Many people jump on the honesty of the Pope to bash religion or to disrespect him, but I ask people to please not do that. This is a very serious and important subject which I have attempted to address from the Vedic perspective.
The quotes I have used in this talk;
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. – NKJV 2 Corinthians 12:2
As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change. Bhagavad-gītā 2.13
For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain. Bhagavad-gītā 2.20
As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. Bhagavad-gītā 2.22
The caterpillar transports itself from one leaf to another by capturing one leaf before giving up the other. Similarly, according to his previous work, the living entity must capture another body before giving up the one he has. This is because the mind is the reservoir of all kinds of desires. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.29.76-77
The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another. Bhagavad-gītā 15.8
The foolish cannot understand how a living entity can quit his body, nor can they understand what sort of body he enjoys under the spell of the modes of nature. But one whose eyes are trained in knowledge can see all this. Bhagavad-gītā 15.9
The endeavoring transcendentalists who are situated in self-realization can see all this clearly. But those whose minds are not developed and who are not situated in self-realization cannot see what is taking place, though they may try to. Bhagavad-gītā 15.11
For one who is not renounced, the threefold fruits of action — desirable, undesirable and mixed — accrue after death. Bhagavad-gītā 18.12
The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another. Bhagavad-gītā 15.8
For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. KJV Galatians 6:7
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. KJV John 9:1-3
Even though one is in the renounced order, one who is advanced certainly feels compassion for suffering living entities. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 5.8.10
CC Ādi 9.42 – “‘It is the duty of every living being to perform welfare activities for the benefit of others with his life, wealth, intelligence and words.’
CC Ādi 9.43 – “‘By his work, thoughts and words, an intelligent man must perform actions which will be beneficial for all living entities in this life and the next.’
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
So if you’ve seen any of the promo material you’ll know that tonight the talk is, “Why would God allow children to suffer?” Somebody sent this question into me along with an article of something that happened very recently, just a few days back. In the news article it states:
“In a rare television interview Pope Francis has told Italian journalists that he can’t explain why God would allow children to suffer. The 85 year old head of the Roman Catholic Church appeared on Sunday in the latest edition of the interview show hosted by TV journalist Fabio Fazio. When Fazio asked him why he thought God would allow children to suffer, the pope said, “I have no explanation for that. I have my faith, and try to love God my Father, but why children suffer, I have no answer for that.”
It was quite extraordinarily refreshing to hear a religious leader respond in such a honest and forthright way. So from that point of view it was refreshing and good, but unfortunately a lot of people have jumped on that honesty in order to sort of bash the pope and religion in general. Also unfortunately, I think, and very sad, is the fact that his response will cause anxiousness for not only many Catholics but people of different religions, with the thought being, “Well if the Pope has no idea then is there really an answer? Or is there something wrong or at fault with what I am believing or accepting?” And so that will tend, or potentially will tend to undermine people’s faith.
The majority of people in this world that are categorised as religious have a quite simple faith, if I can put it that way, which is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s better than being—not having, not been grounded in the values that are promoted universally by a religious or spiritual message. And I think what many people will struggle with is sort of like, “Well, how do we explain that?” And if the person that I ask can’t explain it, then I have to have any doubt in the higher existence of some Supreme Soul, supreme spiritual truth. And it sort of tends to put people off balance somewhat.
And part of the confusion arises out of different types of ideas that are put forward by different Christian denominations and by different religions. A lot of people don’t really appreciate that Christian theology, there has been a development of ideas over time, that it’s not like everything that was going on in the time of Jesus is currently (meaning what he spoke about and taught) is currently embraced, maybe a lot of it is but not necessarily everything; and we’ll speak about one of those things tonight. But for many so-called religious people there is some sort of idea, or concept, that misfortune or suffering is either directly a punishment of God or it is somehow the work of God’s so-called counterpart, the devil. And the idea that these thoughts may not be sound and true would mean, well what else could there possibly be?
So one of the foundational ideas that have been presented, even by people that are atheistic, is this idea that somehow children are completely and absolutely innocent and blameless. They’re like fresh out of the box. The slate is completely clean. And if any misfortune happens to them then it’s kind of like—well some people would use that as a so-called proof that God couldn’t possibly exist because if He did exist how could He allow such injustice that this innocent party, who is blameless, is now going to somehow experience tremendous suffering that we see befalling many millions of children in the world.
So this is a pretty profound theological question, and it also encompasses the idea, or the concept in general, of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” that in general people that may be considered good and pious or kind and generous etc may encounter some incredible misfortune or suffering in life. And it’s like, how could that happen to such an innocent party? And of course, the presumption is that such a person is absolutely innocent and blameless.
So in order to really discuss the topic we need to take into consideration two things that are put forward in Vedic teachings; and one is the topic of karma, karma meaning the law of action and reaction to that action. And the second subject that would need to be considered is the subject of—accurately called transmigration of the soul, or more commonly people use the term reincarnation. So if we’re going to have this conversation we need to consider these two subjects.
So we’ll take a quick look at reincarnation. If we are to discuss the subject it is absolutely necessary to understand the actual nature of the soul, or the self. It is absolutely critical that one be at least open to considering the possibility (although for me it is a reality) that the body is not me, that I am an eternal spiritual being residing within the body and giving—bringing life to the body, so the idea that we are eternal spiritual beings and not the body. There are Christian denominations that contest this.
We know from historical accounts that prior to about 300 years after Christ there was a commonly held notion, or understanding, of some form of reincarnation. And it was at the first major conclave of religious leaders within the Church, under the Emperor Constantine that they decided to introduce the idea that there is no such thing as reincarnation: you get one shot at everything, and if you blow it then you are eternally condemned. And some theologians have put forward the idea that this was done because many people had the wrong understanding of reincarnation, where they thought, “Well, in this lifetime I’ll just party like there’s no tomorrow, and in my next lifetime I’ll get serious about more spiritual matters,” and that was making, or creating, a difficulty in gaining membership and following within the Church.
But this understanding of—I mean let me just make this point that actually within some branches of Christianity they embrace the idea that the self, the person, is made up of a body, soul and spirit (but I don’t want to get into discussing that) but they say that the body is part of your identity, your eternal identity; whereas in the Eastern world this idea would be considered actually ignorant and incorrect. There is still a reference, more than one, but there is still a clear reference to an understanding that people had at the time. In Corinthians there is a verse that says:
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—[but] such a one was caught up to the third heaven.”
So they’re speaking about somebody entering a heaven, and it was unknown to the person presenting, or stating, this verse, it was unknown whether they did it while still in the body or out of the body. And so this is a very clear reference to the fact that you can exist separately, not only can, you do exist separately from the gross physical body. The Vedas are filled with information about reincarnation and this understanding that we’re eternal spiritual beings. I’ll just read some verses from the Bhagavad-gita on the subject:
“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.”
So just using the example that even within this current lifetime one changes bodies numerous times. Scientifically within anything from three to five years every single atom in the body is replaced, and the body is going through this transformation and change. If I look at a picture of my body as a baby, and I ask, “Where is that body gone?” and many people will say, “Well, it’s still the same body. It’s just grown and aged,” but the answer is no! It’s not the same body. That body is actually completely changed. And so they’re using the example that just as in this lifetime you can have many bodies changing through different stages of growth and development, similarly at death the soul passes to another body and a person who is sober is not bewildered by this.
In another verse it says:
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being [meaning he is eternal.] He is unborn eternal, ever existing and primeval. [The soul, or] he, is not slain when the body is slain.”
Then another verse:
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
So there’s another quote from the Bhagavat Purana which likens this process to how a caterpillar moves from one leaf to another, how the caterpillar comes up and then reaches out and secures the other leaf before letting go of the one that it’s just coming from and moving on to the new leaf. They said this is an example of how this process takes place:
“The caterpillar transports itself from one leaf to another by capturing one leaf before giving up the other. Similarly, according to his previous work, the living entity must capture another body before giving up the one he has. This is because the mind is the reservoir of all kinds of desires.”
And referencing that in the Bhagavad-gita:
“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another.”
So I’ll just close out this part with two verses that follow each other—or one is verse 9 in chapter 15, the other one is verse 11.
“The foolish cannot understand how a living entity can quit his body, nor can they understand what sort of body he enjoys under the spell of the modes of nature. But one whose eyes are trained in knowledge can see all this.”
“The endeavouring transcendentalists who are situated in self-realization can see all of this clearly. But those whose minds are not developed and who are not situated in self-realization cannot see what is taking place although they may try to”.
So the point is that this subject is a deep subject, and it is not only by argument that a person will come to understand. If a person is fixed in a certain type of consciousness, even though they hear all the arguments they will not appreciate nor perceive or accept, and it’s just like this—there’s another verse in the Bhagavad-gita that some speak of the soul as amazing, some hear of it as amazing, and there are others who after hearing it cannot understand it at all. So it is our state of consciousness that is going to make it that we can understand or not understand.
So anyway I just wanted, before going on, just to establish the principle of reincarnation because this will form part of the answer, to answer the question of why do children—why does God allow them to suffer?
The second thing is to do with the laws of karma. The Sanskrit word karma means action. That’s the actual meaning: the action. The fruit of action is called the karma phalam, the fruit of one’s actions. And there was this widely understood reality that when you act, whether in a good way or in a bad way, there will be a reaction that you will be compelled, under the stringent laws of nature, to accept the fruit of your actions, the fruit of your choices.
In describing the nature of these fruits there is a verse in the Bhagavad-gita that says:
“For one who is not renounced [meaning, on the transcendental path] the three-fold fruits of action – [that is] desirable, undesirable and mixed—accrue after death.”
So this is kind of like, okay, this is kind of interesting, that the activity that you perform in one lifetime, and the results, whether considered good or bad or mixed, will pass with you, the ones that have not matured, that you have not experienced the fruits of your actions, will pass with you from the body, and you will still be bound to experience those fruits in your next or another life. So this understanding that the fruits of karma can be carried over to one’s next life is a really important principle.
In another verse from the Bhagavad-gita:
“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aroma. And thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it and takes another.”
So with that we can understand that in this particular lifetime—and I have seen many instances of this—a person can do much evil and cause great amount of pain and suffering to others, but then for some reason or other their life can take an amazing turn and they can become—they can be transformed. They can become incredibly compassionate and caring and seek to try and make up somehow, atone for their past activities and actions. And when one meets such a person in their transformed state and become really impressed, “Oh wow, that guy’s really amazing,” or, “That woman is just really far out. They’re so kind, and they’re engaged in all kinds of voluntary activity to help others and things; and one thinks, “Wow, they’re amazing.” But then later you may come to learn that previously they may have been a murderer, they may have been a gang member raining down mayhem on others; and then it’s kind of like a little bit of a shock, because none of that is apparent in how they are currently living.
The Bible firmly embraces this understanding of karma. There is a verse that says:
“For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap also.”
or put more plainly, “As ye sow, so you shall reap.” It’s just like if you sow wheat then what you will reap is wheat; if you sow cauliflower, what you will reap is cauliflower; whatever it is that you are planting that is what you will reap. And that principle is actually universally understood and applied, but yet people have a hard time applying it in all situations.
For example, if we look at the disparity of economic conditions in the world, we see countries where people live extremely comfortable lives, and yet in other parts of the world people live in extreme and extraordinary levels of poverty and misfortune. And one could ask the question, “Well, why is one person born into one situation and another person is born into a completely different situation?” Some people are born with extraordinarily good health; others are born with medical conditions that they struggle with throughout their life. Some people are born with great physical beauty; others may be disfigured or incredibly ugly or just very plain. People have different physical and mental prowess that come as part of their personal package. And one should think, “Okay, why is it like that?”
If we assume that this life is my only life then one would have to see that God is incredibly unjust. Why does He just arbitrarily deal someone a crappy hand, and somebody else gets an incredibly wonderful hand. If there is no—if this is the—you know, my birth was the very beginning of my life, there was nothing before it, then it would mean that God, if He did exist, would be a terrible person, that He is unjust and cruel. This is the problem that lies behind the development of a theological idea that actually was not part of the original teachings of Jesus Christ. There is still one very clear reference in the New Testament, of John, where he writes about an event where Jesus healed a man who was born blind, and he gave him sight by some miraculous, what we would call in Vedic terms, a siddhi, (it’s like a mystical opulence that you can do these types of things) and after the person was healed a question—or before rather—a question was put to Jesus. So in these verses it states:
“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And the disciples asked him saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”
So this is their question: the person was born blind, and who is responsible? Who caused that? Was it due to sinful activities of his parents, or was it due to his own sinful activity? And of course, well, if we accept the idea that with your birth you have come into being, that this is your first experience of life, then where is the question of him having committed some sinful activity that resulted in him being born blind? So from this very simple and straightforward language we can see the thinking of his disciples and what was commonly understood in that time. And:
“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
So he said that it’s not due to the sins of the man or of his parents that this has come about, but it is a situation where God will manifest His great power by having Jesus Christ heal him. So I don’t want to get into that part of things. But Jesus didn’t say that, no, you’re wrong, the person cannot commit sins before they are born. He answered, “No it wasn’t sins previously committed, nor was it sins of the parents.” So in asking the question, and in the answer, we see that this idea is openly accepted.
And of course, now that brings us to this quite grave situation where we understand that a child who may seem so innocent and having not done anything wrong, or even an adult who has lived an exceedingly good life suddenly has to suffer. And the notion is that, well, we’ve got to blame someone. Hence the question of, why would God allow children to suffer? It’s like they’re holding Him responsible.
The understanding in the Vedas is that God does not become directly involved in the day-to-day activities of the material world, that there are laws, laws of nature, there are laws of karma, which are impartial and non-judgmental. You can’t climb up to the top of a watch tower or top of a tree and jump off and expect to fly. You will crash to the ground and be injured, because that’s the natural laws governing things. And it is our responsibility to learn the laws and to live in such a way that we are not adversely impacted by these natural laws. And so the idea of a child suffering means that there is no vision of the eternal nature of the soul, and the many lives that this person may have lived before, and what they may have done so that this fruit is now manifesting and becoming evident. It’s not God’s fault. It’s not—it’s just like you can’t say that when the government installs a red light on a corner, and I choose not to obey that, but to run that red light, and then I get hit by another vehicle coming in there from my side and smashes into me, I can’t say, “Well, it’s the government’s fault because they put the light there, therefore that’s why I got hit.” No. You have a responsibility to respond accordingly to this situation, and then you won’t be placing yourself in potential danger.
One of the things that sometimes happens is that when people hear about this for the first time it becomes kind of shocking, but then when it sinks in, if a person is not very spiritually mature they may begin to cultivate an attitude or an idea that when a person suffers that somehow they deserved it, and therefore there’s no need for me to feel bad or to get involved. It’s their problem. It’s their fault. But I warn people that this callousness actually is a demonstration of a great lack of spiritual advancement.
Regardless of the causation, when a good person sees suffering it impacts them, and they will automatically feel compassion and empathy. This is also described in the Bhagavad-gita. The yogi feels tremendous empathy for all living beings, both in their happiness and distress. He knows, by comparison, it says, with his own self, he knows what they are going through.
From the Bhagavata Purana, in part of one verse it states:
“Even though one is in the renounced order [they’re like a sannyasi, they’ve renounced the world]…
“Even though one is in the renounced order, one who is advanced certainly feels compassion for the suffering living entities.”
That compassion that is found by the—or experienced by the transcendentalists, is not simply compassion for what we may commonly perceive as suffering. For the transcendentalist, the material condition—being caught up in the material world and having a material body, being lost in the illusion of the body as being the self—is the foundation for all forms of suffering, and is in and of itself a suffering condition.
So one should not ever express any callousness towards the suffering of others, or hold the idea, “Well, they deserved it.” The great Caitanya Mahaprabhu said that,
“It is the duty of every living being to perform welfare activities for the benefit of others with his life, wealth, intelligence and words.”
“By his work, thoughts and words, an intelligent man must perform actions which will be beneficial for all living entities in this life and the next.”
—meaning that one should not even take the position of saying, “Well, I’m interested in their spiritual well-being. Their material well-being I don’t give a crap about. It’s not my concern.” No! That concern should be universal. It should be applied to all living beings, and it should be about their worldly experience as well as their spiritual development.
So I hope I have answered that question appropriately, and I encourage people not to be critical of someone such as the Pope when he honestly states he doesn’t have a clue, he doesn’t know why children could suffer, why God would allow them to suffer.
Thank you very much. So let us chant. I will chant the mahamantra.