The Web


Home > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan

Does God discriminate?

February 04, 2005

The terrible human loss during the tsunami was exemplified for me by the photograph of the grieving Indian father holding his lifeless son's hand while his despairing wife wept cradling the child's body.

The tens of thousands who lost family, possessions and livelihood touched our hearts, and in an outpouring of sympathy, many of us responded, freely giving one day's salary in many cases and also clothes, household articles and our voluntary labor. Tales of heroism, courage, sacrifice, and minor miracles have been staples in the media.

The tragedy made me think a lot about the meta issue of faith, and what the believer does in times of tragedy: I found that there is a whole area of philosophy called theodicy that deals with the issue of God when what might loosely be termed 'evil' is abroad in the form of the Christmas quake and the tsunami.

I am a person of faith. I believe. How does someone of faith respond to a situation where there is large-scale and random trauma to innocents?

I have often asked myself this question when pilgrims, whose one would assume are closest to the Divine, come upon horrible ends. I wrote about this many years ago when Muslim pilgrims died in a fire in Mecca in my column Pilgrims and God's grace

When Amarnath pilgrims are massacred year after year by terrorists, I ask the same question. And now when 300 people, mostly women and children, die in a fire at a temple in Wai, Maharashtra, I ask the same question.

Satara: the smoke still billows

Admittedly, this question itself betrays a Semiticised world-view, for in the Indic world-view, the doctrines of karma and maya help us to deal with these traumas.

But looking at it naïvely, as we non-philosophers do, this simple question is hard to answer: Why? Why did this happen to these people, at this time?

The one book I am familiar with that explores this question in some detail is Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey which brings a Christian perspective to it.

He explores a real-life event, the destruction of a bridge over a river somewhere in Latin America, a bridge that leads to a Catholic pilgrim centre. He examines the lives of the victims to build up a case that, contrary to what one might think at first glance, there is a certain sense -- sceptics might call in post-facto rationalisation, but still -- to the deaths of these people at that time.

A person of faith is troubled by the question: 'Why?'

Those who believe themselves to be 'rational' and 'scientific' only respond to the question: 'How?'

We do know how the quake and tsunami took place. The tension built up by the movement of one tectonic plate against another was released in a gigantic movement of the crust. This caused the seas to be agitated as when a tub of water is violently shaken; thus the tsunami.

What is a tsunami?

However, what science cannot answer is why this happened now. Nor can it answer the question of when it may happen again.

There is no way to predict earthquakes, scientists caution us. I had a discussion with a sceptical scientist friend, and he claimed that it is not the business of science to predict things but to understand them.

I told him this was a bit of dissimulation, for unless a theory can predict an event, it is an unsatisfying theory indeed.

My friend clarified his stance: some events are deterministic, which means they are the exact and forecastable result of a series of steps, and therefore they can be predicted. Others, said he, are stochastic, and therefore there is an element of randomness which means they inherently cannot be predicted.

In fact, I would claim that there is, at the quantum level, a basic limitation encapsulated in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that you can never precisely determine both the location and momentum of a particle; the very act of measurement would modify them.

Thus it is fundamentally impossible to know things precisely at the quantum level: Nature refuses to let go of its mystery.

This is the problem I have with the idolisation of science by the general public.

Science, at any point, merely gives us an imperfect understanding of the universe; admittedly, we are learning more and more about it, but in the end it is only a blurred and limited portrayal of reality.

It is true that science can, with reasonable assurance, guarantee that certain things will happen: for instance, it can predict the trajectories of hurricanes and tornadoes, and this is definite progress compared to a century ago.

However, it is also guaranteed that what we consider the height of rational science today will be laughed at as benighted superstition by scientists a hundred years from now.

Most scientists are humble enough to admit this and those of faith are humble enough to applaud scientists for this. However, it is the general public who are most dogmatic about science, having been rendered illiterate, innumerate, and illogical by the lousy education system and the media. It is they who have been brainwashed into the worship of science for one, and cricket for another.

Science has become shibboleth.

To belabour this point, consider allopathic medicine.

It is superb at analysing the superficial, the symptoms, but fails dismally at understanding what is deep down, the root cause.

It can tell us all about germs, but it is not able to tell us why of two people exposed equally to certain carcinogens, one gets sick and the other doesn't.

It is unable to predict, with much more than statistical accuracy, what the effect of a certain disease or treatment is going to be. We all know about the placebo effect; and each of knows at least one person who has had a 'miraculous' recovery -- those who were given a few months to live and who have overcome their illness and are hale years later.

Those who believe that there is a divine plan for the universe, perhaps those who subscribe to the 'blind watchmaker' theory that the universe is not a random artifact but one that has an intelligence behind it, are not satisfied by explanations that invoke pure chance and the caprice of statistics.

Once you accept this perspective, then you start looking for reasons, the 'why?'

I wondered aloud in my previous column on the tsunami whether the tsunami ravages on Tamil Nadu had anything to do with the atrocities committed on the Kanchi acharya, who is after all more than an individual: the seer represents an institution of considerable gravity and the assault on his person in an assault on the institution.

I received some emails challenging this postulate, and literally all of them put forth one or both of the following statements/questions to claim that I was wrong: If this was retribution for the wrongs done in Tamil Nadu, why did it affect all these people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, etc? It's absurd to say that something supernatural happened here, it is fully explainable by plate tectonics: no rational person could say anything else.

However, I am sorry to say that these arguments do not in any way negate my conjecture about whether the rise of adharma caused the elements themselves to react.

Are we irritating nature too much?

Nobody will be able to prove, or disprove, this conjecture: it is a matter of faith.

In religious and philosophical thought, it is not unusual for a catastrophe is attributed to misdeeds.

For instance, the submersion of Dwaraka -- which possibly took place because of a tsunami -- was foretold, based on the Yadavas' wickedness. I invoke Rachel Carson too, who predicted ecological cataclysm (Silent Spring) based on the fury of Nature slighted.

Now, I have no idea what the people of Thailand, the Maldives, Indonesia etc did to deserve the tsunami damage. This is because I do not spend much effort delving into what goes on there.

We are all aware that there has been much religious and separatist violence in places like Aceh, southern Thailand and Sri Lanka. I would leave it to people in those nations to decide what might have called down the wrath of Nature upon them. I write about India primarily because I do pay attention to what goes on in India.

There are other factors. When the wrath of Nature targets a land, it is the case that innocents are affected, too.

Undoubtedly, as reader Sankaran pointed out, when classical Tamil heroine Kannagi burned down the city of Madurai, many innocents suffered too. In every war, righteous or not, it is not only the wicked who perish: in a cataclysm everyone is harmed. There is the dictum that justice is blind, and catastrophes are apparently blind too.

On the second point, I get support from various people, including Medha Patkar and various godmen, and most deliciously, the Marxists.

Medha Patkar, whose environmentalist credentials are well known, visited Kollam district January 15, and said the tsunami was Nature's revenge for what man was doing to it.

This is merely another version of the divine retribution theory: she is suggesting this explanation as a matter of faith, and what she calls 'Nature' others may choose to call 'God'.

Various Christian godmen, not surprisingly, suggested that there is a divine element in all this, but they were somewhat conflicted about this event and not quite clear how to explain it.

Said Pope John Paul II, the Catholic primate: 'Faith teaches us that the most difficult and painful trials -- as in the recent calamity in Southeast Asia — God does not abandon us.'

That's carefully worded, but it is not particularly illuminating. God did not abandon us, but casually allowed the deaths of 200,000 people? Why them, and why not us? Does God discriminate amongst his creations?

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England's prelate went so far as to question (external link) the very existence of God. Said he: 'The question, "How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?" is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't -- indeed it would be wrong if it weren't.'

Christian fundamentalists in the US have been talking of 'Rapture' and 'Left Behind,' where only devout Christians will be 'saved' and all others will be killed in horrible ways.

They suggest the tsunami is a precursor to the end of the world. They have been talking about the two Christmas quakes, the first on Christmas night 2003, leveled the city of Bam, Iran; the second, on Christmas night 2004, created this tsunami.

They note that in both instances the affected countries were non-Christian. But they don't have an explanation for the fact that the damage in India was disproportionately to Christian coastal dwellers, and the worst single incident was at the Velankanni church, center of a Madonna cult.

'To have all those people die shows us that we have got the gift of life and a limited time here on earth,' said Todd Strandberg, founder of 'I think that's why disasters occur. He wants to remind us that we have a limited time on earth. And the survivors should take note of that.'

But the most surprising supporters of the divine retribution theory are the Marxists of India. Here is a verbatim quote from their house organ, People's Democracy.

'The tsunami striking us in the last days of 2004 must be seen not as an ominous signal for the future, but as the culmination of a legacy of hate and destruction that we, the Indian people, unitedly and finally overcame in the political sphere in 2004.'

'It is also a reminder that gigantic tasks lie ahead. The defeat of fascistic communalism is only half the battle won. A more bitter engagement awaits us to cleanse our society of this communal virus. This is a task that needs to be addressed with great earnest in the coming year.'

Complete coverage: General Election 2004:

Apart from the delightful turgidity and trademark muddle-headedness of this excerpt -- why, it is almost indistinguishable from English -- consider what they are saying.

They are claiming that the tsunami was a signal from some unseen force (it could not possibly be God, so it must be Marx) that Indians had finally done the right thing in 'defeating the fascistic communalists', obviously the defeat of the BJP in the 2004 election.

Let us analyse this carefully. The Marxists, who claim to be super-rationalist and not prone to invoke non-material forces, are publicly claiming here that some supernatural entity has sent a signal! Thank you, Harkishen Singh Surjeet.

Since the Marxists have said this, it must have been cleared by the 'intellectuals' and 'eminent historians' in India. This theory of Marx signaling to Indians will soon appear in Arjun Singh's retoxified history textbooks. You heard it here first.

Second, they claim that the signal is suggesting to Indians that they did the right thing in defeating the BJP. Therefore, they suggest, the supra-normal entity is telling Indians, by killing 10,000 or them, 'Good job getting the BJP out, guys, so I am going to punish you!'

This is, of course, completely illogical. Using Occam's razor (the dictum that the simplest explanation is usually the right one), the simplest conclusion is the exact opposite, that the entity is saying, 'Guys, you screwed up by electing the wrong guys, so I am going to punish you.'

But then nobody accused the Old Left of being logical.

As for all their talk of fascists, here is what Susan Sontag, the determinedly left-wing American intellectual who passed away recently, said about them: 'Communism is fascism with a human face.'

In the case of the Indian Old Left, it is not clear that they have a human face either as they demonstrate daily with their murderous campaigns.

The Marxists' response would be amusing if it weren't such black comedy. They, who loudly deny the role of faith, have been forced to articulate a faith-based rationale for the tsunami. This should not amaze us, for, Marxism, despite its pretence to the contrary, is a neo-Semitic faith. It follows the two standard premises of paleo-Semites and meso-Semites as well, that is, blind faith which amounts to idolatry; and duality, thus the demonisation of the Other.

What is evident is that neither of those shibboleths so beloved of the self-proclaimed 'intellectuals' of India -- 'science' nor 'rationalism' --is sufficient in the time of tragedy. We fall back upon something ancient, atavistic and mystical: faith; this is the only comfort when we are overwhelmed by catastrophe.

Comments welcome at or at my blog 2

Rajeev Srinivasan

Share your comments

 What do you think about the story?

Read what others have to say:

Number of User Comments: 38

Sub: tsunami

what effect,distruction does tsunami left behined

Posted by didi

Sub: Does God discriminate?

Dear Rajeev, If you are really interested in understanding more about how such things work and how our lives are interlinked with such events and ...

Posted by Siddarth

Sub: Nobel!!!!!!!!

And how is getting a nobel prize a canon

Posted by Saggi

Sub: Torture!

Rajeev Sreenivasan could have been brief. . 1)Rajeev's God punished over 150000 people all over South Asia, by killing them just for showing His (the ...

Posted by Ravi M

Sub: Does God discriminate?

No, He does not. There is no partiality. There is no wickedness in Him. He is holy. the only One to be holy. The way ...

Posted by Dr Daniel Sathiaraj


Article Tools
Email this article
Top emailed links
Print this article
Write us a letter
Discuss this article

Copyright © 2005 India Limited. All Rights Reserved.