Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims approach death in own ways
Members of the DFW Hindu Temple held a deepa puja Sunday morning. The “prayer of light,” honoring victims of last Sunday’s earthquake and tsunamis, felt something like a candlelight vigil in any church or synagogue.
But the Hindu religious response to massive human tragedy is essentially different. The flower-draped altar and oil candles surrounded by elaborate statues of Indian deities were clearly not part of a Christian or Jewish service. And differences in how the faiths try to explain unimaginable suffering are more than just ritual.
Most of the victims of the disaster in South Asia follow faith traditions unfamiliar to most Americans: Hindus in India, Muslims in Indonesia and Buddhists in Sri Lanka.
Following catastrophe, the American religious mainstream generally offers a broadly uniform message of comfort: Trust in the loving and just God. He has a meaningful plan for life. We may not understand that meaning until we are with him in the hereafter. Turn to Job and other books in the Bible for clues, if not answers.
But the religious leaders for most of this disaster’s victims deliver very different messages.
Buddhism may be the most foreign tradition for Americans. Buddhists have no trouble reconciling worldly tragedy with a loving god, because they don’t believe in any god.
“It is not by any particular god” that such tragedies occur, said Dr. Bhante Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan monk who is the president of the Bhavana Society and abbot of its monastery in West Virginia. “A compassionate god would never do anything like this.”
Dr. Gunaratana has been on the phone and exchanging e-mails with people in his homeland since last weekend. About 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist.
“The whole country is like one funeral hall,” he said.
Buddhists believe the universe operates on a strict system of karma, moral justice that spans generations. Bad things that happen to a person in this life are the result of bad things the person did in this life – or in myriad earlier lives. That means there are never “innocent victims.”
“What goes around comes around,” said the Rev. Prem Suksawat, the Thai-born religious leader for the Dhamma Cetiya Buddhist Vihara in Boston.
For a traditional Buddhist funeral in Sri Lanka, a monk would stand before the body and repeat teachings of Buddha, “the enlightened one,” the religion’s founder. Flowers might be offered in the Buddha’s honor. Mourners would meditate and think about good deeds to be done in the name of the dead. And they would pray that the merits of those deeds be transferred to the soul of the departed, to reduce his karmic burden and future suffering.
The goal of the kind of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka – Theravada – is for the soul to become so enlightened that it escapes the inevitable pain and suffering of the cycle of death and rebirth.
“We preach to them that these are the things we can have faith about in this world,” said the Rev. Anuruddha Ellakka, a Sri Lankan monk at the Houston Buddhist Vihara.
“As a human being, we are responsible for everything that happens to us.”
Paying for sins
Hindus would mostly agree with that sentiment. Like Buddhism, Hinduism accepts the idea of karma that passes from one lifetime to another. But Hinduism, the faith followed by most people in India, also includes a belief in a loving god who affects peoples’ lives.
Unlike most Western faiths, Hinduism has no universally recognized authorities, texts or doctrines. Rituals and practice change from region to region.
But Hindus generally agree that there is one all-powerful god who manifests in many forms, male and female. And that god can sometimes send messages though natural events.
Sunday’s local deepa puja, attended by more than 100 devotees, included a prayer for the dead to that single, highest god:
“The light symbolizes the divine power of God, the brightest and most sacred of all. Similarly, the light that emanates from the departed souls is also powerful and sacred. We pray that these two lights merge, symbolizing the unification of the immortal soul of God.”
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Rev. Jerry Falwell suggested that God was sending a message about American immorality by allowing the attack. Some Hindu leaders are searching for similar meanings in the tsunami tragedy, said Chandrashekar Narayanan, a priest at the DFW Hindu Temple.
“There is a lot of sin that is going on,” said Mr. Narayanan, who was born in Tamil Naya, the Indian state hardest hit by the killer waves.
But while Mr. Falwell focused on current events as an explanation for his God’s wrath, Hindus consider a much longer time frame. Maybe modern leaders are sinning. But maybe hundreds or even thousands of years of bad karma finally added up to a catastrophic tragedy.
“Whenever the cosmic order of life is disrupted, these events can happen,” said Dr. Pemmaraju N. Rao, past chairman of the Hindu Temple of San Antonio. He grew up in Andhra Pradesh, a southeastern Indian state also hit by tsunamis.
Traditional Hindu funerals in his part of India take 11 days, he said. For the first ten days, tradition teaches, the soul of the departed stays in the area. Relatives and friends pray and do good deeds in the name of the dead person. Those are intended to encourage the soul to move to where its karma and desires should take it, Dr. Rao said.
Like Buddhists, Hindus seek escape from the wheel of karma and earthly suffering. But they generally believe that enlightenment can lead to heaven.
On the 11th day, a formal funeral will include the chanting of specific prayers and hymns, Dr. Rao said. One prayer might include:
“I am evolving into a higher state so I may not have to come back to this world. For that reason, I am praying that you take me to your abode.”
A signal from Allah
Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country in the world, almost 210 million. The Indonesian island of Sumatra was closest to the center of the earthquake. Residents of Aceh, the quake-wracked northern part, follow a particularly orthodox Muslim practice.
Muslim explanations for tragedy share elements of Jewish and Christian belief. That’s not surprising, given Islam shares roots with those faiths. Somewhat altered versions of Jesus, Mary, Moses, Abraham and other figures familiar to Jews and Christians are found in the Quran.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam teaches that God is the ruler of the world and has a plan that is expressed even in tragedy, said Imam Yusuf Kavakci of the Dallas Central Mosque in Richardson.
“We believe that everything is in the taqdir – destiny – predetermined by Allah, the creator,” he said.
The Quran teaches that God tests people through events on Earth, he said. Tragedies can also be a signal from Allah. And innocents who suffer in this life will be rewarded the Day of Judgment with a better position in heaven, he said.
“In a worldly sense this is bad, but from a point of view of eternal life, it is for their benefit,” Imam Kavakci said.
Turning to religion
News accounts from the disaster zone show that people are still dealing mostly with survival issues – food, shelter and injury. But they also show funerals and religious services. Even surrounded by unimaginable catastrophe, people are turning to the rituals and routines of faith.
And while each religion teaches different things about tragedy, all attempt to deal with the universal human experience of grief and sorrow.
As the candles flickered in the DFW Hindu Temple on Sunday, members chanted a prayer of comfort written 1,200 years ago.
“I am not mind or the intellect. Nor am I the thought or the consuming ego. Neither am I the sense of hearing, tasting or seeing,” they sang in Sanskrit. “For I am consciousness and bliss. I am Shiva! I am Shiva!”