Deadly Tsunami Resurrects the Old Question of Why

Times Staff Writers

A Sri Lankan Buddhist blames it on bad karma. A Muslim imam sees it as a test from God. A Wiccan high priestess sees only Mother Nature’s natural cycles, while a Catholic bishop and Jewish rabbi stress the charitable response to disaster.

South Asia’s devastating earthquake and tsunami have again raised timeless questions of why bad things happen to good people; why a benevolent God would allow such suffering. But different faith traditions offer varying answers from Southern California’s religious centers and classrooms.

To Ananda Guruge, former Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States who teaches at the Buddhist-affiliated University of the West in Rosemead, the Buddhist doctrine of karmic law, not random chance, determines who lives and dies in any disaster. The region suffered collective bad karma, he says, perhaps prompted by oppression, unjust war or other negative actions that invited the calamity.


In Sri Lanka and Thailand, both majority Buddhist countries hit by the tsunami, people tend to believe that those who perished were paying the price of accumulated demerits in this life or past ones, Guruge said, while the survivors were reaping rewards.

“Buddhist doctrine makes people responsible for their own fate,” said Guruge, whose own family in Sri Lanka largely survived. (Some Buddhist sects, however, believe in an external power that can influence human affairs, unlike those in the Theravada school of Buddhism prevalent in Sri Lanka, Thailand and other countries in southern Asia.)

But he said such doctrines of cause and effect provide solace by empowering people to take corrective action. By doing good deeds, he said, people can improve their own futures and transfer their merits to deceased loved ones to help bring them a better rebirth.

Such beliefs, Guruge said, have prompted Sri Lankan Buddhists in Southern California to launch a $2.5-million fundraising drive to build at least 1,000 homes for those displaced by the tsunami. Last weekend, followers also held ceremonies to transfer their acts of merit to their departed ones, offering symbolic healing drinks to the Buddha.

Hindus, who dominate the tsunami-stricken country of India, also believe in karma. But unlike Buddhists, they also believe in God, and say the tsunami was a divine response to the negative actions of humans.

“We all believe too many people were doing too many bad things,” said Nadadur Vardhan, president of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California. “People have not lived up to what they are supposed to do -- not helping people, not treating their parents well, not caring for the poor, going to war for unethical reasons.”

Vardhan said many Hindus believe the world is experiencing the most degenerate age of a four-stage cycle of time. In this age, known as Kali Yuga and marked by extensive violence and immorality, the divine response to human actions is immediate, Vardhan said. (Other organizations, such as the yoga-based Self-Realization Fellowship, believe the Kali Yuga has passed and the world is in an upward cycle, however.)

Last weekend, Vardhan’s temple society in Calabasas converted annual New Year’s Day ceremonies into penance, purification and prayers for tsunami victims.

The idea of collective punishment is rejected, however, by Muslims, who comprise 88% of people in Indonesia, the hardest-hit nation.

At a recent meeting at the Indonesian Consulate in Los Angeles, Imam Muzammil Siddiqi explained that Muslims believe that God ended collective punishments when sending to the world the Prophet Muhammad.

“We have no right to say that these people were destroyed because of their sins,” said Siddiqi, who heads the umbrella organization of mosques known as the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California. “We should take it as a test from God to see how human beings respond.”

Muslims are rising to the test, Siddiqi said. He and others met this week with Indonesian Consul General Handriyo Kusumo Priyo to present plans for a major fundraiser Sunday at the Hilton Anaheim Hotel sponsored by the Shura Council and Islamic Relief, a charitable organization based in Burbank.

So far, Islamic Relief reports it has raised $1.5 million toward a $10-million goal for disaster relief, and sent 160,000 pounds of medical supplies to the affected region in a program with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Many Christians, too, dwell on God’s compassion rather than destructive powers in trying to make sense of the tragedy.

It is natural to question God -- even Jesus did so in his suffering on the cross, said the Rev. Douglas McConnell, an ordained Baptist minister and former missionary in Indonesia, Thailand and India who now serves as dean of the school of intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. But believing that God deliberately caused the destruction is a difficult leap for those who believe God was revealed in the compassionate Jesus, he said.

The Most Rev. Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s San Gabriel region, said the most pertinent question was not whether God forsook the tsunami victims, but where was God now in the aftermath? His answer, he said, was that God is present in the outpouring of the good works pouring forth to aid the victims.

“My God is a God of life and love .... You can see God in the people’s response -- how they’re reaching out,” he said.

To followers of Wicca and other traditions that celebrate the divine in nature, the earthquake and tidal wave were simply a case of “Mother Nature stretching -- she had a kink in her back and stretched,” according to Ruth Barrett, a Wiccan high priestess who formerly led a group in Los Angeles and now heads a Wisconsin temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana. Though the resulting casualties were horrendous, she said, dwelling on why people suffered was narcissistic when nature constantly reshapes itself.

“We’re so self-centered and think we are the be-all and end-all of the universe,” she said.

Ultimately, however, many faith leaders said that the tsunami’s metaphysical cause, like much of life, is simply a mystery.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said some Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, would see such disasters as a natural consequence of God’s decision to make a finite world.

“If God has made a finite world, then it has to suffer from the kinds of things finitude suffers from ... things like life is not forever, there is illness as well as health, and there are earthquakes and rain,” he said.

“The real issue is not so much how we make sense of [the tsunami], because it’s quite possible we can’t make sense of it,” Dorff added. “The real issue is how we respond and try to ameliorate the suffering of the people who have suffered.”