01/10/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Delhi Gang Rape: The Karma of Suffering and the Suffering of the Righteous

A challenging question that many religious leaders and religious people often struggle to answer concerns the existence of suffering in the world. Whether this suffering is human or non-human, religions strive to provide answers for why such suffering occurs in the first place. If authoritative and authorized texts or spokespeople are not able to offer satisfying answers then epistemic, if not existential, confusion for practitioners is likely to follow. Religious practitioners may consequently abandon their religion in search of one that offers more convincing answers.

The horrific rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old woman, in New Delhi on Dec. 16, 2012 has foregrounded these and related issues for many religious people, and especially for many Hindus. In a Hindu context the explanatory strategy that is typically employed to account for her ghastly and colossal suffering is dependent on the mechanism of karma. The degree to which human (and non-human) actors have agency or the degree to which their actions are determined or pre-determined, however, is not patently obvious and has resulted in volumes of esoteric commentary and philosophical/ theological literature, most of which is not available to the vast majority of practicing Hindus. Self-proclaimed authorities such as Asaram Bapu have placed responsibility, and, therefore, agency, on the victim and have, to some degree ignored the mechanism of karma. In so doing he has simultaneously offended religious and secular people. If, on the other hand, one were to take the opposite position, to embrace a kind of hard determinism, namely that all is determined by karma, then one would deny agency and even the perpetrators of this heinous crime would be absolved of immediate responsibility. This also is not desirable and surely is offensive. Karma may not offer a convincing explanation.

Justifications for the suffering of the righteous becomes even more muddled when theism is added to the mix. That is, if there is a God and that god is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent then one may wonder why such a god would permit suffering in general. The answer that is frequently given by religious spokespeople and practitioners is that "God works in mysterious ways." This MWC, "mysterious ways clause," however, is merely an acceptance of a profound ignorance combined with an optimistic belief that all suffering will be beneficial in the future (in the Hindu context, in the current life, or in future ones). Many, of course, are reassured when they employ the MWC to make sense of their suffering or the suffering of others.

There are, of course, other variants of these models and they are being articulated in India and throughout the world. Honoring, remembering, and memorializing Jyoti Singh Pandey is our collective karma.

My intention here is to invite readers to become aware of, and, perhaps, even question, their own presuppositions. My intention is not to create any more suffering or to ridicule readers or the victim of this (or any other) sickening tragedy. My intention is to foster insight through critical self-reflection.