By a cosmic scheduling quirk, Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey on Monday, coinciding with the first day of Kartik -- a sacred month on the Hindu calendar, packed full of religious observances and holy days.
Kartik is regarded as significant by all Hindus, but is especially important to followers of Hinduism's devotional (Bhakti) tradition. Our plans for the special day -- productive days at work followed by evening celebrations at our local temple -- transformed into spending the day at home, tracking the hurricane and its impact. By dinnertime, however, our 3-year-old daughter Shruti was growing restless. On the one hand, she was overjoyed to have both parents home during the day. On the other, she found the sound of the raging winds and rain and the intermittent power outages unsettling. To calm her nerves, and in an effort to get into the spirit of Kartik, we decided to read together. I pulled a large translation of the Bhagavata Purana from the bookshelf, opened up to a passage that is often read at this time of year, and began to narrate a kid-friendly version of the story.
In ages past, the text told us, Lord Krishna descended to the earthly realm. Playing the part of an ordinary boy, he lived in the rural village of Vrindavan. Each year around this time, the villagers would enact an elaborate ritual to appease the gods and pray for good weather. Seeing this, Krishna was concerned that the simple people were becoming too attached to fear-based ritualism and superstition. He advised them to abandon this practice, and instead to dedicate their energy to caring for the cows, the land and one another. Krishna's loving words charmed the simple villagers' hearts and enlightened their minds, and so they agreed. Infuriated, the gods swiftly retaliated at this perceived offense, and struck the village with a devastating storm. The helpless villagers turned to Krishna for shelter and protection. Exhibiting his inconceivable powers, Krishna mystically lifted a large hill into the air and directed the villagers to gather underneath it. The entire village came together and huddled under the umbrella-like hill as the storm (not unlike a hurricane) raged around them. When the gods witnessed this miracle, they were stunned. Penitent, they withdrew the storm, begged Krishna for forgiveness, and accepted his supremacy. From that point on, Krishna has come to be glorified as Giridhari, "lifter of the hill." In fact, one of the most popular images of Krishna, still worshiped by millions, is a form of the Lord lifting the hill and offering his devotees protection from the storm.
As we read the story together, we were struck by how instructive it could be for us -- both in terms the hurricane and the significance of the sacred month itself.
First, we can learn from the way in which the villagers reacted to the storm. They could have blamed Krishna, or simply considered themselves helpless victims, and given up hope. But they did not. Instead, they chose to turn to Krishna for help and place their faith in him. Doing so required both the humility to admit that they needed help, and the courage to accept it -- even from an unlikely source. Similarly, in times of crisis we are often faced with a choice: either we can despair and blame others, or we can choose to see the crisis as an opportunity to admit our helplessness and go deeper in our faith. Disasters and crises have a way of making this choice especially clear.
In a similar vein, Kartik is all about embracing simplicity and going within. Devotees often regard this month as a special time of year to focus on spiritual practice and learn to become less attached to the trappings of the material, external worlds we usually inhabit. Many voluntarily accept some austerity, taking vows to give up certain luxuries or indulgences for the month, or otherwise intentionally simplify their lifestyles. At the same time, they spend more time every day engaged in meditation, worship and prayer. Truthfully, I tend to struggle with this each year -- I either take on such an impractical vow that I end up focusing all my energies on it, or shrink away from austerity altogether. This year, though, the hurricane provided us with a natural sort of austerity. Simplicity was the order of the day. Stripped of the inessential, we found ourselves naturally drawn to focusing on what truly mattered and why.
Secondly, it is significant that Krishna gathered everyone together under the hill. The text specifies that while there, the people became fully satisfied in heart and completely free of envy. Whatever disagreements or enmity that may have existed between the villagers dissolved. Some versions of the narrative even specify that the villagers celebrated under the hill, considering the occasion an opportunity to grow closer to one another. Great teachers have commented on this aspect of the story, with a touch of humor, describing this feat as the real miracle. In the same way, catastrophes like hurricanes can bring us together -- despite our differences or misunderstandings. Past misgivings are revealed to be what they usually are: petty. We can take the opportunity to re-connect and strengthen relationships -- on the common platform of helping and supporting one another.
Here also, there is a parallel with the sacred month: Kartik is a time for family and community. Even the busiest families make time to gather together, sing prayers and devotional songs, and encourage one another in devotion. And each evening they light candles in recognition of the longer dark nights at this time of year, and offer them as symbols of their devotion. As one of the only homes in our area with power and hot water, we were blessed with the opportunity to host friends and family members who needed help. They came ostensibly to shower, warm themselves up and plug in their mobile devices. But as more and more of the members of our eclectic friends' circles -- an investment banker, a professional comedian, college students, new parents and their infant -- made their way into our home, they began to "plug in" to one another as well. Old friendships were renewed; new ones were forged. Conversations quickly moved from commiserating about the hurricane to expressions of gratitude for one another's company. Soon enough, we were rustling up a makeshift feast of leftovers in the kitchen, singing and praying together, and lighting so many candles that we set off the smoke detectors. Such fellowship is called sanga in Sanskrit, and is considered one of the most essential parts of a vibrant spiritual life.
Finally, there is an important lesson in the story for Hindus who seek to emulate Lord Krishna's response. We cannot imitate his mystical actions, certainly, but we can aspire to follow his example. Krishna's exhibition of power was in the service of others; he didn't hesitate to protect those who turned to him for shelter. In our own small ways, we may have opportunities to offer shelter to those in need. Like many faith traditions, Hinduism calls us to be instruments of God's compassion and love. This is always the case, but it is so much more so in times of crisis and need. Of course, this is far easier to talk about in fair weather; it is when the storm hits (literally or metaphorically) that our capacity to give is often tested.
Kartik is especially a time to foster such a mood of selfless service, and the hurricane and its aftermath simply underscores this. I am on the board of The Bhakti Center, a temple and cultural center in an area of lower Manhattan badly hit by Sandy. As of this writing, the center is still without power. This morning, I received a call from our Director of Programming. Before I could jump into a conversation about how we should deal with canceled workshops and re-scheduling guest speakers, he excitedly told me about an idea to mobilize a volunteer team to distribute fresh food, water and supplies to those in need -- especially the homeless -- in the neighborhood. Whether or not the plan proves feasible, the mere fact that he thought of it spoke volumes.
Seeking the shelter of the Divine, and then striving to share that shelter with others, is the essence of this time of year -- and perhaps of all holy days. Sometimes it just takes a hurricane to remind us.