“A person is said to be established in self-realization and is called a yogi when he is fully satisfied by virtue of acquired knowledge and realization. Such a person is situated in transcendence and is self-controlled. He sees everything – whether it be pebbles, stones or gold – as the same.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.8)
Some of the more humorous plotlines to a movie or television show are the ones involving the faking of an illness. In fact, the more serious the illness that the character pretends to suffer from, the greater the humor that is derived. There is certainly nothing funny about being stricken with cancer, but when a character fakes having such a deadly disease in order to garner sympathy from others, the resulting situations can evoke great laughter. It is undoubtedly true that we treat diseased individuals far differently than we treat healthy ones. If a person is suffering from an illness, they essentially turn into a victim and thus become a recipient of charity, pity, and kindness from others. Those with a little intelligence, being able to perceive the subtle differences in treatment and the root cause behind the shift, will immediately see the contradiction and flaw in such a pattern of behavior. If we are nice to people when they are sick, why aren’t we nice to them when they are not? Has the person’s character changed in any way? Are healthy people undeserving of kindness and compassion? This mature level of thinking is automatically attained by those who are in knowledge. Proper knowledge, that information that leads to the highest level of intelligence, can be easily acquired by those who take to bhakti, or love and devotion to God.
If there is a horrific accident or other tragic event that takes place overseas, the subsequent news stories will invariably give the death toll figures broken down by the nationality of the victims. For example, if a bombing takes place in Europe, the newspapers in the United States will report how many American deaths there were, as if somehow an American dying is cause for greater concern than anyone else’s death. This practice speaks to a larger issue, one that is fully illustrated in the interactions between the sick and the healthy. If someone is dying from cancer, they are deemed to be in a tragic condition. Therefore others will naturally treat them in a kinder way. “Oh, such and such is suffering so much. I can’t imagine getting cancer at such an age. We should go out of our way to be nice to them.”
This concern is shown towards any person or group of individuals who is deemed a victim. In 2005, the city of New Orleans was devastated by a hurricane and its subsequent aftermath. The home stadium for the New Orleans football franchise, the Saints, was badly damaged in the storm, thus leaving the team homeless in a sense. During the following football season, the Saints became the sentimental favorite for fans and press around the country. Noted commentators would remark, “We are all Saints fans this year.” The motivation behind such sentiments is surely noble, for the team and the city had suffered through a great loss. The natural inclination is to treat those who are suffering in a better way than those who are not.
It is humorous to see comedy writers take advantage of this behavioral pattern by composing scripts that call for certain seedy characters to fake an illness. This was the case in an episode of the famous sitcom Seinfeld, wherein the character played by Jon Lovitz thought he had cancer, told others about it, and then found out that he didn’t. Seeing all the attention the cancer announcement got him, the character didn’t bother to tell anyone that there was never any cancer. Other shows have had storylines where characters faked being in wheelchairs in order to get assistance and favoritism from others.
“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste] .” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)
So is there anything wrong with preferential treatment towards victims? Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, tells us that a pandita, or learned person, sees everyone equally, sama-darshinah. As such, a pandita observes an ant, a lump of gold, and a human being to ultimately not have any differences. This isn’t to say that the nature of the interactions is the same, but rather, the heartfelt emotions and sentiments exuded are of the same quality. It’s not surprising that this high level of observation and thought is reserved for the most learned class of men. In the grand scheme of things, every one of us is dying, with the only difference being the exact date of death, the duration of our suffering. Cancer is seen as a death sentence because it quickly speeds up the dying process, but every living entity slowly starts to die as soon as they are born. The body in which the soul occupies is the greatest death trap.
“Just as the ripened fruit has no other fear than falling, the man who has taken birth has no other fear than death.” (Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 105.17)
The soul is the functioning unit of life; it serves as the guiding force for all activity. Even the workings of nature are directed by a soul, as the attraction felt by atomic particles is due to the influence of the powerful divine energy, a force managed by God. In this way, the individuals always remain subordinate to the higher powers. Though the original Divine Being can be called by different names, the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that His most complete name is Krishna, which is a Sanskrit word that means all-attractive. Just as electrons are attracted to protons, the individual spirit soul is attracted to the Supreme Soul, who is commonly addressed as God. Both of these souls enter the body of a living entity, but knowledge of their presence remains clouded to the individual; such is the influence of material nature.
So how do we go about realizing the presence of the soul and its life partner, the Supersoul? The Supersoul is nothing more than the localized representation of God. The Supreme Lord is all-pervading, but since the individual soul has an inherent attraction to Him, God kindly expands Himself as the Supersoul and resides within the heart of every living entity. The effects of cancer and other diseases, and the attention shown to the victims, can actually teach us about the soul and the fatalistic nature of life. Though disease brings about discomfort, pain, and death, the ultimate end of life is guaranteed even in the absence of such pain. Whether one is diseased or not, simply by associating with a bubble-like body destined for destruction, they are still in a painful condition.
Usually the victim status is attached to one who is outwardly suffering. Yet based on the knowledge of the soul and the temporary nature of all life, this method of identification is misleading. There are varieties of suffering, with the mind serving as the root cause of all displeasure. Let’s juxtapose two seemingly dissimilar predicaments and see if differences in treatment and behavior from others is warranted. On one side you have the cancer patient, and on the other you have the healthy person. The suffering of the cancer patient is obvious: physical pain along with the loss of hair and the fear of impending death. Since these conditions are absent in the healthy patient, the non-diseased individual is deemed to be better of.
But are they? The highest authorities versed in Vedic wisdom have categorized all the workings of the conditioned human mind into two activities: hankering and lamenting. We hanker after the things that we want, and we lament over those things we fail to acquire. Lamentation certainly is a cause for grief. One who overly laments will thus be in a perpetually unpleasant frame of mind, which then naturally leads to unhappiness. Following this simple chain of causation, the healthy person reaches the same predicament as the cancer patient, that of a distressed condition. One may argue that the healthy patient has no justification for their grief, for they are not suffering from any debilitating disease. “If they are unhappy, it is their own fault. They have their health, so what are they complaining about?” Ah, now we get to the crux of the issue.
The Vedas declare this material world to be one full of miseries. The natural home of the soul is in the spiritual world with the Supreme Lord. When the individual desires separation from God, it is granted its wish in the form of a temporary playing field populated with temporary bodies. In the material world, the living entity gets to play on the field for as long as it desires to remain separated from its complementary spiritual entity. Since the “happy place” for the soul is with the Supreme Lord in the spiritual sky, no amount of time spent on the playing field known as the phenomenal world can provide any lasting happiness. The guaranteed nature of death is simply a built in clause to the contract wholly agreed to by the living entity upon their departure from the spiritual sky. The Supreme Lord has no desire to send His sons and daughters to such a temporary and miserable place, but since He cannot force anyone to love Him, He has no choice but to agree to the request by drawing up the terms of the contract.
“This is the most confidential part of the Vedic scriptures, O sinless one, and it is disclosed now by Me. Whoever understands this will become wise, and his endeavors will know perfection.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 15.20)
Armed with this information, which is the exclusive property of those confidential associates of Krishna, the pure devotees and spiritual masters, we see that the cancer patient is just as much worthy of their physical ailment as is the healthy person their mental ailment. Since all negative material conditions ultimately lead to distress of the mind, and eventually to death, there really is no distinguishing between the two victims. Taking another example, if we have a rich person and a poor person who both suffer from stomach ulcers, is either person any more a victim than the other? Usually the poor person is given more attention and pity because they don’t have the means to enjoy their senses to the same level as the rich person. But if both are suffering from lamentation and worry that manifests in the form of a hole in the stomach, are not the two pains equal? Should not both parties be treated as victims?
Though the picture seems bleak, there is an easy way out of perpetual pain, a path that can be taken by both victim and non-victim alike. In actuality, the kind behavior shown towards cancer patients and other perceived victims is laudatory and something that should be followed by all people. Yet this kindness shouldn’t be reserved exclusively for perceived victims, but rather, for every living entity. Every person is suffering from separation from the Supreme Lord, even if they are unaware of it. Every person is an eventual victim of death, so there is no reason to maltreat any living entity. Even the ants, dogs, cats, and cows suffer through birth, old age, disease, and death. Hence we should respect non-human forms of life as well, not giving them any unnecessary pain.
Treating everyone equally and with kindness is easier said than done. Just as there are far fewer holders of doctoral degrees than there are students of the various sciences, ascending to the pandita platform, the highest level of intelligence pertaining to spirituality, is not easy, for it requires great theoretical and practical knowledge to be able to maintain an equal vision while observing the external world. Fortunately, such intelligence already resides within us, though in a dormant state. Aside from being a lover of God, the individual soul is eternally knowledgeable and full of bliss. Bhakti, which is the loving aspect of the soul, can be thought of as existing within a container composed of knowledge. In the conditioned state, the location of this container and its contents are forgotten. One can take to reading scriptures and studying high philosophy in order to eventually discover this container, but there is a much easier way to remove the cloud of nescience brought on by material contact.
As bhakti is the natural disposition of the soul, so are the activities that derive from it. These activities are collectively known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Since love is the natural tendency of the spirit soul, bhakti cannot be divided into different sections and aspects. Rather, there are different activities which are indicative of the natural affection held for Krishna, so anyone who takes to these engagements will slowly but surely rekindle their attachment for the Lord. The activity which best brings out the bhakti spirit is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
If everyone were to chant this mantra regularly and with firm determination, the vision of the pandita would come to them very quickly. Since bhakti is the precious jewel residing within the heart, once it is acquired, its container in the form of knowledge will be gained as well. The expensive ring purchased from the jewelry store naturally includes the protective box as well. As such, a pure lover of God will automatically achieve the status of pandita and thus be able to see everyone with an equal vision. Seeing every person for who they are, an undying soul trapped in perishable bodies that spin through an endless cycle of reincarnation fueled by material desires, the highly learned take to educating others about bhakti and the need for chanting and other transcendental processes. While concern, kindness, and charity are nice ways to help the victims of society, the greatest welfare work is to reconnect the fallen souls with their long-lost object of pleasure, the Supreme Lord. Fortunately for us, this ultimate reservoir of pleasure already resides within everyone, so by taking to bhakti-yoga, the cure for the dying man, the key that unlocks the door to eternal life, can very easily be found.