Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Does He Know a Mother's Heart ?

Author:      Arun Shourie
Published:  2011
Hardcover: 440 pages


The author Arun Shourie is a very well known figure in Indian journalism and politics. Yet very few would have known before the publication of this book about the anguish in his personal life. His son suffers from cerebral palsy and his wife from Parkinson's disease.It would have been a real heart wrenching experience for Shourie which lead to the writing of this book where he  raises a very disturbing yet thought provoking question -Why  there is extreme suffering in the world if according to the religious scriptures there is an omnipotent, omniscient , omnipresent , compassionate, all-forgiving and merciful God ?
This book is  in some parts autobiographical especially in the beginning, mainly dealing with the illness of his son and wife , but mostly a dissection of several religious scriptures to reveal what they have to say about suffering.
Extensively interpreting several  passages from these scriptures, Shourie argues that they actually give an impression that the God is , vindictive, demands unquestioning obedience, inflicts extreme suffering on innocent victims and also severely tests those who have faith in Him. He does not buy-in to a variety of arguments and explanations of suffering - for e.g. there is an unknown yet valid purpose behind suffering; it  is a test of your faith in God; suffering is due to your Karma; suffering is an illusion etc. etc; - advanced by the strong and faithful adherents of these scriptures. He puts forward counter- arguments to their claims.
However Shourie , while not fully agreeing with the views of  Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi,  is touched and impressed by their attitude towards their own sufferings when they were afflicted with fatal cancer.He says "The equanimity with which the painful and fatal illnesses were borne by these sages is, of course, a lesson and an example to us".

Shourie eventually finds some solace in the teachings of the Buddha and makes the following observations in the last but one chapter of the book :
  • Suffering is real. To  dismiss it as 'unreal' is to mock the pain of another.
  • For dealing with life and what it sends us, in particular for persons like us who are unlikely to pursue the higher truths of the mystics, the Buddha's teachings are the most helpful.
  • While it is true that some people will find solace in notions like God and practices like prayers, pilgrimages and rituals, they won't mitigate the crisis. One must work out one's own salvation with diligence as per Buddha's last words.
  • All the sufferings are only because of Time and Chance.
  • No cosmic purpose is served by our suffering because there is no "cosmic purpose"
  • In many instances suffering is so intense and so final that one can do little about it. Yet it can be put to work. Sometimes by the person who is suffering by bearing the pain with dignity or by the people who serve the person who is suffering, thus setting an example of how to deal with such a situation.
  • Putting suffering to work requires  -  Deeply reflecting  not about "Why has this happened to me?" but about, "How I may put even this to work - for others as well as for myself?"; Starting immediately; And persevering with the effort of transforming the suffering into a teacher. 
  • We should neither pity nor sympathize with the person suffering. What is required is our Empathy. i.e. "getting into the skin of, and feeling like the person must feel".
  • Even if we cannot serve those who are in pain, we can be of service to those who are serving them.
  • Hence, each of us can serve. But we must do whatever is required by the person we serve, whenever it is required. And we must go on doing so for as long as we and those we serve live.And we must expect no sympathy, no recognition, no special priveleges.
  • We must not let our unhappiness dampen the spirit of the one who is battling the affliction. We must do the chores we have to in good cheer.
  • Unless we are watchful, suffering of those near us and our own suffering can make us less mindful of the pain of others.
  • Also we have to be watchful of acquiring a martyr complex and of despair while serving.
  • Nothing can be done that will undo the primary cause of suffering. But most of us build superstructures of rage, resentment and bitterness on that primary occrrence. The teachers like the Buddha guide us in dismantling these structures.
  • The near and dear ones who are caught in the vice of prolonged suffering serve us by teaching us acceptance to their condition and to let go our reactions to it. They transform us.
Shourie  concludes this chapter by stating "Everyone struck a blow will find his own ways to cope - if it works for the person concerned, each one of them is valid". He further makes it clear with all humility that the lessons in this chapter ring true to him based on his own limited experience, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he has learnt these lessons fully.

A few years ago I had started reading  Shourie's book "Worshipping False Gods" but gave up midway, since I found his writing style rather boring and never attempted to read any other book of his after that. However a couple of months back I happened to watch some parts of a TV interview  where he talked about his latest book  "Does He know a mother's heart?", which prompted me to borrow it from Just Books library at the earliest opportunity.

While the first chapter is quite a moving account of his experience in dealing with the illnesses of his wife and son, the next four chapters are quite dry and repetitive. In these chapters the quotes from the scriptures are rather too long and too many. This I felt was rather unnecessary. A couple of quotes could have made the point. The next chapter dealing with incidents from the lives of  Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi makes a better reading. As the next few chapters go by, the book becomes progressively interesting. The last two chapters are the best ones. 

I am an agnostic and so agree with most of the points which Shourie makes in this book. However I also think that faith in God, religion, prayers and rituals - as long as they don't gravitate towards bigotry and fanaticism or causes inconvenience to others - is of great help to a large number of people in coping with the crisis they face. I don't want the faith of these devoted adherents to be shaken by Shourie's writings. So for such people I recommend them to read only the first chapter and the last two chapters. These three chapters captures the essence of this book.

Nevertheless this book is  very inspirational and highly recommended read especially for the caregivers who are in similar situation as that of  Shourie. It will serve as a guidebook for dealing with suffering.

  • Media Reviews - Review of this book in  newspapers and magazines.

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