Vaisnava Compassion in Global Crisis

By Bhaktin Allegra - 10.1 2023

What is the appropriate response of a Vaisnava or person of faith during a time of national or global crisis? The examples of great souls and of scripture can help us understand what a Vaisnava response can look like.

From a certain perspective, we are always in a time of crisis. In the material world, there is danger at every step. Although the material world is the wonderful creation of the Divine, it is not our home, and our material position is never secure. A large part of spiritual practice is meant to help us realize this, and to seek to connect with the Divine and with one another on a spiritual level. Spiritual practice helps us find equanimity during times of unexpected or unwanted change, because we have placed our faith with our Eternal Friend.

We see this faith expressed in many traditions. Jesus Christ tells his followers, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21) and Lord Sri Krishna tells his beloved devotee, “For those who worship me with concentration, I provide what they lack and preserve what they have” (BG 9.22). Spiritual practice helps us understand that no matter what circumstances of life we go through, our Divine Beloved is always, always with us.

Yet there is another dimension to spiritual practice, as well. Spiritual practice also gives us compassion and the courage to reach outside ourselves, serving the needs of others selflessly.

The examples of the great souls demonstrate this. Countless great souls, from ancient times to the present day, used their spiritual practice as fuel to serve others, even in desperate circumstances. The Mahabharata and Ramayana include countless examples of leaders doing their best to address the needs of their communities, even in seemingly impossible circumstances. Their choices were supported by faith; and they even took courageous action during times when all faith seemed to be lost. Each of us may also know people who demonstrate these qualities daily, often the unsung heroes of our movement, or devotees who serve as medical workers, social workers, government officials, chaplains, and teachers.

This character is well summarized in this verse from a section of the Bhagavata Purana, describing the qualities of a mahatma (a magnanimous person):

alampaṭaḥ śīla-dharo guṇākaro

hṛṣṭaḥ pararddhyā vyathito duḥkhiteṣu

abhūta-śatrur jagataḥ śoka-hartā

naidāghikaṁ tāpam ivoḍurājaḥ (3.14.49)

[A mahatma is one who] is not greedy, bears all virtues, does good, is cheerful, is happy for others, is grieved by others’ suffering, is without enemies, takes away the sufferings of the universe, [and who] like the moon [takes away] the austerity of the summer sun.

This verse predicted the kingship of Prahlad Maharaj, a great mahatma, who did indeed enact these virtues, protecting his people and all living entities. Although Prahlad is primarily famous for his profound faith, which enabled him to pass through great trials even as a young child, he should also be remembered for the courageous and compassionate leadership he displayed as a king.

In more recent history, the life and pastimes of Lord Chaitanya include other examples of mahatmas whose compassion led them to care for others selflessly. Vasudeva Datta, a beloved disciple of Lord Chaitanya, was completely selfless in his service to Vaisnavas and the people in general, spending everything he had for the needs of others (see CC Madhya 15.93-96). Vasudeva Datta even prayed to Lord Chaitanya to take all the sinful reactions of all living entities on himself, to relieve them from suffering (CC Madhya 15.162-163).

These examples cannot be imitated. But the examples set by mahatmas point a direction which all Vaisnavas should follow. How do we do that, recognizing our own limitations?

* We can engage in service. To whatever extent we are able – considering financial capacity, responsibilities to care for others, and health considerations – we can volunteer to respond to the needs of our local community. During a time of crisis, many people turn to food pantries, mutual aid societies, financial relief hubs, and phone hotlines. Depending on our capacity, we can volunteer with or donate to these resources.

* We can extend emotional support to others. Our own spiritual practices and emotional capacity can be a great asset to those in our own household (including children or elders we may be caring for), to other relatives, to neighbors and friends, especially those experiencing depression, anxiety, or other challenges. The more isolated people become, the greater there can be a need for loving contact. Picking up the phone to call someone, or holding a family member in a loving embrace, can be a beautiful gift.

* We can pray for others, and pray for our own fears to be resolved. Krishna Consciousness, like many other traditions, believes in the power of prayer, of sacred sound vibration chanted with intention. Our tradition has so many resources for prayer. The Maha Mantra can be chanted with intentions for relieving the suffering of others; Lokah samastha sukhino bhavantu or other Vedic mantras can also be chanted; and we may also draw on resources developed in other spiritual traditions such as metta meditation, Marian prayer, Franciscan prayer, body prayer, etc.

Regardless of the response we choose, the mahatmas show us that faith and compassion are what we should aspire to put into practice. No matter what our circumstance is in life, there is always something we can do to relieve the burdens of others, especially during a time of crisis. And when we feel fearful or hopeless, let’s remember that Sri Krishna is always, always with us, and that He provides whatever we lack and preserves whatever we have.