Nurturing hope against hope

Does he know a mother’s heart?
Arun Shourie
2011, pp 435
Rs 599

Does the prevalence of extreme suffering point to the existence of a compassionate and just God? The trauma felt by the parents of a spastic child has no parallel. Hoping against hope, after trying every remedy, they resort to every form of worship, rush from one godman to the other, or do penance to make a sense of what has befallen them. Neither conventional religion nor scriptures clear their agony.

Journalist-politician Arun Shourie is one devastated by the tragedy of a son afflicted with cerebral palsy and wife suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Does He Know A Mother’s Heart? How Suffering Refutes Religions is an intimate account of the pain and suffering he had to undergo in bringing up his 35-year-old son Aditya and looking after wife Anita.

Though a fully grown person, he can’t stand or sit, speaks in mono syllables and needs constant care. The book is a voyage of inquiry and a candid search for peace. The feeling of utter helplessness has drawn him to religion and spirituality. He began to seek answers for his agonising predicament. Shourie questions the ways of God and rejects the traditional concept of God as compassionate, all-knowing and omniscient.

He wonders whether the millions who have lost their lives in natural disasters and at the hands of Hitler and Pol Pot justify the existence of God. He faults Mahatma Gandhi’s assertion that the 1934 Bihar quake was divine retribution for the practice of untouchability.

Questioning blind faith, he then turns to scriptures of different religions for explanations on suffering. Quoting extensively from the Bible, Koran, Gita and Upanishads, Shourie concludes that the explanations do not stand up to scrutiny and are logically inconsistent. “We act on the same premises on which believers of other religions act,” he says.

He then turns to the masters, Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. He is impressed with ‘the patient detachment with which they viewed pain and ailments’. But they too have no convincing explanation to satisfy him. He dismisses the doctrine of karma as a convenient excuse, unverifiable and irrefutable and pooh-poohs the notion of suffering due to some sins committed in the previous birth.

Shourie finds some benefits too accruing from the gloom. Extreme suffering turns us inwards. The suffering of a helpless child forces us to subordinate our pursuits to his needs. It makes us conscious of others’ suffering. The personal suffering sows the seeds of kindness in our hearts. He has realised that ‘one sure way to alleviate pain is to transmute it into sufferings of others’. Each of us can serve the cause of a suffering person.

Shourie veers round the Buddhist philosophy that suffering is the ultimate reality and inescapable. But there is no answer why only you are suffering. He finds that our conception of God has changed over time as human needs and knowledge too have changed.

It is a much mellowed, mature Shourie in a reflective mood. The book marks a striking departure from the earlier works noted for their vitriolic style. The acerbic pen has given way to the anguished cries of a tormented soul coming to terms with personal grief.

A moving book, it is intensely personal with a loving father delving deep into pain and struggling to contain his emotions. In suffering, he is lonely. The issues raised in the book impel the reader to look beyond faith to realise the power of love. But a lay reader may find the surfeit of theological discussions in the book too heavy.

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