khalvāṭo divaseśvarasya kiraṇaiḥ santāpite mastake
vāñchan deśam anātapaṁ vidhi-vaśāt tālasya mūlaṁ gataḥ
tatrāpy asya mahāphalena patatā bhagnaṁ sa-śabdaṁ śiraḥ
prāyo gacchati yatra bhāgya-rahitas tatraiva yānty āpadaḥ
khalvāṭaḥ — a bald man; divaseśvarasya — of the sun; kiraṇaiḥ — by the rays; santāpite — on experiencing burning; mastake — of the head; vāñchan — desiring; deśam — some place; anātapam — free from heat; vidhi-vaśāt — out of his fate; tālasya — of a palm-tree; mūlam — under; gataḥ — went; tatrāpi — there too; asya — his; mahāphalena — by a big coconut; patatā — by falling; bhagnam — cracked open; sa-śabdam — with a great sound; śiraḥ — head; prāyaḥ — usually; gacchati — goes; yatra — wherever; bhāgya-rahitaḥ — an unfortunate person; tatraiva — there too; yānti — arrive; āpadaḥ — his destined suffering;
“A bald man’s head was burning by the strong rays of the sun. He decided to find some relief from the heat, and by the arrangements of providence he found shelter under a palm-tree. Even after finding relief with such great difficulty, a coconut fell on him, breaking open his head with a loud cracking noise. Truly, wherever an ill-fated person goes, his misfortunes follow him.”
— (Nīti-śataka of Bhartṛhari, Verse 90)
We sometimes go through phases of bad fortune when things keep going wrong, one after another. Whatever we do to set things right only makes them worse. Gita wisdom helps us understand that such phases deliver us concentrated doses of reactions to our past karma. To navigate such phases, or even to just survive them, we need patience and tolerance. Kneejerk reactions can cause aggravation, even devastation.
Does this mean that we fatalistically do nothing to solve problems? No, the Vedic tradition wasn’t fatalistic. For example, it didn’t ask the sick to just live with their pain; it treated them with a sophisticated branch of medical knowledge, Ayurveda.
Still, spiritual traditions the world over have been realistic enough to recognize that sometimes, despite our best efforts, nothing works. Such times call for not frantic action, but philosophical contemplation. To become contemplative, we need the capacity to tolerate distress – intolerance keeps us agitated, rushing from one apparent solution to another.
Unfortunately, our capacity to tolerate distress is eroded by modern thought. Most contemporary thought-systems operate on the foundational ideology of self-determination, which holds that we alone are the makers of our destiny. By our intelligence and efforts, we can stave off everything undesirable and attain everything desirable. Or so we are taught to believe. The notion that we are the controllers of our life is so central to our worldview that we define our success and even our self-worth in terms of our capacity to mold our circumstances to our will. Given such self-conceptions, uncontrollable situations don’t just frustrate us – they shatter us. No wonder mental health problems have risen with the spread of modernity.
If we wish to respond to difficulties intelligently, not impulsively, we need to challenge our debilitating beliefs about controllership. Gita wisdom offers a better understanding of our position and purpose in the cosmic hierarchy of things. The Bhagavad-gita (15.07) states that we are souls, parts of the supreme being, God, Krishna. He is the supreme controller, and we, being his parts, are partial controllers. His capacity to control is infinite, whereas ours is finite. We are meant to use our finite controlling capacity to serve him, in whatever situation life sends our way. During phases of bad fortune, the best way we can serve may well be by tolerance.
Tolerating distress doesn’t mean that we become totally passive; it means that we act first for spiritual elevation, not material rectification. The Gita (18.58) urges us to take shelter of the process of bhakti-yoga which raises our consciousness above the material level of reality to the spiritual level, where we find relief through loving absorption in Krishna.
Srimad-Bhagavatam is replete with examples of devotees accepting adversity with spirituality, with devotional dispositions that featured tolerance and fostered transcendence. Its central narrative begins with the great king Parikshit being cursed unfairly with capital punishment for a minor transgression. Rather than resenting or revenging the curse, he absorbs himself in hearing about Krishna and thereby transcends bodily consciousness. Even before his body meets its fated destruction, his soul attains the feted liberation that can’t be attained even by the most zealous material endeavors.
If we too cultivate a devotional disposition of service, the Gita (10.10) assures that Krishna will guide us from within to choose wisely so that we can move closer to him.
When faced with adversities, if we strive first to raise our consciousness to the spiritual level, then we will get the intelligence to act appropriately at the material level in a mood of service.
By thus learning to tolerate adversities, we will not just go through them but also grow through them towards Krishna.