After a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, religiously inclined personalities tend to attribute the disaster to Divine retribution. In 1934, when an earthquake hit the state of Bihar in India killing thousands of people, Mahatma Gandhi called it God’s punishment for the sin of untouchability in India . More recently, we have Pat Robertson claiming that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment . This absurd pattern of thinking can be found across all religions. This post outlines Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa’s observations on the cause of natural disasters.
There are three reasons why we tend to mistakenly attribute natural diasters to Divine retribution.
- The first error originates in our belief that God is some kind of magnified Man who punishes and rewards the same way we would. It seems the technical term is Anthropotheism. (Si Dieu nous a faits à son image, nous le lui avons bien rendu. If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor. – Voltaire )
- Secondly, faced with a great disaster, our mind becomes overwhelmed by the disproportionate loss and jumps to all kinds of premature and immature conclusions.
- The third error lies in our primitive fixation with morality and ethics, which is natural because these issues have always been front-and-center in our initial half-baked inclinations to lead a pure life. We assume that the Universe must operate according to the moral laws of society.
All these factors together makes us surmise that world must be regulated by moral laws, and that natural disasters must be the result of our own failings, real or imagined. But as Sri Aurobindo points out, natural disasters have occurred before man was on Earth and would continue to occur if man disappeared from the earth. It is not moral laws but natural laws which dictate the ruptures in the earth’s fabric. But that is not the end of the story – the full conclusion. The Mother also points out that there are a number of independent occult entities (i.e. Forces or Beings or in ancient parlance – Spirits – see Cosmology) which exist apart from human beings in this Universe. These entities, invisible to the physical world, act according to their predilections exerting their influence behind the forces of Nature. However, their actions are not in any way determined by man’s moral sins.
In the next two passages drawn from conversations with disciples, Sri Aurobindo points out that the Universe is far greater than our minds can imagine and has its own laws, which cannot be based on morality.
Sri Aurobindo (countering the moral reasons which someone had offered for recent earthquakes): No, prior to man there was no moral law. In the material or vital world, moral law doesn’t exist. It comes in with man, and at a certain stage of his development it is useful. Even then, it is a social necessity, because without some kind of moral law society can’t exist. But to say that the world is regulated by moral law is to deny the facts of existence. That is absurd. There are two ways: one can either go beyond moral law as we seek to do by spirituality or one can uphold moral law as an ideal to be realised. This is understandable. If there is a moral legislator of the world, why does he give the same punishment for different sins? 
Why should earthquakes occur by some wrong movement of man? When man was not there, did not earthquakes occur? If he were blotted out by poison gas or otherwise, would they cease? Earthquakes are a perturbation in Nature due to some pressure of forces; frequency of earthquakes may coincide with a violence of upheavals in human life but the upheavals of earth and human life are both results of a general clash or pressure of forces, one is not the cause of the other. 
In this passage, the Mother elucidates that those who are spiritually well-developed (i.e. have an individualised psychic) are kept away from disasters and do not perish in them. For the rest of mankind, survival depends on chance and Karma.
Question: “The time and the way of death, are these not always chosen by the soul? In the great destructions of mankind by bombing, flood, earthquake, have all the souls chosen to die together at that moment?”
Mother: The immense majority of men have a collective destiny. For them the question does not arise at all. One who has an individualised psychic being can survive even in the midst of collective catastrophes, if that is his soul’s choice. [The Mother, Notes on the Way: 7 March 1967]
Here, she discusses the occult entities which work behind Nature.
Question: I didn’t understand this: “The so-called forces of Nature are but the exterior activities of beings out of proportion with man by their size and the powers at their disposal.”
Mother: For instance, take the wind which blows; now scientists will tell you: “These are manifestations of forces of Nature, and it is the result of such and such a phenomenon”, they will speak about heat and cold, high and low, etc., and they will tell you: “That’s the cause of the wind’s blowing, these are currents of air produced in the atmosphere.” But it is not this. There are entities behind, only they are so huge that their form eludes us. It would be like your asking an ant to describe the form of a man — it couldn’t, could it? It sees at the most the tiny end of the little finger and it takes a walk on the foot — it is a great journey, and it would not know what a man’s form would be like. Well, it is almost the same thing. These forces which bring about wind, rain, earthquakes, etc. are manifestations of — call them gestures, if you like — of movements of certain beings so formidably huge that we hardly see the end of their foot and don’t realise their size. [The Mother, Questions and Answers (1953): 9 December 1953]
- Why is Pat Robertson blaming Haiti? http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1953379_1953494_1953674,00.html (accessed 21st Jan 2010)
- Mahatma Gandhi on natural and moral causation. http://www.mkgandhi-sarvodaya.org/articles/g_moral.htm (accessed 21st Jan 2010)
- François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire) quotes http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Voltaire (accessed 21st Jan 2010)
- Nirodbaran. Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Vol 2, p 524
- Dilip Kumar Roy. Sri Aurobindo to Dilip. p 48