On 15 January 1934, at 2:21 pm IST, there was a massive earthquake of magnitude 8.3 on the Richter scale with its epicentre located at latitude 26.6 °N and longitude 86.8 °E on the Bihar-Nepal border (Ref. 1).

Tremors of the Bihar earthquake were felt as far as Allahabad, where Jawaharlal Nehru had been standing in the verandah of his house talking to a group of farmers. He could hardly keep his balance and had to cling to a column nearby. Doors were banging and the tiles over the roof of Swaraj Bhawan were sliding down. The shocks ended after some time and the episode was soon forgotten. Nehru wrote that he could not have guessed what those two or three minutes had meant to the millions of people in Bihar (Ref. 2).

In fact, as many as 7,000 people were said to have perished in Bihar and another 3,000 in Nepal, although unofficial estimates put the casualty figures much higher. The district towns of Monghyr and Muzaffarpur suffered the maximum damage and loss of lives, but Kathmandu and Darjeeling were also badly affected.

Nehru later went on a tour of the earthquake-affected areas, when he read with a great shock a statement of Mahatma Gandhi to the effect that the earthquake had been a punishment for the sin of untouchability. On this, Nehru raised several rhetorical questions like: If the earthquake was a divine punishment for sin, how are we to discover for which sin we are being punished? Why did not the earthquake visit the land of untouchability itself? Was it a judgment on the prevailing zamindari system since many rich land owners had suffered losses in the earthquake? Could the British rulers interpret it as a divine punishment because Bihar had been taking a leading role in the freedom movement? Since Nehru did not attempt to answer these questions, it is obvious that he had posed them just to indicate that Gandhi’s logic was flawed or difficult to understand. Nehru concluded that it was astounding to suggest that human customs could cause movements in the earth’s crust (Ref 2).

There was another person who was equally surprised and disturbed by Gandhi’s statement about the Bihar earthquake: Rabindranath Tagore. However, Tagore took the cautious route of first checking with Gandhi whether he had really said what had been ascribed to him. True to his character, Gandhi did not disown his statement, nor did he give any excuse of being mis-reported, but confirmed that he had indeed linked the Bihar earthquake with the sin of untouchability while he was at Tinnevelly. He added that he had spoken with great deliberation and out of the fullness of his heart, and he had spoken what he had believed.

Gandhiji responded to Tagore with fairness and openness. He printed Tagore’s criticism in his own journal, Harijan, but followed it with a spirited rejoinder (Ref. 3). Accusing Gandhi of unreason, Tagore had argued that physical catastrophies must have their origin in physical facts. He believed in the inexorableness of the universal law in the working of which God himself never interferes. He felt that our own sins and errors, however enormous, could never have enough force to drag the structure of creation to ruins.

Gandhi’s defence was that we do not know all the laws of God nor their working. Taking a broader view, Gandhi expressed his belief that visitations like droughts, floods, earthquakes and the like, with seemingly physical origins, were somehow connected with man’s morals, though this connection cannot be proved. While the physical effects of an earthquake would be forgotten and repaired, the moral lessons would have to be learnt. Disagreeing with Tagore, Gandhi asserted that human sins do have the force to ruin the physical world. His message was that natural disasters should draw us nearer to God, humble us, and make us readier for facing God (Ref. 3).

The questions raised by Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru in the aftermath of the Bihar earthquake of 1934, were not new. These issues had been a subject of debate for thousands of years before the event, and such questions are put forth even today. In the Holy Bible, there are literally hundreds of references in the Old Testament which make no secret of God’s intentions to bring disaster on the nations of the earth. God seems to be ever ready with his package of sword, plague and famine, with earthquakes and hailstorms added. But He also acts fair in the sense that He gives the vulnerable populations sufficient advance warnings of the impending disasters, either directly or through His messengers. He always explains to the people the reasons behind His decrees and also what He expects to accomplish by inflicting the planned disasters. Out of His many purposes behind disasters, the most common one is to make people leave their sinful ways and realize that He is God.

Even in the New Testament, where God’s image changes to that of a loving father, no respite is offered to humanity from disasters. The package of sword, earthquake, famine and pestilence would be unleashed at the end of the age. It is interesting to read an account of how Jesus reacts to the news of two local disasters, the slaughter of some Galileans by Pontius Pilate and the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem killing several people. Jesus’ audience is perhaps expecting from him an explanation about the role of a loving God in a suffering world. Instead, Jesus confronts the gathering around him with a question of his own: Do you think that those who suffered were worse sinners or more guilty than all the others? He then goes to answer his own question: I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish (Ref. 4).

Historical records tell us that down the ages, millions of human beings have perished in natural disasters. At the same time, we also know that in the day of disaster, countless people have sought refuge in God, dwelt with Him in safety, and received His protection, comfort and consolation. To me, the key issue here is to try to comprehend that neither God’s wrath, nor His love, nor His forgiveness, nor His grace, is limited by or is in proportion to the degree of human sinfulness. Had it been otherwise, divine judgment would have been a terror for the earth and human salvation an impossibility.

References: (1) IMD web site www.imd.gov.in, (2) Jawaharlal Nehru: An Autobiography, Chapter LVIII Earthquake, 1936, (3) Sabyasachi Bhattacharya: The Mahatma and the Poet, Part IV, Documents 3-6, 1997, (4) Holy Bible, New International Version, Luke 13:1-4, Luke 21:10-11.

P. S 1: Another earthquake struck almost the same place on the Bihar-Nepal border on 21 August 1988 but it had a lesser magnitude of 6.4 on the Richter scale. It took a death toll of 850, caused structural damages to thousands of buildings and totally ruined many villages in Bihar. But this time there was no speculation about the earthquake having been the result of a divine intervention. Perhaps secular India had come of age.

P. S. 2: If human beings are really incapable of interfering in natural processes, then what is all this talk of climate change about?