Why is There Suffering?
By Sri Nandanandana dasa (Stephen Knapp)
It is natural that at some point in our lives we ask, “Why is there suffering?” Or “Why am I not happy?” “Why can’t we simply go on with life and not undergo so many trials and tribulations? Why can’t God make a universe or world where there is no suffering?” Well, my answer to that is He already has, but we are simply in the wrong one.
Let me explain it a little more fully. First of all, we are all spiritual beings within material bodies. Most people at least understand that much. But that is also where the trouble begins. As soon as you are enclosed in a material body and interact with the material energy, you are going to experience various aspects of worldly existence which may not be the most pleasant. According to your interpretation of the experience, based on the dictates of the senses and mind, some of these incidents may be appealing and some will be less than desirable, or even appear to be troublesome to the extreme.
These troubles come under three categories. First there are the troubles caused by the body itself, then those which are caused by other beings, and then those caused by nature.
The first kind of trouble is that from the body itself, such as the need to eat, breathe, sleep, have clothes and shelter, and so on. It takes some endeavor or work to provide for these needs of the body. Even then there is no guarantee that it will be easy. The body may also have health problems that need additional or special attention. The eyes may need glasses to see properly. Or you may experience headaches, toothaches, upset stomach, muscle pains, or simply grow old and not have the same capability as you did in younger days. Or worse, the body may get cancer or some other disease and die early. And we have to deal with all of this. Why does this have to happen? This is a loaded question and can warrant a complex answer, but on the simpler side, the answer is that it is a material machine, and all forms of material energy and objects gradually deteriorate and break down. The body is made of the material elements which constantly change. And this is what we have to undergo as long as we acquire a material body in which we exist.
The deterioration process of the body is often assisted by the way we treat it. If we don’t eat properly, don’t take care of it, or if we smoke and drink alcoholic beverages in excess, then naturally the body will not be able to maintain itself as easily and will rapidly deteriorate and give us more problems with which we will have to contend. Sometimes we cause the very problems about which we complain.
The second kind of problems in material life are those caused by other beings, whether they be barking dogs at night, or biting bugs, noisy neighbors, or angry drivers on the highway, or people at work who carry an angry attitude or are simply hard to work with, and so on. This can include criminals who want to rob you, or steal your car, or break into your house. Or it may even be a war that takes place in the region where you are living. So many things can happen because everyone has their own viewpoint that they want to pursue which may be different from the way you see things, and which may give you trouble or be the cause of others’ suffering.
The third type of trouble comes from nature itself. There is not much you can do when the summer becomes excessively hot, or when the winter provides blowing cold and lots of snow. When tornadoes or hurricanes come through, or when droughts or lack of rain depletes our food supply, we simply have to deal with it the best we can. These are the kinds of problems that may appear in life because of the every-changing ways of nature, which can be a cause of suffering.
These three kinds of misery are there simply because of having a material body. It is not that life cannot be enjoyable. There may be plenty of things that can give us pleasure or happiness. But you have to remember that life in the material world comes as a whole package, you get it all, complete with the good and the bad, the pains and the pleasures.
Another sort of problem that exists in material life is the lack of security or peace of mind. We live in an ever-changing world, and this change means that we don’t know what the future will bring. Thus, due to various levels of anxiety and concern, we undergo so many endeavors in order to prepare for whatever may come. This may include trying to arrange for a financially secure retirement, a house that is as safe as possible from burglars or storms, a big bank account for emergencies, life insurance for our family’s protection from financial ruin, or a good education to attain the qualifications for whatever might happen in the job market, and on and on. It is the nature of the material world to change, nothing remains the same which causes our anxiety about the future. Anything can happen, in which case it is often said that nothing is secure. However, these are the dealings we have to undergo especially when we consider ourselves to be this material body, which must have all kinds of protection against the unknown future.
Another kind of suffering that follows us is that caused by our past karma. This kind of suffering is what we often don’t know or understand. As we have briefly mentioned herein, is that we are spiritual beings in material bodies. The bodies change through birth and grow through youth, adulthood, old age and death. Then the spiritual energy that was within the body, namely the soul, goes on to some other place or some other body.
In every culture it is understood that when we are acting in a good way, it will secure us a good future. We can even see that happen in a general way in this one lifetime. If we take care of ourselves, we often can expect to live a more healthy and unproblematic life. However, we also may suffer for mistakes we made in the past, such as bad financial investments, low energy or even lung problems because of smoking cigarettes, or heart problems because of years of a bad diet, etc. Similarly, we may also be suffering because of mistakes or nefarious actions performed in past lives. To the degree of our good or bad actions in the past, that will manifest to the same level of pleasant or unpleasant experiences that we have to endure now, in this life.
So some may ask, why am I suffering for what I don’t know, such as actions of past lives. To answer that, as they say, ignorance of the law is no excuse. We have to understand how this universe operates and the purpose behind it. This comes from the knowledge that has been supplied through so many messengers of God, and so many kinds of scripture. At least the basic moralistic standards are all explained in many of the doctrines around the world. To the degree to which you are serious about understanding the purpose of life, it is to that level of knowledge which you need to search out to find the answers. They are available, and they are what I am trying to point out through my writings and publications. Just as we cannot blame the sun for the darkness because it’s merely the lack of sunlight that causes it, similarly, we cannot blame God for our suffering. It’s a lack of Godliness that is the root cause of all suffering. The more spiritual we become, the freer we are from all suffering, whether it be material, mental, emotional, or that caused by nature, or even past karma.
This brings us to another important point to consider. Suffering only exists within the illusion. Now what do I mean by that? It is generally accepted that anything that is temporary is part of the ephemeral material nature. It is here today but gone tomorrow, as they say. The more we are attached to that which is temporary, then the more we guarantee ourselves future disappointment because of basing our identity, our security, or our happiness on that which does not last. This means that no matter what we do, if we are absorbed in the temporary material nature for what we hope to find for our happiness, security, love, or bare existence, at some point it will change or even come to an end. Then we have to readjust everything that was based on that standard. Thus, as it is often said, that which is temporary is like an illusion, or a dream. It is real, but it is like the reality in a dream we have in the night. Once we awaken from the dream, no matter how good or bad it was, we are free or released from that experience.
Similarly, suffering is real but also like the dream we have at night, which ends when we awake. This means that the more we awaken to our real spiritual identity, the more we become free from the illusion and the suffering that goes on within it. There is no suffering on the spiritual platform. Therefore, all suffering exists only within the illusion. To the degree to which we are absorbed in the illusion is the degree to which we can expect to undergo suffering, or the appearance of suffering.
As I already explained, our experiences are only interpretations of the mind and senses. Naturally, being burned, or undergoing disease, being robbed, and so on, are all miserable situations. But they exist only within the bodily experience, or within the bodily state of consciousness. Once we become free from the bodily platform of life and this earthly existence, we are no longer subjected to the suffering that goes along with this form of life and material perception. The following quote from the Srimad-Bhagavatam explains this more deeply:
“Although the duality of the material world does not ultimately exist, the conditioned soul experiences it as real under the influence of his own conditioned intelligence. This imaginary experience of a world separate from Krishna can be compared to the acts of dreaming and desiring. When the conditioned soul dreams at night of something desirable or horrible, or when he daydreams of what he would like to have or avoid, he creates a reality that has no existence beyond his own imagination. The tendency of the mind is to accept and reject various activities based on sense gratification. Therefore an intelligent person should control the mind, restricting it from the illusion of seeing things separate from Krishna [or the spiritual reality], and when the mind is thus controlled he will experience actual fearlessness.” (Bhag.11.2.38)
Taking this into consideration, we can also say that suffering makes one stronger, more tolerant, like tempering steal. Suffering helps one see how to rise above the difficulties, or overcome the limitations or challenges, and reach that consciousness beyond dualities. Through this process people have overcome their seeming handicaps or restrictions to discover their true potential and attain major accomplishments in spite of whatever difficulties they may have had. Hardly any strong spiritual leader has lived a life without some major suffering. Yet, they have set examples of how they have used it to become strong or more enlightened.
So in this way, suffering has a purpose. It tests you so that you might see your real potential and capabilities. If life is smooth and easy, then how will you reach deep within yourself to see how you may change or rise to the challenge? Thus, it also toughens you to be able to reach for higher possibilities, or undergo more difficult situations for a higher cause. Therefore, suffering is also a teacher for most people. It may also help stifle the ego so that you may breakaway to a new level of looking at yourself, of understanding who you are. It may force you out of your typical role playing and see who you really are behind the facade that you have grown overly comfortable with. As the saying goes, “The safe and secure road often leads to stagnation.” So trouble may come along to knock you off that road to find yourself going to some new horizon, reaching new and better situations, or attaining new realizations of who and what you are. And that is an important purpose in life.
Suffering also gets you to ask the basic question of “Why? Why am I suffering, and what is the point?” And this can help you reach the level of consciousness that can lead to the greatest levels of enlightenment, which is the prime goal of life. So what may first appear to be a curse, a reversal in life, may yet really be something that will propel you like a slingshot to new and loftier levels of illumination and clarity. This often happens when you least expect it, but possibly when you most need it.
Another useful side of suffering is that it also helps one understand the misery or difficulties that others experience, and helps us be more compassionate. It helps us to see how we are all the same in what we have to deal with in this world, and that working together, assisting each other in various ways, will make life easier for all of us. Once we attain this vision, one often becomes motivated to overlook one’s own limitations or challenges and suffering to put more emphasis on doing good for others, and helping them with their problems. Naturally, as we look around, we can always find people who are suffering far worse than we are, which often makes our own challenges in life seem quite trite.
As we work to ease the problems and suffering of others, we can understand that undergoing and witnessing the suffering that exists in this world is actually like an impetus, a cause of our motivation to seek true happiness, to keep looking for our spiritual identity, which is free of the illusion wherein misery dwells. Once we can reach that, we can help give that same view to others.
Thus, we need to raise and keep our consciousness focused on a higher vibration. On the other hand, while we focus on the material energy, we become absorbed in the drama that goes on around us and requires us to identify ourselves as material beings. In this way, we get into the dream wherein we experience temporary pleasures that are interrupted by problems, fears, anxieties, illnesses, etc.
When we focus on the spiritual energy, namely God and our transcendental identity as a spiritual being, we can become absorbed in peace, contentment, joy, love, harmony, and the fulfillment that comes from the unlimited potential that is within our spiritual identity. It not only changes the way we view the problems we may face, but the change of frequency in which we think and live also helps protect us from many of the typical challenges or problems in material life. It’s a matter of your perception, how you view and respond to the things around you. And that is determined within you, within your consciousness, which is where the adjustment is required. It is not fixed by merely changing your circumstance. Otherwise, why are there so many people who seem to have everything yet remain unhappy?
The art of any spiritually oriented person is being able to focus on our spiritual identity while still functioning within the material energy without becoming overwhelmed by whatever problems and challenges that come along. As you advance spiritually, you realize that you may be in the world, but are not of it. You are simply passing through it, like a tourist. So you do what you can while you are here, knowing full well that you are not here for long. So, like watching television, if you don’t like what you see, you change the channel. Similarly, if you don’t like your life’s experiences, change your consciousness, or the way you view or process what is happening to you.
We are spiritual beings and, thus, we belong to the spiritual strata, which is all around us. The spiritual energy pervades the material creation. We only need to perceive it and get absorbed in it. For that we need to tune into it by developing our spiritual consciousness to receive it properly. That is similar to the way radio and television waves are all around us, yet we do not notice them until we get the proper receiver to tune into them. In the same way, once we can perceive our unlimited spiritual identity and the transcendental energy all around us, the world is no longer the same, nor do we live life as we had in the past, absorbed in the thick, slow and limited material energy. We cross over to a new and permanently uplifting reality, which is the atmosphere of our constitutional nature.
So, in essence, we can explain the cause of suffering in this way:
THE CAUSE OF SUFFERING
Through our bodily conception of life, we are always hankering after material enjoyment and, therefore, try to acquire or hold on to so many things in hopes of maintaining that enjoyment. The thought of losing our so-called valuables and what we cherish gives us great anxiety. But this material happiness and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, and they are superficial to the soul since they exist only within the mind. The spirit soul is actually above such miseries and temporary pleasures:
“O my Lord, the material miseries are without factual existence for the soul. Yet as long as the conditioned soul sees the body as meant for sense enjoyment, he cannot get out of the entanglement of material miseries, being influenced by Your external energy.” (Bhag.3.9.9)
As indicated here, the miseries of life are caused only by the influence of the illusory energy which the living beings are subjected to as long as, and to the degree to which, they refuse to understand their real identity as spiritual entities. This is confirmed in Srimad-Bhagavatam: “O my Lord, the people of the world are embarrassed by all material anxieties–they are always afraid. They always try to protect wealth, body, and friends, they are filled with lamentation and unlawful desires and paraphernalia, and they avariciously base their undertakings on the perishable conceptions of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ As long as they do not take shelter of You, they are full of such anxieties.” (Bhag.3.9.6)
“Sri Kavi said: I consider that one whose intelligence is constantly disturbed by his falsely identifying himself with the temporary material world can achieve real freedom from fear only by worshiping the lotus feet of the infallible Supreme Lord. In such devotional service [bhakti-yoga], all fear ceases entirely.” (Bhag.11.2.33)
From this Vedic evidence it is clear that by whatever material arrangements we make, or by whatever process we may practice for peace of mind, ultimately the only way to attain freedom from fear is to realize our true spiritual identity and the connection we have with the Supreme Spirit. We cannot control the topsy-turvy nature of this material world. Nature is controlled by the Supreme. But by taking shelter of the Supreme, we begin to understand the difference between the material and spiritual energies, and no longer undergo the temporary ups and downs as we did before. This, however, cannot be achieved if we cling to the material energy in the shape of the temporary body and its relations.
Therefore, those who remain attached to sensual pleasures and temporary material accomplishments will never be able to see with spiritual vision or attain freedom from fear and anxiety.
Furthermore, the Katha Upanishad (2.6.4) states that those persons who cannot understand such knowledge before they die will be forced to take birth in another body in the worlds of creation to continue struggling to fulfill their material desires. This is further elaborated in the Bhagavatam (starting at 11.28.12) where Lord Sri Krishna explains that as long as the living being identifies with the pleasure and pain of the body, though it has no reality in the self, the entity will continue through cycles of birth and death and the suffering therein the same way the calamities of a dream occur to a person as long as the dream is not broken. But those who have awoken from the dream will not be infatuated by that which continues to affect the dreaming person. Therefore, what brings sorrow to the ignorant does not affect the wise. Grief, delight, fear, anger, greed, infatuation, craving, and other moods, as well as birth and death, are seen in relation to the ego (the body) and not to the soul. But with the sword of wisdom, whetted by devotion to the Supreme, the tree of ego can be cut down.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.12,14-15) also says that those who know their real identity as the self and see the Superself as God are no more afraid of anything in this material creation and they become immortal. With such understanding, what more could they desire for the body?
This, of course, comes from realizing that one is above and beyond material pleasure and pain and that spiritual happiness is never affected or decreased by external circumstances. In fact, as related in Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.23.49-56), we can blame no one and nothing else for our trials and tribulations. We may say that certain people are the cause of our happiness or distress, but this is just the interactions of material bodies and does not pertain to the soul. Therefore, how can we be angry with others over our troubles? Even if there are natural disasters in our lives, or if our destiny seems to bring us misfortune as if dictated by the way the stars are astrologically arranged, how does this relate to the soul? The effect of planets applies only to things that have taken birth. We can say that the situation around us affects our mood, but do such changes of mood apply to the soul? Changes of mood apply only to the mind. Therefore, the soul, being completely transcendental to material nature, can never actually be affected by material happiness and distress in any place, under any circumstance, or by the agency of any person. One who realizes this and reaches this platform is no longer affected by any fear or anxiety and is free from all suffering.
Maybe we have not yet reached this level of consciousness or perception. But we should know that this is the standard for the spiritually advanced person, this is the goal, and this is possible for all of us.