Why is there so much suffering in the world?

by M. Govindan Satchidananda

The recent and dramatic news reports of widespread destruction and loss of life thoughout several countries in south Asia confronts us all with the very difficult question of "Why is there so much suffering in the world?" The phenomena of widespread suffering, is of course nothing new. Natural disasters, wars, epidemics, criminal activity have been around since the beginning. What is new, is the way that the media brings right into our living room, via the television, the suffering of so many human beings on the other side of the planet. If nothing else, such a modern phenomena forces us to focus on this question, and attempt to come to find some answers. "If the purpose of human knowledge is the elimination of human suffering, that which eliminates it completely is the highest knowledge," said the great commentator on the Yoga-Sutras, Swami Hariharananda Aranya. We spend so much precious time is acquiring so much trivial knowledge. Let us all pray for wisdom to understand "Why?"

Yoga has a great deal to say about the causes of human suffering, and what to do about it, but unlike modern technocratic approaches, which speak of remedies in terms such as "economic development," "legislation," "medical care" and "education," the Yoga Siddhas like Patanjali and Tirumlular, made diagnoses of the human condition at its most fundamental level, and prescriptions as a consequence of those insights. These remain as true today as they did over 2,000 years ago, because our human nature is still the same. That is why it is important for each of us, as students of Yoga, to not only study their teachings, but also to share them with a suffering world.

The kleshas or afflictions

In the Yoga Sutras, second Pada, or chapter, Patanjali tells us:

"Ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to life are the five afflictions." II. 3

The primary cause of suffering is ignorance, and it brings about the others. It refers not to ignorance in general, but specifically to an absence of Self-awareness. It is the cause of the confusion between the subject, "I am," and all of the objects of awareness. It hides our inner awareness and creates a false identity: "I am the body, mind, senses, emotions," etc. In the average person, these five afflictions are constant and sustained. When our well-being or survival, is threatened we typically respond in fear without any reflection. In a subsequent verse Patanjali tells us:

"Ignorance is seeing the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasurable, and the non-Self as the Self." II.5

It is the case of mistaken identity, which causes us to say "I am tired," "I am worried," I am angry." We approach the truth, however, when we say: "my body is tired," or "My mind is filled with worrisome thoughts." This ignorance of our true identity, the Self, is the fundamental cause of our human suffering. The Self is the eternal Witness, the Seer, a constant, pure One Being, infinite, all pervasive, present in everything. Everything else is temporary and changing. By clinging to what is impermanent, we are bound to suffer, not only when we lose it, but long before, when we succumb to the fear losing it or her or him. By perceiving the permanent, the Self, pervading everything, as a constant amidst a sea of change, one finds an abode of peace and Self-realization.

"Egoism is the identification, as it were, of the powers of the Seer (Purusha) with that of the instrument of seeing (body-mind)." II-6

Egoism is the habit of identifying with what we are not, that is the body, the mind, the emotions, and sensations. This error is produced by our basic ignorance as to who we truly are. It is not an individual defect; but a universal human trait, or temporary flaw in our design, by which consciousness has contracted within each individual. This principle of nature, the individuation of consciousness, can only be overcome by a gradual expansion of our awareness, resulting from the cultivation of detachement and discernment: vairagya and viveka, two of the most important activities of the Yogin. Rather than thinking "I am suffering" be a witness to the suffering, and do what is necessary to either alleviate it, banish it, or cultivate its opposite.

"Attachment is the clinging to pleasure." II.7

Because of the individuation of consciousness, and its false identification with a particular body and set of thoughts and memories, we are attracted to various pleasant experiences in our environment. Attachment, like fear, springs from the imagination, (vikalpa) and occurs when we confuse the internal experience of bliss (ananda) with a set of outer circumstances or factors, and we call this association pleasure (sukham). We imagine that pleasure depends upon these external circumstances or factors. When they are no longer there, we experience attachment,, the delusion that the innner joy cannot return unless we again posses external factors. Attachment involves both clinging (anusayi) and suffering (dukham). In reality, bliss is self-existent, unconditional and independent of external circumstances or factors. One need only be aware to experience it. And practice letting go of attachment.

"Aversion is clinging to suffering." II-8

In the same way, we are repulsed by various experiences in our environment. These are relative terms, and what is painful for one, may be pleasant for another person. There is a third possible response however: detachment (vairagya) which Patanjali recommends as the most important means to go beyond the duality of pleasure and pain. Changing an outer circumstance is often not possible, at least immediately. We should first focus our will on clearing and deepening our consciousness to avoid reacting with aversion. Then aspire for an outer change, for a more harmonious situation. Accept any work that is given to you in the spirit of karma yoga, as a spiritual training, to purify you of attachment and aversion. Perform all actions selflessly, skillfully, and patiently, recognizing that you are not the "doer." Cultivate equanimity as you perform actions, and with regards to the results.

"Clinging to life (which) is self-sustaining, arises even in the wise." II-9

Every living being has an instinctual drive of self-preservation, which is based upon the fear of death and false identification with the body. We have all had to through the painful process of death and rebirth so many times that we shrink from having to repeat it. When our life is threatened, our body instinctively reacts with a rush of adrenalin, and our hearth and pulse begin to race. We cry out in fear. However, by reflecting deeply upon our true identity, the immortal Self, we free ourselves from all such klesahs or afflictions.

"These (afflictions in their) subtle (form) are destroyed by tracing (their) cause(s) back to (their) origin." II-10

On a subtle level, these afflictions exist as subconscious impressions or samskaras, and can be eliminated only by the repeated return to our source through the various stages of samadhi. Because the subconscious impressions are not accessible to us in ordinary consciousness, or even meditation, one must eliminate their root, egoism, by repeatedly identifying with our true Self. The little "i" becomes subsumed gradually in the greater "I" and as it does, the subconscious impressions dissolve." In Sutra I.12, Patanjali tells us the method: by constant practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya) one ceases to identify with the fluctuations arising with consciousness.

"(In the active state) these fluctuations (arising within consciousness) are destroyed by meditation." II-11

This indicates that meditation is a necessary pre-requisite to samadhi, to deal with the habitual movements of the ordinary mind.

Karma and the unexpected sources of suffering

When unexpected catastrophes strike, such as in south Asia last week, we also find ourselves wondering "Why did some die, and others were spared?" Or closer to home "Why me?" What did I do to deserve this? Patanjali and the Siddhas have much to say about the nature of karma, which may be defined as the consequences of past thoughts, words and actions. Because of the existence of the five afflictions, discussed above, we accumulate and express karmas. These are of three types:

  1. prarabdha karma: those presently being expressed and exhausted through this birth;
  2. agama karma: new karmas being created during this birth;
  3. samjita karma: those waiting to be fulfilled in future births.

The receptacle for all karmas is known as the karma-asaya, "the reservoir, or womb, of karma," or 'action-deposit." The karmas wait for an opportunity to come to the surface and to express themselves through the afflictions. One strong karma may call for a particular birth and body to express itself, and other closely related karmas will also be expressed or exhausted through it. This goes on until one attains Self-realizaiton and ceases to create new karmas.

While each of us has his own karma, which conditions him to live and react in a particular way, this programming is not absolute. We have free will as to how we will deal with our life circumstances, positively or negatively. If we choose to deal with these negatively, for example, by creating suffering for others, the reactions return to us in more intense or terrible forms. Dealing with circumstances patiently, and consciously, creating happiness for others, neutralizes the karmic consequences gradually.

I am reminded of a report received two days ago from Asanka Wittachy the son of one of our initiates, in Sri Lanka, engaged in refugee relief, who wrote:

"In the single afternoon that it took to distribute our meager bounty, I witnessed the basest and the highest qualities that men can aspire to. Whilst ruthless and depraved excuses for human beings used violence and guile to loot and rob the remaining meager possessions of survivors and even the vehicles carrying them food were robbed, others displayed the noblest qualities the human spirit can aspire to.

Once such instance was a man: standing alone amidst the ruins of his house. I called to him and offered him one of the cooked lunch packets which we were distributing at the time. He looked me in the eyes with sorrow and gratitude and quietly informed me that he had already eaten a piece of bread for breakfast and so he would prefer that we give the packet to another who had not been so fortunate that day…."

Responding to suffering

Which brings me to the point of this reflection: what is important about such tragic events is what do we learn from them and how do we respond. Patanjali tells us:

"That which is to be eliminated is future sorrow." II-16 Only when we remember the Self, can we go beyond the "sorrow yet to come," which in turn "results from our reservoir of karma. For "The Seen (exists) only for the sake of the Self." (II.21) And "The Seen… whose purpose is to provide both experience and liberation (to the Self)." (II-18) Nature provides us with experience and ultimately liberates our consciousness from its bondage of false identification. Eventually we feel we have had enough suffering in the hands of Nature and seek a way out of egoistic confusion. ("I am the body-mind,"etc.) To put it more plainly, the purpose of every experience is to provide us with a lesson: to distinguish truth from falsehood, wisdom from ignorance, the permaent from the impermanent, love from attachment, the Self from the body-mind-personality, the Seer or Self, from the Seen. Yoga is a wonderful antidote for our Self-forgetfulness. Once we begin to remember who we truly are, when faced with the suffering in others, we have an opportunity to respond with compassion or to react negatively, such as with judgment or fear. Even if what we can do by our thoughts or actions for another is only a little, compassion (karuna) towards those who are suffering purifies our mind and emotions, and serentiy results. With a mind purified by compassion, our actions become inspired, energized and aligned with the will of the Divine, resulting in the highest good for all.

So, in the face of human suffering, let our thoughts, words and actions be moved only by compassion. May compassion pour forth from our hearts.

Copyright: M. Govindan Satchidananda, January 2005


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