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A Hindu Perspective on Suffering

Seeta Lakhani's picture

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There is the misconception that Hindus blame the Law of Karma for suffering. The Law of Karma is purely a law of cause and effect - an impersonal law that can be blamed for anything that happens under the sun. This is not the real answer that Hindus would offer to the problem of suffering. Buddhism sprang out of Hinduism and became a separate religion because it focused on the issue of suffering, and offered a deep philosophic insight into the whole issue. Esoteric Hindu analysis of the issue of suffering is similar to the Buddhist approach.

Hindus recognise that there is no clear answer as to why suffering exists, but they offer two possible approaches to coping with suffering.

 

The first approach to suffering is through the concept of Leela.

According to the Dvaita philosophy (where God and the individual are considered separate entities), people have to accept both pleasure and pain as the 'play' or Leela of God. This enables us to not only handle pain, but view it in a different light. Just like in any play or film, it can only be interesting if there is a mixture of pleasure and pain, laughter and tears. Hence suffering is part of the play of God. Though this does not eliminate suffering, it offers people a way to cope with suffering. It enables them to take a step back and view their lives in perspective because all lives are a mixture of pleasure and pain. A true devotee will accept the harshest suffering as the play of God. Although the pain may be very severe, sometimes unbearable, what this approach emphasises is that it is God alone who plays these different roles. He alone takes on all the human forms. It is He alone who is crying in one corner and smiling in the other corner. It is He alone who is inflicting this 'play' on Himself

The second approach to suffering is through the concept of Maya.

According to Advaita philosophy (which identifies our true nature with God), both pleasure and pain are relative concepts. One cannot exist without the other, just like two sides of the same coin. To suggest that people can live in eternal pleasure is considered simplistic. For example, if we get to eat our favourite chocolate bar every single day, it may seem great to start with, but gradually we will start getting more and more sick of it. So to think that we can get pure, unadulterated pleasure is not possible. Again this does not remove suffering. It gives Hindus a way to handle suffering. It tells them that what they must strive for is to transcend both pleasure and pain, rising above both is the only way to conquer the constant ups and downs of pleasure and pain. The way we do this is to realise our essential nature as the Spirit. Both pleasure and pain are seen as bondage, and the goal of spiritual living is to transcend both pleasure and pain and achieve 'Ananda' or 'bliss'. As Swami Vivekananda says: 'What we want is neither happiness nor misery. Both make us forget our true nature; both are chains, one of iron, another of gold; behind both is the Atman (Spirit).’

Hinduism does not give an answer as to why there is suffering but teaches its followers how to live with suffering. The resolution to suffering only comes with God experience. The only endearing aspect to suffering (if we can be bold enough to say that) is that it nudges us to seek a resolution to the human condition. It is only when we become identified with the Spirit that suffering ends; this is the mature analysis on the issue of suffering in the Hindu philosophy.