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A Sikh Perspective on Suffering

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Why is there pain and suffering in the world?

The Christian nun, Mother Teresa said, ‘Suffering is a gift of God’. The Sikh belief is that suffering builds character and makes a person emotionally stronger. Suffering is a part of living, the Guru says no one is without it:

Unto whom should I tie up and give the bundle of my pains? The whole world is overflowing with pain and suffering…" (SGGS p.767) and also "Wherever I look, I see loads of pain and suffering." (SGGS p.710)

Pain and suffering are manifest in all walks of life, some suffer to a greater extent than others. Lost in love, or trapped in attachment of the material world, no one seems happy. The spiritual teachings remind us that it is only through meditation and spiritual enlightenment that suffering is surrendered."Remembering Him in meditation, a profound peace is obtained. Pain and suffering will not touch you at all." (SGGS p.47)

Suffering is also looked upon by Sikhs as a gift because it connects them to their deepest truth and forces them to ask questions. Why me? What did I do wrong? What am I being punished for? In actual fact it is only when Sikhs accept hukam (God’s will) that they are not suffering. When we begin to question, this can lead us to introspection or self exploration.

Natural disasters, illness, poverty and not being able to have children are considered as great dukh (suffering). When an injustice causes suffering, the Gurus encouraged Sikhs to take a stand by defending those that are suffering without reason. Guru Nanak did not regard suffering as negative in fact he took a pro-active approach. When he witnessed the horrible suffering inflicted on men, women, and children, by the invading forces of Babar, he fought against the tyranny, spoke out openly and used his pen to condemn the brutal, insensitive behaviour of the administration.

The Sikh persuasion is that social evils must be confronted and people's suffering alleviated. The believer should not be an idle bystander. He should be involved pro-actively on the side of righteousness. Injustice, oppression, and discrimination in society must touch the conscience of all. Guru Nanak says, ‘In an uneven situation when a “tiger” mauls the herding “cattle”, even God must respond.’

Apart from suffering inflicted by people, there are other causes of human suffering like natural disasters. No one can understand or justify such disasters but those left to deal with the aftermath must find inner strength to continue despite the suffering and pain. Pain and pleasure exist hand in hand and the Sikh teachings invite us to walk on our path through life accepting that there exists a balance between the two.

The concept of Daya

Those that recognise pain and pleasure as one, understand the true meaning of life and find peace. Daya is a popular concept to Sikhs and is the direct opposite to hinsa (violence). It means compassion and is a virtue that the Gurus encourage Sikhs to live by. It is the will to alleviate suffering from an individual or circumstance or community. A person instilled with daya ‘chooses to die himself rather than cause others to die.’ (SGGS p.356) The instruction to a Sikh is to perform his or her duty by serving in their environment or community, by responding to the injustice or cruelty they witness and not turn a blind eye which allows suffering to continue.