Many religious traditions attempt to explain the phenomenon of suffering. However, few understand the value of suffering and the role it plays in human enlightenment. In this article, we explore the topic of suffering from the point of view of the Vedas of ancient India. We explain how pain is a valuable teacher and how, without it, we would never be able to realize our full potential as conscious beings.
What is Suffering and Why it’s Important
Merriam Webster dictionary defines “to suffer” as “to endure pain, death, or distress.” Most of us don’t need someone else to tell us what it means to suffer. We know what physical and emotional pain feels like — we’ve been sick, had our feelings hurt, lost a loved one, or skinned a knee or elbow.
However, not everyone in the world is so fortunate to know what it means to suffer. A rare hereditary disease known as Congenital Insensivity to Pain (CIP) causes people to not feel pain. They could stick their hand in fire and not feel a thing, even as they watch their skin turn black.
Although it may seem like a great thing to be immune to pain, these people most often live very difficult lives. They get serious injuries and can’t tell that they have hurt themselves. Or they get sick and don’t notice, and then the disease just keeps getting worse, and worse.
Pain plays a vital role in our lives because it informs us we’re doing something wrong. The universe is set up in such a way that when we cause suffering to others, we have to suffer in return. And this suffering is meant to correct us and inspire us to ascend to a higher mode of life.
Pain also helps us recognize low-grade modes of happiness so that we can give these up and replace them with pleasure that is more natural, wholesome, and pure. Imagine if there was no cosmic justice (karma), no built-in universal punishment for killing or harming others? People would be constantly going around killing each other, just like they do in video games!
In this way, pain is an invaluable teacher. It corrects our bad behavior and helps us rise from self-centered living to a life of God consciousness.
Suffering in the Bhagavad-gita
In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna explains that the fundamental nature of this world is suffering. He calls it anityam asukhaṁ lokam, or a temporary world full of misery. Why is this the case? Well, no matter how pleasant or fulfilling our life may feel at times, we cannot escape four fundamental sources of suffering:
- Birth. Although we don’t remember being born, it’s actually an extremely painful experience. Being confined in the womb of our mother for months with no idea of what is going on and no way to know when we’ll get out — it’s practically torture for the soul.The Vedas explain (and science confirms) that the living entity becomes consciously aware of his situation around 7 months after conception. This means that for the remaining two months in the womb, he is fully conscious.
- Disease. Health is a precarious thing, and it’s easy to take for granted. Many of us don’t particularly notice our good health until we lose it when we get sick. Some people endure serious illnesses throughout life that cause them tremendous suffering — diabetes, AIDs, cancer, polio… the list goes on and on. The recent COVID-19 outbreak is another example of how disease can cause immense pain and suffering in the lives of everyone. And no matter who you are or how much money you have, you have to get sick some day or another.
- Old Age. As our bodies get older, they gradually lose their vitality. They stop working as well as they used to. Our digestion, our power of vision and hearing, our mind’s ability to think straight and remember things, our sexual vitality — all of these things and more slowly reduce in strength until just getting through the day practically becomes a chore.Many people try to use health and beauty supplements to preserve their youthful skin, keep their hair from falling out, or maintain their sexual energy. However, no amount of chemicals or natural products can reverse the flow of time and the toll it takes on the body.
- Death. Death is viewed as the ultimate form of suffering. At the time of death the soul is forced to exit the body, just like an evicted tenant. You must leave behind every person and object that is dear to you — even your own body.One of the most agonizing aspects of death is that it could come at any moment. Many people die due to tragic, unexpected accidents. Others are diagnosed with terminal illnesses and told they only have months to live.
These four types of suffering make material life dissatisfying and disappointing for the spirit soul. As innately spiritual beings, we are not meant to suffer material birth, disease, old age, or death. Our spiritual nature is to be eternal, enlightened, and full of happiness. Our present position in this world is a compromised one, due to our being afflicted by false ego and our possessing a material body.
So Why Does God Allow Suffering?
The purpose of suffering is to tell us we’re doing something wrong. It’s meant to force us to give up our selfish, materialistic way of life and instead adopt a life of God consciousness. As we cultivate our spiritual nature through activities of bhakti-yoga, we will proportionately experience less and less suffering, up to the point of being freed of suffering altogether.
When we fully awaken our spiritual nature and experience the fullness of love of God, known in Sanskrit as prema, we will no longer be aware of any experience of personal suffering. Instead, we will constantly taste an ever-increasing spiritual happiness.
After dying and leaving this material world, we will then go to the spiritual universe known as Vaikuntha, where the pain and suffering of this world does not exist.