The following is one of the chapters of my e-book, Coping with Suffering.
Your suffering is your choice to a great extent in Hinduism. Your karma determines what comes your way. Karma is the principle that governs the unfolding of events in your life. Your karma depends on the integrity with which you lived your previous lives. It is not a punishment because unlike in the Abrahamic religions there is no punitive God sitting in any heaven meting out retribution to people. Karma is the unfolding of the moral law that drives the whole universe. As Dr S Radhakrishnan put it, “The working of karma is wholly dispassionate, just, neither cruel nor merciful.” It is not about cruelty or mercy. It is the natural consequence of what you do. If you eat salt, you will drink water. Quite as simple as that.
There is no escape from it because it is part of the eternal law of the universe which is applicable to everything and everybody in the universe without any discrimination. The high and the low, the mighty and the weak, the animate and the inanimate, all are subject to the eternal law one way or another.
God is the eternal law. We may even say that the eternal law is god. Brahman (God) is the infinite reality, the all-encompassing existence. Your ultimate deliverance is a merger of your being into that infinity. For that you need to achieve purity by liberating yourself from your ego. Only the pure self can dissolve into the infinite reality.
The infinite reality pervades everything. Nothing exists outside that. But evil is not a part of that pure reality. Evil belongs to the impure, imperfect material reality. Concepts like good and evil, bliss and suffering, are not applicable to the infinite reality which is beyond all such limited and limiting notions.
Evil and suffering are our creations, in short. Our anger, greed, delusion, etc bring much suffering to ourselves as well as others. Other people, beasts, reptiles and so on can cause suffering to us. There is also a kind of suffering caused by forces beyond us like natural disasters.
There is no material life without some evil and suffering. That is precisely why our ultimate goal is to liberate ourselves from this existence and merge into the infinite reality which is beyond all sensations and feelings, beyond any possibility of suffering.
Krishna of the Bhagavat Gita advises us to live without attachment to anything here on earth if we wish to escape the cycles of birth, death and rebirth, the cycles generated by our karma. Attachment is a desire for things you don’t have and a clinging to things you do have. This attachment is the primary stumbling block to achieving moksha, liberation. This attachment brings unnecessary suffering to human beings.
You have to rise above the joys and sorrows brought by this attachment. As Krishna tells Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, “You must learn to endure fleeting things – they come and go! When these cannot torment a man, when suffering and joy are equal for him and he has courage, he is fit for immortality.”
It is the nonchalance of the ascetic that Krishna is asking Arjuna to acquire. It is not the listlessness of the weary person. It is not the apathy of the unconcerned. It is an enlightened state of mind which shows you the illusory nature of the things to which you feel unwarranted attachment. It reveals to you how like a moth you are flying into a flame that will scorch your wings when you have the option to fly higher into the pure and blissful light of divinity.
How do you do that? How do you reach that higher realms and attain eternal deliverance?
Follow your dharma, Krishna would say. “Be intent on action, not on the fruit of the action; avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction! Perform actions, firm in discipline, relinquishing attachments. Be impartial to failure and success.”
Do your duty with full integrity. That is the ultimate mantra for deliverance. Hinduism offers at least four distinct paths for attaining that level of integrity. Devotion [bhakti] is one such path which is a purely spiritual path involving prayer and meditation. You can pursue the path of ethical action [karma] if you prefer that. Krishna’s Arjuna obviously was being advised to do that.
There is the path of knowledge for the intellectually oriented souls. Real knowledge reveals the impermanence and ineffectuality of earthly things and thus frees the seeker from the bondage of ignorance. Ignorance is what ties you down to the illusory realities here on earth.
For the mystically oriented ones, there is the path of asceticism. Abandon the world altogether though you are still in it. There are thousands of ascetics living in the ethereal peaks and caves of the Himalayas seeking deliverance through renunciation. This is an extreme path and it entails much suffering. You endure hunger and cold and whatever comes your way in the hostile environment of the elevated hills. You have to live as if you don’t have a body. But you do have a body which endures the onslaught of what normal people perceive as reality: hunger and thirst, climate and wild animals, breathlessness and insomnia.
Suffering has a vital role in Hinduism, in other words. This world is not your real place. You belong elsewhere. Here you are trapped in the midst of illusions. The ordinary souls go through life taking those illusions as realities. The ascetics transcend the illusions by embracing suffering in various ways. To have a physical body and yet to live as if there isn’t one is certainly not an easy task. But that is just what the ascetic does.
Hinduism is not a monolithic religion like Christianity or Judaism. There are diverse schools with significantly different teachings. We have looked at some elements which are fairly common to those teachings. One thing is obvious: suffering has its due place in Hinduism too. It descends on you one way or the other. Some even choose it voluntarily. There is no escape anyway.
Though Hinduism shares something of Christianity’s aversion to the body, the two religions have little else in common. There is no judgemental God in Hinduism peering at whatever the people are doing and keeping accounts so that the final judgement day will be some gigantic firework show. The ultimate reality of Hinduism, Brahman, is not going to issue any verdict. You are your own master in a way. You decide your destiny with your own actions. That is karma. You reap the results of what you do.
Hinduism offers more cause for optimism than Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism. In the words of Dr S Radhakrishnan, “If we miss the right path, we are not doomed to an eternity of suffering. There are other existences by which we can grow into the knowledge of the Infinite Spirit with the complete assurance that we will ultimately arrive there.”
Hinduism leaves us with enough optimism and reasons to smile.
Coping with Suffering is available at Amazon.