Thousands of years ago at Kurukshetra, Ashvatthama was furious. His great father, who had taught military arts to the opposition, now lay dead on the battlefield, at least partially through treachery. Ashvatthama would avenge his father’s death. Using mantras his father had taught him, he invoked the mystic Narayana weapon, which belongs to the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. Soon the Pandavas’ army, although devotees of Krishna, encountered this terrifying weapon in every direction. Thousands of soldiers fell dead or injured from what looked like meteors and missiles raining throughout the expanse of sky. As the army opposed the weapon, it kept growing in strength and power. Exasperated and wanting to protect his men, the Pandava chief called for retreat and surrender.

But then Krishna called out over the cacophony: “This is My own weapon and cannot be resisted. Put down your weapons, get down from your animals and vehicles, and lie on the ground. Do not even think of opposing it, or you will die. Fully surrender.”

All the warriors but one followed Lord Krishna’s words, and that one, Bhima, the strongest man on earth, stood firm while the full force focused on him alone. Finally Lord Krishna, as well as Arjuna, Bhima’s younger brother, tore Bhima’s weapons from his hands and pushed him to the earth. The weapon retreated, and its missiles disappeared into the sky.

When I first heard this story from the sacred book the Mahabharata, I immediately recognized the principle of how to conquer distress and pain, indeed, how to transform pain into joy. For I had long before learned how to get off my own war chariot and lie down weaponless rather than resist. How surprised I was to discover the secret of conquering pain and danger!

The revelation in my own life came in a form available only to women, and only in a situation where, like at Kurukshetra, the instinctual response is resistance. Yet the male half of the population can certainly also use this technique and frame of mind when facing inexorable and otherwise unbearable life situations.

The Secret of Conquering Pain

I was excited about having our second baby, but not about the labor and the delivery. Our oldest child had been born at home with a doctor, and everything had been uneventful medically. My husband and I had spent weeks attending classes to prepare for labor, and I diligently applied the method to some effect. Still, overall it ranked near the top of unpleasant experiences, to put it mildly. I worried and wondered how I would handle it again.

Then somewhere around the middle of my pregnancy, I read the following passage in one of Srila Prabhupada’s books:

“My Lord, I am not suffering, for I know the art of being happy.” How is this? “Simply by hearing about You and chanting about You I am happy.” . . . Even in ordinary life it is possible for the mind to be absorbed in such a way that even a surgical operation may not disturb a man. Years ago, when Stalin had to undergo a surgical operation, he refused the use of chloroform. If this is possible even in an ordinary materialistic life, what to speak of spiritual life? One’s mind should always be absorbed in Krishna consciousness, in thinking of Krishna. (Teachings of Lord Kapila, Text 23)

After reading that, I became very determined to learn the art of mental detachment. I went to a medical doctor who specialized in this art, and then every day practiced sitting quietly in our apartment while mentally I sat in the temple room, gazing intently at the deity form of the Lord, Radha-Govinda. I concentrated particularly on a belt Govinda would wear, made of large beads.

I was astonished during the labor not to experience physical pain at all. I was aware of my body and how it was functioning – indeed, I could feel the actions of the muscles with clarity impossible when pain is involved. But I was as if a detached observer. In regard to my body, I kept thinking, “That is so interesting!” while mentally I was absorbed in Govinda’s belt of beads.

Our third child was born the same way, and during that labor and delivery, the truth dawned on me that pain is a result of resistance – trying to control and in general working against our natural state of joyful surrender to Krishna’s will while meditating upon Him. In such a state, we still feel the body’s marvelous mechanism that lets us know something needs attention, but we don’t interpret the message as painful. Many years later, when my godbrother Sridhara Swami was going through a terminal illness, he told me the saying “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.”

Ultimate Relief

While it’s true that even materially one can be temporarily free of pain by focusing the mind elsewhere, meditating on Krishna brings both temporary and ultimate relief. As Prabhupada explains,

Because the glories of the holy name are described here – that one can become free from the sinful reaction of life simply by chanting the holy name of the Lord – so sometimes those who are not in the line, they think, “It is too much. It is too much.” So the next verse advises that it is not too much. You can test it. Test it. What is that test? Patita. When you fall down from a high place . . . Suppose from the roof you may fall down, patitamSkhalita: you may slip and fall down. Bhagnah: by falling down you may break your bones. Then sandashtah: you may be bitten by some animal – cats, dogs, a snake. Then tapta: you may be burned. And ahatah: you may be injured from others. Then during this time you can test, practical. What is that test? Harir iti avashena aha. Try to chant Hare Krishna. Puman. If anyone does so, na arhati yatanah. You’ll immediately feel that from the injuries you are not feeling pain. This is seen practically. Even a snakebite, you may be saved. The author never says that you may be saved from death, but the suggestion is that you may not feel much pain. This is practical.” (Lecture, Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.2.15, Vrindavan, September 18, 1975)

Ultimately, our dedication to spiritual life should not be with the aim of removing suffering, although such a motive is often the beginning of taking up the path of transcendence, as Krishna explains in the Gita. Ultimately our motive needs to be solely love for Krishna and His devotees. The fact that pain goes away by surrendering to Krishna in love and devotion is simply an indication that we are in harmony with the true nature of spirit – expanding bliss. As one’s love for Krishna increases, the absence of suffering decreases in importance until it vanishes into oblivion.