When suffering comes, we would do well to look beyond the immediate cause.

By Gauranga Darshana Dasa

Externally addressing the immediate cause of suffering while internally acknowledging its ultimate cause makes life an enlivening journey.

Endeavoring for happiness and attempting to avoid suffering are natural. Often, however, we don’t get the happiness we expect, and we can’t escape suffering despite our determined efforts. When our seamless plans lead to tragic results, when our good deeds performed with integrity end in tremendous tribulations, we naturally feel confusion and bewilderment.

Our natural response to suffering is to identify a cause beyond ourselves. Indeed, no one desires suffering, and generally no sensible person acts with the intention to suffer. When suffering comes nonetheless, we tend to blame its immediate cause. For instance, Uttama, the brother of the famous king Dhruva, was killed by a Yaksha (a type of entity the Vedic literature describes as having demonic tendencies). Considering all the Yakshas offenders, Dhruva attacked them and started killing them wholesale to avenge his brother’s death. (As mentioned below, on the advice of Manu, a superior, he eventually desisted.)

We often hear that we reap the results of our own actions, that the pleasant and unpleasant experiences in our life are consequences of our own deeds. Many people today accept that idea, but inconsistently. They tend to take credit for their success, and conveniently believe that their happiness is due to their own good work. But when their actions produce unintended results, they think, “Is it really due to my action?”

Religious people, on the other hand, who believe that everything that happens to devotees – especially the good things – is God’s will, may be bewildered in seeing a devotee’s apparent suffering. Srila Prabhupada writes, “In case of benefit, no one will deny that it is God-sent, but in case of loss or reverses one becomes doubtful about how the Lord could be so unkind to His devotee as to put him in great difficulty.” (Bhagavatam 1.17.22, Purport)

What Are the Expert Opinions?

Different philosophers identify the cause of suffering in different ways. Once Maharaja Parikshit, the great emperor of the world, saw a lowborn man, dressed as a king, beating a bull and a cow. The man was actually the personification of Kali, the current age of quarrel and hypocrisy. The bull was Dharma, or religion, and the cow was Dhara, the earth.

Parikshit, being a responsible king, wanted to immediately kill Kali for his heinous deed of torturing a cow and a bull, which were traditionally honoured as our mother and father, since the cow gives us milk and the bull once tilled our fields. Parikshit first wanted to get a statement of accusation against Kali, so he asked the bull to identify the perpetrator. Dharma replied:

O greatest among human beings, it is very difficult to ascertain the particular miscreant who has caused our sufferings, because we are bewildered by all the different opinions of theoretical philosophers.

Some of the philosophers, who deny all sorts of duality, declare that one’s own self is responsible for his personal happiness and distress. Others say that superhuman powers are responsible, while yet others say that activity is responsible, and the gross materialists maintain that nature is the ultimate cause. (Bhagavatam 1.17.18–19)

Thus different philosophers declare different causes of suffering: one’s own self (atma), superhuman powers (daiva), one’s actions (karma), and material nature (svabhava).

Who Is the Real Cause?

Such explanations about the cause of suffering may not be incorrect, but they are incomplete, for they do not recognize the sanction of the Supreme Lord, which is the ultimate cause of all causes.

Although the symptoms of a disease indicate the immediate cause, an expert physician traces out the root cause. A painkiller may relieve the immediate physical pain, but proper diagnosis and medication are needed to treat the patient. A mature person tries to identify the cause behind the immediate cause, and thus traces out the ultimate cause of the misery.

Srila Prabhupada writes:

Although the bull and the cow knew perfectly well that the personality of Kali was the direct cause of their sufferings, still, as devotees of the Lord, they knew well also that without the sanction of the Lord no one could inflict trouble upon them. Thus even if the devotees see the mischief-mongers, they do not accuse them for the sufferings inflicted. They take it for granted that the mischief-monger is made to act by some indirect cause, and therefore they tolerate the sufferings, thinking them to be God-given in small doses, for otherwise the sufferings should have been greater. (Bhagavatam 1.17.18, Purport)

Thus the bull says, “There are also some thinkers who believe that no one can ascertain the cause of distress by argumentation, nor know it by imagination, nor express it by words.” (Bhagavatam 1.17.20) This cause that cannot be ascertained indicates the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is inconceivable to ordinary mortals.

When Dhruva attacked the Yakshas, he became so outraged that he began to annihilate their entire race. Then Dhruva’s grandfather, Svayambhuva Manu, came and advised him, “My dear son, those Yakshas, who are descendants of Kuvera, are not actually the killers of your brother; the birth and death of every living entity are caused by the Supreme, who is certainly the cause of all causes.” (Bhagavatam 4.11.24)

Identifying the root cause of suffering – with tolerance, forgiveness, gratitude, and dependence on God’s will – is liberating.

Tolerate the Inevitable

Nothing happens without the sanction of Supreme Lord Krishna. Srila Prabhupada writes:

A devotee’s conclusion is that no one is directly responsible for being a benefactor or mischief-monger without the sanction of the Lord; therefore he does not consider anyone to be directly responsible for such action. But in both the cases he takes it for granted that either benefit or loss is God-sent, and thus it is His grace. Jesus Christ was seemingly put into such great difficulty, being crucified by the ignorant, but he was never angry at the mischief-mongers. That is the way of accepting a thing, either favorable or unfavorable. By God’s grace, the devotee tolerates all reverses. A devotee has no suffering at all because so-called suffering is also God’s grace for a devotee who sees God in everything. (Bhagavatam 1.17.22, Purport)

After all, Lord Krishna certifies this world as a place of suffering (duhkhalayam). A conditioned soul has very little independence and is being controlled by higher powers constantly. A mature person understands that he is not the controller of his destiny despite his desires. He accepts the inevitable sufferings in this world as a reaction to his own past deeds, meant for his purification. Scriptures reveal to us this deeper philosophy of life repeatedly. For example:

sukham aindriyakam rajan
svarge naraka eva cha
dehinam yad yatha duhkham
tasman neccheta tad-budhah

“O King, the embodied living entity automatically experiences unhappiness in heaven or hell. Similarly, happiness will also be experienced, even without one’s seeking it. Therefore a person of intelligent discrimination does not make any endeavor to obtain such material happiness.” (Bhagavatam 11.8.1)

Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that to be eligible for liberation he must tolerate the inevitable dualities with equanimity:

matra-sparshas tu kaunteya
agamapayino ’nityas
tams titikshasva bharata

“O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.” (Gita 2.14)

Thus a devotee gratefully accepts the will of the Supreme Lord and endures the reversals in life, as Lord Brahma says:

tat te ’nukampam su-samikshamano
bhuñjana evatma-kritam vipakam
hrid-vag-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jiveta yo mukti-pade sa daya-bhak

“My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.” (Bhagavatam 10.14.8)

Srimad-Bhagavatam presents the story of a brahmana from Avanti, a kingdom of ancient India, to teach how one should tolerate the disturbances of evil persons. Harsh words pierce the heart more severely than arrows, but the Avanti brahmana considered them simply the consequences of his own past deeds and tolerated them soberly. Previously he had been a greedy, angry, miserly agriculturalist and merchant. When he lost his wealth, everyone abandoned him. Thus he developed a deep sense of renunciation. He began to see Krishna’s hand in his life and did not blame anyone but himself for his suffering. He said:

nayam jano me sukha-duhkha-hetur
na devatatma graha-karma-kalah
samsara-chakram parivartayed yat
manah param karanam amananti

“These people are not the cause of my happiness and distress. Neither are the demigods, my own body, the planets, my past work, or time. Rather, it is the mind alone that causes happiness and distress and perpetuates the rotation of material life.” (Bhagavatam 11.23.42)

But Is it Worth Suffering More?

One may have to tolerate suffering that comes of its own accord. But one shouldn’t allow oneself to be exploited. While living in this world, one should be intelligent enough to avoid suffering as much as possible, and if the suffering goes beyond one’s capacity, one has to accept the inevitable as God’s will and a result of one’s past deeds.

When Kamsa tried to kill Devaki after hearing the prophecy that her eighth child was going to kill him, Vasudeva tried to protect her. He finally convinced Kamsa to spare her life, promising to bring him her future newborn children. Vasudeva and Devaki then suffered the agony of the death of several children. But after Kamsa fell at their feet begging forgiveness, they forgave him wholeheartedly.

Pointing out the immediate cause of one’s suffering is natural and needed. For instance, if someone hurts us, whether physically or verbally, unintentionally or intentionally, it’s quite natural to feel the pain. If it’s physical pain, we try to counteract it with medical treatment. If it’s emotional pain, we need to deal with it in a suitable way. In either case, to avoid a repetition of the offense, we should express our feelings to the person who caused the pain.

We may sometimes suffer more than necessary by holding grudges, carrying negative impressions, making biased decisions, dealing with people based on conceptions and perceptions born of our suffering, and so on. All this leads to unnecessary suffering that we unconsciously create for ourselves and others.

Being caught up in dealing with the immediate or intermediate causes of suffering creates more suffering through blame and imagination. Without maturely understanding the ultimate cause, we only find ourselves entangled in the process of blaming. Blaming inspires others to blame, and this contagious blame game can expand to multiple people for a long time and create more suffering.

Mature Vision and Responsible Action

As implied above, our understanding of the ultimate cause of our suffering shouldn’t make us neglect taking necessary corrective actions. We need to responsibly identify the immediate cause or causes of our suffering and address the situation appropriately according to the time, place, and circumstances. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Dhruva Maharaja was the king, and when his brother was unceremoniously killed, it was his duty to take revenge against the Yakshas.” (Bhagavatam 4.10.4, Purport) This act of Dhruva’s befits his position as a king, who needs to punish miscreants, and as a devotee, who has feelings for near and dear ones.

Similarly, the Pandavas fought the Kurukshetra war in retaliation for all the injustices of Duryodhana and his associates. Krishna taught Arjuna detachment and neutrality, but He ultimately inspired him to fight the war. Although Dharma, the bull, didn’t point out Kali as the cause of his suffering, King Parikshit immediately prepared himself to punish and kill Kali. Thus we cannot withdraw from responsible action even though we know that the situation is the Supreme’s will.

So a mature person externally addresses the situation with responsibility while internally reconciling it as the Supreme will. A wrongdoer has to be rectified. Rectification shouldn’t be done with revenge, however, but with responsibility towards the damaged situation and even the one who “caused” it by faulty actions. And in the name of responsibility, one shouldn’t unduly get caught up in the external details of the situation and lose focus on the Supreme will. Therefore, when Dhruva became excessively angry and tried to kill many Yakshas for one Yaksha’s mistake, Manu came and stopped him.

When Dhruva was a child, one day when he tried to sit on his father’s lap his envious stepmother, Suruci, discouraged him with harsh words. Disappointed, Dhruva went crying to his mother, Suniti, who was already in pain, being regularly neglected by her husband, King Uttanapada. Now she became devastated to see her child insulted by her co-wife.

Being a glorious woman, a devotee of Lord Krishna, Suniti spontaneously pacified Dhruva with wise words, avoiding any negativity that might overwhelm him. She told him three things in particular: “(1) Never desire harm for others who might have caused you pain. (2) Everyone suffers as a reaction to his or her own past deeds. (3) Whatever may be your desire, you need to worship the Supreme Lord to fulfill it.” Thus, instead of blaming Suruci or Uttanapada for the suffering of Dhruva and herself, Suniti maturely diverted Dhruva towards Lord Krishna’s shelter.

Blaming, arguing, and lamenting are natural during a calamity, but one should surpass that stage and maturely consider what is the best one could do in the situation. And the best thing to do, apart from whatever is humanly possible, is to seek God’s shelter. One can be hopeful in the most hopeless situation by taking shelter of Krishna. Having already faced many calamities, Queen Kunti asked for more of them so that she could remember and see Krishna. In the midst of suffering, one’s dependence on God can increase. 

Srila Prabhupada writes about Suniti and Dhruva: “Both the mother and the son were lamenting Dhruva Maharaja’s having been insulted by his stepmother and his father’s not having taken any step on this issue. But mere lamentation is useless – one should find out the means to mitigate one’s lamentation. Thus both mother and son decided to take shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord because that is the only solution to all material problems.” (Bhagavatam 4.8.24, Purport)

Seeing “Misery” as Mercy

Suffering is inevitable in this world because that is how the Supreme Lord has made it. But by understanding that suffering is sanctioned by the Lord for our purification and by learning to tolerate suffering with a forgiving heart while responsibly taking necessary action according to the divine teachings, one can transcend this world of suffering. The Bhagavatam promises us that reading it and living by its teachings will relieve us of the miseries in this world (tapa-trayonmulanam). The Bhagavatam doesn’t literally solve our health problems, financial problems, and so on, but by inspiring us to take shelter of the process of bhaktiyoga, it equips our consciousness with the strength to see Krishna’s merciful hand behind those miseries. When we maturely see “misery” as the mercy of God, where is the question of suffering?