Author: Dinadayal dasa, MBA, DBA (c)
Teacher of Bhakti Sastri Bhagavad Gita I – Karma Yoga section
Dinadayal’s personal blog: Conscious Manager – a holistic approach to life

Vedana sutra said that our nature as spirit beings is anandamayo ‘bhyasat, we are pleasure-seeking beings. The original nature of a spirit soul is sat, cit and ananda; full of knowledge, eternity and bliss.

A question which arousing is if we are ananda by nature, why do we suffer? No one would like to suffer, but at the same time, so many unpleasant things happened to us. In the first Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, we can read that those great devotees of Krishna, personalities completely surrounded to Him, had gone through extremely difficult situations. We can find examples of great devotees suffering in stories about Queen Kunti and Pandavas, Bhisma and bull Dharma.

In the article, I will explore the topic of suffering based on the first Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam and guided by bull Dharma’s answers to Maharaja Pariksit and the Teachings of Bhismadeva.

Why do we suffer? Bull Dharma: I do not know!

“’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. 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. O sage amongst kings, judge for yourself by thinking over all this with your own intelligence.’” Shimad Bhagavatam 1.17.10-20

When Maharaj Pariksit meets a suffering bull which has been bitten by a sudra dressed in king’s clothes, on the question who is the cause of his suffering bull gave a very shocking answer: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. (SB 1.17.18)Although, it was completely obvious that the cause of suffering for bull Dharma was sudra who has bitten him with a stick he did not accuse him as the cause of misery. Instead of that, bull started to give deep philosophical explanations.In the purport Srila Prabhupada is discussing sad-darshans; six great philosophers and their theories o about the cause of suffering and its effect on different living beings, they are:

  1. Gautama’s Nyaya-darshana, the philosophy of logic, maintains that the atom is the cause of cosmic manifestation.
  2. Kanada’s Vaisesika-darshana, a philosophy of specialised logic, maintains that the combination of atoms is the cause of cosmic manifestation.
  3. Kapila’s Sankhya-darshana, philosophy of analytical study, maintains that material nature is the cause of cosmic manifestation.
  4. Patanjali’s Yoga-darshana, philosophy of mystic perfections, maintains that universal consciousness is the cause of the cosmic manifestation.
  5. Jaimini’s Purva (karma) mimamsa-darshana, philosophy of actions and reactions, maintains that fruitive activities are the cause of the cosmic manifestation.
  6. Veda Vyasa’s Uttara (brahma) mimamsa-darshana has two different categories: 1) The impersonalists maintain that the impersonal Brahman effulgence is the cause of the cosmic manifestation. 2) Personalists, the Supreme Personality of the Godhead, who is the cause of all causes.

As we can see, among the six kinds of philosophies up to the impersonalist Uttara-mimamsa philosophers, none really cares for the Supreme Personality of the Godhead, who is the ultimate cause of all causes for the Vaisnavas. About this will be discussed later in the chapter ‘Suffering as Krishna’s mercy for devotees’. Also, Krishna, Supreme Person, said in Bhagavad-Gita that there is also a philosophy which said that there is no other cause than lust and sexual desire which is in line with many modern opinions. (Bhagavad Gita 16.8). The conclusion is that we can find so many causes which can be reasons for our suffering and it is not so simple to determine the ultimate doer.

Suffering is normal in the material world

Krishna said, “from the highest to the lowest places in this temporary world are full of miseries, where we meet repeated birth and death.” Spirit souls imprisoned in this mortal world are experiencing various sufferings: adhyatmika-klesa – from their own body and mind, adhibhautika-klesa – from other living entities and adhidaivika-klesa – miserable condition beyond our control, famine, pestilence, floods, no rain, scarcity…  From birth to death, we are always exposed to some kind of suffering in this or that way, and in between birth and death, in we are lucky w can get old and get some disease. If anything is guaranteed in life, suffering is for sure.

Because of misidentification

Due to this external energy, the living entity, although transcendental to the three modes of material nature, thinks of himself as a material product and thus undergoes the reactions of material miseries. (SB 1.7.5). This verse is explaining that wrong identification is the cause of so many troubles. When the eternal spirit soul thinks for himself as a product of dull matter miseries are implied immediately upon him. Thinking, feeling and willing of such a condition soul is limited and very painful because such a conception has to be left.

Karma: we suffer because of our actions

“God made the laws of karma, and the soul made its own karma“. – Radhanatha Swami

In the commentary on 1.13.43 of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada writes: “A rich man gets his son born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but the child who came as the rich man’s son deserved such a place, and therefore he is placed there by the will of the Lord. And at a particular moment when the child has to be removed from that place, he is also carried by the will of the Supreme, even if the child or the father does not wish to be separated from the happy relation.” Karma is the Sanskrit word for “action.” Since the Sanskrit language is complex, karma means much more than this simple translation. Derived from the root kri “to do, to plan, to execute,” karma further means “that which is caused and causing,” which suggests that no action is independent. Each action or event is part of a big network of causes and becomes a cause for future reactions in form of enjoyment or suffering. All living beings are subjected to the law of karma and are bound to suffer and enjoy the fruitive results of their own work. We suffer as a result of our improper materialistic actions.

Sinful actions cause suffering

Sinful action causes suffering in two ways: directly and indirectly. Each materialistic action generates both manifest (prarabdha) and unmanifest (aprarabdha) reactions. We directly suffer physical and mental distress from the manifest reaction, while the unmanifest reaction returns to our heart and increases our proclivity towards sin (kutam), which increases sinful desires and thus brings habituation and addiction to sinful activity and its related suffering. Srila Prabhupada used to say that suffering comes from sin and sin comes from ignorance. The way to remove suffering is to remove ignorance.

Ignorance is the root cause of the suffering

Material desire and activity arise from ignorance of our true nature as Krishna’s servant; therefore ignorance (avidya) is the root cause of suffering. From that perspective we can say that material distress has two causes:

  • The sins themselves.
  • The reactions of sins committed in our past lives, the seed of sinful desire that is in the heart (bija).

These are both causes of suffering. But there is a third cause which is the ultimate cause: avidya, ignorance. Generally one commits sinful activities due to ignorance. This means that the ultimate cause of our being here in the material world is avidya or lack of knowledge in acting in our relationship with Krishna. And also attachment, due to avidya, to the material body and its by-products.

Sufferings caused by separation from a dear one

Dharma [in the form of a bull] asked: Madam, are you not hale and hearty? Why are you covered with the shadow of grief? It appears by your face that you have become black. Are you suffering from some internal disease, or are you thinking of some relative who is away in a distant place? (Bull Dharma to BhumiSB 1.16.19). Personally, I had experienced what does mean to live without parents, That is intense suffering for a child.

Sufferings due to famine and drought

Or are you grieving for living beings because of their sufferings due to famine and drought? (Bull Dharma to BhumiSB 1.16.20). Here we can find more causes of the suffering in this age of Kali. The world population becoming more and more impious and as a consequence is the natural delivery of rain is disturbed.

Suffering as Krishna’s mercy for devotees

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. O sage amongst kings, judge for yourself by thinking over all this with your own intelligence. (Bull Dharma to Maharaj PariksitSB 1.17.20) Krishna devotee never accuses anyone for troubles in life, he knows that everything he gets is just a small dose which should be occurred. But, by the Krishna mercy, he is receiving only a small amount of trouble. While acting practically, devotee always remembers that Krishna is in ultimate control and that He is the ultimate doer. Maintaining that awareness while acting devotee is free from envy, anxiety, and anger.

Devotees suffering in this world can be explained by the analogy of a fan. When the plug of a fan is pulled out the blade continues to rotate because of momentum. This is true even though no new impetus is received. Similarly, a Krishna devotee may incur no new karma, but he will continue to receive karmic reactions in form of some misery from before. Although the devotee appears to be acting just like an ordinary man, his actions should to be accepted as the continuation of past activities.

Kala, eternal time as Lord’s wish is a cause of suffering

In my opinion, this is all due to inevitable time, under whose control everyone in every planet is carried, just as the clouds are carried by the wind. O how wonderful is the influence of inevitable time. It is irreversible-otherwise, how can there be reverses in the presence of King Yudhishthira, the son of the demigod controlling religion; Bhima, the great fighter with a club; the great bowman Arjuna with his mighty weapon Gandhiva; and above all, the Lord, the direct well-wisher of the Pandavas? (The Passing Away of Bhismadeva in the Presence of Lord Krishna, SB 1.9.14-15)

Bhisma then explains that such things (suffering) could have happened only due to the actions of eternal time. As eternal (kala) is the will of the Lord, Yudhisthira should follow the Lord’s plan and rule the citizens. Eternal time (kala) is the Lord’s forceful representative in this world. Suffering, which is caused by the movement of eternal time is, therefore, the mysterious wish of the Lord. Devotees are therefore willing to accept the difficult conditions and sufferings of life, for they are committed to the Lord’s plan, the exact nature of which no one can discover. A devotee is tolerating suffering by seeing it as the Lord’s inexplicable plan executed by eternal time, His representative in this world. Everything is within the plan of the Lord which unfolds by His forceful representative in this world, eternal time (kala).

In this chapter is also revealed Bhisma’s amazing character, although he is in a terrible bodily situation, pierced with thousands of arrows, immediately after seeing the Pandavas he enumerates their horrible sufferings and explains how to understand Lord’s plan. It shows that Krishna’s devotee is not considered by his personal condition, he is always compassionate towards others.

Inconceivable plan of the Lord as the cause of suffering

O King, no one can know the plan of the Lord [Sri Krishna]. Even though great philosophers inquire exhaustively, they are bewildered. O best among the descendants of Bharata [Yudisthira], I maintain, therefore, that all this is within the plan of the Lord. Accepting the inconceivable plan of the Lord, you must follow it. You are now the appointed administrative head, and, my lord, you should now take care of those subjects who are now rendered helpless. (The Passing Away of Bhismadeva in the Presence of Lord Krishna, SB 1.9.16-17)

One should thus accept the difficult conditions and sufferings one undergoes in their devotional service as part of the Lord’s inexplicable plan to purify us. Yudhisthira was thus advised by Bhismadev to follow the plan of the Lord and rule the kingdom. Sometimes we could not see what is behind some miserable situation in our life, but devotee of Krishna had faith that whatever is happening it is for his ultimate good.

Conclusion (Instead of more suffering)

We are suffering because of our rebellion against Krishna; out of misuse of free will, we are getting various reactions. No one should be blamed for it. In every case, whatever we experience in this world is a Supreme will. Krishna is teaching us indirectly through material nature. If we can come on that level of accepting personal responsibility we are going out of the repetitive cycle of suffering. And that is a prerequisite for becoming a Krishna devote – consciousness when you are not blaming anyone. For a devotee, suffering is God’s grace because he sees God in everything. A devotee knows that one of the qualities of Krishna is compassion, which is defined as “the inability to tolerate the suffering of other’s”. (Nectar of Devotion). A devotee knows that behind everything in his life, pleasant or unpleasant is a divine hand:

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.

Seeing all that occurs as Krishna’s will, a devotee understands that “not a blade of grass moves without the will of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” He knows that Krishna is behind everything and because of it he remains free of anxiety amid even the greatest difficulties.