An investigation into the causes of suffering. DHARMA, religion personified, had taken on the form of a bull [as described in the pages of the Shrimad Bhagavatam 1th Canto]. Shaking in fear, he stood trembling on one leg, his other three legs broken. Kali, who personifies the present age of quarrel and hypocrisy, raised his club and swung it again and again, beating Dharma’s legs. Although a common laborer, Kali was falsely dressed as a king, just as a criminal might dress as a policeman to gain trust. It seemed Kali was ready to beat his victim to death. Then Parikshit, the real king, arrived. After ordering Kali to stop, Parikshit asked the victim to say who had caused his broken legs and pitiable condition. Dharma answered that suffering comes from many causes and therefore he couldn’t identify the real perpetrator. Besides, he said, the ultimate cause of everything is Lord Sri Krishna, and he didn’t wish to blame the Lord, who acts only for everyone’s good. Parikshit praised the answer and declared Dharma to be the personification of religion. “The destination intended for the perpetrator of irreligious acts,” Parikshit said, “is also intended for one who identifies the perpetrator.” As part of his kingly duty, Parikshit then prepared to bring Kali to justice.
Several classes of philosophers try to explain suffering. Some say that the cause is inscrutable and we simply have to bear grief without understanding its cause. Others say that the laws of nature cause misery and, since those laws arise by chance, no one is responsible for suffering. These philosophers often seek to ease suffering through scientific advances that will, they hope, adjust nature to their own plan. Other philosophers say that because all is spirit, Brahman, suffering is an illusion; it doesn’t really exist. These philosophers wish to destroy grief by destroying individuality, either by dissolving the self or by merging it into the total spirit. Philosophers who know something of reincarnation suggest that the reactions to our desires and actions cause suffering, that an automatic law metes out justice. Some theistic philosophers explain that God, the supreme controller, arranges for suffering and we simply have to trust that His reasons are good and sensible.
The Full Picture
Each of these philosophies is incomplete. Each has part of the truth—like the blind men asked to describe an elephant. The man touching the tail said that an elephant was like a rope, the one touching an ear said that an elephant was like a fan, and the one touching the trunk said that an elephant was like a large snake. Each of the philosophies I listed fails to give as complete and satisfying an explanation of the cause of suffering as we find in the Vedic literature. The Vedas explain that each soul that enters the material world does so voluntarily, desiring to imitate God, Krishna. The soul by nature is a loving associate of the Lord, serving Him in unlimited activities of joy. But on entering this world, the soul develops desires and actions in disharmony with its very self. Just as eating something indigestible—such as plastic—will cause suffering, so thinking, feeling, and doing anything against our nature causes misery.
The laws of nature, including what we term the “law of karma,” bring us the reactions to our work, just as the “law of digestion” brings the plastic-eater stomach pain. The misery karma brings does not really affect the self, or soul, in any way, as much as the suffering of the hero in a drama has no actual effect on the lives of the audience. They suffer by identification. The soul “suffers” by identifying with the body and mind acquired to fulfill artificial desires. Just as the staged drama is real (actually taking place) but not reality (eternal spiritual existence), so is one’s suffering in this world. This whole process—the soul’s acting in disharmony with his constitution, the laws of nature then bringing suffering, the soul identifying that suffering as his own—takes place under Krishna’s direction. But the process is not simply mechanical.
Like a judge in this world, Krishna may choose to modify how the law is applied in a particular case. The very complexity of the system makes the entire scheme inscrutable to a human mind. It involves the intertwining of many souls’ reactions, the playing out of justice over many lifetimes, and the freedom to make new choices while suffering reactions to old ones.
The Place of Compassion
What about compassion for those who suffer? In our school we were studying the Native Americans known as the Cherokees. They fully adopted European-American culture and set up a Christian society with a government modeled after the American constitution. Completely assimilated, they were model citizens who legally owned their land and homes. When government officials tried to seize their land, they won their case in court—as far as the Supreme Court. Yet the President ignored the ruling and allowed local officials to arrest the Cherokees and give away their land. Finally, the Cherokees were forced to migrate from Georgia to a reservation in Oklahoma. So many died on the way that the route is called “The Trail of Tears.”
As I study the suffering of the Cherokees, the injustice and greed of the perpetrators fill me with disgust. But does my pity for the law-abiding Cherokees who were robbed and exiled betray an ignorance of the laws of karma? After all, suffering doesn’t truly affect the real spiritual self. And everything that happened to the Cherokees resulted from their past actions, either in this life or previous ones. Besides, the Lord supervised and approved the infliction of suffering. Still, one rightly feels compassion for the powerful, effulgent, and wise soul who has sown seeds that yielded a thorny harvest. Do we not mourn a person born into wealth and education who through his own choices lies in his alcoholic vomit in the gutter? We know he got himself there, yet we do what we can to bring him back to his rightful place.
What of those who do evil? Is the perpetrator of evil really to blame if the victims are truly only victims of their own past actions? Every religious system has a code for defining crimes and penalties. Therefore, Krishna, the ultimate designer of these codes, considers that an evildoer should be held responsible and accountable.
The officers of the American government who stole the Cherokees’ land, imprisoning and exiling the Cherokees, did not have any right to cause such pain. And, through the laws of karma, they suffer for their sinful actions. After all, God doesn’t need the evildoers’ help. All-powerful, He can independently deliver someone’s destiny. He can send a natural disaster or a disease that brings as much pain and destruction as any demonic person or group can invent. Or He can use the evildoer by bringing together the criminal and those whose karma merits their being the object of a crime. The evildoer does the Lord’s will then, certainly. Ironically he does so as an act of disobedience to that very will. How wonderful Krishna is that He can bend the most wicked and cruel actions of men into His own plan. All serve Him, willing or not. Evildoers only hurt themselves. By acting against codes of morality and religion, they exchange spiritual joy for bad karmic reactions.
Another question may arise: If people get what they deserve, why should the government get involved in administering justice? The Vedas teach that when a government punishes evil, it acts as Krishna’s agent to deliver some or all of the evildoers’ reactions. As a bona fide agent of God, the government incurs no reaction in its administration of proper justice. Enlightened victims see those who perpetrate evil against them as messengers of karmic destiny, like postal workers delivering parcels they ordered. Persons in knowledge don’t point to the perpetrator as the only or ultimate cause. Rather, they see the direct giver of pain as the messenger of their own karma and Krishna’s will. The Vedas say that one who blames the evildoer as the ultimate cause is also guilty of the hate, anger, and other ignorant qualities that drove the perpetrator to perform evil. We can assign blame, but only to benefit the perpetrator through justice and, ideally, rectification. Seeing the immediate cause of our suffering or enjoyment as the agent of God and our karma is easy when that cause delivers enjoyment. For example, we can sense the divine hand of Krishna when someone, without our asking, gives us something we desire.
At the same time, we are grateful to the gift-giver, who, for the good deed, gets karmic credit and, if giving with the desire to serve the Lord, spiritual progress. Similarly, whoever assails us with the unwanted is rightly punished, but we can see the suffering we receive as Krishna’s mercy, just as when we are materially pleased. And the truly saintly persons, who see Krishna with love everywhere and in everything, feel connected with Him in both types of reciprocation.
What About Remedial Measures?
How does one who has developed this vision act? Scriptures such as the Shrimad-Bhagavatam describe saints who did nothing at all to remedy material suffering. They felt constant spiritual happiness and realized that the ultimate result of everything is good. They lived separate from society and sometimes seemed muddle-headed to common people. Generally, however, even perfectly self-realized souls who always serve Krishna with love take up ordinary means to counteract suffering. For example, when sick, they take appropriate medicine and treatment. If a crime is committed against them, they report it to the authorities and try to bring the criminal to justice. While attempting to remedy the difficulty, they are always aware that the results are in Krishna’s hands, and do not consider that they are the ultimate “doer” of their actions. They act to show an example to those less spiritually advanced, who cannot gratefully embrace both joy and sorrow. And they act to preserve justice in the world. Since Krishna wants justice, such actions are also part of serving Him. Those of us who aren’t saintly and fully realized can turn to remedies while depending on Krishna. At least in theory we can understand that the Supreme Lord controls everything and that the efficacy of our cures depends on Him. Knowing that He is all good, we trust that if we continue to suffer despite remedies, the suffering is designed to assist us in coming to total spiritual joy. Life brings material happiness and suffering, just as it brings day and night or snowstorms and heat waves. When such changes no longer disturb us, inner, spiritual happiness begins.
Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine Volume 35 Number 02, 2001 © BBT International; all rights reserved.