Human Suffering and its Panacea

Time and again, the wise sages and prophets of the lore have reiterated this fact: All of life is suffering. And suffering here doesn’t mean just suffering physical pain. We live in a world where we are fortunate to have painkillers that can dampen the most poignant of physical pains but there is still not much that can be done when it comes to mental suffering. As the fact is, like Seneca said, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

This topic of mental suffering is the central problem in the Vedic Wisdom Tradition. A parallel Sanskrit term that has elaborate treatment in the Upanishads is duḥkham, which means sorrow, uneasiness, misery, pain, grief or trouble. Upanishadic wisdom tells us that all sorrow is due to the limitation felt in frustrated or unfulfilled desire. That limitation has its root in ignorance of one’s true nature. Buddha concurs when he taught that the root cause of all suffering in this world is craving, an attitude of dissatisfaction towards what we have and what we don’t have. Man suffers because of his craving to possess and keep forever things that are essentially impermanent. This frustration of the desire to possess is the immediate cause of suffering. We suffer because we crave. And if this suffering has to end, if we have to ever find an everlasting peace, we need to put an end to craving itself. We don’t have to achieve anything new or aim at anything new. Krishna describes the craving life as dukhalayam ashashvatam- an endless world of suffering. So if suffering is caused by craving, what causes craving.

Bhagavad Gita’s prescription to end suffering is through leading a life in yoga. In the context of Duhka, Krishna defines yoga as duḥkha-saṃyoga-viyogam. Yogaḥ is dissociation from association with sorrow. Living a life of karma-yogaḥ (ethical, value-based living) and, when ready, a life of jñāna-yogaḥ (path wisdom & contemplation) eventually leads to the clear ascertainment that ‘I am the witness of the mind and hence distinct from its thoughts’. As that recognition becomes clearer and clearer, so does dissociation from association with sorrow. Such dissociation is yogaḥ, a union with the self rather than the mind. (Gītā 6.23).

Even if one is not able to understand this prescription one can simply work on cultivating two values: Viveka & Vairagya. Vairāgyam is a state of dispassion, detachment, objectivity. This dispassion is the freedom from being ruled by the pull and push of attachment and aversion. It is an absence of dependence on results of action for one’s happiness and the absence of craving for enjoyments here and hereafter. But vairāgyam doesn’t mean not enjoying life, it means enjoyment without dependence or addiction.

How is this dispassion cultivated? Dispassion is developed from seeing, again and again, the limitations of everything, and seeing that everything is subject to time and so cannot give permanent happiness (timeless reality alone gives timeless happiness). More specifically, it’s developed by seeing that all action is inherently flawed because all achievements involve some degree of suffering. All pleasure, for instance, involves pain in its attainment, its loss and even its enjoyment. Secondly, being limited, an action’s result can never give limitless satisfaction, and thirdly, all craving-led actions bind as it produces a result that has to be met sometime, somewhere. Only someone of dispassion is capable of the focused attention needed to hear this wisdom clearly and undistractedly and of having the subtlety of mind required to understand it. Such understanding alone liberates. Having said this, it is important to note that Vairāgyam without vivekaḥ is impossible.

Vivekaḥ is the discriminative knowledge or understanding that the timeless, infinite vs the time-bound, finite. (This is also the first and foremost of the qualifications required for self-knowledge.) There are two types of vivekaḥ needed in life: discrimination between that which is real and unreal, and discrimination between that which is to be done and not done. Vivekah is to have clarity about what is meaningful and substantial in the long term. One of my favourite books is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”. For long four years, Victor lived in the Auschwitz concentration camp, was herded around like cattle, survived on meagre rations of food, and did not know whether he was going to live to see the next day. He was the lone survivor of his family. What kept him alive was the meaning he ascribed to his life. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’. “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” This meaning could be different for each of us but it all comes down to choosing the right thing to do in any given circumstance, given the meaning that we assign to our life.


So, we all have a choice: to suffer or not to suffer. The choice is not easy because most of us prefer to suffer in a familiar manner than not suffer in an uncertain and unknown manner.

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.

Thich Nhat Hanh

But there will always be those amongst us who will take the courage to make the hard choice – the right choice.

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