If God created this world, why does he allow bad things to happen? Innumerable people in every part of the world are often subjected to depraved cruelty for seemingly no fault of their own. Why does He not stop this? Sometimes we may be in the midst of intolerable distress and our desperate pleas for it to end could go unanswered. We may become angry and resentful that the all-compassionate all-powerful God ignores our cries for help. We decry the fact that He allows the innocent to suffer. Some may even lose faith in His existence. Why does God let this happen?
Reinforcement is a process that has defined almost every living being on earth. If there is pleasure, we desire more of it. If there is pain, we avoid it. This simple behaviour has determined our design for survival over millions of years. This behaviour is so fundamental and so deeply ingrained in our systems that we have learnt to colour almost everything in the world this way – desirable and undesirable. Good and bad.
Our conditioning determines this dichotomy of perception that exerts a powerful influence on our behaviour in this world. “I don’t want the bad. I want only the good experiences.” But our conditioning is not fixed. It can change. And when it changes, our behaviour also changes.
Consider the example of the child who loathes swallowing a bitter medicine. Recall the resistance that babies put up when they feel the sharp prick of an injection. And yet most adults voluntarily book appointments for their next vaccination. They pay money to purchase medicine that is very unpleasant to ingest. These adults were once children who resented these exact same things. What is different now?
Queen Kunti was Lord Krishna’s aunt. She encountered a series of life threatening situations that endangered her life as well as the lives of her children. Powerless to conquer the daunting circumstances, she would turn to prayer and rekindle her devotion to Lord Krishna every time. After miraculously surviving a series of dangers, she prayed thus –
vipadaḥ santu tāḥ śaśvat
tatra tatra jagad-guro
bhavato darśanaṁ yat syād
Translation: “I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.”
This prayer is so far-fetched from anything that we would expect a lay person to wish for after facing life-threatening situations. For many of us, this would seem fantastical, absurd or even deranged. However, facing our difficulties with the active willingness to undergo the associated pain is a commonly prescribed tool in psychology today. Pain in this context refers to any kind of mental discomfort including dislike, embarrassment and fear – feelings that compel us to avoid or fret about life circumstances. Patients who were encouraged to visualise a difficult situation and imagine the experience of going through the suffering were more willing to face challenges in life. Not only did these patients conquer their fears and dislikes, they started to achieve things much beyond what the average person would.
The willingness to face difficulties through a reversal of desire works by changing our perception of suffering. Just as a child sees healing medicine as purely defined by the immediate experience of the treatment without the benefit, pain and suffering are also intolerable when we do not see any benefit from the experience. When we are blind to the purpose of going through life, obstacles seem insurmountable and cruel. The natural question then is, what is the benefit of anyone’s suffering?
In 1888, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “Out of life’s school of war — what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”
There is no benefit to the suffering itself, but there is benefit if we go through it with our heads held high. When we endure and tolerate without resistance and complaint, something inside us grows. It expands our view of the world and makes us more resilient. We have seen one more problem, faced one more trial. However, we may think that all this is fine for the small difficulties in life. What about the real horrors – when we witness a child suffer or see the loss of a loved one? What about the unspeakable atrocities that should only be reserved for hellish worlds?
In 1942, just nine months after his marriage, Viktor Frankl and his family were captured by the soldiers of Nazi Germany and sent to a concentration camp. His father died there of starvation and pneumonia. Frankl and the surviving members of his family were transported to Auschwitz, where his mother and brother were murdered in the gas chambers. His wife died later of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Frankl spent several years in four concentration camps where neither his dignity nor his life was valued and his survival dangled on a thread. His amazing conclusion after this experience was that the Nazis took everything away from the prisoners, but there was one thing they could not – a prisoner’s ability to endure and grow internally. After surviving the Holocaust, he wrote about his experience in a book – Man’s Search for Meaning, which became an international bestseller and is regarded as one of the most influential books of this time.
In the Bhagavad-Gita (BG 2.56), Srila Prabhupada explains Lord Krishna’s description of a sthita-dhīr muni (one who is fixed in mind and knows that Lord Sri Krishna is everything) : “…such a fully Krishna conscious person is not at all disturbed by the onslaughts of the threefold miseries, for he accepts all miseries as the mercy of the Lord, thinking himself only worthy of more trouble due to his past misdeeds; and he sees that his miseries, by the grace of the Lord, are minimised to the lowest.”
When we are in a state of intense suffering, it feels like it will never end. The truth is that nothing in this material world is permanent, everything is temporary. We are often in an illusory misery of our own making. Pain comes from the reality of the material world, but suffering is created in our minds. There is a simple equation which expresses this:
Pain x Resistance = Suffering
Pain and suffering may be temporary, but the resilience and growth we gain from tolerating, facing and overcoming difficulty cannot be easily unlearnt. The sthita-dhīr muni sees this as an opportunity extended through the mercy of the Lord.
Srila Prabhupada said, “Advancement in Krishna Consciousness depends on the attitude of the follower.” The importance of faith in overcoming suffering cannot be understated. Belief influences our perception of life, and perception determines everything. It determines whether we grow or languish, whether we suffer or endure. It determines whether we see suffering as a cruel plot of an uncompassionate God who watches us as an uninvolved bystander, or whether we see suffering as grace, as one more opportunity to grow beyond anything we could ever imagine.
Perhaps we can appreciate Queen Kunti’s prayer again…
“I wish that all those calamities would happen again and again so that we could see You again and again, for seeing You means that we will no longer see repeated births and deaths.”
… and hopefully this time, we can see our hardships with her perception.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Should I accept violence and cruelty without resistance?
A: No. Acceptance of suffering does not mean renouncing responsibility. The willingness to undergo pain should be in the process of taking action and doing our best to overcome difficult circumstances.
Q: I heard that we suffer because of our past karma. Is that true?
A: In a sense, yes. The law of karma explains the rules that operate in this world and the mechanism behind material suffering. Therefore it also explains who suffers. But it does not explain the meaning or purpose behind our suffering in this world.
Q: I do not believe in Lord Krishna or reincarnation. How can I see suffering from Queen Kunti’s perspective?
A: You don’t have to believe in a named God or reincarnation to see things from Queen Kunti’s perspective, as long as you can believe that a superior power is interested in your spiritual growth. If you cannot believe that a superior power is interested in your growth through material suffering, then give yourself a choice. Do you want to experience your life with the belief that no one is interested in your progress and that material suffering is just plain cruelty and the “way things are”, or would you want to experience life with the belief that there is purpose behind your suffering to become something more than you are. Think about how each of these beliefs make you feel.
Q: Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita (BG 18.66): “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” I am surrendered, so I should be free of reactions. Why do I still suffer?
A: Surrendered devotees take their suffering with grace. They do not complain about their suffering. But the reason they suffer is not because of sinful reactions (karma). They suffer because Lord Krishna wants their story of suffering to set an example for others. Jesus Christ’s suffering tugged at the hearts of people and it wasn’t just his immediate followers who were moved to compassion. It was his level of acceptance of his suffering that influenced humankind then, and for generations to come. God wants all of us to know that it is possible to react to life in the way that his surrendered devotees did. For only when we know that something like that is even possible, can we be inspired to aspire for such greatness, and take a step closer to Him.