Why is there suffering in the world?

In this interview series we asked Radhanath Swami universal foundational questions about life and spirituality. Here is a transcript of the answer to this question:

Why is There Suffering in the World?

According to the Bhagavad-Gita, as well as according to the teachings of Lord Buddha the source of suffering is that the body is temporary, life is temporary, therefore everything is subjected to birth, ultimately old age, disease and death.

And the Vedas explain there are three types of sufferings; Adhyatmika, the sufferings of one’s own body and mind; Adi-bhautika, the suffering due to other living beings; and Adi-daivika, the sufferings due to natural circumstances like heat or cold, or earthquakes.

And these sufferings are always there, potentially, at any moment to this physical body.

The soul, Gita explains, na jayate mriyate va kadacin, that the source of life within the body, the source of consciousness, is the atma or the soul. And that soul is transcendental. In Sanskrit: sat, cit, ananda, the soul is eternal full of knowledge and full of bliss, and that’s who we are.

The soul is like the driver of the car, and the body is like the car. We’re seeing through our eyes, hearing through our ears, smelling through our nose, tasting through our tongue, touching through our skin, thinking through our brain, loving through our heart, but who are we?

Are we a brain or a heart or an eye or an ear? We are the witness, we are the soul. That is who we are. And that soul is by nature full of love, full of fulfillment. But when that soul identifies itself with the body, thinking that “This is me.” and becomes completely immersed in that state, then the soul has to identify with all of the vulnerabilities and frailties of this body, and that is the source of all suffering.

But in many ways the sufferings in this world are blessings because they help us to take very seriously, if we make that choice, to really understand what is deeper, what is higher than all these temporary pleasures and pains, honor and dishonor, happiness and distress, health and disease, success and failure, birth and death.

The nature of the world around us, it’s constituted on the basis of dualities. One brings pleasure, one brings pain. And to the degree we’re attached to something that gives us pleasure, to that same degree we suffer when it’s lost. And ultimately because everything is under the consumption of time, everything will be lost.

So going through these experiences, thoughtful people contemplate “Is there something higher?” “Is there something deeper?” “Is there something more to life than this?”

And all the great saintly teachers and all the great saintly scriptures, they are leading us in that direction, that “There is something more.” This world is just a temporary place but this world can be a launching pad to help us to realize the inner treasures within our own heart.

And it’s usually the sufferings of this world that serve as an impetus for us to not just theoretically try to understand what is beyond, but to feel the urgent need to do something about it, to realize and experience the essence of the self.

In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna tells, dukhalayam asasvatam, that the nature of this world, when we are in ignorance of our true self, is suffering.

Potentially there can be suffering at any moment, whoever we are, however wealthy, however educated, however powerful.. disease, some other person, some natural circumstance could create a disaster, create a tragedy..

So whatever happiness anybody has in this world, it’s so tottering, it’s like a drop of water on a lotus leaf, at any moment it could slip away.

So where is permanent happiness? Where is freedom from suffering? It’s only on the spiritual platform. And that’s what all the great sages have come to tell us.

In the Bible it is said that “Make your treasure not in this world, but make your treasure in the Kingdom of God. Because in this world your treasure will be stolen by thieves, or rusted by the elements, or eaten by moths. But if you make your treasure in the Kingdom of God, it is perfect and infallible. And then,” Jesus said “the Kingdom of God is within.”

And similarly Lord Krishna tells in the Gita that “One should find pleasure within. One should find satisfaction within. One should be enlightened and illuminated from within. That is a person of substantial quality life, and real intelligence.”

We should seek that eternal reality beyond all the sufferings of this world and find real happiness.

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