From Suffering to Salvation

Swami Dayananda Saraswati

From time immemorial, mankind has been suffering from physical pain and disease, mental conflicts, suppression and depression, emotional instability and insecurity. In short, there is no end to these sufferings. They start from the day of birth and continue right up to the very end of life.

This is one side of the coin. The other side is that the sole purpose of human existence is to transcend these sufferings. The more we try to eliminate them, the more we suffer. This is because our attitude towards them is incorrect and the means we employ to eradicate them is unsuitable. Actually our whole perception of suffering is incorrect. So, if we want to transcend suffering we have to change our approach. We will have to regard suffering as a means to new and greater experiences and as a ladder to salvation.

But how can we do this? The answer is very simple. We have to accept suffering as an essential part of our life. Once we can do this, we will see how suffering becomes the means to salvation.

Suffering is not reduced by outer means

Now, if we study people keenly and observe their reactions to suffering, we will find that most behave in one of four ways in accordance with their place on the scale of evolution. There are people who only want pleasure and the sole purpose of their lives is to extract as much pleasure as possible from every event of life. However, the more they try to attain it, the more they suffer. Such people form the majority of the human race and they are at the first stage of human evolution.

Then there are people who contemplate human suffering and try to develop various diversions and methods to escape it. These are the people who invent the conveniences of life, television, comfortable cars, modern appliances, etc., those who establish clubs and pubs, and promote new social systems to reduce suffering. However, with all these extra comforts and added social security, more complications arise and people are still not happy. Human suffering seems to be increasing every day. So it is sure that by outer or external means you cannot reduce human suffering.

Here is a story which will illustrate this point more clearly. Once when Lord Shiva and Parvati were passing through a forest, Parvati saw a wretched looking couple collecting firewood with their son. They made their livelihood by selling this wood in the market. However, they had not managed to collect enough that day to provide the three of them with a decent meal. So the old lady was quite upset and started quarrelling with her husband. Parvati heard her saying, 'Since the day I married you, I have not had any pleasure. You have only brought me pain and suffering, and spoiled my life. Today I'm not even going to get a simple meal'

Parvati was overwhelmed with compassion and turning to Lord Shiva she asked, 'Oh Lord, these poor people have such a painful existence. Why don't you grant them a boon so that the rest of their days pass happily?' Lord Shiva replied, 'Look, these people will never attain happiness by any outer means. They will only find happiness and contentment by searching within.'

Parvati said, 'You give boons to almost anybody, whether they need them or not, whether they use or misuse them. But because I asked you to help these poor people, you will not.' So, to make Parvati happy, Shiva said, 'Alright, let us see. I will give them one boon each.'

Parvati called out to the family that Lord Shiva was pleased and would grant them one boon each. They could not decide who should ask first, but finally the old man pointed to his wife and said, 'She always complains, so she should ask for the first boon.' The old woman agreed and excitedly requested, 'Oh Lord, please transform me into a beautiful sixteen year old girl, so I can enjoy my life.'

Smiling, Lord Shiva said, 'Alright,' and instantly the ugly old woman was transformed into a beautiful young girl. When the old man saw this, he thought, 'When my wife was old and ugly, she despised me, now that she is young and beautiful, she will never look at me again.' So, overwhelmed with anger and jealousy, he demanded that Lord Shiva immediately transform the girl into a bitch.

Laughing within but appearing to be serious, Lord Shiva said, 'Your wish is granted', and instantly the young girl vanished and a mangy looking female dog stood in her place.

Now, seeing his father bitter and his mother in the form of a she dog, the young boy became distraught. He begged Shiva, 'Oh merciful Lord, please convert my mother back to her proper form. We were happy as we were. We don't want anything else.' Lord Shiva agreed and full of mirth, he said, 'See, I told you before, you can't reduce human suffering by any outer means. You can only eliminate suffering by changing the attitude. Therefore, it is said that no one can remove your sufferings for you.'

The right understanding of suffering

Some people are not afraid of pain and suffering. Instead of complaining or escaping, they prefer to dive deep into their suffering. They don't mind it, or rather they feel that without suffering their life is meaningless. Amongst this group of people we find the creative geniuses, the artists, musicians, poets, writers and philosophers, and we also find the social reformers and saints. If you read the biography of famous people like Michelangelo, Picasso, Mozart, Tsychovsky, William Blake, Von Goethe, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Suryakanta Tripathi Nirala, Premchanda, or any one of the numerous others, you will find that suffering shaped their entire lives. For these people, suffering became an inspiration and it motivated them to express themselves uniquely in a particular field of creativity.

However, greater things can be achieved from suffering. We have discussed the suffering escapers, reducers and indulgers, but there is another very unique type of personality on the scale of human evolution. People belonging to this category behave differently, they eat differently, sleep differently and even suffer differently. They are the people whose sole purpose in life is to transcend the body/mind complex and experience the higher realms. Their goal is realization or salvation and for them every event and action is a step towards that goal.

Such people understand that suffering is an essential part of life and they use it as a means to salvation. Great yogis, siddhas, saints and sages such as Buddha, Mahavira, Christ, Surdas, Mirabai, Tulsidas, Tailang Swami, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ramdas and many more are amongst those who used their suffering as a means to go beyond suffering.

Actually, for these people, pain and pleasure are two sides of one coin. The actions and reactions which we like and which we consider positive, give us the experience of pleasure, and those which we don't like and which we consider negative, give us suffering. Of course, we can change our opinions at any time regarding what is pleasurable and what is painful. Yogis and saints are well aware of this fact so they never try to seek pleasure or escape pain. Rather, they observe both equally and cultivate the ability to remain detached and unaffected by whatever comes their way.

You can do the same

Now think, if you also developed this ability, what would be the result? There would, be no difference between pain and pleasure. Then you would neither crave pleasure nor shun pain. In short, you would be ever blissful and absorbed in anandam, continually discovering new dimensions of creativity welling up from within and expressing themselves through you.

So now it depends upon you and how you view your sufferings, but you can be assured of one thing; whether today, tomorrow or in your next lifetime, you must eventually accept your suffering as a means to salvation. As soon as you are able to do this, a new journey will start and ultimately it will take you to the realm of samadhi or self-realization, which is the purpose of this human incarnation.