Suffering Meaningfully

Does human suffering have meaning? What metaphysical meaning can there be behind burning people alive? What consolation can one give a mother who's just lost her one and only young son? Of what purpose is life if the end, death, is inconsequential? These are some of the questions that I have attempted to answer in this article.

Is something neither right nor wrong unless and until God has pronounced it one or the other? 

If we take the case to be that whatever god commands is right then we run into a number of problems. Jerry Falwell preached that it was a Christian's moral duty to support the Vietnam War and he preached, "Kill a Commi for Christ!" Was he right? Is what God commands right because He commands it, or is it right for some other reason than that he commands it? This seems to be the fundamental question behind the Book of Job and sums up Job's condition. Job's argument with God is that he does not, and did not, deserve to be treated the way God has treated him, and God's argument that Job does not have sufficient knowledge to know what is right or wrong from God's point of view is not satisfying for us the readers, because we know God's reasons for bringing ruin to Job ' it is a test; it is a test to win a bet with the devil; and it is not about creating some greater good that this requires. It has no more merit than there would be in someone's doing everything s/he could to make sure his/her spouse was loyal by treating him or her terribly and making sure temptation fell right into his or her lap. Even if the spouse proves loyal, the test itself was a reprehensible one to give. Job was prosperous, materialistically successful. God tests his faith and when he finds Job holds true, despite being afflicted with "loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head,"* and receiving severe chastisement at the hands of his wife, He rewards him with double the material wealth. 

This raises another interesting question. Should one be faithful to God as God rewards his faithful followers materialistically? "Why," Socrates had questioned Euthyphro in Plato's Euthyphro, "Be ethical, especially if and when it goes against your self-interest?" 

The problem we run into if we look at these ancient tales as they are, without delving into the philosophy underneath, is that these holy texts do not seem so holistic after all. Would we like to be faithful to a god who rewards us financially; in short, pays us to be faithful? Most of us would, I am sure. But then how does that fit in with the idea of an afterlife. What is hell and what heaven then if we are rewarded with prosperity in this life itself? 

What the Book of Job does, I feel, is instructs people to be virtuous. How do we keep faith in God? By being honest, truthful to our fellow men, by following the Ten Commandments for the Christians, the Koran for the Muslims and the Gita for the Hindus. What this does, in effect, is keep society in place. If men are honest, truthful, caring and virtuous, the element of misery disappears from society largely. What these sacred texts do, I believe, is show us ways through which we can lead a safe and happy life in a safe society. What better way to create a safe society than say, "God did this to Job to test him though he was virtuous. What would He do to the one who not virtuous?" 

This is a great way to play on man's psychology and keep him in place. This is precisely the technique that monarchs all over the world adopted. They called themselves the king and supreme monarch of their respective monarchies by the mandate of heaven. God or the gods had decreed, according to the mandate of heaven, that the king was their very own representative. Hobbes, in his Leviathan, composed during the late seventeenth century during the times of the English Civil War that centered about Charles I, Cromwell and finally ended with the accession of Charles II to the throne of England, emphasized that we should relinquish al our rights to the monarch. The monarch is the ultimate law. The king's word the ultimate word since he is God's representative in the temporal world. This was a great way to hold the common people in awe and make them obey and respect the king. Thus, through the sacred texts of major religions, we see how religion is primarily a tool to hold society in place and uphold social order.

Religion is an answer to suffering. 

Obviously we, as humans, are attracted to a solution for human suffering. We suffer throughout our life. Why is that so and what can we do to relieve ourselves of suffering? The answer to this fundamental question, as I have said earlier, has been provided by the ancient religions of the world. What happened over time was that the people who had undertaken to spread these beliefs became corrupt through the power this responsibility brought them. Thus the Roman Catholic Church had become an extremely hypocritical and corrupt institution by the 1500s. The answer to this came in the form of Martin Luther. He emphasized the basic beliefs of Christianity and gave the religion a breath of fresh air. Thus the Protestant reformation period began. 

Precisely the same thing happened with Hinduism in India when the priestly class, who had the responsibility to educate the people, spread awareness about Hinduism and conduct religious festivals became corrupt and hedonistic. They suppressed the lower classes and soon complex Hinduism, which over the ages, had been explained lucidly to the public, became impossible to comprehend and the public looked for a way out into a pragmatic approach to life. Hinduism, per se, was no longer answering why people had to suffer and how they could escape the daily cycle of suffering. The Buddha arrived with a pragmatic solution that was eagerly lapped up by the people. The Buddha, as the heir to Shuddhodhana's kingdom based in Kapilavastu, saw how pointless his existence was. He led a completely happy life. He had a beautiful wife, a lovely son; he was the heir to the throne. He was in the perfect Lockeian world. What else could a man ask for? 

Yet the Four Signs** revealed to him the temporal world and a way out of it and he realized material wealth was not he wanted. He left his family, his kingdom and sought enlightenment that he eventually received. And his philosophy came as a response to stagnating Hinduism. He did away with rituals made monotonous by the Brahmins who recited the Holy Scriptures in Sanskrit, a language the common people did not understand, and didn't even explain it to them. He preached in Pali, the language of the common people. His pragmatic approach was easy to follow by all and sundry. He said, "Life is suffering; suffering is caused by desire; suffering can be vanquished; the eightfold path is the way to vanquish suffering."*** 

This is the simplest philosophical approach towards suffering. The eightfold path is as simple as it gets. And who would disagree that true happiness does not come out of following it? The Buddha's solution was drastically different and had a different purpose as it broke down the religious hierarchy relevant in India, gave the common people a sense of direction and relief since their own philosophical leaders were not helping them in any way to find the solution that they were looking for. But what both Christianity and Buddhism did was provide a sense of direction to one's life.

Doesn't life seem pointless when one loses a loved one?

Is it not better to know at the back of one's mind that detachment is the best solution to misery (as Sri Krishna says in the Gita)? Don't we feel a sense of satisfaction when we are honest and truthful? Dire consequences might follow at certain times out of speaking the truth but that is exactly why a good knowledge of different philosophies of the world helps so much. 

I, for one, from reading the Book of Job and having knowledge about the Eightfold Path would know that I have done the right thing by being virtuous since it would aid me in achieving nirvana. If I faced persecution after that, I would know that being detached from exterior circumstances is the best way not to break down. 

But it becomes increasingly tough to act in this fashion and undertake such a stance when one is in a miserable situation such as the one Elie Wiesel faced at Auschwitz during the Second World War. His family was taken from him and he never saw his mother again; his father died in front of him after struggling to live for the many months they were together at the concentration camps; he saw children and weak men being burnt to death to preserve food and space in the camps. 

When one says that the best way to come out of such a terrifying ordeal with a sane mind is to remain unaffected and do one's duty to the best of one's capacity - help one's fellow men and not turn into a cruel demon like the others around her or him - it seems impossible. But that is why, as Nietzsche was to say in 1938, "Christianity is a misconception. There has only been one true Christian and he died on the cross." If everybody could go through what Christ went through, and then forgive his enemies, everyone would be an idol, a leader, and a prophet. Everyone would be a Krishna, a Ram, a Mohammed, a Moses, a Job, a Christ, a Martin Luther, a Confucius or a Lao Tzu. That is why we worship people like them and follow their words. They suffered immensely yet forgave their enemies, overcame their miserable situation through their philosophy which they then spread to humanity. They encountered tremendous odds and overcame them. That is why we try to follow their words, since they succeeded in overcoming misery. 

Yes, human suffering has meaning. It reinforces our belief in god for in our happiness we tend to forget about him. Atheists are busy, like existentialists, in finding a solution to misery. Yet they only have to look around to see that human suffering is a challenge that can be overcome. The great sages of the world have already found the solution to it all. Their philosophy comforts and guides us along life's myriad ways. Human suffering exists to give us that condition through which we can aspire towards spiritual perfection. If there were no suffering, life would be perfect. But then, that is what we are aspiring towards: spiritual perfection.     


More by :  Aurpon Bhattacharya

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