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Hinduism: The Problem of Suffering -
Rebirth and the Law of Karma

Book  stop.gif (845 bytes)  Weekly Message Archive

WEEKLY MESSAGES

In this new feature of our website, we present every week a new selection of the teachings of Vedanta, taken from a variety of sources lectures and writings of Swami Adiswarananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Literature, and other spiritual texts.

 

 

 

 

HINDUISM: THE PROBLEM OF SUFFERING

 

Swami Adiswarananda

Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center

New York

Why is a soul born on earth, and why does it suffer? What happens to it after death, and what is its destiny? Why are there inequalities between one person and another? According to Hinduism, the idea of complete annihilation of the soul after death is inconsistent with the concept of a moral order in the universe. If everything ends with death, then there is no meaning to life. Nor is the view that the soul is created at birth and then becomes eternal at death reasonable, for anything that has a beginning will also have an end. Further, this view does not explain the obvious inequalities among people. Clearly, all are not born equal. Some are born with good tendencies, some with bad; some strong, and some weak; some fortunate, and some unfortunate. Moreover, all too often the virtuous suffer and the vicious prosper. One cannot attribute these injustices to the will of God or to some inscrutable providence, because such a concept belies any belief in God's love for His beings. These glaring differences cannot be considered the mere results of chance happening; for if such were the case, there would be no incentive for moral or material improvement. Then, heredity and environment, although they explain the physical and mental characteristics of an individual partially, do not explain inequalities satisfactorily. Nor does the doctrine of eternal happiness in heaven, or eternal suffering in hell, answer this question. Everlasting life in terms of time is self-contradictory. The dwellers in heaven, endowed with subtle or spiritual bodies, are still subject to embodiment and therefore cannot be immortal. The idea of eternal damnation for the mistakes of man's brief earthly career contradicts justice and reason. The inequalities and sufferings of life cannot be set right by readjustments after death, because what happens after death cannot be verified. The conditions on the two sides of the grave are different, and the dead never come back to testify to their afterlife conditions.

 

HINDUISM: REBIRTH AND THE LAW OF KARMA
 

Hinduism contends that the cause of suffering and inequalities must be sought not in what happens after death, but in the conditions before birth, and puts forward the doctrine of rebirth. Rebirth is the necessary corollary to the idea of the soul's immortality. Death is a break in the series of continuing events known as life. Through death the individual soul changes its body: "Even as the embodied Self passes, in this body, through the stages of childhood, youth, and old age, so does It pass into another body." A knower of the Self can witness the passing of a soul from one body to another at the time of death: "The deluded do not perceive him when he departs from the body or dwells in it, when he experiences objects or is united with the gunas; but they who have the eye of wisdom perceive him."

Rebirth, Hinduism maintains, is governed by the law of karma. According to this law, man is the architect of his own fate and maker of his own destiny. Karma signifies the way of life, that is, what we think, say, and do and it brings conditioning of the mind, the root cause of embodiment. It is the mind that produces bodies, gross or subtle. Remaining identified with the body-mind complex, the soul, though ever-free, follows its destiny and, as it were, experiences all pairs of opposites, such as birth and death, good and evil, pain and pleasure. Patanjali (the teacher of the Yoga system), in one of his aphorisms, describes the causes of suffering as five: ignorance, ego-sense, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. Reality is neither good nor evil. There is nothing in the universe which is absolutely good or absolutely evil, that is to say, good or evil for all time. Good and evil are value judgments made by the individual mind in keeping with its inner disposition caused by past karma. If one asks, why does God permit evil, then the question will come, why does God permit good? According to the Hindu view, good is that which takes us near to our real Self, and evil is that which creates a distance between us and our real Self. The law of karma is the law of automatic justice. It tells us that no action goes without producing its result. The circumstances of our present life, our pains and pleasures, are all the results of our past actions in this existence and in countless previous existences. As one sows, so shall one reap. This is the inexorable law of karma. Karma produces three kinds of results: (a) results of past actions which have produced the present, body, mind, and circumstances; (b) results which have accumulated but are yet to fructify; and (c) results that are being accumulated now. Over the first category of results no one has any control; these are to be overcome by patiently bearing with them. The second and third kinds, which are still in the stage of thoughts and tendencies, can be countered by education and self-control. Essentially, the law of karma says that while our will is free, we are conditioned to act in certain set ways. We suffer or enjoy because of this conditioning of our mind. And conditioning of mind, accumulated through self-indulgence, cannot be overcome vicariously. A Hindu is called upon to act in the living present, to change his fate by changing his way of life, his thoughts and his actions. Our past determines our present, and our present will determine our future. He is taught that no change will ever be effected by brooding over past mistakes or failures or by cursing others and blaming the world or by hoping for the future. To the contention that the law of karma does not leave any scope for the operation of divine grace, Hinduism's answer is that the grace of God is ever flowing equally toward all. It is not felt until one feels the need for it. The joys and suffering of a human individual are of his own making. Good and evil are mind-made and not God-created. The law of karma exhorts a Hindu to right actions, giving him the assurance that, just as a saint had a past so also a sinner has a future. Through the doctrine of rebirth and the law of karma, Hinduism seeks an ethical interpretation of life. The theory of the evolution of species describes the process of how life evolves. But the purpose of this evolution can be explained only by the doctrine of rebirth and the law of karma. The destiny of the soul is immortality through Self-realization. Existence-knowledge bliss-absolute being its real nature, nothing limited can give it abiding satisfaction. Through its repeated births and deaths it is seeking that supreme fulfillment of life.

[Copyright Swami Adiswarananda]

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