Dukha Mimamsa: The Nature, Cause (and Cure) of Suffering

Article of the Month - May 2008

This article by Nitin Kumar

(Viewed 42013 times since May 2008)

The Bhagavad Gita places much stress on the need for maintaining an equanimity of mind under both adverse or favorable circumstances (Bhagavad Gita: 6.7; 12.18 and 14.25). However, this is easier said than done. In the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana, that relishable text overflowing with the nectar of sweet words fallen from Krishna’s delicious lips, the lord says in unambiguous terms:

"Whether reproached or insulted, ridiculed or belittled, beaten or bound by ropes, or deprived of one’s means of livelihood, spat or urinated upon by the wicked - when one’s foundations are shaken in this manner, one should try to redeem oneself by recourse to reason."

In response to this instruction, Krishna’s great devotee and friend Uddhava queried:


The Bhagawad Geeta (Set of 15 Books)

"Such outrages against oneself by the wicked are the most difficult to bear because our nature to respond against any such mistreatment is very powerful and hard to resist. Therefore, do explain to me how I can understand and realize the exalted spiritual state you are talking about."

(Shrimad Bhagavata Purana 11.22.57 - 60).

In his inimitable charming style, Krishna then proceeds to narrate a story, embedded within which is a creative way to realize the equitable state of mind (samata) outlined above.

Long long ago, in the ancient city of Ujjain there lived a brahmin, who was however a brahmin in name only. By resorting to various businesses, he had amassed a huge wealth. He was an extreme miser, never spending a penny on himself, or on any of his family and friends. Due to his extreme temperament, all near and dear ones were unsympathetic, if not downright hostile towards him.

It was not long before such an unnatural state of affairs came to an end, and all his wealth, earned with much hard work, and stored with an even greater effort, came to naught in front of his very own eyes. Some of it was plundered by his near and dear ones, part of it was stolen by thieves, some was confisticated by the government and the rest was ruined by natural causes such as fire etc. Thus was lost his entire wealth, which he had never made use of for his personal enjoyment nor for charity.

The Brahmins’ Mental State After Losing Everything:

Reduced to this pitiable condition, a very great despondency swept over the brahmin. As he began brooding over his lot, tears choked his throat and as a result he felt an almost unbearable anxiety. Suddenly however, the same despondency became the cause of a strange contended happiness which he felt seeping through his body, and a strong feeling of renunciation came over him and he said to himself:

"Alas! I tormented myself uselessly by working so hard for accumulating wealth which was used neither for religious merit (dharma), nor for enjoyment. Truly is it said that misers always have to suffer - in this world they burn with anxiety for earning and safeguarding their money and after death they go to hell because of neglecting dharma during their lifetime."

"Indeed, first earning money, and then the ambition to increase it, keeping it safe, or spending it – all these involve constant hard work, fear, and anxiety. Brothers, wife, parents, all near and dear ones, who seem bound to us with love, they all become estranged within no time over a single penny."

"Having achieved this human birth, which is coveted even by the gods, those who disrespect it (as I had done), they destroy but their own highest self-interest. This human body is a gateway to both heaven and final liberation (Moksha).

Karma Dharma Moksha: "The Art and Science of Living, Dying and Enlightenment"

Which intelligent person would let go of this opportunity and rather involve himself in the business of money, the abode of all calamities. I have fallen from my supreme duty and carelessly squandered away my life, money and strength, which if properly utilized could have become doorways to liberation. I do not understand why even intelligent people allow themselves to be troubled with so much futile endeavors for acquisition of wealth? Certainly this world is being deluded by an unknown maya."

"This human body is in the constant vile grip of death. Hence what purpose could be served by money itself, or those who give money, pleasure or those who give pleasure? What is to be gained by performing karma which but leads to perpetual rebirth in the never ending cycle of birth and death? However, there is no doubt that today the great Lord Hari is immensely pleased with me for he has brought me to this miserable condition which has thus sowed in me the seed of discontentment, helping me to achieve vairagya, the disenchantment with all things material, which is but the boat to cross over the ocean of worldly miseries."

"I have luckily been reduced to this state, and with whatever time now remains of my life, I will perform austerities and subsist only on bare necessities."

Having resolved his mind thus, the brahmin became silent and set out to wander freely in this world as an unkempt beggar.

What Happened Next?

Wherever that old brahmin, now in tatters, would go, wicked people would insult him terribly. Some would snatch away the stick he was supporting himself on, while others would take away his begging bowl. Someone would make away with his Rudraksha Mala even as others would throw away his loin cloth. If that were not enough many would give him objects only to snatch them back. When the old man would sit on the riverbank to partake the meager alms he had collected, rowdy individuals would even go to the extent of spitting, urinating, or even breaking wind on him. They would try and force the silent monk to speak, and when he would not do so, they would hit him.

Often some miscreants would call him a thief and tie him up with ropes, some would call him a hypocrite, recalling his earlier days and insinuate that having been thrown out of the house by his wife and children, he had now made religion his new business.

The brahmin beggar would however patiently bear it all. He was thus exposed to the following three torments:

1). Adhyatmic: Physical suffering having source in one’s own body e.g. fever etc.

2). Adhidaivik: Suffering on account of the gods: Heat, cold, rains etc.

3). Adhibhautik: Suffering imposed by other living in form of humiliation etc.

Although base people tried constantly hard to shake his determination, he remained steadfast on his spiritual platform. He took each and every bit of suffering in his stride, reconciling himself with each of them, thoroughly working out the nature of "suffering", expressing his thoughts in the following words:

Why Suffering? (Tamil)

"My joys or sorrows are not due to these people, nor the gods, nor my body, not the planets, nor my karma or kala (time). The scriptures declare the mind alone to be the cause of both of these and indeed it is the mind alone which perpetuates the repeated cycle of birth and death. The mind is very powerful, and actuates the mental states which then evolve into the various kinds of karma leading to the various states of existence according to the "quality" of the karma. Mind is the initiator of all activity. Therefore, the supreme goal of all spiritual enterprises, whether it be charity, practice of one’s duties, yoga, study of the Vedas, celibacy or fasting, is the subjugation of the mind."

"In fact, one whose mind is peace with itself, what is he to gain by meritorious activities like charity etc? On the other hand one whose mind is still uncontrolled, even though he may be performing these meritorious deeds, has still not gained anything by them. All sense organs are under the sway of the mind, however, the mind is under the control of none of these. This mind is the strongest of the strongest, and one who is able to bring it under control is truly the god of gods (deva-deva)."

"An undisciplined mind is the greatest of all enemies. Its attack is almost unbearable. Not only does it torment the body, but also afflicts the softer portions (like the heart) of our inner being. It is difficult to defeat the mind. However, this is the first enemy man should try and win over; but what happens is that man does not try to win over his own mind rather he tries to establish blame for his good/bad situation on extraneous circumstances or people. If I see that the people who give me charity are the cause of my happiness and those who harass me are the cause of my distress then I am merely absorbed in the bodily concept of life and am able to scrape only the surface of life rather than grasp its ultimate core."

The beggar then set out to systematically outline each of the factors which logically could be said to have been the cause behind his suffering, and through a thorough analysis showed why none of these could eventually be the ultimate cause of his distress.

1). Other Human Beings:

The brahmin said: "If we hold other human beings responsible for our happiness or distress, then how does it affect out True Self (atman) which is immaterial, while both the perpetrator and the sufferer are but bodies made of the same dust. If ever a man bites his own tongue with his teeth, then on whom would he lay the blame for the pain he would experience?"

The Self remains beyond both the body and the mind. This Self neither fattens with the body nor shares the joy or sorrows of the mind. The outside world can only affect the body and the mind and never the Self. When the body of a person is garlanded his mind is elated, and when his form is kicked, it is the mind again which rebels. The Self is just the witness to his insult and joy.

All physical bodies are made up of the same five elements – empty space (akasha), air, fire, water and earth. Inside all physical bodies, it is the same divine consciousness inhabiting them as the ultimate Self. What then is the difference between any two of us? When people honor or dishonor each other, it is only modifications of the same earth honoring or dishonoring each other. In the fifth canto of the Shrimad Bhagavat Purana, there occurs the story of the great saint "Jada Bharata", on whose name incidentally, the name Bharata was given to the country today known as India.

Once it so happened that Jada Bharata was compelled by a king to become his palanquin bearer. The saint, not used to such a job, stumbled, and was chastised for giving a severe jolt to the king. The great one answered: "One clod of mud is on top of another. One calls himself a palanquin carrier and the other a king. However, both are only mud in essence, with no difference whatsoever. Knowing this, the wise man remains unaffected."


Sisupala Vadha Padakosah

The pain of the tongue bit by the teeth is my pain, and the aggression of the teeth is equally mine. For I regard both the teeth and tongue as "me" alone. Similarly, the one who insults and the one who is insulted are both expressions, manifestations or conditioning of the same Self, as the Self in me is the Self in all. Then who can insult who, and why should one react or suffer? All suffering lies in the sense of otherness – that "another" has hurt me. Not knowing that the lord was the Self in him, Shishupal kept fighting with Shri Krishna. When he died, the light that emerged from his body merged into the lord. Not realizing the one Self in all we too fight with ourselves all our lives.

2) Gods as the Cause of our Suffering or Happiness:

In Indian Philosophy, all individual aspects of the human body (adhyatmik) and the various phenomenal forces (adhidaivik) are but one and the same. Therefore, according to the Upanishads, the sight in the eyes, and the power of the sun are in essence one. Similarly, Indra is the ruler of heaven and also at the same time the presiding deity of our hands, and Agni the deity of our mouth. Therefore, when the hand slaps the mouth, it is Indra doing so to Agni. Then what? Suppose then the mouth bites the hand. How does this all affect the one formless Self beyond the body? Also, when the same gods are present in each of the differently formed bodies, it is but the same set of deities acting on each other, since there is no "other", who can be held responsible for what?

3). Can the Planets (Astrological) be the Cause?

The Planets cannot be the ultimate cause of our sukha (happiness) or dukha (suffering) because they affect only that which is born and subject to modification.

Can Astrology: Be a Science?

However, the Self is unborn and therefore there is no question of it being under the influence of the planets at all.

4). Are Our Actions (Karma) behind Sukha and Dukha?

Before saying that our actions are the cause of our joys and sorrows, we need to understand that any action is possible only by a combination of the inert and the conscious. The body is inert and the Self is conscious.

The Mystery of Karma (An Exposition of the Law of Karma)

The doer of action (karta), alone can become the enjoyer of its results (bhokta). In addition, action can modify the object of action and also the one who prompts the action. The Self is neither the karta, nor the prompter (which is perhaps the mind) nor the object of action, and hence is unaffected by them. The Self is the actionless subject which witnesses all actions.

The inert by itself cannot act. Consciousness also cannot act without a body, instruments etc. It is therefore only with combination of the inert and the sentient that action is possible. Such a combination is however impossible since the inert and the conscious are of opposite nature, like light and darkness. Hence, when karma itself has no ultimate basis in either the body or the soul, then where is the question of a non-existent thing causing either joy or sorrow.

5). Is Time (Kala) Responsible for the Pain and Pleasure We Experience?

In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says:


Gita Upadesha

"I am (of the nature of) Kala" (10.30)

Time or kala can be experienced as the present alone, and the present moment, down to the microsecond, can be divided and subdivided till time itself disappears and only the Self, the witnessing Presence alone remains. Then how can time which is of the essence of the Self itself, be the cause of either suffering or joy. A flame cannot be tormented by its own heat, nor can ice be affected by its own coolness.


The material body is dull matter and by itself cannot experience anything, whether it be happiness or distress. The Spirit Soul (Self) is however pure consciousness and completely transcendental, and therefore one should fix one’s mind on the transcendental lord who is beyond joy and sorrow. It is only when the transcendental consciousness, conditioned by the mind, is identified with dull matter that the living entity imagines that he or she is enjoying or suffering in the material world.

However, this transformation from the body to the Soul requires a radical shift in our thought process, and by narrating the story of the brahmin mendicant, Krishna shows just how a severe crisis or an extreme moment of suffering in our life can give us a highly creative impetus, propelling us on to the path of self-realization.

References and Further Reading:

  • Badrinath, Chaturvedi. Chinmayananda, Swami. The Holy Geeta: Mumbai, 2002.
  • Devi, Shrimati Dayakanti. Shrimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (With Word to Word Meaning in 8 Volumes): Allahbad, 1993.
  • Dogre, Shri Ramachandra Keshav. Shrimad Bhagavat Rahasya (Collection of Discourses): Delhi.
  • Goswami, C.L. and Shastri, M.A. Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana (English Translation in Two Volumes) Gorakhpur, 2005.
  • Prabhupad, A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami. Srmiad Bhagavatam (47 Volumes): Mumbai.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Darshan (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Mukti Skandha (Discourses on the Eleventh Canto of The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana): Mumbai, 1999.
  • Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
  • Tagare, G.V. (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes (Annotated)) Delhi, 2002.
  • Tejomayananda, Swami. Swami. Bhikshu Geeta Mumbai, 2004.
  • Tejomayananda, Swami. Shrimad Bhagavata Pravachan (Discourses on The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana): Mumbai, 2006.
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  • In Zen teaching, we remember old Sai's horse.
    Ian Ison November 03, 2011
  • Thank you so much for taking the time to email such a wonderfully deep & inspiring article. It takes a loving & generous heart to care enough to find & then send these holy words. Thank you for doing so! It is quite timely for me. My Guru, Ammachi, will be here in San Ramon, Ca. in just a few short weeks. I am trying to make myself a better vessel for the blessing that She is. I wish Infinite Blessings for you, Pranams,
    Sherry Morey May 18, 2008
  • The author raises important questions of life. But does not answer them in simple language. For example, “Are our actions behind our sukha or dukha?” was an important question that has bedeviled the Indian mind for centuries. Here the author had an immense opportunity to do mimamsa on a question whose answer has remained controversial. But the answer was couched in complex words and bordered on chirpiness. A related issue that is very important in Indian context is “What is the cause of material poverty?” If it is the result of one’s action or inaction, then why the great seers (like Guru Nanak and others) used to glorify poverty by staying and eating with the poor? On average a good treatment of the subject.
    Inder Kumar Garg May 18, 2008
  • Wow The right article at the right time. Great job. Regards,
    Ed Brian May 17, 2008
  • I am delighted to read the article by Dukha Mimamsa: The Nature, Cause of suffering. I find that this article is absolutely excellent especially as it relates to people I know, even though it is dated over 2000 years ago. More articles of a similar nature, especially relating to the Bhagavad Gita and relate to our current life would be excellent to be able to receive them. Thank you for your knowledge of the scriptures.
    Dennis Armstrong May 17, 2008
  • I found this article to be extremely helpful...especially with everything going on in our world these days. The materialism of the modern world is sometimes overwhelming!
    LW May 17, 2008