Suffering and its Solutions in Indian Mysticism

Hindu Mystic

by Jayaram V

Suffering arises when the organs of the body are used in selfish pursuits. Jayaram V

Living solely for yourself ignoring your obligations to others and to God is the source of all misery. Jayaram V


Imagine life in the Indian subcontinent five or six thousand years ago. The land was cut off from the rest of the world and was surrounded by sea on three sides. It had a varied climatic zone, with unpredictable and erratic weather conditions. Geographically, it stretched from the world's highest mountains in the North to the world's largest ocean in the South, and forest covered hilly tracts in the East to semi-arid lands and sand dunes in the West. There were swamps, arid zones, deserts and impenetrable forests. Hardly, a million or two million people lived in that region. They practiced different professions and belonged to diverse social and racial backgrounds. Most of them were new immigrants and adventurers in search of a new life and a new beginning. Life was tough and brutal in a land that was shaping itself as the home to an emerging multiethnic, pluralistic society.

The land was covered with thick tropical forests, inhabited by some of the world’s most dangerous predators such as tigers, lions, bears, hyenas, most poisonous snakes, crocodiles, and cheetahs. Traveling through them was like inviting death. Death was so common that people hardly lived beyond the age of 50. Infant mortality was probably the highest as there were no effective cures for many illnesses and diseases. Frequent wars, invasions, mass migrations, robberies, diseases and natural calamities took a heavy toll on the lives of common people and their peace and happiness. They lived in fear and saw the dance of death everywhere. Suffering was acute and an integral part of their daily lives.

Indian religions, philosophy, and mysticism originated in such circumstances, where people had a little respite from suffering and the fear of imminent death. It was the time when common people suffered from the cruelty of Nature and of humans and made sacrificial offerings and prayers to gods in search of peace and happiness, while wise minds, having retired from the obligations of worldly life and freeing their minds from the temptations of sensuous pleasures began looking for lasting solutions to the problem of suffering and finding freedom from it. They were not much interested in mere speculative ideas and the subtleties of elitism, but for real and practical solutions which could be validated through human experience.

They were mystics of great wisdom the world had never seen before, as if they were directly born from the mind of Brahma, the creator of the world and the source of the Vedas. Driven by a cause which was greater than themselves, attuning themselves to the highest and the purest of the universal consciousness, they wanted to help people escape from the hardships of life without disturbing the orderly progression of society or avoiding their duties and responsibilities. They wanted people to be free from the bonds of life, without being rigid and dogmatic. Their pioneering effort led to an explosion of spiritual and religious thought in ancient India, whose echoes still reverberate in the country. It was a unique event in the history of the world, whose spiritual and transformative value only a few enlightened and awakened people can truly understand.

Dharma, the eternal Wheel of natural order of things

Vedism, Samkhya, Yoga, Vaisheshika, Buddhism, Jainism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism originated in such a climate. Because of their common history and identical features, they can be collectively grouped under the generic title, Dharma or Bharata Dharma1. They all have one common objective, how to escape from pain and suffering and experience peace and happiness in the mortal body. They acknowledge lasting happiness (or bliss) as the highest human goal, believe in its possibility, and prescribe in their individual ways how to achieve it. In their quest for solutions to human suffering they identify its main causes and emphasize the following truths, which are worth examining. Readers may note that many specific details and particularities of each Dharma have been excluded in formulating these generalizations since the nature of this discussion does not permit to include them all.

  1. Higher and subtle forces are at work in the manifestation of life and diversity upon earth. No one can fully understand them, but one can learn a lot about them by understanding the world that exists within each of us. Hence, if you want to explore the truths of the world around you, you must begin it with yourself.
  2. Existence cannot arise from nonexistent causes. It is either Nature or God (Self) or both who are responsible for the manifestation of life upon earth and the worlds above and below. Nature is a set of laws, forces, energies, principles and realities, while God is self-directing pure intelligence.
  3. The purpose of creation is to manifest diversity and establish order and regularity in the created worlds so that life in its diverse forms can progress as ordained by Fate (vidhi) or the Will of God through its natural stages until it reaches its destined culmination.
  4. Rta, or the order and regularity of the world, is in itself Dharma since it is the natural state of existence (sahaja Prakriti), and its upholder is God himself. It ensures that the movement of Time and the functions of the universe and its various components progress in an orderly, and predictable fashion.
  5. It is Dharma, which ensures that the major events of life and creation happen predictably according to their natural rhythm. When Dharma, (the natural state of existence) prevails, order prevails, but when it wobbles, the order is lost and gods and guardians of the worlds lose their control.
  6. Life upon earth was supposed to be orderly and conducive to peace and happiness as exemplified in the Age of Truth (sathya yug). It was when Dharma walked on four legs, when people were truthful, gods were alert, and evil was hidden and asleep in dark caverns.
  7. However, as Time progress through subsequent Ages or epochs, people digress from their ordained paths and become subject to Maya. They ignore or forget the will of God, the virtues of Dharma, and their inseparable unity with him. Thereby, they become selfish and deluded, and fall under the heavy influence of evil desires and selfish actions. When the Dharma of the world declines, darkness spreads, just as darkness spreads when the Sun sinks into the horizon.
  8. With the decline of Dharma as people become ignorant of their essential unity with other beings and treat themselves as separate individuals, they disrupt the order and regularity of the world through their selfish actions and evil desires, which in turn make them vulnerable to karma, suffering, moral degradation, and rebirth.
  9. Therefore, the solution to suffering lies in understanding its causes and the return of beings to their original, pristine, spiritual state from where it all began.

Thus, the ancient Indian seers and spiritual masters observed that the solution to suffering was hidden in the causes of creation and in the ebbing and flowing principles of Dharma. They envisioned Dharma as the eternal wheel of life which revolved like the disc of Vishnu, the Preserver, or the effulgent sun in the sky. It was the source of all light and wisdom. If there was a problem with its functioning and progression, one should fix the wheel of Dharma by practicing virtue and restoring its eternal laws so that the world would move on smoothly like a chariot on a golden path. They also envisaged it as the heart of creation, whose regular beat ensured the order and regularity of the world. When it faltered, it imperiled the whole existence.

The essence of Indian mysticism

Their findings became the crux of the Upanishads, and the moral and philosophical percepts and teachings of the Buddha, the Jain Tirthankaras, Ajivikas, Smartas, Shaktas, Shaivas, Vaishnavas, Tantras, Agamas, Smritis, and numerous other ascetic, teacher and sramanic traditions, most of which were lost or now lay hidden beyond recognition in Hinduism as its very core. It also led to the emergence of Indian mysticism, which is very distinct and unique, and which because of its esoteric nature remains largely unknown and secretive.

Indian mysticism is very complex and diverse since it is an amalgamation of numerous historical processes and dharmic traditions. Western scholars rarely understood it, since to know it you need spiritual practice and inner awakening rather than academic learning and you must have access to the teachers who are willing to teach it. In continuation of a long tradition, generally they do not reveal it unless the students qualify. Although the various mystic traditions of India explored the problem of human suffering in their individual ways, they have a few common features and approaches to transcend the problem of mortality. They are as stated below.

  1. The world is full of suffering. Due to ignorance, delusion and the duality of subject and object, none can escape from it. In reality there is only the subject, or the Self. However due to Maya, the illusion of objectivity arises, and the One becomes many.
  2. You are the subject, the enjoyer of all that arises in the field of your dreamlike experience. You become vulnerable to worldly suffering when you draw yourself into it and move among the objects. Thereby you lose your distinction of being the sole subject and the true enjoyer of all.
  3. Your suffering is therefore of your own making. From a blissful state you fall down into a state of sorrow (vishada yogam) as you lose sight of your essential Dharma (of being God) and become a jarring sound in the music of life, or a dark comet that collides with the order and regularity of other celestial phenomena.
  4. When suffering arises, you have a choice. You can become involved with it and remain a part of it, in which case you will continue to suffer, or you can become detached from it and become its pure observer. In short, instead of endlessly suffering like a lost soul with your blinds on in the dark cave of your own ego, you should become a silent witness to the whole drama and endure it as if it has been happening in the field of your mind and body rather than to you.
  5. Since you cannot easily detach yourself from your suffering and from the objects with which you regularly interact and form an attachment to them because of desires, you have to practice self-purification with the help of yoga, tapas, detachment, renunciation, meditation, mindfulness practice, righteous living, etc. They will help you stabilize your mind and body and experience inner calm.
  6. You are not who you think you are. You are neither your body nor your mind. To know who you are you need to know the distinction between your mind-body consciousness and self-consciousness. When you truly understand the difference, you become a true seer, the seeing one.
  7. Your mind-body consciousness is unstable and a great source of afflictions. It is subject to desires, attachments, modifications, feelings, emotions, instability, ignorance, illusion, delusion, egoism, and such other impurities, which are responsible for your suffering and which keep you in a state of agitation and disturbance. When you are centered in it, you are never free from mental and emotional turmoil and attraction and aversion.
  8. You are not the consciousness that arises from your mind, senses and body, but self-consciousness which represents the witness Self, or the real you. It is pure consciousness, without any of the modifications which are mentioned before. It is your core, the true Self, always there, watching, observing, and enjoying. To experience it, you must withdraw deep into yourself and detach yourself from your mind and body. However, you cannot easily experience it, since you have extended yourself into the objective world and formed numerous attachments with it.
  9. In the silence of your mind, body and senses, you become aware of your self-consciousness. As you become mindful of your mind and body and extend your awareness into the nature of things, you will realize your spiritual nature and who you truly are. You will see for yourself that you are the subject, the seeing one, and everything else is an extension or a projection of you. You become the witness Self, who is uninvolved, undisturbed, untouched, and impervious to the dualities of pain and pleasure.
  10. Liberating your deepest and purest consciousness from the darkness of the mind and body is true liberation (moksha or nirvana). It is becoming the subject, the true seer, the one and only (kaivalya) witness, who is free from the delusion of object and otherness. When you become detached from your egocentric mind consciousness and become fully centered in your self-consciousness you will experience self-absorption (Samadhi). You will attain peace, equanimity, stability and freedom from suffering.

Thus, in essence Indian mysticism is about restoring your internal Dharma (which is to be pure or God like or God himself) to overcome suffering. You can regain your blissful and happy state by remembering and returning to your original Dharma or your essential, natural state of pure consciousness. Liberation is a sudden awakening to a forgotten truth about who you are or have always been. To restore Dharma which you have lost sight of and to destroy the evil that accumulates in you like an impurity, you should become a disinterested observer of your life and the world rather than becoming involved with them. Further, to ensure the order and regularity of the world within and without, you must do your part in the play of God, without taking it for real and without losing yourself in it.

You cannot end the suffering in this world, but through detachment and renunciation of desires you can end your reaction to it and your involvement with it. When you are inseparable from your mind, you become the victim of your own egoistic actions, but when you silence the mind, it falls off, whereby you only remain as the pure observer of all that happens. Therefore, the best way to live here is to live like a lotus plant, untouched by the waters of life, yet drawing your nourishment from it, and letting your consciousness bloom like the beautiful, thousand petalled flower with its face turned towards the Sun. The whole process is beautifully explained in the following passage by S.N. Dasgupta. 2

The self is the ultimate principle of pure consciousness, distinct from all mental functions, faculties, powers, or products. By a strange, almost inexplicable, confusion we seem to lose touch with the former so that we consider it as non-existent and characterize the latter with its qualities. It is this confusion which is at the root of all our psychological processes. All mental operations involve this confusion by which they usurp the place of the principle of pure consciousness so that it is only the mind and the mental operations of thought, feeling, willing, which seem to be existing, while the ultimate principle of consciousness is lost sight of. If we call this ultimate principle of consciousness, this true self, "spirit" and designate all our functions of knowing, feeling, and willing collectively as "mind," then we may say that it is only by a strange confusion of mind with spirit that the mind comes to the forefront and by its activities seems to obscure the true light of the spirit…What is necessary, therefore, is to control the activities of the mind and to stop all mental processes. If we can in this way kill the mind, all logical thought and all sense processes will be killed with it. The light of the spirit will then shine alone by itself unshadowed by the darkening influence of thought.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

1. The name Bharata Dharma was first proposed by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe) in his work, Shakti and Shâkta, Essays and Addresses on the Shâkta Tantrashâstra. He wrote, “It has been asserted that there is no such thing as Indian Religion, though there are many Religions in India. This is not so. As I have already pointed out (Is India Civilized?) there is a common Indian religion which I have called Bharata Dharma, which is an Aryan religion (Aryadharma) held by all Aryas whether Brahmanic, Buddhist or Jaina. These are the three main divisions of the Bharata Dharma.” In today’s world one may not agree with the naming of the Dharma as an Aryan Dharma, because of its racial overtones, unless the word Aryan is used in a very native sense to denote Indian nobility. However, the name Bharata Dharma truly represents the Dharmas or faiths that originated in India.

2. From Hindu Mysticism, Chapter 3. Yoga Mysticism by S.N.Dasgupta