DUHKHA: Suffering… and some routes out of it.

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:

“The word kham means akasa or space. Yogis are very familiar with two prefixes, su and dus used with this word. Su usually means something agreeable, nice and dus would mean disagreeable,corrupt. So these two prefixes used with the word kham explain the state of the space, here the mental space or cittaakasa. Sukha would mean agreeable mental space and duhkha would mean a disagreeable mental space or pain and suffering. According to samkhya, yoga and vedanta for most of the people the mind space is vitiated or in a state of duhkha.

“For casual readers, these darsanas along with Buddhism, appear to be dismal or outright pessimistic, depressing philosophies. But what they point out is that the way people go about their lives does not give scope for any lasting happiness by eradicating duhkha. These philosophies then go on to enumerate the steps to be taken to attain, for sure, a permanent state of sukha as opposed to duhkha. Their assessment that life is full of suffering or pain is not pessimistic but realistic. And their promise of absolute sukha is the most optimistic lead. That is the reason why these are also known as nivritti sastras or more precisely duhkha nivritti sastras or darsanas that lead to permanent cessation of suffering.

“In fact, the best known work on Samkhya the Samkhyakarika of Isvarakrishna starts with the word ‘duhkha’. Here are three types or three causes of duhkha all of us suffer from. Firstly the bundle of duhkha produced by adhyatmika or inherent systemic causes . They are called vyadhi or physical illness like fever and then those caused by and in the mind like infatuation, anger, depression and others. The second set of causes are known as adhibhoutika, or suffering caused by other beings like bugs, animals and even other human beings. Thirdly are the natural causes known as adhibhoutika or those caused by nature, acts of gods. Instances of flooding, fires, earthquakes will come under this category. The known means of overcoming these causes suffer from impermanence and also uncertainty. For instance if one suffers from hypertension, the medication one has to take may work for some or may not work and then it does not cure the disease permanently. Likewise the adhis or mental illness like infatuation, anger etc. are seldom fully eradicated. Sometimes we succeed in getting what we want, sometimes partially and mostly not at all. The degree of success in our endeavors is less than perfect and the mind is never satisfied. Even if one is satisfied the satisfaction does not stay for long.

“The karma or ritual portion of the vedas exhort the performance of various rites for enhanced happiness and reduced unhappiness here and hereafter in various heavens. However Samkhyas demur and say that these rites are a mix of dharma and a bit adharma and hence produce mixed results. Further the vedas talk about different levels of heavens. Therefore reaching one heaven may not produce the same satisfaction as the one that is in a higher tier . Further tenure in these heavens are also said to be time bound depending upon he quantum of accumulated karmas, good karmas. Thus these suffer from comparison and impermanence.

“So what is the remedy the Samkhyas have to offer? They say that the perfect knowledge of the manifest universe (vyakta and made up of 23 factors), the unmanifest (mula prakrti) and then the knower, the subject or the Self (jna or purusha)–in all 25 tatwas (panchavimsati)– will permanently and irrevocably remove the three types of duhkhas or sufferings mentioned above..A verse eulogizing Samkhya says that one gets salvation by thoroughly knowing the 25 tatwas and not by external appearances like growing a beard/ matted hair or a skin head (mundi, jati).

“The yogis also talk about three types of duhkhas. The prelude leading to the classical ashtanga yoga talks about the the three types of duhkha or suffering. The discerning yogi (viveki) is able to see that all the objects and experiences are only duhkha (duhkhameva sarvam vivekinah YS II-15). Patanjali narrates the duhkhas somewhat differently. One he calls as the parinama duhkha or duhkha due to incessant change. Objects keep changing. What appeared to be good at one time changes and becomes unpalatable. How come the one I loved so dearly seven years back and got married to has become intolerable so that I have to fight bitterly for a divorce–, why do beautiful relationships sour? I am always on tenterhooks, can never really settle down, for the objects that are dear to me keep changing.

“But it’s nature’s law to change,

“I just cannot rest on my oars.

“None can, it is incessant restlessness

“duhkha, pain and suffering.

“The second group as per YS are the taapa duhkhas. Even here there are two kinds. Most of our activities performed all through life are towards getting what we like and the other getting rid of what we do not like. Enormous effort is put by us all through life for these ends called pravritti and nivritti respectively. Sometimes we get what we want consistent with our efforts. Mostly there is a dissatisfaction in that the benefits are not commensurate with the efforts leading to dissatisfaction– a feeling of duhkha, a disagreeable feeling. Sometimes we do not get anything of what we want despite our best efforts. This is called tapa duhkha. The other side of the coin is the dissatisfaction that arises when we are not able to get rid of what we do not want like a chronic illness, or accumulated debt. This taapa duhkha torments most of the populace most of the time.

“And then thirdly there is the samskara duhkha. Even if I decide to follow the path of yoga like the yamaniyamas and other angas to enhance the satwa in me, due to my old nonyogic samskaras or habits, I tend to to slip back to my old non yogic ways and experience the unremitting duhkha. Another interpretation of samskara duhkha is as follows. Since I experience so much of duhkha, that itself tends become my samskara or habit. Over a period of time the duhkha samskara get strengthened and there is an undercurrent of duhkha and it becomes dominant. I habitually feel unhappy, there is an undercurrent of duhkha. My default state of mind is duhkha, my brain chemistry is duhkha, my neural connections lead to duhkha.

“Here is another interesting angle to duhkha according to Patanjali. Since our mind is an aspect of prakriti it is also constituted by the three gunas, satwa, rajas and tamas. Even as they work in unison, they have different characteristics. Due to the varying dominance of these characteristics in the non-yogis (a yogi is predominantly satvic) they tend to act differently under the influence of different gunas. For instance I am very charitable and clear when I am satvic but tend to become arrogant or agitated when I am rajasic and then meek and confused when I am tamasic. If the guna dominance keeps changing my conduct also changes resulting in inconsistent behavior leading to its own consequential duhkhas.

“Hence Patanjali concludes that life is full of duhkha due to causes listed above. He does not stop with that and proceeds to exhort everyone to take the necessary efforts to end the duhkha for ever by the appropriate yoga practice. He traces avidya or a misunderstanding about the Self as the most fundamental cause of the duhkha . This has to be removed at all costs. It is achieved by the clear perception and understanding of the nature of the Self and going into Nirodha Samadhi or Kaivalya following the 8 steps of yoga called ashtanga yoga.

“Vedanta as enunciated in the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavat Gita talks about duhkha and the need to end it once and for all (duhkha nivritti). The prolific advaita writer Adi Sankara refers to the duhkha associated with acquiring wealth – a common obsession with most human beings.

“Acquisition of wealth is painful, so is the effort to protect it. When it is used up again there is pain and if lost there is more pain.

arthanam arjane duhkham arjitaanaam ca rakshne duhkham aaye duhkham vyaye duhkham dhikh arthaH kashta sa shrayaah…

“The Taittiriya Upanishad after explaining the five kosas and the atman transcending all the five kosas, refers to two types of taapas (one of three duhkhas mentioned by Patanjali). A person who understands the true nature of one’s own Self, the atman/Brahman,  will never grieve for what one has not got, nor will worry about anything that one is unable to get rid of. And the means of achieving this is to understand the nature of atman. Based on the teachings of Brihadaranyaka upanished, Sankara talks about the goal of human life. The only goal/purpose of life is to know the real nature(Truth) of oneself (atman/brahman) through scriptures (sruti), analysis and logic (anumana) and direct realization with Yoga (yougika pratyaksha). Everything else is futile.

“When I was young and in school one of the lessons we had was on the Buddha. Prince Sidhhaarta a very happy and heir apparent to the throne, once stepped out of the palace and saw enormous pain and suffering among the subjects of the kingdom. He was so moved by the sufferings he resolved to find the solution to these sufferings. He renounced his princely life and went on to contemplate under a bodhi tree and what he came out with was the enormously profound philosophy, Budhhism. This is the version I remember from my school text book. Again this like the previous vedic darsanas, samkhya, yoga and vedanta was motivated by compassion towards all those suffering.

“Within the Buddhist tradition, dukkha is also said to be of three kinds. In the first, dukkha would include the physical suffering or pain associated with birth, old age, illnesss and the process of dying. These kinds of sufferings are referred to as ordinary suffering. The second kind of dukkha, includes the anxiety associated with things that are constantly changing; these mental stresses are called the dukkha produced by change (vipariṇāma-dukkha). Compare this with the parinama duhkha of Patanjali’s yoga. The third category of dukkha refers to a basic dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life because all forms of life are impermanent and constantly changing. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards. This subtle dissatisfaction or habitual unhappiness/depression is referred to as the saṃkhāra-dukkha. Compare this with Yoga’s samskara duhkha.

“The Buddha did not offer a magical cure for dukkha, but he did point out that everything arises because of causes. When the cause is eliminated so is the effect. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practical way for a person to develop the wisdom which will enable her/him gradually to get free of craving/desire and so of dukkha.

“All the three vedic satras, Samkhya, yoga and vedanta are known as nivritti sastras or more precisely duhkha nivritti sastras or bodies of knowledge that help to remove permanently and for sure all the types of duhkhas. So is Buddhism.

“I hope reading this article itself is no pain.”


“Quoting the Upanishads the teacher said, “Brahman is the source of everything. It is pure immutable consciousness. It is both the material (upadana) and efficient (nimitta) cause of the universe”
“Sir, Can there be one cause that is both the efficient and material cause?” asked the student
“Yes, take the case of a spider. It creates its cobweb. It skilfully weaves the web and also provides the material to create it.”
Just one question, “Where did the spider come from?
I told you, “Everything comes from Brahman”
“… Can you give another example?”
“Take your own case. You skillfully create all the objects and choreograph the drama in the dream. You are both the material cause and the efficient cause of the dream world.”
“But that is a dream, we are talking about the real world that you say was created by Brahman. I am talking about the real world, not just a dreamworld.”
“Who said that the world is real ?”

“You are impossible Guruji, I have to find another teacher” said the pupil”


(c) Srivatsa Ramaswami www.vinyasakrama.com

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