Human suffering is more than just a religious concept. It is reality; it is inevitability. Human suffering can come in all forms and is present within the world of every kind. There is human suffering and the reasons for it are plentiful, explained by several different religions and their corresponding texts, such as God in the Bible and Buddha in many religious texts. Conditions of the world over show that millions and even billions of people are currently suffering from starvation, poverty, disease, natural disasters, war and all others like it. This then poses the question as to why suffering happens and why no religious deity has done or will do anything to stop it. Different religions cite varying reasons and even justifications for human suffering, usually under the premise that there is something that humans can do to reduce said suffering. For example, human suffering in Hinduism is inevitable, but avoidable. On the contrary, suffering is a universal and philosophical problem that will only be solved in the afterlife and not by mortal beings.
Hinduism is of Indian origin and is the world’s third largest religion in the world after Christianity and Islam. Basic tenets of Hinduism address how the tradition views pain and suffering. There are central concepts to Hinduism and how individuals live and should not live their lives, including attachment, detachment, dharma, karma, moksha and samsara. Attachment refers to over-involvement in this world; detachment means turning away from over-involvement; dharma is how one lives life; karma is the principle of unfolding events and is based on a person’s integrity in previous lives; moksha is the complete release from rebirth cycles; and samsara is the process of successive rebirths to reach moksha (Whitman 608). Hindus emphasize living with integrity and detaching from the mortal world, instead turning toward The Ultimate/God. There are four different paths to achieve life goals: devotion, ethical action, knowledge and mental concentration.
Pain and suffering in the Hindu religion are major concepts and inevitabilities of life. Mental and physical suffering are directly related to karma; suffering represents the consequences of inappropriate action or behavior in a person’s current or past life. Karma means ‘action’ and is a result of cause and effect. Good actions have good effects; bad actions have bad effects. Hindu tradition promotes that individuals accept suffering as an inevitability and instead of trying to circumvent or prevent it, he or she should understand that suffering is not random. Current suffering in the moment is a settling of the score as a result of past negative behavior. Suffering will always be a part of life until the individual reaches moksha. As people live as humans on earth, they are bound by the laws and norms of the mortal world; this is why they experience pain, namely in the physical sense (Whitman 609). Pain and suffering are not inherently bad in the Hindu religion, but all things made by The Ultimate/God are just manifestations of the latter. Suffering can be negative and positive, and it can even be embraced. How people deal with suffering is through detachment and separating from the bondage that only keeps people within the samsara cycle of several rebirths. People experiencing pain can and should practice the art of detachment and when one achieves it at a perfect level, nothing, including pain, can cause one to suffer. Desire and attachment breed suffering, like pining over things that one does not have and clinging to possessions. Achieving detachment is following dharma, but without the concern for the outcomes of these actions as such concern would make it not genuine.
Hinduism’s perspective on human suffering is just one of many. Instead of recognizing suffering as an inevitability of human life as Hinduism does, Judaism recognizes it as not a problem of being, but a problem of universal and individual ethics. Jews believe that everything that G-d does is for the greater good and in the human mind, some actions appear to be evil, but there should be trust in that whatever happens on Earth is G-d’s will, and if it is His will, it is for the good of all. This, however, is not the only explanation for suffering in Judaism. The Tenakh teaches that suffering can be punishment, a test of faith in G-d, something that brings people closer to G-d, or a tool to help people empathize with others. Suffering cannot be understood in Judaism as it can be in Hinduism. Hinduism credits suffering to being a product of karma or a settling of debts from past actions. In Judaism, suffering cannot be understood by humans and why it happens or why G-d allows it. They do believe, however, that they must do all they can to relieve and overcome suffering, like Hindus can practice detachment to achieve moksha.
Early Jewish literature was preoccupied with the conundrum between a good and all-knowing G-d and how He has not and does not prevent all evil, pain and suffering from occurring in the world. Jewish history is replete with tragedy, most notably the Holocaust, leading its followers to always be perplexed by the existence of pain and human suffering. The literature described G-d as powerful and good, yet not perfect, which can be attributed to the reason as to why He does not prevent all evil. Suffering is something that Jews attempt to avoid as it is a struggle with G-d and essentially wresting with the divine. Judaism does not attempt to find a response to suffering, but instead alleviation from it. However, this proves difficult when the human mind cannot possibly understand why suffering happens. If this is the case, then it proves hard to be able to prevent something without knowing the cause of that particular action or circumstance. Through centuries of torture, crusades, massacres and pain, it could be said that the Jewish spirit is quite resilient. The response to suffering in Judaism, however, demonstrates the belief that there is no redemption or nobility in pain. That belief is instead central to Christianity, especially due to the fact that Jesus died on the cross for mankind’s eternal sins.
Pain and suffering are interpreted in different ways according to different religions. Some consider suffering both inevitable and noble within the context of the human experience. In Hinduism, suffering and pain are inevitable and are consequences of past misdeeds and wrong actions. In Judaism, suffering is not only inevitable, but unavoidable and to most, misunderstood. The only way to alleviate it is to accept that it is unavoidable. Suffering is a learning experience within some and it is a way of transforming or eliminating attachment to external things that essentially do not matter. No matter the perspective or viewpoint on suffering within Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion, suffering is indeed inevitable and a part of all human’s lives, be it physical, mental or emotional. The ways to address, accept and alleviate suffering are particular to religious sects and geographical locations where they are practiced, but it appears that doing so is not impossible. Dealing with pain and suffering is all in how a person responds to it no matter their religious beliefs and perspectives on suffering and pain.
- Boteach, Shmuel. Judaism for everyone: renewing your life through the vibrant lessons of Jewish faith. Basic Books, 2010.
- “GCSE Religious Studies – Evil and suffering – Revision 2.” BBC Bitesize, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/z62tb9q/revision/2.
- “GCSE Religious Studies – Evil and suffering – Revision 4.” BBC Bitesize, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/z7qxvcw/revision/4.
- Whitman, Sarah M. “Pain and suffering as viewed by the Hindu religion.” The Journal of Pain 8.8 (2007): 607-613.