One undeniable fact is that pain, sorrow and suffering are concomitants of life. It is the common observation and experience of everyone. If we look around in the natural world, countless myriads of diverse life forms, which swarm the land, air and the waters, are all moved by the instinct of self-preservation. They seek only such conditions as would give them sustenance, pleasure, comfort, and avoid those that endanger their lives. Everywhere in the natural world we witness the struggle for survival, one species preying upon another and in turn preyed upon by others. There is a struggle to live and progress in what appear to be adverse conditions. The great truth taught by all the Teachers of humanity is that conditioned existence is full of pain. Our coming to birth in a body is painful. The growing process from infancy to maturity and adulthood is attended by much painful struggle interspersed with periods of relative happiness.
We, too, like all other creatures in the natural world, continuously seek to preserve ourselves, relentlessly pursuing objects, conditions and relationships that we think will give us happiness and pleasure, and carefully avoiding those that are likely to give us pain. The objects of happiness that people pursue include not just material things but also emotional comfort, mental peace, intellectual attainments, good education, career, honours, recognition and rewards. Finally tuned natures care much for clearness of conscience. Often, we either fail altogether to attain the objects our heart is set upon, or we obtain them partially. This gives us pain in the form of disappointment and discontent. When we succeed in obtaining the objects of our pursuits, initially we experience intense happiness. But the same eludes our firm grasp when doubt, anxiety and fear begin to take shape in our minds. We set about taking measures to safeguard and secure them, lest we lose that happy feeling. In the progress of time the very objects of our enjoyment and happiness begin to grow commonplace and stale. Then we begin to extend and enlarge the field of happiness to newer things and novel pursuits, of which, too, in time, we begin to grow weary. Repeated indulgence in objects of pleasure ends in addiction and slavery to our passions. Such attachment gives rise to a brood of negative emotional and mental states, producing much physical, mental and moral suffering. Old age and decrepitude set in, followed by death, which is painful. The more man lives on the plane of personal desires, the more his spiritual perceptions and moral sense become blunted, and he enters on a cycle of retrogression in his inner life.
Why is there pain and suffering in the world? This question is asked not only by those who suffer, but especially by those who realize that neither in the mundane things nor in the promises of religious formulae is to be found certain and permanent relief. It is only when we understand the purpose of life and the cause and cure of pain that we may seek that knowledge which enables us to help all sentient beings towards emancipation and to reach higher ends of life.
Pain is unavoidable, do what we may, because conditioned life is characterized by the pairs of opposites, such as heat and cold, pain and pleasure, virtue and vice, good and evil, subject and object, spirit and matter. "Light and darkness are the world's eternal ways"; one cannot be known without the other. We know the value and worth of goodness and virtue only the contrast of their opposites that the inner self, the Soul, learns to discriminate between right and wrong, good and evil, and thus grows in intelligence and wisdom.
Life is a ceaseless motion, implying constant change and progression. The whole universe evinces a progressive march towards a higher life. Nothing ever remains the same even for one moment, and therefore we feel pain when the conditions and relationships we are accustomed and attached to inevitably change. The seed has to die in order to become a tree. The child in the womb is compelled by the demands of further progress to quit the cozy comfort of its uterine life and be born in this world. Decay, decrepitude and death are the necessary changes the Soul has to go through, in its evolutionary journey. Similarly races and nations die out in great cataclysms of nature, to be reborn for higher progress and make greater civilizations. Each of these changes involves pain, as pain is necessary for growth.
Pain, sorrow and suffering are unpleasant, but they are also great teachers in the school of life. It is through pain and suffering that we grow in strength, develop the virtues of patience, kindness, charity and compassion. It is only when we have experienced suffering that we are capable of understanding and sympathizing with the sufferings of others and feel the impulse to help them. Pleasures seldom teach us anything. Luxury, comforts and pleasures, if not put to higher use, lead to attachment and addiction which are obstacles in the path of progress. Hence, H.P.B. writes: "Woe to those who live without suffering." After the Mahabharata war, when Krishna bade farewell to his friends and devotees, before leaving for Dwarka, the mother of the Pandavas prayed to him to let trials, dangers and difficulties be her lot in life. Why? So that through them she might feel Krishna's presence and glimpse the truth of the Higher Life beyond the cycles of birth and death. It is pain that makes us question the purpose of life.
Pain and sorrow that come to us are symptoms of imbalance or the diseased condition of our psyche, brought on by our negative and unwholesome thoughts, feelings and actions, which in turn spring from wrong ideas and beliefs regarding Man and Universe. All evils proceed from egotism and that is born of ignorance of the true Self. Of such it is said: "They are of vain hopes, deluded in action, in reason and in knowledge, inclining to demoniac and deceitful principles" (Gita, XI). This egotism formed of desire is the prolific source of all sin, sorrow and suffering, endlessly reproducing itself in interminable cycles of births and deaths fuelled by the power of its own undying desires. It is the mask of false personality hiding the true Self. The only remedy for endless sorrows of conditioned life is Spiritual Knowledge—Knowledge of the true nature of Self—that frees us at once from Egotism which is the product of ignorance.
If only we trust in the infallible justice of the law of our being, called Karma, and place our entire reliance on the Higher Self, which is that Law itself, then we shall find all our worries and anxieties melting away. This is what life teaches us. When the knowledge of the true Self grows in us—with it the profounder conviction of Universal Brotherhood—our desires and aspirations undergo expansion and transformation into selfless love and devotion to the interests of our fellow-men and fellow-creatures. Pain and sorrow will still come to such an one, but, instead of lamenting its visitation or trying to escape from it, he will experience them without fear with the same indifference as he would happiness and pleasures—neither elated by the one nor cast down by the other. Such a person quickly learns the lessons implicit in both pain and pleasure and moves on to greater vistas of the higher life.
Personal sorrows and adversities of life are to be recognized as just deserts for the past wrong actions that must be accepted without complaint and welcomed as opportunities to settle the Karmic accounts, once and for all. Once the lesson is learnt, the necessity for trial ceases. Other lessons to be learnt rise to be met and overcome. This is the position assumed by the man of right knowledge and right attitude. Though he experiences the duality of life in the body, inwardly he is free from their influence and experiences eternal bliss of real Self and solidarity with all. He is free. His base nature will have been purified and transmuted into the godlike nature of his Immortal Self. One who is thus freed from the illusions of personal self, lives, so as to help imancipate others from the miseries of conditioned existence. The pains and sorrows of such a great Soul are not personal—for illusion of personality has been dispersed by knowledge—but those of the Great Orphan Humanity, to save which he has vowed never to cease labouring—for Kalpas without number—till the last soul is emancipated.