The Utility of Suffering

The question of the utility of suffering has been asked for as long as sentient beings have walked the earth, I suppose. And it is unlikely that it would be answered any time soon — an answer that does not insult the head nor outrage the heart, that is.

Arun Shourie had written an article in 1996 which delves into that question: Alok’s Question, and Baba Amte’s Imperfect Answer.

He begins the piece thus:

The example of devoted workers at the Spastics Society teaches us that one of the ways to alleviate suffering is to transmute our personal tragedies into service of others. The way the institution runs, the complete absence in it of the pettiness which mars so many of our organizations, the dedication with which its staff serves the children also bear testimony to the way working with such children has transformed them. In a word, on the one hand most kinds of suffering, even so severe a blow as the birth of an impaired child can be put to work, and on the other, the condition and spirit of that child transform one.

It is a long article. First he speaks of his spastic son, Adit, and how incredible are the lessons that the entire family has learnt from the character of Adit.

It is a touching and wise piece. The part of that article that most resonates with me — and which I find the most troubling — is this.

So, suffering can be put to work. Suffering teaches, it transforms. From this many assert that there is a purpose to it, that it has been put in place, it has been inflicted by design. That is what I am not able to reconcile myself to. The point was once put by a child at the Spastics Society school with a finality that sealed it.

Baba Amte was in Delhi. He was so kind as to take time off to visit the school. As everyone who has met him knows, he has presence. His work has been of the highest order. To see Anandvan, the settlement of leprosy patients that has grown up as a result of his life-long service of them is to see a miracle. Persons afflicted by this terrible ailment lead lives of utmost dignity. They grow crops — “Everything other than tea,” they say joyfully — they produce goods — “Everything other than salt,” they say in triumph– they man a complex and extensive irrigation system. They cook, they teach. By their earnings they have endowed an enormous college for the uncaring, ungrateful community of those like us who are “healthy”. Their houses are spotlessly clean. When one is in the presence of Baba Amte, therefore, one is in the presence of a person who has worked a miracle. And he has done so by sheer grit, by a super-human obstinacy. And then there is his own physical condition — he cannot sit, he has either to stand or lie down.

He had been round the school. He had planted a pipal sapling. He was now lying on a cot, talking to the children. Every word he said rang true, for he was not reciting words, he had lived them.

Alok raised his hand. Now, Alok Sikka is as much of a fighter as Baba Amte. He is, if I may say so, in Baba Amte’s mould. At that time he could not walk, he had to crawl on all fours. His speech was difficult to comprehend. He had a hundred problems. But his spirit was — and remains — as strong as Baba Amte’s is. After Baba Amte had finished his talk, and perhaps Baba Amte had said something about God, Alok asked, “But why did your God do this to me ?”

For a moment there was silence. Baba Amte then said, “I will tell you what happened once.” He told us that one of Gandhiji’s associates had a retarded daughter. The associate and his family, including the daughter were staying at Gandhiji’s ashram. Upon reaching his quarters one day the father found the child in a most distressing condition. He was moved to rage. He lifted up the daughter, and stomped back to Gandhiji’s room. Gandhiji was sitting with his head bowed, silent, in contemplation. The father as good as hurled the child into Gandhiji’s lap. “Why has your God done this ?”, he screamed. Gandhiji was startled. He did not speak for a moment. And then he said softly, “He has done this to melt your heart into kindness.”

We were all moved. Not Alok. He said, “But if your God wanted to make my parents kind, why did He do this to me ?” Everyone was dumbstruck. Including Baba Amte.

And for good reason. After all, look at Baba Amte’s own life. He was a very successful man of the world. One day he was out for his early morning walk. Perhaps the sun had not risen or there was fog, I forget the exact circumstance. But one could see for only a short distance. He heard a groan of agony. He walked over. There in the dirt on the side of the road, with nothing but a few newspaper sheets to shield him against the searing cold, lay a man unconscious, disfigured by leprosy. Baba Amte gave up all his affairs, and with just his wife and, as he says, one lame cow set off to serve lepers the rest of his life.

Over the years, as he served them — so many of them broken in spirit, disfigured in body — dread, revulsion, anger, frustration, all must have welled up in him. Seeing these emotions and reactions, watching them mindfully as the Buddhist masters would say, he must have overcome them. But could one therefore say that the others had been afflicted with that terrible ailment so that he might conquer fear, rage and the rest ? Obviously not. And that is why, whenever we have met since that encounter with Alok, Baba Amte has told me, “I am still searching for the answer to Alok’s question.”

Then the article goes on to discuss briefly the various answers that some religions give. To my mind, all those answers are fundamentally flawed.

The complete article is worth reading. Every time I re-read Alok’s question, it brings to mind Milton’s question on his blindness: “Doth God exact day labor, light denied?”

Surely, an omnipotent but kind creator would not have the morality of a perverted homicidal maniac that many of the world’s so called great religions seem to believe in and so ardently endorse.

* * * * * * * * *

All of the above is actually a post that I had made on April 28, 2003 on my UC Berkeley blog “Life is a Random Draw” (currently offline but will come back up soon.) What brought it to mind is an email that my friend Yuvaraj sent today. I think it is worth keeping and therefore I am willing to risk copyright violation by reproducing it here in its entirety. It is an article by Arun Shourie again titled “A mantra of Baba Amte, and what it has meant to my friend“, apparently from Dec 1998.

“So, what happened in the accident?” I asked my friend, Vivek Phadnis. It was late in the evening. I was in Nagpur. I had needed to consult some professionals. I had not known anyone. As usual, I had telephoned Vivek for guidance and help.

“As usual,” I just wrote. That is literally true. I first met Vivek about ten years ago. It is through him that I got to meet Baba Amte. I soon discovered that Vivek was an exceptional person — the very soul of helpfulness. Though beset with all the constraints and difficulties that dog us in middle -life, he and his wife, Neela, were always helping others.

This time round, the entire day had been spent in a meeting with the professionals whom Vivek had enabled me to consult. Not only had he enabled me to contact them, not only had he driven me to their place, he had sat through six hours of discussions on matters which could not be of any concern to him. At last, we were back at the guest house

Vivek had put on a little weight since we had last met. In place of his right arm was an empty sleeve tucked into the pocket of his kurta. It was only because I asked that he began to recount what had happened. It was my turn to sit riveted, wonder-struck.

Here is what he told me.

Then Shourie recounts Vivek’s Story.

I had spent three days with Baba [Amte] at Kasravad [on the banks of the Narmada where Baba Amte has been camping for years in protest against the Sardar Sarovar Project]. They had been marvelous days. Baba in full force, and me at my receptive best.

I left Baba at about 6.30 AM on 8 February, 1994. I boarded the bus for the journey back. I thought I would catch the train from Jalgaon to Nagpur. But an uncle of mine at our native place, Edalabad, had been feeling a little upset that we had been able to go for a family wedding. Should I go and meet him before returning? I was in two minds. Edalabad was not far from Jalgaon. On the other hand, I was very tired.

But when our bus stopped at Jalgaon, I noticed that the bus for Edalabad was standing right next to it, ready to leave. I changed buses. It was around 4 in the afternoon.

About 15 kilometers from Edalabad, about a kilometer or two from Varangaon, a truck tried to overtake the bus. It hit the bus towards the rear. The bus lurched. It strucks a large tree. Right at the spot where I was sitting. The windows pane crashed into me, as did the metal of the windows sill.

There was commotion. Everyone trying to get out. What is this?, I thought as I looked at my chest — a sort of lump of flesh was lying across it. Someone has got seriously hurt, I thought.

I reached out to lift my brief case. It was then that I realised. My right arm had been completely cut off. Just the top was dangling, limp.

“Now, Vivek, you are completely all right,” I told myself as I moved my left hand and arm. “You have lost only one arm. The left hand is perfectly all right.”

I felt my head. It was completely all right. “You have no injury to your head,” I heard myself telling me. I got down.

I tell you, Arun, I was completely in control. I was completely focused. I had regained complete control in just two or three seconds. Not at that moment, not once since then have I ever felt the slightest remorse. Nor have I ever felt the slightest guilt or self-pity. Or anger.

I got down. After the commotion subsided, people crowded round me. I must have presented a very gory sight. I didn’t realise. But I felt something warm trickling down the side of my face. I tried to wipe it with my left hand. It was blood, a lot of it.

“What is this?”, I asked. Someone said, “Sir, your ear.” The outer lobe was dangling, blood was oozing out of it.

Everyone was just standing round, gaping — as if transfixed.

My name is Vivek Phadnis. I told them. I have lost my arm. I may faint – so please write down what I am telling you. My name is Vivek Phadnis. I am from Nagpur. The name of my wife is Neela. Our telephone number is…… My blood group is….. I am originally from Edalabad. Please take me to [Bhusaval is a major junction of the Central Railway]……

But they were just standing around. No one had made a move to write down what I was telling them. I reproached them. Don’t you see, I have lost my arm. I may pass out any moment. Please write down What I am telling you. The doctor will need to know all this.

I began dictating again….. Only to see that they were still standing around. I lost my shirt. Here, I said, get me that brief case. Now take this paper and ball-point, and, for heaven’s sake, WRITE.

My name is ….. take me to Bhusaval…… I have a friend there, Dr. Kelkar. He has retired as a surgeon from the Railways. His son is a practicising surgeon. He runs a nursing home. Take me to it. I also have a relative —- Dr. Ekbote. He is the anesthetist at the Railway Hospital there. Get me to them somehow.

A car stopped. The doctor of the Primary Health Centre at Varangaon, a Doctor Patil, was returning from Jalgaon. Seeing the crowd and the accident, he stopped. Then he saw me. He administered first-aid. He rang up the local MLA.

“What, Phadnis? Vivek Phadnis from Nagpur? The family from Edalabad? I know them. Take the jeep. Do whatever has to be done. Get him to Bhusaval.”

Throughout, I was completely focused. In fact, I was the one who was giving heart to Doctor Patil — “Don’t worry, I am not going to die….. You can see my BP is normal, I can feel it….” — and suggesting what needed to be done.

We reached Bhusaval around 8.30 PM. Learning what had happened, Doctor Kelkar rushed to the vehicle. He asked the staff to fetch a stretcher.

But why?, I asked. I am perfectly all right, I said. I got out of the vehicle and walked into the nursing-home.

Soon, Doctor Kelkar decided that I should be shifted to the Railway Hospital. As Ekbote’s relative you can be admitted there, he said.

We arrived at the Railway Hospital. Again there was the same commotion. But I don’t need to be carried, I told them. I walked into the hospital.

“Are baba, get it over with soon,” I told the doctors. “Amputate the arm. There is no point is dragging this out.”

But there was the usual delay. The operation theatre has to be disinfected, they said…

What should we do in the meanwhile? I asked . Gossip about old days, I said myself. And so, while the place was being prepared, Doctor Kelkar and I talked of our childhood and the years we have spent together. For long.

Having been informed about what had happened, Neela rang up. Well, he seems to be all right, the younger Kelkar told her. My father and he have been talking, they are still talking — of their childhood together.

Eventually, what was left of my arm was amputated around 11.45 that night.

The next morning, my uncle and the rest of the family arrived in an entire bus from Edalabad. And they began weeping. No crying, please, I told them.

On the 12th, I was headed back to Nagpur. To a hero’s welcome! Two-three hundred persons had come to meet us at the Railway Station.

Arun, I can tell you my life would not have been complete without that experience. Because during those hours, I touched something.

At no point did I feel the slightest pain. I did not feel the slightest fear. I did not feel the slightest remorse. Not the slightest guilt. Not the slightest pity for myself. Not the slightest anger.

Now, that wasn’t Vivek. I know myself. I know that on several occasions I have been gripped by fear at much less. But this time there was no fear at all.

I was saved by Baba [Amte], by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I felt Baba was walking at my right. Krishnamurti was walking at my left. I was saved by those disabled persons I have been seeing for fifteen years at Anandvan [the wondrous settlement that Baba Amte has set up for the cure and rehabilitation of leprosy patients]. “You have just lost one arm.”, I was telling myself. “Your left arm is perfectly all right. There is absolutely no injury to your head. . .” throughout, I was completely focussed. I completely in control.

I told them, ring up Baba [Amte] and tell him of the accident.

As you know, Baba never writes anything in his own hand. But he made an exception. He wrote me a letter. Not on these we use. Just on a scrap of paper.

“Think not of what HAS left,” Baba wrote. “Think of what IS left.” And he wrote a stanza from one of his famous poems:

Shrunkhala payi asudhe
Meen gati che geet gayi
Dukh udhdaayas aataa
Aasvaanaa ved naahin. . .

[Chains shackle my ankles, true. Let them be.
I continue to sing the song of the future, of progress.
True, sorrows envelope me. But my tears have not the time to wallow in them. . .]

“I want that to be your garjan —- your roar — to the world,” Baba wrote.

It wasn’t me. It was an energy. No one else was injured in the least. The bus had hit the tree at just the point where I had been sitting. I had tried to move the windows pane earlier in the journey. But had found it to be jammed. The glass and metal had impacted just on my arm, they had cut it clean. That and the ear, apart from them nothing had been hurt at all. That is why I joke, “I am not handicapped,” I say. “I am hand-picked! It as if someone said, “Go, get me his hand!”

Thus ends Vivek’s narration. Shourie continues:

Vivek had narrated all this simply. He is incapable of affection. I had sat mesmerised.

There are many physiological explanations. Sudden and intense shock acts as an anesthetic. It switches off the areas in the brain that would register pain, the synapses that would transmit it. Persons who suddenly lose a limb, those who have a limb amputated, often feel that the limb is still there, and will often move to perform a task with it. The body and brain take quite some time to register the loss, and not move automatically to get work out of the limb. All this is well documented in medical literature. The intense lucidity in such a trauma too has been documented.

For our survival through the vicissitudes of life, the twin psychological truths of Vivek’s feeling: ‘Baba saved me, Krishnamurti saved me. All those disabled persons I had been seeing for fifteen years in Baba’s company — they saved me. I said to myself, “Vivek, you are perfectly all right. You have lost just your right arm. The left arm is perfectly all right. There is no injury to your head….”

Because Vivek had seen so much suffering at first hand, because he had identified with the afflicted, when the accident happened his reaction was not about the terrible loss he had suffered — it was that, compared to what he had seen others suffer, this was a fraction. That this was his automatic reflex, that the reflex consumed and ruled his mind all those hours is a tribute to him — it shows how deeply he has identified with those he has observed and helped.

The other side is just as important. When we are afflicted — by leprosy in the case of the residents of Baba Amte’s Anandvan — we are endowed with the capacity to help. That those inmates bear their leprosy with such dignity, that they eke out joy even from that conditon, that in spite of such an affliction they lead lives of purpose, leaves an imprint on those who come in contact with them. It sustains them — even through trauma.

Hence, the twin lessons. To serve those who suffer is to weave oneself a protective coat — when the blow falls, that association will help us by placing the hardship that has befallen us in perspective. On the other side, when we bear misfortune with fortitude, we transform the affliction into a power — the power to heal and sustain others.

Shourie is truly a good man who not only observes but conveys his insights exceedingly well. What is amazing is that he used to be in the Indian government. I regret that India does not have more people like him in positions of power and influence. But one is thankful for small mercies. The people he occasionally writes about are inspiring. It renews my faith in the essential goodness of people and I feel hopeful for humanity.

Author: Atanu Dey


16 thoughts on “The Utility of Suffering”

  1. I think this is one of the best posts on your site, or atleast my favorite to date. Why suffering should exist is a question perhaps impossible to answer; What can be answered (as your article does so well)is what suffering brings, apart from its obvious pain.


  2. The reason for the existence of suffering is an easy question to answer though one may need to reconcile oneself with the answer one finds for oneself.

    Without suffering, there would be no joy, like there is good food because there is bad food. A personal experience of suffering is the greatest teacher. We must always thank all those who “give” us pain. Soon, the realization about the real source of our pain will come. If Buddha had not empathized with the feeling of pain of suffering of others at a relatively young age, he would not have spent his life looking for the cause of all suffering and there would have been no Buddha. Suffering should be looked upon as a gift of God for our evolution into higher spiritual beings. Having not received an opportunity to suffer is to have missed out on a life that can become potentially divine.


  3. Arun Shourie’s accounts are brilliantly written. The question of suffering is something that has bothered me for too long and long enough for me to dismiss the existence of an omnipotent, good-at-heart God. Even after this post, I feel the utility of suffering in lending others perspective for their own hardships would still not answer Alok. The logic still seems perverted.

    A very thought-provoking post, Atanu. Thanks.


  4. Thanks ! for sharing this….Very touching.

    “Suffering should be looked upon as a gift of God”- No no. I would not think thus. Surely, we all appreciate the beauty of flowers without crushing them?.


  5. On the subject of suffering, it is incredible if you dwell on how the brain really causes it and how we experience it. Impossibly tiny nerve impulses cause pain that can be excruciating…and sometimes even when the organ in question doesn’t exist (phantom limbs)!

    Am halfway through the fantastic book ‘Phantoms in the brain’ by VS Ramachandran and recommend to gain insight into a different dimension altogether. Rudimentary discourses of the realized masters (like Nisargadatta) start to make sense when given experimental/scientific proof. It is humbling, frustrating and mind-blowing when you realize that the feeling of ‘self’ is just an illusion created by the brain and all our feelings (suffering, love, hate, lust etc) are just electric signals!


  6. maybe there’s no god, its an idea some people have others dont.
    I lean towards the adwaita type answer….
    Collectively all beings make up god is how they answer it…It appeals to me in that we are all in this universe together but my position is still why does there have to be a concept of god.
    And that too for most is essentially a jewish framework of looking at it.


  7. Suffering can indeed be put to work and this is only by “work”. In fact, I believe that the only antidote to suffering and relief from pain is by being of service to others.

    Perhaps the story may help:

    Once in a small village in India there was a woman whose only son (born

    after 20 years of prayer) died a tragic death. She was so overwhelmed with

    grief that she contemplated ending her life as she found no reason to live.

    Her neighbour suggested that she visit a wise holy man who can help overcome

    her grief. After a lot of hesitation she relented.

    She visited the holy man and asked him whether there were any prayers or

    magical incantations to bring her son back to her. Instead of sending her

    away, or reasoning with her he said to her ” Fetch me a mustard seed from a

    home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of

    your life”. Upon hearing that the woman quickly set off to look for the

    magical seed. She first came to big mansion, knocked the door and asked ” I

    am looking for a house that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? It

    is very important to me .” They told her ” You have to come to the wrong

    place” and began to pour out the tragic things which has befallen them. The

    woman then thought to herself ” Who is better able to experience these poor

    unfortunate people than I who have experienced sorrows on my own and can

    understand how they feel”. She therefore stayed to console and comfort them

    and then went on again to search for a home that had never known sorrow. But

    wherever she went, to huts and to palaces, there was never one without tales

    of sorrow and grief and misfortune.Ultimately she became so involved in

    listeneing to other people’s sorrow that she forgot about her quest for the

    magical mustard seed. Never realising that it had actually driven the sorrow

    out of her lives.


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