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DUKKHA Suffering

Updated on March 28, 2016





Prof A.D.Sarkar

Dukkha is a Sanskrit word, the colloquial version of which is Dukh. Dukkha has been translated as suffering, which is undoubtedly associated with pain. Pain canbe inflicted on one's body, which is bodily pain. More traumatic is mental pain. We need also to discuss sukh which is the antonym of dukh.

A Limerick

The brassy Indian sky in September is fortunately interspersed with patches offleecy clouds which move lazily over people who are toiling or are just outdoors for many other reasons. The heat is oppressive so the momentary shade from a patch of floating cloud is very soothing to a person. A limerick from one of the India languages, Hindi, draws a parallel between the shade of a fleeting patch of cloud and sukh. Thus: Sukh is something that provides with (intermittent) shadows, It comes and goes away (like the shadows),

But dukh is our life-long companion.

For those with a knowledge of Hindi the limerick goes as follows:

Sukh hai ek chhao dhalti,

Aati hai jaati hai,

Dukh to aapnaa saathi hai.

Types of Dukkha

A young boy gets admonished by one or both of his parents with a mild slap on his leg. The boy suffers momentarily due to the debasing violence to his body. This is dukkha, both physical and mental, albeit of a mild form. We need to state that, in the same situation, another boy will laugh it off feeling zero dukkha. Yet another may feel humiliated and remain unhappy for days. Thus the degree of dukkha for the same cause cannot be assigned an absolute value.

Dukkha arises out of disappointments, loss of property or friction with members of one's family or friends. Illness with concomitant physical pain or disability gives rise to dukkha. The most unbearable dukkha grips one due to the death of the near and dear one.

To Maximise Sukh

Pain (dukkha) and pleasure (sukh) have received the attention of western philosophers from ancient times. The Athenian philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BCE) wrote about minimising pain{1}. He agrees that mental pain is more debilitating than that due to injury to one's body. A source of mental pain is the tension that a technological society creates. The tendency in most countries is to achieve more in the limited time living creatures have, an example being faster and faster train to save a few minutes of journey time. The results of such situations in life are cumulative accumulation of tension in most human beings. Tension brings about dukkha. Of course dukkha can be replaced by sukh which is a psychic product formed by reduction or elimination of tension. People can maximise what is pleasure to them according to their own proclivity. However, we should note that Epicurus recommended prudence while deciding on the means of obtaining maximum pleasure (sukh).

According to a stoic such as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) maximum happiness is attainable by a virtuous person. The principal components of virtue are wisdom, justice and courage.

The famous English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) has advocated that one should try to maximise sukh and minimise dukkha. He said that life is at its best when a person experiences great pleasure and no pain. Bentham proposed a thesis which he entitled 'Principle of Utility'. The essence of his idea is that people must maximise that which they desire. We cannot imagine anybody wishing to be burdened by dukkha. So sukh must be the goal in one's life. Bentham started a system of ethics called Utilitarianism. The utilitarian Bentham proposed a Felicific Calculus which would work out quantitative values of sukh or dukkha.We know that causes of sukh and dukkha vary. We know also that what is dukkha to one person may not be so to another. Even in one person's life-time who can work out how much dukkha he or she has suffered? What will be the criterion? So far all that scientists have told us is that pain and hence dukkha is the effect of an external onslaught on the body or mind or both but felt internally by a sentient being. It is known that pain is caused entirely by neurophysiological processes in regions of our brains.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), a protege of Bentham reiterated that happiness (sukh) was pleasure and pain was unhappiness (dukkha). However, neither pain nor pleasure could be evaluated quantitatively, It is therefore impossible to support Bentham's notion of the felicific calculus.

John Mill's famous saying was that it was better to be a Socratis dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. Thinking along these lines leads Mill to be very strict on morality of man, a difficult height to scale by anybody. John Mill's moral view is that an action is good if it is right for that occasion. Absence of dukkha is assured if we know that the action executed resulted in something good.

Good of the Majority

Beginning with the 17th century up to the present day, western philosophers have emphasised that the nature of the action of people was important. Moral consideration dictates that actions of an individual or a nation must be good. Reading Mill's view, I wondered if he would support an action as the right one provided due consideration was given to the political situation of the moment but such an action resulted in the loss of life and limb of unwary human beings.

I remember when I arrived in the U.K over six decades ago, to my question to various social groups 'Was it the right action for the US administration to kill and maim unarmed innocents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?' ; nearly everybody said that it was right because it stopped the war. President Truman himself who was responsible for the action said dismissively something to the effect that the subject was not up for discussion.

Four years before the British relinquished colonial control of British India, they burnt wagon loads of rice in Bengal. This was ostensively to deprive the advancing Japanese army of food but the people of India concluded that the object was to punish the Indians for the last time for wanting freedom. Whatever the reason, the result was the well documented great famine of Bengal when 2 to 3 million Bengalis died of starvation. I remember the streets of the city of Calcutta (Kolkata) filling up with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. They settled on pavements, emaciated and exhausted, hoping to survive on the charity of the local residents. Many died of starvation but the restaurants remained open for business as did the market places selling rice, vegetables and other commodities at inflated prices. The pavement dwellers never tried to loot shops nor did they resort to cannibalism. Were they wrong in not killing the weak among them and eat human flesh just to survive? Were they right in not stealing or looting?

As I recall my starving fellow Bengalis, I remember reading about a plane crash by the Himalayas when all the five European passengers and crew of the light aircraft escaped death. It was a long time before they were rescued. In the mean time, they killed one of their fellow-passengers and survived by eating his flesh. Were the surviving four right in killing the fifth one?

Self and I-ness

We shall summarise a few Indian views on dukkha. Before that it is apposite to consider what we mean by self. It would be interesting also to establish the term 'I-ness' which could well be close to ego or the Sanskrit term 'aham'.

Psychologists talk about various strands of self. For our purpose we shall define self -'deha'- as our functioning body in the biological sense which takes on various actions throughout its existence as an animate being on this earth. A body is weak in its childhood but becomes energised by food as it gets older. As an animate being approaches middle age the body slows down and, in old age, senile decay becomes obvious. We need to ask an appropriate authority if the self as described here comes close to the proprioceptive self in psychological classification.

The next question to ask is can we use the term I-ness while we discuss sukh and dukkha? Does the pronoun 'I' represent aham and is it the cognitive self as the psychologists define it? As I see it, 'I' comes into prominence as a child becomes conscious of his or her self and the environment in which he or she lives but becomes extinct as the body dies. 'I' is the observing agent. It observes the decay of the self but is itself invariant. It will be a good topic for debate.

A Hindu View

A Hindu should believe that the being gets entangled in sansar as soon as he is conscious of his existence as a sentient being. Sansar is the very act of living with relatives and friends to whom one gets attached. All humans form attachment to material objects such as a house, food etc.

Attachment is the principal source of dukkha. For example, losing a house inflicts dukkha because it may mean that the whole family will lose the benefit of a home. The most unbearable dukkha is the loss of a near and dear one by death. Hindu thinkers from ancient times have recommended that one should break away from attachment at an appropriate time in one's life. For most people, is that possible?

One of the recommendations pertaining to the avoidance of attachment and hence dukkha is 'forsake and enjoy' – tyaktena bhunjita – in Sanskrit. One enjoys objects through one's sensory organs. Thus food has to be tasted; it is unlikely if humans will be satisfied if a magic pill was available daily for sustenance. Eating becomes a social occasion as well. It is impossible to forsake eating and enjoying; enjoy what? It is possible that, as we shall see later while discussing Buddhist view that the author of the statement, forsake and enjoy, omitted to say forsake 'greed and grasping'.

Then there is this emotional attachment. How does a man detach himself from his life-long companion? Hindus are known to take up sannyas an act which involves leaving home literally, never to return; one could wander and beg for food or live on berries in forests using a cave for shelter. He will spend most of his time on meditation. However, very few will follow this path particularly in modern times.

Buddhist Thinking

Gautam Buddha (566-486 BCE) was a Hindu prince who took this path of detachment as a young man because he was sorrowful when he learnt about disease, old age and, ultimately, death. The Maharaja, his father, sheltered him from the outside world and life's vicissitudes.

Siddharta Gautam, as he was called, left home and met wandering mendicants (sadhus, sannyasis) all over the Gangetic plain as he travelled. He eventually came to know that which is true. He understood that life and indeed the phenomenal world were impermanent. For sentient beings there was no escape from the doleful encounter with varieties of dukkha. He sought after ways to eradicate dukkha.

To understand Buddhist thinking about dukkha, one needs to recall the concept of sansar, the trap that snares a being into attachment. A sansar has three hallmarks (trilokshana) which comprise,

(a) Anatma.

(b) Anitya.

(c) Dukkha

Hindus believe that it is the atma which resides in the body of all animals. As the animal dies, generally, it enters another body. Gautam Buddha dismissed the concept of atma and hence he asked the then Indians to think of 'no atma', anatma.

Anitya means impermanence. All animate and inanimate objects as we know them come to be and cease to be at an unspecified time as a bubble bursts never to be seen again. Our phenomenal world itself became manifest in the distant past and will disappear sometime in the future. Nothing lasts.

A being carries dukkha from birth to death. As in Hinduism, Buddhists recognise the role of attachment in dukkha. A living organism falls prey to trisna (thirst). It is this trisna which pushes a person to one or more components which constitute sansar. In sansar, a prominent component is self as discussed earlier. Trisna for self throws a person into the quagmire of ignorance. If one can transcend this ignorance, say, by meditation, attachment to self and many other components of sansar falls away. A person free from trisna overcomes greed and grasping. He or she attains to nirvan which is a process that extinguishes life (pran) in an analogous manner to the flame of a lamp being blown out by a gust of wind or as its fuel runs out.

Nirvan precludes rebirth. The self being thus abandoned, there is no dukkha because the repository for trisna is eliminated.

The Eight-Fold Path

Buddhists believe in reincarnation in spite of their emphasis on anatma. They also think positively about the present life. They posit the question that if we have to wait till we die to avoid dukkha, does it mean that we must suffer dukkha perpetually while we live? If that is so, life becomes pointless. It certainly does not have to be if we can maximise sukh and minimise dukkha.

In effect it is possible to prescribe for the total prevention of dukkha. To achieve this utopia, one should follow the recommended eight-fold-path (astam marg). The paths are as follows:

(A) One must be steeped in morality (shila) so that the following paths could be followed:

(1) Right Speech.

(2) Right Action.

(3) Right Livelihood.

(B) A person should practise meditation (samadhi) with the aid of the following yogic disciplines:

(4) Right Effort.

(5) Right Mindfulness.

(6) Right Concentration.

(C) The aim of humans should be to eradicate their accumulated ignorance. They must of course acquire wisdom. All this is possible if they follow the remaining two paths as follows:

(7) Right View (understanding).

(8) Right Intention (resolve).

Following the astam marg will enable a person to overcome trisna and hence dukkha. Nirvan, while living, is then possible.


For most of us, it will be impossible to follow all the eight paths faithfully and completely. It is not impossible, however, to pursue some of them even partially. It is not unreasonable to conclude that dukkha then should be attenuated. In a capitalist western society which is being copied slavishly in Asia and Africa with great gusto by the modern-day elite, it is very hard to forsake greed and grasping. We can assert that those who control greed and do not always succumb to grasping should minimise dukkha for themselves.

Debates on what is self and 'I-ness' will be of value. 'I' is invariant but it observes self which nucleates to grow into a dynamic organism. It experiences sukh and dukkha but inevitably decays and dies with time. The self is the repository for the 'I-ness which evaporates with the irrevocable departure of life-breath (pran) from the body. Dukkha is then redundant.

Is it possible to remove dukkha from life?

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Is it possible to minimise dukkha?

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