The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 13, 2002

Signs & signatures
The dilemma of suffering
Darshan Singh Maini

AS one grows old, afflicted by the ordeals of age and illness, harassed by the little bites of reality, often disowned, lonely, and left to himself to brood over the mysteries and meaning of suffering, one begins to be bewildered by its maverick, wanton and gratuitous character. But even as the driven, distracted mind goes into a spin, the imagination seems more and more eager "to connect", to run the grey hares of thought to their lairs. This is because the felicities of life, the opulence of bounties around, though now out of reach, are still an aching, palpable reality. You may turn your face to the wall, but the energies of life will not end. Even a frisking squirrel, a fluffy, bouncing puppy could compel you to dig deeper and deeper into the pit of suffering, and come up with some viable answer. But no, we return with a fistful of carbon, not the diamonds of truth. No wonder, the enigma of suffering teases both saints and sages, thinkers and theologians, kings and clowns "out of thought". The misery and despair of a fruitless hunt abide.

Is there some pattern or some design in a seemingly absurd world? Is there a "figure in the carpet" which we cannot see, for we have no clue to its code? Or, is life just a matter of chance, accident as the novelist Joseph Conrad thought and dramatised in his fiction? Are the contingencies, hesitancies, indeterminants and imponderables the Great Wall of China blocking our vision? Or, finally, is there is a God in heaven, the Creator, as all religious scriptures stipulate — a God whose existence felt on the pulse and in the blood still remains Pope’s "Great Anarch"? To understand the nature of the dialectic of suffering, we cannot but indulge in surmises, in belief or faith, or in "a wild goose chase". Such, such are the bewilderments, and such, such our labours!


The fact that the grand system of life — of nature and seasons, of flowering and shedding leaves, and the whole rhythm of existence — goes on despite horrendous catastrophes, wars, personal tragedies and mass burials etc only shows that there’s surely a message and a meaning hidden like "word within the word", and remains unavailing except to a visionary man in labour, in thought, and in prayer. To decode that message, as I have said earlier, often puts us in a Catch-22 situation where ambiguity abides. Scores and scores of the greatest minds and intellects have, in their quest, run into the rock-face of an impenetrable reality, and thrown back to muse long and hard. However, the search and the spiritual angst would not let such souls rest in peace. In silence, they grieve, they cry like children on "a darkling plane", and wait and wait and wait....

This dilemma of suffering has always and continually engaged the imaginations of great writers, poets, painters and men of thought. From the Greek tragedians to the Shakespearian and beyond, they all have remained embroiled in a ceaseless battle with the conundrum of suffering. Even in the Story of Job in the Bible, and in similar symbolic fables in other faiths, the question remains a profound mystery. Even in the midst of earnest prayers and meditations, the dark night of pain remains to touch and move "the imagination of disaster", to use a Henry James phrase.

Wordsworth, who as a poet of nature took a transcendent view of existence and in his Ode to Immortality sang of "the intimations" of divinity, too was driven to despair when his vision began to darken in the end, and wrote thus in The Borderers, a poem of deep sound and suffering. "The world", he sang, "was poisoned at the heart". In his view then human suffering was something permanent, "dark and obscure", and the creature man could do little about it. Similarly, in King Lear, even in that pagan world there is, towards the close, a scene in which the broken, bruised king has, as the critic, A.C. Bradley, observed, a vision of his crucified daughter Cordelia "in paradise", as it were. A little earlier when his suffering had touched sublime heights after the hanging of his dearest child, he saw life as a crown of thorns: ‘....

"....but I am bound upon a wheel of fire that

mine own tears

Do scald like molten lead...."

Thus, the total helplessness of man before the awesome tragedy of unmerited suffering seems to be balanced in the last scene, and Shakespeare describes the chastened king and his innocent daughter as "God’s spies" in whom the mystery of things remains inviolate.

Does suffering effect catharsis in the Aristotelian sense as all tragedy does? Or, to put it differently, does suffering of a certain order act as a detergent of the human soul, leaving it cleansed of all human impurities, leaving you light in a bud-like way, tied, wounded, but still free, light, perched as though on a tree with the music of airs and waters in your ears. A victory had come with surrender and understanding. Why, then, suffering may even ennoble a man.

Protracted suffering can either destroy one’s spirit and cripple him in his very self and being, or enable one to develop new muscles to live in a settled, serene state of mind which brings me to my readings in Sikh scriptures where in scores of sublime hymns, suffering is seen as ordained, but still a redeeming agent of nirvana. Seen thus, such martyrdoms as those of Guru Arjan Dev and of Guru Tegh Bahadur, amongst others, become a mark of divinity.

Doubts in regard to the mystery of suffering are natural, and not even the great prophets and saints have been left untouched by uncertainty in the end. Even Jesus Christ, seemingly in anguish cries out: ‘Why hast thou deserted me, O Lord?’ However, the ineffable smile later seen in the paintings of the Renaissance masters, particularly in those of Raphael and El Greco, once again, makes suffering on the scaffold something divine, something that passes understanding.