“And the deep need of universal pain.”
– Sri Aurobindo
The average mentality looks at pain and suffering as evil or a punishment for wrong action or bad karma. There may be an element of truth in this popular conception. In a karmic angle, pain is the natural consequence for going against the universal laws of life, like for example when a child touches fire, for the first time, it burns and the child learns not to do it again. So pain is not a punishment but part of the learning process in the school of Nature. However there is a deeper evolutionary need of pain.
Most of us instinctively seek for pleasure and try to avoid pain. But as Buddhist yogis have repeatedly pointed out, pleasure and pain are like two sides of the same coin. In our present condition of earthly life pleasure and pain are inseparable part of the dualities of life. So this urge for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, which means to want life to be nothing but pleasure without pain is an instinct of ignorance—ignorance of the nature of life as it is. Here again there may be a deeper truth behind this instinct. According to Upanishad, an eternal delight is the spiritual source of Life and this Delight is the intrinsic nature of the human soul. So this instincts for seeking endless pleasure without pain is probably a deformed expression—in our ignorant mind—of the deeper truth of the Delight-self in us and the world.
But eternal delight is not the present fact of life, pleasure and pain are an inseparable part of human life in its present condition. Pain comes to awaken us to this facts of life and tells us “Look you ignorant fellows, your instinctive longing for everlasting pleasure is a stupid desire. You cannot avoid me because I am an intrinsic part of life.”
From the point of view of evolution and progress, pain is better than pleasure. Indulgence in pleasure sinks us more and more into a dark, self-satisfied and dissipated condition. When we are in a state of pleasure we never ask any questions, don’t think and no urge to act, move forward or overcome. But pain leads to reflection, thinking and action. When we are in pain we ask, why this pain? What is the cause of it? How to overcome it? Most of the modern science of medicine is the result of the attempt to understand and overcome physical and mental pain and suffering.
Similarly, when we make a conscious attempt to bear, endure and rise above pain, it brings out the inner strength within us. We come out stronger by the ordeal. As Mother explains: why pain is a greater power for progress than pleasure:
“Pleasure is a deceptive and perverse disguise which turns us away from our goal and we certainly should not seek it if we are eager to find the truth. Pleasure vaporizes us; it deceives us, leads us astray. Pain brings us back to a deeper truth by obliging us to concentrate in order to be able to bear it, be able to face the thing that crushes us. It is in pain that one most easily finds the true strength again, when one is strong. It is in pain that one most easily finds the true faith again, the faith in something which is above and beyond all pain.” [The Mother, CWM, Vol. 9, p. 41]
This doesn’t mean we have to invite pain and suffering which is a perverse attitude. But when the pain comes we should not run away from it, avoid it by superficial and frivolous amusements or plunging into degrading pleasures like sex or drugs. We have to face it, bear it and overcome it with a positive evolutionary attitude that it has come to give and teach us something. Again, as Mother elaborates further,
“I have already told you many a time that to seek suffering and pain is a morbid attitude which must be avoided, but to run away from them through forgetfulness, through a superficial, frivolous movement through diversion, is cowardice. When pain comes, it comes to teach us something. The quicker we learn it, the more the need for pain diminishes and when we know the secret, it will no longer be possible to suffer, for that secret reveals to us the reason, the cause, the origin of suffering and the way to pass beyond it.” [The Mother, CWM, Vol. 9, p. 42]
The third evolutionary utility of pain is for breaking the tamasic inertia or resistance to effort and change. In most of us there is the tamasic pull downwards to sink into a state of pleasant and dull inertia, which doesn’t want to make any effort, but wants to rest eternally in this state, which Sri Aurobindo describes as “a natural poise of fall.” There are only two things which can goad and provoke this stone-like inertia in us to make the effort and move forward. First is personal desire and ambition and the other is pain. As Sri Aurobindo describes in a beautiful verse in Savitri,
“Pain is the hammer of the Gods to break
A dead resistance in the mortal’s heart,
His slow inertia as of living stone.
If the heart were not forced to want and weep,
His soul would have lain down content, at ease,
And never thought to exceed the human start
And never learned to climb towards the Sun.”
– Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, Vol. 33-34, p. 443
We may think that when we progress further beyond tamasic and rajasic states of consciousness to sattwic light and harmony and making a conscious effort to raise still beyond towards the spiritual consciousness, the utility of pain ceases. But even in these higher stages of development, this dreadful teacher seems to have a role to play. In this more advanced stages of growth, pain prepares the human instrument to manifest the higher, more intense and powerful forces of the Spirit or Nature and also more intense joy. As Sri Aurobindo explains in Life Divine, pain is the result of an imbalance between the power and intensity of a Force which is acting on or trying to manifest though the human organism and the ability of the organism to bear, assimilate and express it. When the ability of the organism is not commensurate with the power or intensity of the force, there is pain. When the ability matches the intensity of the force, the same sensation that is felt as pain is now felt as joy. But as long as there is some imbalance between the ability of the human instrument and the force which is trying to express itself through it there will be pain. This balance has to be achieved by conscious discipline of endurance and mastery over pain. This is probably the reason why there was much pain and suffering in the lives of many of the great instruments of God, Vibhuthis. As Sri Aurobindo describes in verses of exquisite beauty:
“Pain is the hand of Nature sculpturing men
To greatness: an inspired labour chisels
With heavenly cruelty an unwilling mould.
Implacable in the passion of their will,
Lifting the hammers of titanic toil
The demiurges of the universe work;
They shape with giant strokes their own; their sons
Are marked with their enormous stamp of fire.
Although the shaping god’s tremendous touch
Is torture unbearable to mortal nerves,
The fiery spirit grows in strength within
And feels a joy in every titan pang.”
– Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, Vol. 33-34, p. 444