By David Jevons
Those of you who are regular readers of the Ramala newsletter will no doubt be aware that in recent months I suffered a heart attack, which necessitated a visit to my local hospital on three occasions and having to undergo two minor heart operations. These visits gave me time for reflection, both on the nature and purpose of suffering and on the way that I viewed other people's suffering. Many of you will also have heard that Sai Baba fell and fractured his hip a few months ago, and that he had to undergo a painful operation. For me personally it has been a challenging time, because I knew that Sai Baba had willingly taken on the illness of devotees at various times in the past in order to save their lives, and had subsequently healed himself, so why would he not heal himself now? Furthermore, why did such an accident happen to an avatar, a realised being? If even they have to suffer, then, what hope is there for us lesser mortals? I just could not understand why this accident had happened to Sai Baba and all sorts of niggling doubts began to arise in my mind.
We were in an interview with Sai Baba several years ago and some one asked him about how they should handle suffering. Sai Baba replied that all suffering is associated with body consciousness and that the spirit, the divine atma, never suffers. He then took a handkerchief in his hand, held it up and dropped it saying, "This handkerchief represents the suffering, just let it go and it will fall away" and then to illustrate this he let go of the handkerchief and it dropped to the ground. At the time I remembered thinking that whilst this process might apply to psychological suffering, I was not too sure as to how it would help me to cope with physical body pain. Nevertheless, in succeeding years, whenever I was faced with physical pain, usually in the dentist's chair, I got myself into the habit of chanting silently "I am not my body, I am not my body" and of saying the Gayatri Mantra. I used to meditate and try to move my consciousness onto another plane of being, to be the observer of my body, to disassociate myself from it, but I only met with limited success. The main problem was that I only practised the technique when I was about to face pain, rather than on a daily basis and, as with meditation, you just can't sit down and expect to do it. You have to practise. It is rather like practising a fire drill. You practise it even though no fire is present at the time. Nevertheless I know that the principle is correct and my more recent experiences have proved to me that relaxing and focussing on something other than the pain is most beneficial. Sai Baba says, " To rise above pain one should meditate and chant God's name. Without meditation it is not possible to control and master the mind. Thus, meditation is essential, to immerse the mind in the Supreme Consciousness."
Suffering is an integral part of life on the physical plane of Earth. If you come on the Earth, even if you are an avatar, then you must expect to face suffering in one form or another because, as Sai Baba says, "You have to pay your human taxes." But why would our Creator base the drama of life on such a premise? Why does even a realised being, a Godman, have to suffer? Sai Baba says, " Various saints had endless troubles in their lives with family, harsh treatment from others, and so on. But their faith in God remained untouched. They themselves did not suffer. Jesus did not suffer. But it was necessary that they go through what is generally regarded as suffering so that the world could have noble examples of worldly detachment and unshakeable faith in God." This is a lesson that many of us have to learn. When things go wrong we tend to look outwards and to blame others, especially God. Comments such as "How can God allow this to happen?" and "Why is God doing this to me?" abound. Whilst God does not personally instigate suffering against any individual or group, nevertheless, as the creator of the divine drama of life, God did create suffering. What would be His purpose in doing this? Sai Baba says, "Regarding people suffering; they are being tested, but it should not be called so. It is grace. Those who suffer have my grace. Only through suffering will they be persuaded to turn inward and make inquiry, and without turning inward and making inquiry they can never escape misery." How many of us regard suffering as God's grace? Very few us us, I believe, and why should this be so? It is because we approach suffering from the point of view of body consciousness. The body does suffer, but not the spirit. Our bodies are made of physical finite matter, and are inextricably bound to the cycle of birth and death. Disease and death are an inevitable part of life, especially when Man lives in a world of ever increasing pollution of thought, word and deed. So if we recognise that suffering is an inherent part of physical life, what decides the degree and fruits of our suffering? It is our attitude towards it. Our attitude is the cause of both our suffering and our happiness. With whatever feeling we see an object or person, the same is reflected back to us. If we see the world as God's creation, empowered by God's love, existing only to awaken the God in us, then any suffering is seen as God's grace. But if we see the world as a Godless creation, where events are controlled by random fate, where might is right, where the weak fall pray to the strong, then suffering is seen as something to be avoided or endured, and always, always, to be blamed on external forces.
So it is the wise person who sees suffering for what it is, namely, a gift from God. Suffering is designed to test your faith in God, to test your devotion to God. It is intended to make you live up to the truth in which you believe. Do you stop believing in God just because you are struck down with cancer? Do you stop believing in God just because you are injured in a serious automobile accident, which forces you to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life? Does it prevent you from achieving the purpose of your life? Certainly not! The purpose of life is simply not to be born again, and if you are striving to achieve this goal, then recognise that in all probability you will be beset by pain and suffering as a means of burning away all the karma of past births. The goal of life is liberation, is to be free for ever from the cycle of rebirth, and if you always keep the goal in mind, then any suffering, any sacrifice, has both meaning and purpose. As Sai Baba says, "Good people are always beset by difficulties and troubles. The messiahs, the prophets, the saints and God-men, have always suffered from troubles and ordeals of various kinds. You too should not be bothered by them. Have faith in God."
It is by looking at the suffering of God-men that we can better place our own suffering in its right context. I have been reading the book 'Great Swan', written by Lex Hixon, which describes a collection of meetings with Paramahansa Ramakrishna, who was regarded by his followers as an avatar, a direct, fully conscious manifestation of Divine Reality in human form. Towards the end of his life Ramakrishna developed throat cancer, which generated excruciating pain, and at times he was hardly able to eat or to talk. His devotees believed, and Ramakrishna confirmed this fact before his passing, that the illness was caused by him taking on the negativity of the entire world. Ramakrishna bore his illness with cheerfulness and understanding, saying, "Let the body endure its inevitable ailments, but you, O mind, be immersed in the Divine Nature and enjoy unalloyed bliss." He then went on to explain his illness by saying, "Within me are two persons - Divine Mother (God) and Her child. The child has taken ill." Ramakrishna's illness threw some of his devotees into confusion. Some believed that it was a trick to test their faith and loyalty. Others lost faith in him as an avatar, refusing to believe in his human vulnerability. Only a few were able to accept his humanity as well as his divinity and to accept the inevitability of his illness. Does this begin to sound at all familiar to you?
The fact that Sai Baba has had to undergo a hospital operation has thrown many of his devotees into a similar confusion. Sai Baba was unable to appear in public and to give his darshan for over a month. When he did appear to give his first discourse after his operation Sai Baba stated quite categorically that he had not taken on anybody's illness. His body had quite simply broken down. The body is made up of five elements and one day or another it has to collapse. His hip had broken into three pieces. He should have experienced excruciating pain, but he did not because he gave up body consciousness completely. Why did he allow this illness to happen and why did he not heal himself immediately, as he had done in the past? It was to demonstrate to us that we have to rise above body consciousness and enjoy divine consciousness. We are not our bodies. If we identify with body consciousness then we will suffer. If we aspire to enjoy happiness and peace, then we must get rid of body consciousness. Three days after his operation Sai Baba was up and walking around - an almost impossible feat. How was this possible? Sai Baba said that it was because he had not even a trace of body consciousness. You only face suffering when you develop attachment to the body. He then made an amazing statement. "What is the reason for Swami getting well so soon. It is the prayers of the devotees that have made Swami's body healthy so soon. There have been prayers in all the corners of the world. With prayer you can conquer and achieve anything. The impact of prayer is responsible for Swami's body getting healthier so soon. Neither did I want this suffering nor did I desire to cure it. You wanted this body to be cured of the pain and you achieved it through your prayers. This body is not mine. It is yours; hence it is your responsibility to look after it. I am not the body, I am the indweller." He then went on to say that chanting the Divine Name can cure even the most incurable disease. May we all see our own suffering in a similar light. The first step on the spiritual path is to control body consciousness. As body consciousness decreases so divine consciousness increases, and with divine consciousness comes the end of suffering.