A perennial question is why people suffer in the material world. If God is benevolent, why does He not immediately relieve people of suffering? The suffering of people suggests that God is either cruel, or He is incapable of alleviating the suffering of others.
Śrī Jīva Goswami provides an original answer to this question in Anuccheda 93 of the Paramatma Sandarbha. His explanation has the following features to it:
- Bhagavān cannot experience material misery.
- To be moved to compassion by material misery, one must be able to empathize with the person who is suffering. This is not possible unless one has had an experience of misery.
- Bhagavān cannot empathize with material suffering and therefore His compassion is not aroused.
- Therefore He does not relieve people of their suffering.
We examine Śrī Jīva Goswami’s treatment of this subject below.
Experience of pain is necessary for empathy
Śrī Jīva Goswami begins by citing a verse from the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam:
yathā kaṇṭaka-viddhāṅgo jantor necchati tāṁ vyathām
jīva-sāmyaṁ gato liṅgair na tathāviddha-kaṇṭakaḥ
One whose foot has been pricked by a thorn would not desire others to suffer such agony, having understood the sameness of all living beings [in regard to the experience of pain] through external signs, but not a person who has never been so pricked. SB 10.10.14
This is an important principle. If one can theoretically imagine that a person has had no experience whatsoever of any material misery, then that person would simply be unable to understand the concept of pain. Such a person would completely lack any empathy for another’s pain. If one has experienced suffering, then and only then, can one empathize with the suffering of others, and only then will one feel compassion for others.
A corollary of this principle is that all empathy and compassion for others is ultimately a type of selfish emotion. We read or hear of news of death through disease and accidents all the time in the news, but we don’t feel grief most of the time. However, if misfortune were to befall someone we know, then we would feel emotional and compassionate. This is because we identify with the person, owing to our relation with them, and we suffer because we identify with their suffering. Our compassion for them, ultimately, is purely about us, and not about their own suffering; we suffer through the suffering of others, and therefore want to take action to stop it.
Bhagavān has no experience of material suffering
Śrī Jīva writes in his commentary on the above verse that the misery which goes by the name of ‘happiness’ in the material world, and that which is commonly understood to be misery, both, can never be experienced by Bhagavān. This is because Bhagavān is ever situated in His own svarūpa śakti, which is composed of the bliss of His being. Just as an owl simply lacks the capacity to see the sun, and just as darkness can never co-exist with light, Bhagavān lacks the capacity to have any kind of material experience.
Being absorbed in His own abode with His own devotees, Bhagavān is unaware of material suffering. Does this mean that He is not omniscient? No, it is just that He is uninterested in the dealings of the material world by His very nature. The fact that darkness is absent from the sun, does not mean that the sun lacks the capacity to pervade the universe. Bhagavān is omnipotent- He is fully capable of relieving everyone’s misery in a moment- but because He has no direct contact with suffering, He is not moved to do so.
Bhagavān is compassionate to His devotees
But then what about the fact that Bhagavān is called the supremely compassionate person in various places in the scriptures? This is certainly true, but His compassion is bestowed only upon His devotees. How is His compassion triggered in this case? Surely He must have experience of misery.
This is not true because the devotees’s suffering is actually not suffering, but a transformation of Bhagavān’s svarūpa śakti, in which suffering is completely lacking. Just as happiness in the material world is actually just suffering, suffering in the spiritual world is actually just happiness. When Bhagavān feels the pleasure and pain of His devotees, He is only experiencing bliss and not material pain as we know it.
Śrī Jīva Goswami examines further objections to his thesis. There are instances where Bhagavān appears to have been moved to compassion for devotees like Gajendra who prayed to Him while in distress. Śrī Jīva explains that this was not compassion for Gajendra’s distress, but rather Bhagavān responded to his surrender, which is a limb of bhakti.
Implications for Śrī Caitanya’s pastimes
Śrī Caitanya mahāprabhu is popularly described as the most compassionate avatāra of Bhagavān who appeared to bestow compassion to all living beings. The fact, though, is that He was not compassionate because of material suffering. If He had been moved to compassion because of material suffering, He would have delivered everyone right away for all time. This obviously has not happened. Śrī Caitanya was not moved by the suffering of the world; He came only at the behest of His own devotee, Advaita ācārya.
Sometimes devotees are seen to be moved to compassion because of the suffering of others. This is not actually true of Śrī Caitanya’s immediate associates, who are of the same nature as Bhagavān, and are incapable of empathy.
Rather, it is the devotees who became perfected by sādhanā, alone, who are capable of compassion, because they have suffered in the material world, and have the capacity for empathy. Of course, material suffering cannot be truly solved without bhakti. Therefore, their compassion comes in the form of knowledge of bhakti, which solves the problem of suffering at its root.
If Bhagavān were able to empathize with material suffering, then He would be compassionate to the people in the material world and everyone would have stopped suffering because Bhagavān is fully capable of all action. Because He has no experience of suffering, however, He does not become compassionate. Bhagavān’s sphere of interaction is only with devotees, and His every action is for their sake alone. He has no interest in the dealings in the material world, and this has been the case since beginningless time.