Rethinking Grief !

Recently I was browsing through an email chain, the kind exchanged across members of large Google groups. The following segment caught my attention:

Lord Buddha gives a short yet very clear description of grief (dukkha) in his first discourse The Dhammachakkapavatthana Suththa (the wheel turning discourse).  He lists the following types of grief:1.Jathi – Birth 2.Jara – Aging 3.Vyadhi – Sickness 4.Marana – Death 5.Appiyehi Sampayoga – Union with the undesirable 6.Piyehi Vippayoga – loss of desired things 7. Yampichhcan na labhathi – not receiving the desired things or wishes. 8. Panhca upadanaskandha – taking all panchaskandha (rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vignana) as I or Mine. 

Such annotations acquire greater attention and authenticity through the sprinkling of Sanskrit words and any reference from the Internet: “Answer to What is dukkha? “. In such exchanges and reference to internet sources, are we slowly but surely losing our power to think and reason? While my emotions suggest that we are, my hope challenges me to think otherwise. Maybe it is time to rethink and challenge all that we read like the above? In the least we should not accept them as stated. Do they truly reflect the intent and thoughts of teachers like Lord Buddha? Does he condemn birth, aging, sickness and death – all inevitable parts of any life – merely as sources of grief (Dukkha)? One would think not.

Vedic Philosophy provides three distinct and yet interconnected methodologies to reflect upon. They are the guides to understand anything. These methods must be readily applicable to any common aspect of life such as grief (Dukkha). 

Vedic Philosophy provides three distinct and yet interconnected steps to reflect upon. They are the guides to understand anything. These three steps are:

  1. All that is cognitive (every aspect of anything Physical, Emotional or Intellectual) is the result of our Knowledge, Bias (Partial Knowledge) and Ignorance (Absence of relevant knowledge).
    • Our Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance always coexist.
    • The dominance of one over the other two determines our equilibrium state (Gunathvam) identified as Tranquility, Turbulence and Inertia.
  2. What is the true nature of our equilibrium state in understanding anything? in relation to anything? That depends on our Objectivity (Sagunathvam) or equal disposition to all equilibrium states. It reflects a non-judgemental frame of mind.
    • Our Objectivity helps to identify the specific and true nature of our Subjectivity (personal connection) and how it affects us in relation to anything: our reaction, response or plan of action going forward in any matter or situation.
  3. All our equilibrium states, subjectivity, objectivity, our understanding of all these and our action / reaction as a result in any matter and at any time are all governed by the invisible laws of nature or enablers (Inaction: Akarma). 
    • Inaction (Akarma) represents the infinite number of invisible forces of nature that merely exist. Collectively they are identified as a singular term: Brahman.
    • We along with every aspect of nature including the equilibrium states (Gunathvam : pertaining to connection) exist merely as products, outcome or effects of the Brahman or forces of nature (that are invisible, eternal, omnipresent, objective, invariant, enabler of everything). Sarvam Brahma Mayam.

The above three steps are not independent. They are interconnected. One can think of these three steps as three legs of a stool providing required strength and stability in any aspect in life.

The three steps for reflection and reasoning
based on Vedic Philosophy.

Let us use the above framework to look at Grief (Dukkha). We can use this framework to study the material cited at the beginning: “Birth, Aging, Sickness, Death, Union with the undesirable, loss of desired things, not receiving the desired things or wishes, taking everything as I or Mine”. They are all part of any human life. 

  • Everyone of these are aspects of anyone’s life. They are governed by our body (Physical), mind (Emotions) and intellect (Thoughts).
  • There will be Knowledge, Ignorance and Bias with respect to each of these and how we relate to them.
    • When Knowledge is dominant we shall see “Birth, Aging, Sickness, Death” merely as aspects of any living object in the Universe. There will be no fear or grief (Dukkha). 
    • They induce fear in us or in any individual, family or society while we are under the cloud or dominance of Bias (attachments) and Ignorance. Buddha’s teaching constantly strives to lift up anyone, out of this cloud.

It is necessary to acknowledge the cloud of Bias and Ignorance as the sources of grief. It will be a mistake to assign Birth, Aging, Sickness, Death by themselves as the sources of grief (Dukkha).

With true knowledge of death, sickness merely as part of anyone’s life, one will be respectful of the fear or grief experienced by others. Then we will find ways to help them to cope with it. The approach and solution will vary. But they will be through addressing the Physical, Emotional and Intellectual needs in each case.

True knowledge and its effect can also lead to celebration of these life events: Birth, Aging, Sickness and Death. After all, we celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna as Janmashtami. Celebrating the birth and the birthday can become a joyous occasion for anyone. There are positive as well as negative aspects of Aging, Sickness and Death. All of that depends on our state of mind, knowledge, bias and ignorance. Kathopanishad addresses the fear of death in which young Nachiketha wonders “why should anyone grieve or be afraid of death? After all such fear and grief is created by our own mind. People are born, age and die just as the corn plant that germinates and perishes every season”.

Now let us look at the second half of items listed above as sources of grief: Union with the undesirable, loss of desired things, not receiving the desired things or wishes, taking everything as I or Mine

  • Each of the above four are not physical in the sense you can not pick them up and throw them away!
  • Instead each of them is the product of our mind, thinking and the emotions as a result.
  • They are all equally amenable for analysis and categorization for the Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance behind these thoughts and emotions.
    • When Bias or Ignorance is dominant these thoughts and emotions lead to grief (Dukkha).

Teachings of Buddha constantly strive to lift up anyone, everyone out of this influence of Bias (attachment) and ignorance. It is necessary to acknowledge the cloud of Bias and Ignorance as the sources of grief. It will be a mistake to assign Union with the undesirable, loss of desired things, not receiving the desired things or wishes, taking everything as I or Mine by themselves as the sources of grief (Dukkha).

True knowledge leads us to discriminate between “what is desirable and undesirable?” in my (our) association with this person, people or situation. This analysis leads to an objective outlook and the proper path (duty – Karma). At this point one will be reminded of a Tamil proverb which states “ If you look at only the blemishes in others you will have no friends or relatives”. We should also remember the often quoted advice from Buddha “Let the one who has never erred throw the first stone at others as a punishment!”.

We can extend this discussion to other sources of grief listed above. But, it is clear in three out of these four conditions the governing verb is “desire” and in the fourth  it is the “attachment” to the self. Buddha constantly describes desire and attachments as the source of grief. 

In all of the above analysis we have resorted to the first pathway (i.e.) discriminative approach to identify the sources of grief based on our Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance. We should keep this pathway in mind and not be swayed by specific examples or listings. That would be like getting caught up in a thick growth in a forest and losing your way.

To avoid this pitfall, we need to become proficient in pathway no. 2 (i.e.) Emphasis on Objectivity. Am I truly assessing the situation with reference to my Knowledge, Bias and Ignorance? Or am I getting influenced by my own preferences (Subjectivity)? For example, do I have a fearless attitude and approach to death when it pertains to someone else, while I am mortified of the thought when it applies to me or someone close and dear to me? You can immediately relate to the intended and necessary Objectivity! Such objectivity is fostered by non-attachment (Sanyasam): Treating everything as “external” or not pertaining to the self! This is not a monastic way of life. It is merely framing of our mind. If practices in Yoga and meditation help you in this non-attachment, benefit from them. But, let them not become a crutch for physical isolation, while the mind, emotions, intellect and thoughts remain attached.

Viewed from this perspective (Pathway no. 2) Grief (Dukkha) can be seen in anything and at any time. This Dukkha may be merely a product of the human mind and its emotions. Depending on the situation and circumstances it may be driven by our connection (Gunathvam): Tranquility, Turbulence and/or Inertia. We need to recognize each of these equilibrium states behind our grief and address it appropriately. Hence grief need not be identified merely as belonging to a prescribed list of items – see above – or aspects of life. While such a checklist may serve some purpose, it should be followed by reflection and analysis.

With all of the above behind us, we come to pathway no. 3: Everything is Brahman (Sarvam Brahma Mayam). This pathway requires us to think that we are no different from any other object of nature. While this is indeed true, it is a concept difficult to digest. Let us perform a small thought experiment with the following questions:

We are like stone or any other inanimate object: True/false?

We are like plants and animals: True/False?

  • Plants and animals are born, age, go through sickness and perish (die). So do we (every one of us).
    • Then why do we assign our Birth, aging, sickness, old age and death as sources of grief?
  • Everyone of us has a body, emotions and feelings, thoughts and ideas. But the forces behind these – anatomy, physiology, psychology, neural function, etc. – are the same. 
    • Then where is the difference between 
      • desirable and undesirable?
      • desired things and undesired?
      • receiving the desired wishes and undesired?
      • I or Mine ?
        • It is this isolation into “self” and “others” that is illustrated in the following story from Swami Adi Sankara’s life: When a Chandala (considered untouchable by the society at that time) crossed Sankara’s path, his disciples tried to keep him away. On noticing this the Chandala asked Adi Sankara “Who are you trying to stay away from – my body or my soul?”

Above is a lengthy narrative to focus our attention on the basics of Vedic Philosophy (as well as teachings of Lord Buddha). It is imperative that in this age and capabilities for vast and rapid communications we return to the basics of human competence (i.e.) reflection, analysis, reasoning, comprehension and a life based on all these. This analysis and suggestion is presented with due modesty. We acknowledge everyone is the “Child of Immortality – Amrithasaya Puthra”. Everyone is a teacher as well as a student.

Hari Om.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rethinking Grief !

  1. K K Sankaran says:

    Very well written. I need to read it several more times and reflect on it. However, after reading it once, a few things come to mind. From my very limited understanding, what Buddha said was that from the moment one is born, one cannot escape suffering. We start aging and suffer all the physical, mental, intellectual, etc. afflictions from the moment we are born. In Bhagavad Gita 2.13 Krishna says

    देहिनोऽस्मिन्यथा देहे कौमारं यौवनं जरा |
    तथा देहान्तरप्राप्तिर्धीरस्तत्र न मुह्यति ||

    One should not get deluded by this continuous change.

    Buddha also gave a pathway to transcend this suffering, just as Krishna did in the Gita.

    Even the chanting of विष्णु सहस्रनाम स्तोत्रम् can alleviate this suffering, श्लोकं 13 of the फलश्रुतिः says

    न वासुदेव भक्तानामशुभं विद्यते क्वचित् ।
    जन्म मृत्यु जरा व्याधि भयं नैवॊपजायते ॥

    It is interesting that in the debate between Hinduism and Buddhism over centuries, the Hindu philosophers have characterized the Buddhist philosophers as nihilists. It should not be so. It will be interesting to compare the Advaita philosophy (or any other schools of Vedanta), and the Vedic philosophy referred to in the article to the teachings of Buddha and the various Buddhist schools that followed him. (Nagarjuna, Chandrakeerti, Tibetan Buddhism, etc.) They all provide the pathways to overcome दुःख, which is relative and cannot be escaped in relative existence.

    Just a few random thoughts that came to my mind.


  2. K K Sankaran says:

    The translations of the Sanskrit verses in the earlier post ae as follows

    Bhagavad Gita 2.13

    देहिनोऽस्मिन्यथा देहे कौमारं यौवनं जरा |
    तथा देहान्तरप्राप्तिर्धीरस्तत्र न मुह्यति ||

    dehino ’smin yathā dehe kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā
    tathā dehāntara-prāptir dhīras tatra na muhyati

    Just as the embodied soul continuously passes from childhood to youth to old age, similarly, at the time of death, the soul passes into another body. The wise are not deluded by this.

    The inner person (Dehinam) remains the same even though the body (Deham) grows from childhood to youth to old age and reaches death at the end. With enlightenment one can understand that the inner person (Dehinam) remains the same even though existent in one body through out its changes or in another body

    VIshnu Saharanamam Phalshruti, Slokam 11

    न वासुदेव भक्तानामशुभं विद्यते क्वचित् ।
    जन्म मृत्यु जरा व्याधि भयं नैवॊपजायते ॥

    na vāsudēva bhaktānāmaśubhaṃ vidyatē kvachit ।
    janmamṛtyujarāvyādhibhayaṃ naivōpajāyatē ॥

    For devotees of Vasudeva, there are no difficulties ever and no fear ever from birth, death and old age.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s