Is our suffering real or just a dream?

Here is the answer from the scriptures like Bhagavad-gita and Bhagavatam, containing the words of the Supreme Lord and devotees.

Krishna directing the creation

Lecture by Sri Stoka Krishna Dasa

yavat prthaktvam idam atmana indriyartha-
maya-balam bhagavato jana isa pasyet
tavan na samsrtir asau pratisankrameta
vyarthapi duhkha-nivaham vahati kriyartha

TRANSLATION

O my Lord, the material miseries are without factual existence for the soul. Yet as long as the conditioned soul sees the body as meant for sense enjoyment, he cannot get out of the entanglement of material miseries, being influenced by Your external energy.

– Srimad-Bhagavatam – 3.9.9

These are the prayers offered by Lord Brahma to the Supreme Lord before he begins the creation. Brahma creates the bodies of the living entities for a particular purpose. The purpose is that the living entities can act with the body in a particular way by which they become eligible to get out of this material entanglement and go to Krishna’s personal abode to enjoy an eternal life, full of bliss and knowledge. This is the whole programme of this material creation. Even though the Lord has made many arrangements to disseminate this knowledge in different ways, people remain ignorant. As a devotee of the Lord, he naturally feels compassion for all suffering souls in this world; yet he has to do his duty of creating the material bodies. But Brahma does not falsely think that he is the creator. The Lord exhibits the creative potency in matter. Brahma is creating not the living entities; he is creating the bodies and the bodies are made of matter. The matter is exhibiting the creative potency which only belongs to Supreme Lord.

In the thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna elaborately explains the field of activity and the knower of the field, ksetra-ksetrajna. The material body is the field of activity and every living entity is the knower of the field. Earlier in the second chapter Krishna has explained that the living entity is not the body, but is a spirit soul. Now Krishna is explaining the same thing in the thirteenth chapter in another way. The difficulty in understanding this most important point is that we don’t have experience of our existence apart from the body. It is very difficult to separate myself from my body. Because of the certain influence of the external energy (maya-shakti) of the Supreme Lord, we are illusioned. We think that we are the body even though we are not the body. The result of such thinking is that we have to suffer in this material world in so many ways.

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Here Brahma says none of those material miseries that we are suffering are factual. To understand this, there are so many different theories in this world. All these theories other than what is explained in this Bhagavatam or the scriptures are all concocted theories – sarvan partha mano-gatan. They can be summarised into two categories. One is the materialistic theory which essentially says that the suffering is real, and you can counteract this suffering in a certain way. There is another theory which says this suffering is not real, and they give a very nice example. Just like at night when you go to sleep, you may see in a dream that you are being chased by a tiger and then you have been put into so much of fear. There is danger that the tiger will devour you, and you are trying to escape. And your good fortune is that exactly when the tiger is about to pounce upon you, you wake up and experience a great relief. Thus the other theory says all these material miseries are like this dream and they have no factual existence for you. Only if I get into a dream and if I have a bad dream then there is suffering; otherwise there is no suffering.

So the problem boils down to only how to stop the dream. Neither of these two categories of theories is actually able to understand the reality because both of them are speculating while remaining in illusion and trying to understand the reality. All these theories that people come up with as long as within the illusion are like a person working out a solution remaining in the dream for solving the problem; it will never work.

As pointed out in the scriptures, everyone is in illusion including the topmost created being, Brahma. Only a person who is not a created being and hence not in illusion can actually help us. But people have hope that somebody very powerful can help. So all those who try to take help of some created being more powerful than themselves are subscribing to the first theory that the suffering is real and you have to counteract the suffering by proper means. And the persons of second category think this suffering is not real and simply you have to come out of this suffering by coming out of the dream. So they come up with so many theories to convince you that this world is false and therefore all the suffering is false, enjoyment is false, everything is false, you simply have to realise this, and then all your problems will be finished.

You cannot somehow realise that this world is false because this world is not false. You can neither counteract suffering by thinking the suffering is real because this suffering is not real as stated here – the material miseries are without factual existence for the soul. Between these two categories of theories is where the confusion lies about the actual situation. So, the only solution is to get the perfect knowledge from the perfect source, somebody who is not a created being – the Supreme Lord or His pure devotee.

There is experiential reality and existential reality.  That is the best way to explain what is actually going on in this world in terms of our suffering. Suffering is real; we do experience pains. The experiencer is the soul, not the body, even though the body is inflicted with some pain. So in that sense we say the suffering is real. But the suffering, even though real, is without factual existence. There is no existential reality for the suffering even though it is experiential reality. Now to understand and realise this, you have to become a devotee of Krishna. Only then you can actually experience this and enjoy this particular understanding eternally and that will be explained in the future verses.

(The above transcripts have been edited for better readability. However, they have not been verified and confirmed by the original speaker.)

Sri Stoka Krishna Dasa is a full-time missionary with ISKCON since 1989. He is presently the Governing Body Commissioner – ISKCON Bangalore Group of Temples and Treasurer & Governing Council Member – ISKCON Bangalore Society.