Suffering and Faith – From Schopenhauer to Nanak


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

Have you ever felt that some philosophical writing is simply too difficult and is written in such a dense manner that it makes you feel intellectually inadequate, or even stupid? If yes, no need to worry, the problem is not with you but the writer.

Born in in 1788 the European philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that saying six things at once, in long, jargon-laden sentences was simply wrong. He criticised philosophers who wrote in such a ways, where the obscurity implied the writer was saying specially something important. Schopenhauer felt that clarity and simplicity by saying one thing at a time, was the key to good writing and he always wrote to be understood.

Another unique feature that made him stand out from other European philosophers of the enlightenment was his embrace of Indian philosophy in relation to such matters as asceticism, the self, and the notion of the world-as-appearance of illusion.

Though Schopenhauer accepted the empirical reality of an external world, he believed our knowledge and experience of the world is always indirect. That is to say, that everything we perceive about the world through our senses exists simply as an object in relation to a subject—i.e. a ‘representation’ to a subject. It follows that everything that is part of the world is ‘subject-dependent’.

To illustrate this idea, he uses the example of a cube and a the sensations in the hand of a man born blind. On touching an object of cubic shape, it appears quite uniform and the same on all sides and in every direction. The edges, it is true, press upon a smaller portion of his hand, still nothing at all like a cube is contained in these sensations. However, through the resistance felt whilst touching the object, he paints a picture in his mind of the cubic shape.

Here Schopenhauer is showing how the senses furnish the raw material, but it is the intellect that produces the world as representation. His ideas went on to inform the development of theories related to perception and understanding the inner world.

Perhaps the reason why he isn’t a particularly well known or celebrated philosopher was his pessimism and negative view of existence and humanity. He felt advanced cognitive abilities of human beings simply server an illogical, directionless, ceaseless striving that condemns the human individual to a life of suffering.

The influence of Indian philosophy, especially Buddhism with its emphasis on suffering, can be clearly seen in his work on the human will. Salvation from a life condemned to suffering for Schopenhauer can only be achieved through the will’s or ego’s being neutralised. And this can only be done through metaphysical insights that reveals the self to be merely an illusion. He felt the Saints had intuitively recognised how one is caught up in vain strivings, inner conflict and perpetual suffering.

Though Schopenhauer did not believe in a soul in the religious sense, he was able to show how every living thing is possessed by a ‘will’ and that inner suffering was a universal phenomena. All the main religious traditions accept the universality of suffering but each has its own unique perspectives on its precise nature and how it can be overcome.


In Christianity, suffering is seen as a consequence of human sin and disobedience to God. However, through faith in Jesus Christ, Christians believe they can be forgiven for their sins and overcome suffering by trusting in God’s plan for their lives.

In Islam, suffering is seen as a test from God to strengthen one’s faith and trust in Him. Muslims believe that through prayer, submission to God’s will, and good deeds, they can overcome suffering and achieve paradise in the afterlife.

In Hinduism, suffering is seen as a result of karma, the consequences of one’s past actions. Hindus believe that by living a righteous life and performing good deeds, they can improve their karma and reduce their suffering in this life and the next.

In Judaism, suffering is seen as a challenge that can bring one closer to God and deepen one’s faith. Jews believe in the importance of prayer, study of the Torah, and good deeds as a means of overcoming suffering and living a meaningful life.

In Taoism, suffering is seen as a result of the imbalance and disharmony in the universe. Taoists believe in the importance of living in harmony with the natural order of things, cultivating inner peace, and letting go of attachment to external things as a means of overcoming suffering.


In Sikhi, and the teachings of Guru Nanak, suffering is real, necessary but not permanent. In the following lines Guru Nanak, unlike Schopenhauer’s pessimism, indicates there is an escape from the pain of the ego or will and that is ‘Naam’.

“ਨਾਨਕ ਦੁਖੀਆ ਸਭੁ ਸੰਸਾਰੁ ॥ ਮੰਨੇ ਨਾਉ ਸੋਈ ਜਿਣਿ ਜਾਇ ॥

O Nanak, the whole world is suffering. He alone is victorious, who believes in the divine Name’ (GGS p954).

Here, belief in the Naam refers to the immense power of spiritual power, which can be harnessed through realising the divinity of all existence. The realisation comes through developing discerning intellect and to focus one mind to reach beyond our biologically programmes desires on higher divine ideals.

According to Nanak, suffering is an inevitable part of the natural divine order and therefore something to embrace and learn from. As he states in Jap Bani, “ਹੁਕਮਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਦੁਖ ਸੁਖ ਪਾਈਅਹਿ ॥ By the Divine Written Command, pain and pleasure are obtained.” (GGS p1)

According to Gurbani there is a symbiotic relationship between suffering (dukh) and pleasure (sukh), which are both integral to the divine command manifested in the laws of nature. The example of this unity of suffering and pleasure is most powerfully seen in the process of a woman giving birth where she goes from one extreme feelings of pain to feelings of intense happiness.

Sikhi specifically recognises this universality and unstable nature of suffering and pleasure. However, Sikhi rejects the Hindu and the concept of karma, which suggests that suffering is the result of past actions alone.

According to Sikh teaching, though cause and effect in the Karmic sense is not rejected, specifically for human beings, suffering arises from the universal human condition of egoism, attachment to worldly possessions, and ignorance of the true nature of reality.

Instead, Sikhs believe that suffering is a natural means to reduce one’s ego and attachment to material possessions, and to promote humility and empathy towards others. In that one could even argue suffering is a good feeling.

In Sikhism, the concept of chardi kala, or “ever-rising spirit,” is central to the idea that one can overcome suffering through a positive attitude and unwavering faith in the transcendent divine.

There is also a social dimension to understanding suffering as a result of material circumstances. Hence, Sikhi advocates a life of seva, or selfless service, to others. It is through collective and individual acts of care that one can contribute to a more just and equitable society and reduce suffering in the world.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


Miracles and Godmen (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2020)

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  1. duKu dwrU suKu rogu BieAw jw suKu qwim n hoeI ] (469-9, Awsw, mhlw 1)
    I find dukh or suffering to be more of constant companion with every one than sense of satisfaction .
    In fact, suffering become the motivation to over come physical and emotional disabilities where as satisfaction or state of peace makes an individual lethargic and self glorified about his minimal successes.There is a notion until one get suffers and get a shock he does not follow the right path. Which guru sahib does accept. Ask Guru ask that he had follow . Make guru our milestone. It is was not that there was accident in their life. If you clink with worldlier. When you walk into the righteous path, then the those obsctale which comes in the way is dukh. Definition of dukh When you are making efforts to live on truth and surpass with the dfifficulties with determination endures for elevation of your life it becomes a medicine. Otherwise material in look for material it becomes rog. let us know what actually is ‘dukh’ in ‘Dhukh daaru’. Gurbani tells us, ‘ਦੂਖੁਘਨੋ ਜਬ ਹੋਤੇ ਦੂਰਿ ॥ I suffered in pain/miseries, when I thought He was far away/separated from me due to my evil deeds.SGGS.384.12. Like ‘kirat karam kai vichdai kar kirpa mailo raam.(Otherwise In Sikhi, there is no separation between ourselves and Ik Ong Kaar. It is an Abrahamic thought process which got inserted in Sikhi by the earlier translators of Gurbani who were all Christians; hence the biblical twist was unconscious. Sadly, the Sikhs who became their students continued with the same mentality.

  2. Needs more elaboration. Meaning of Naam is reflection of divine virtuous and not Name

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