* * * * * *


On Christmas Day of 1976, Sai Baba said at Brindavan: "The scriptures say, 'Happiness cannot be won through happiness. (Na sulchaad labhyathe Sukham)! Happiness can only be won through misery. Pleasure is but an interval between two pains. To achieve the Sathwic happiness that is positive and permanent, man must perforce take on trials and tribulations, loss and pain." (Sathya Sai Speaks Vol. XI, p. 87f.)

Many of us who have come to Sai Baba suffer from chronic injury or illness. This may be one of the reasons to visit him. Not all are physically cured, even though other radical positive changes in oneself may result from such a visit, not least of which is receiving a peace of mind that enables one to withstand worsening physical ailments. I have also experienced this, even though I was primarily a spiritual seeker wishing to see God.

Where an increase of suffering is (part of) the motive for one's visit to Prashanthi Nilayam, the non-fulfillment of hopes for a physical cure can lead to further and deeper self-inquiry. Suffering can confer benefits that perfect health may not offer, increasing the urgency of finding and cultivating a maximum of joy and love in oneself and making one hasten to improve one's spiritual practice (sadhana). That has happened in my case and, while suffering continues, I have also at times received both temporary relief and lasting partial cures from Sai Baba.

The question "Why must I suffer?" is unavoidable to those invalided by major injury or chronic illness. The general answers that Sai Baba has given to that question offer various approaches to understanding one's own and others' sufferings. They are guidelines that must however be applied intelligently to the particular individual with much care and circumspection. It is easy both to exempt oneself from responsibility and blame it to 'accident' or conversely to overspeculate on and exaggerate reasons for sufferings in a mistaken sense of guilt and sin.


At a deep level, human suffering is a mystery before which the worldly sciences and most philosophical systems are either silent or without adequate answers. That it is a deep enigma should be clear from the examples of the sufferings of many holy persons from Jesus, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, St. Francis, St. Therésè of Lisieux to the vicarious stigmata of, say, Teresa von Neumann or the illnesses 'taken over' and experienced in the cases of many a canonised saint or of certain great healers. The many and most drastic physical illnesses taken on by our Lord, Sri Sathya Sai Baba should show how little most of us can understand of the manifold nature and hidden workings of sufferings and karma.

Of course we have a duty to stay as healthy as possible and to work hard for self-cure when ill. But there is a trap in regarding illness - whether one's own or another's - only negatively as a wholly unacceptable condition. Suffering can be a positive experience in many ways. When debility strikes, it can for example free one from many practical and other demands of worldly duties, reducing one to concentrate mostly on the more vital aspects of life. The genuine meaning or purpose of much suffering may indeed lie in this.

In answer to a visitor's question why some people must suffer so much and for so long, Baba replied: "Those who suffer have my grace. Only through suffering will they be persuaded to turn inward and make the inquiry. And without turning inward and making inquiry, they can never escape misery. These words can be a considerable solace! (Conversations with Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. by Dr. J. Hislop. p.145)


One fruitful consequence of long suffering can be the way it prepares one better to understand others in a similar position, to open for the deep sensitivity to their problems and doubts that comes of own experience. It can enable one to realise, for example, how it is to have a really debilitating illness or injury suddenly alter one's entire life prospects and destroy many long-cherished projects and ambitions, sometimes permanently (or 'for good'!). Sufferers may often do service through their personal understanding of the psychological effect and meanings of a condition which can alter almost any practical and social details of a person's existence.

Helpers of chronic sufferers may themselves have little or no direct experience of the type of problems they would like to help alleviate in another, whatever other knowledge and gifts they may have and wish to share. I feel it is therefore of prime importance to listen to what is or is not wanted when engaging in any sort of service that is therapeutic and certainly not to impose either one's own wishful beliefs or one's moral evaluations on the sufferer. Apart from genuine helpers I have met, I can witness that long-term invalids also experience a surfeit of spurious advice and suggestions, 'helpful' urgings to accept some new method of cure from those who are over-positive about their own opinions and abilities in announcing themselves as 'healers'. Eagerness to treat someone without their having inquired can create undue pressures and awkward dilemmas for those one would help. Therapists partaking in any healing process who are also willing to learn are preferable to the confident directives of an impatient 'expert'.


Much confusion arises around the idea that whatever accident, whatever illness or debility befalls one, one has only oneself to blame. This cannot mean one also necessarily has to blame oneself. Self-punishment of any sort that has no clearly positive futureward benefit can only prolong suffering unnecessarily.

There are those who assert or imply that anyone's physical illnesses or mental sufferings persist only because of the patient's sins, because they will not change themselves or adopt some particular belief etc. Some make such judgements before knowing anything about the individuals concerned.

Thinking that suffering is a sure indicator of defects in a person and that health and worldly progress are the proof of devotion is neither a compassionate nor intelligent approach. By mixing up the meaning of karma and dharma, one forgets that someone may still be working off the effects of past karma even while having much faith and following dharma. One only has to recollect that there are those who knowingly sacrifice their own welfare and even health for others, for family, friends or society in general. This can occur through debilitating labours, self-deprivation for the sake of others as well as through heroic actions in life-saving that can incur bodily damage and worse, such as in the case of the fire-fighters of Chernobyl. Sufferings can thus be 'taken over' in lieu of others in many different ways.

Baba has told us that we cannot know what is in the hearts of others, nor can we judge their present lives nor the karmic reasons for their conditions, nor the purposes for which they face their particular challenges. Discovering the limits and lacks of one's own understanding in recognising that the ways of God are very many and deep is a good start in showing understanding to others.

Much sound evidence already exists to support the teaching that a major illness can result from actions long past, even from previous lives. Experience shows that some illnesses have to be endured without cure for very long periods. Due to muddled ideas of sin and repentance however, some actually fall into such excessive guilt that they do not feel they have the right to seek medical advice or accept operations. Though what happens is a result of past actions according to the law of karma, possibly caused in a previous incarnation, sufferers unable to cure themselves or get healed can gain nothing by defining themselves as sinners and dwelling on their past errors.


Some illnesses appear simply to be a consequence of the risk involved in being embodied in a changing environment. This seems to be the meaning of the accident that Sri Sathya Sai Baba suffered when he fractured his hip and injured his head in 1988. At the first interview he gave after this, while still able only to take a few careful steps, he humorously illustrated how he slipped on the soap in his bathroom. He had told attendants who asked that in that instance it was not suffering taken over on behalf of anyone else.

One may try to interpret that event, say as a sheer physical mishap that can happen to anyone or a 'purposeful accident' for reassuring similar sufferers. In any case, Sai Baba's disregard of the immense pain to hold the Onam discourse and his selfless rejection of special treatment or self-cure in solidarity with others who have no recourse to such things all reminds of the great lessons of suffering in scriptural history. Millions of people who have at one or another time in life had to bear the burdens of their particular incarnations have drawn succour and strength from such valiant examples of voluntary acceptance of suffering.

(Robert Priddy. September, 1990)

The above material is the copyright of Robert Priddy, Oslo 1999