Ashok R. Kelkar



Suffering, Violence, and Peace*
A Secular Sermon




Violence begets suffering

Suffering begets violence

The Search for peace

Suffering from natural causes

Suffering from human violence

Legitimizing of violence

Legitimizing of suffering

The search for peace resumed



Violence begets suffering


            NOW THAT GOD IS DEAD (read: now that even those who believe in God have stopped looking upon Him as a source of peace and as an insurance against the victory of evil), the problem of evil and its twin faces, namely, suffering within and violence without, has ceased to be the transcendental problem as to why and to what depth there is evil in this world but rather turned into the mundane problem as to how best to contain evil, to cope with it, indeed to manage it.


            I have borrowed the term ‘manage’ here not from business parlance but from medical parlance : physicians don’t merely try and heal when they can, but they also try to alleviate or prevent suffering even when they cannot heal.  Physicians consider themselves to be concerned with the management of illness and injury and degeneration and disability, the various sources of suffering and death, and with the promotion of health and longevity, the preconditions of well-being and activity.  The appositeness of the medical analogy shouldn’t come as a surprise: after all the physical and mental suffering that are a physician’s concern are but the core of suffering and misery in the broadest sense.  Suffering is the very anti-thesis of life.  “In every parting there is an image of death,” George Eliot has said. One could as well say that n every suffering there is a fore-caste of death.  Hence to live more fully is to be liable to suffer more fully, but to die is to cease altogether to be liable to suffer.  In death entropy takes over the island of life.  Suffering is also the very antithesis of involvement.  To suffer is to be liable to isolation; alienation takes over the island of a life of involvement.


            To return then to the mundane problem of the management of evil, how does one manage suffering and manage violence?  Violence is normally thought of as one of the two causes of suffering, the other cause being the lack of complete harmony between human appetites and aspirations and the furniture of this world – in other words, accidents and disasters, deprivations and environmental decay, inherited disabilities and acquired infections. A special and problematic case of suffering from natural causes will be that of a human being suffering from certain forms of mental disorder inflecting suffering and violence on others even as a dog suffering from rabies bites human and other animals.  Whatever the cause of suffering, human or natural, man has the capacity to enlarge its scope beyond direct, focused suffering-from.  Human suffering can also take the shape of anticipatory suffering and re-collective suffering. Man suffers even from anticipation no less than from a present cause.  The anatomy of human suffering is complex.  Man can suffer not only from pangs of jealousy or of conscience or of humiliation but also from diffuse, vague, unfocussed malaise and depression or by reason of the suffering of others.


            We have considered the possibility of suffering arising out of natural causes and that of human violence giving rise to suffering.  But there is a third possibility.


Suffering begets violence


            Suffering does not cause violence, but suffering may motivate violence. Violence may be restored to as a way of suffering management.  So just as violence leads to suffering, suffering can also lead to violence. There are two ways in which this could happen.  First, through bringing about counter-suffering to cope with suffering, even through distraction.  Secondly, through bringing about counter-violence by way of revenge or retaliation or deterrence. Albert Campus perhaps had this in mind when he said (in the Rebel, introduction), “The central problem of ethics is suicide, the central problem of politics is murder.”  Suicide and murder are of course rather drastic ways of coping with suffering – I have in mind here suicide as a measure to put an end to one’s suffering and murder as revenge for inflicted suffering or as curb on threatened suffering.  (Let’s make no mistake about it: the capital punishment is primarily a retaliatory measure, a killing in self-defence and only secondarily a deterrent measure.)  But there are, so to say, relatively suspended forms of remedial suicide – self-mortification, drug-abuse and alcoholism, self-abnegation, workoholism, killing one’s appetites, asceticism, surrendering one’s freedom to question and to complain, resignation.  And there are relatively suspended forms of retaliatory murder – corporal punishment, ostracism, withholding privileges and favours; insurrection, sabotage, holding of hostages, withholding obedience and cooperation, gherao; defensive war; dharna as fasting. (There is no getting away from the fact that a fast unto death is remedial violence – even if one decides that it is a legitimate way of changing the other’s heart.


The Search for peace


            Having sketched the two-way relation between suffering and violence, the twin faces of human evil, one could then proceed to relate either of these to peace.


            Peace is what suffering and violence disturb.  To put an end to suffering and violence is to restore peace.  Not to be at peace with oneself is to suffer inwardly.  Not to be at peace with another is to inflict or suffer violence.  Peace is the enjoyment of order.  The search for peace is the search for order that is free from suffering.  All the three possibilities mentioned earlier, namely, suffering from natural causes, suffering from human violence, and violence as suffering management, need to be looked into.


            Identifying peace merely with the elimination of war is misleading.  Terrorist violence, for example, can be as destructive of peace and international understanding as a war of attrition or even a regular (!) war.  Again, as the UNESCO charter reminds us, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”  Preoccupation with the danger of a nuclear holocaust may well blind us to the ultimately equally disastrous effects of environmental destruction or of the militaristic attrition of the whole economy.


            Orderliness and enjoyment are equally important ingredients of peace.  An oppressive order is far from enjoyable.  It can eliminate violence without, say, through terror of reprisals in hell fire.  But in so doing it will eliminate peace too by inflicting suffering within. The result won’t be peace, but the ‘peace of the burning ghats’, as we say.  Enjoyment can exist without orderliness.  Sadism and masochism are the twin forms of such disorderly enjoyment.  They tend to feed on each other.  Of course, if there is a basic order with only a margin of disorder or a disorder with a promise of order, there can be true enjoyment – as in the charming chaos of an Indian wedding or the eager bustle of a building site or a workshop with people trying to meet a deadline.


            In short, the anatomy of human peace is complex.


Suffering from natural causes.


            Indian folk customarily categorize their suffering into āsmani (from the sky) and sultānī  (from the king).  At this point we are concerned with the former.



            Suffering is inseparable from life to the extent that there is disharmony or incomplete harmony between human appetites and aspirants and the furniture of the world.  Thus the human appetite for continued company is incompatible with a parting, which is unavoidable – it may be sweet, but it is a sorrow nevertheless.


            Indeed suffering may actually be functional and so life-promoting in the larger context.  Thus, body pain, the prototype of suffering, is seen to be nature’s alarm signal and safety device to ensure the removal of life-threatening inputs.  Similarly negative reinforcement or responding to punishment or its threat is seen to be nature’s adaptive strategy that promotes learning so essential for life-maintenance and life-promotion.


            So much for the evolution of physiology and echology within a species in so far as these are acquired rather than inherited.


            If genetic evolution, comprising both the evolution of new species and the evolution in the inherited anatomy and physiology of a given species, is considered life-promoting upon the whole, its mechanisms of natural selection of mutation is seen to depend on violence and suffering in the natural scheme of things.  Predation (the matsyanyāya of the ancient Indians) and aggression are but two aspects of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson, In memoriam, 56).


            Again, there are those who argue, from the point of view of life science, that the earth is a natural home for man and other organisms.  Indeed the earth is said to be more than a home, it is itself an organic whole.  (James E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New look at life on earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979; cf. also James Grier Millar, Living systems, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.)  Whatever the scientific fate of this interesting hypothesis may turn out to be, it is interesting to note that some religious ideologies (for example, most forms of Christianity) postulate an underlying harmony while others (for example, those looking upon the earth as the devil’s snare) postulate an underlying disharmony and still others (for example, some existentialists, some forms of Hinduism) postulate an underlying estrangement.  Indeed the whole tissue of ideas connected with determinate fate and indeterminate fortune is but another facet of this human preoccupation with at-home-ness (or the lack of it).


            The earth or may not be a mere space ship, but man is certainly more than a mere prudent property-owner in relation to the earth. Today’s concern for husbanding the earth’s resources and for environmental management cannot remain merely a recognition that the loose talk of the conquest and exploitation of nature not merely stands defeated by forces yet beyond human control but also is by itself self-defeating, imprudent.  Man should ‘care’ for his earth in the sense in which he can ‘care’ for his mother.  ‘Mother earth’ is not a dated metaphor; it is a fact of life that is profoundly incompatible with careless exploitation, even with careful exploitation.


            An important aspect of suffering from natural causes is suffering from demographic imbalance.  There are those who keep sounding alarm signals of the ‘population explosion’; and in contrast there are those who dismiss this talk as a capitalist con-game.  Both of them cannot be right in empirical terms, but both of them are wrong at least on one point. Both are guilty of regarding the population question merely as one of mouths to feed and hands to put to work, of demand and supply, of managing human wants and human resource development.  Population constitutes an aspect of human environment, of the earth as a human home.  The density of population may affect the quality of life and this will be so quite apart from resource management.  The density may affect the quality of life for better at optimal density and for worse at serious departures from the optimum.  Excessive density and people and for worse at serious departures from the optimum.  Excessive density and people (and peoples) get on each other’s nerves and cease to care for each other; deficient density and people feel lost and forlorn and uncared-for.  May be there are upper and lower neural thresholds at work here dependent on such things as how many different faces an average person can comfortably store in his memory and how many different persons an average person can bring himself to care for.


            Any diligent search for peace cannot afford to neglect or overlook environmental and demographic threats to peace.


Suffering from human violence


            One can console oneself in some way or the other over suffering from natural causes.  (So far as suffering from natural causes is concerned animals and plants are in the same boat with us and most of the time nobody can be blamed.)  But when one sees “what man has made of man” (Wordsworth, ‘Lines written in early spring’), one is face to face with stark evil.  For a person to be violent to another is not only for him to cause suffering to the other but also for him to violate the very humanity of the other.


            The anatomy of human violence is no less complex than the anatomy of human suffering and the anatomy of human peace.  For this purpose we can take a leaf out of the ancient Indians with their penchant for taxonomy.  The anon law (dharma-šāstra) offers us three ways of classifying violence (hi).  To begin with, violence may be in intent (bhāva-hisā) or in substance (dravya-hi).  Secondly, violence may be physical (daṇḍapāruya, tāana) or verbal (vākpāruya, vāktāana).  (Thus, to this way of thinking, adding insult to injury to physical injury.)  Physical violence may inflict death (vadha) or pain (pīdā) either on the victim or those who are near to the victim.  Verbal violence may consist either in threat of violence or in lowering the victim bad qualities or bad deeds (by way of insult, abuse, or libel).  (The Jain doctrine of syādvāda or antidogmatism amounts to recommending that even intellectual violence is to be avoided.  To insist that the other is or has to be wrong in his claim or that the other is saying the same thing that one is saying but in a wrong manner betokens an intolerance that is but another manifestation of verbal violence.) Thirdly, violence may be either violence inherent in living itself (ārambhī hi) or in wresting a living (udyogī hi) or in defending oneself or one’s own (virodhī hi) or willful and deliberate violence (sankalpī hi) by way of revenge, war, sacrifice to the gods, amusement or the like.  (Bloodsports include not only hunting, bull-fighting, bear-baiting or the like but also boxing, public hanging, lynching or the like.)

            For our present purposes, this last classification of violence is of special interest.  Defensive violence, is as we have seen at an earlier stage in our argument, violence motivated by suffering.  Deliberate violence has no such excuse.  But both deliverate and defensive violence have one thing in common: both arise out of disharmony between man and man or between man and men or between men and men (that is, between groups of people) brought to the flashpoint of deep intolerance of difference.  A simple conflict of interests is not either necessary or sufficient for the eruption of violence. A mere difference is often enough.  Not vive la différence, but death to the difference!  The difference may arise out of pathology; the insane, the criminally insane, the criminal may perpetrate as well as evoke violence.  (The reminders fall on deaf ears – hate the sin, not the sinner; saints have a past and sinners a future; the criminal have a past and sinners a future; the criminal may be a victim of circumstances.)  The difference may arise out of oppression and exploitation (differences of ethnicity, sex, and age; inequalities of political and economic power and the resulting intolerance on the part of the power élite; demographic minority; the plight of the uprooted).  Finally, the differences may be attributable to deviance (sexual deviance; the deviance or cynical or lazy), subversion (the innovative, the non-conformist, the maverick, the “enemy of the people” in Ibsen’s ironic sense), and ideology (religious intolerance being a sub-variety of ideological intolerance).  The heretic-hunting in 17th century Europe, especially Spain, is an obvious example.  The witch-hunting in 17th century Europe, especially Germany, was probably not punishment of deviance so much as punishment of subversiveness in women.

            Throughout the animal world aggression is normally kept in check through the ritualization of conflict.  The fight is ritualized and usually ends with the loser conceding defeat but surviving relatively unharmed.  It is rarely a fight to the finish in which one or both of the adversaries are killed or hopelessly maimed.  Man appears to have lost some of this wisdom apparently in proportion as he has gained the capacity to create abstractions.

            Such disharmony when present in a human population may result not only in suffering and violence but also in alienation. Alienation may not only result in suffering in the alienated but also encourage intolerance of and violence against the alienating; and alienation may become mutual.  The alienated minority may come to be looked upon as a social liability.  Indeed one might even say that one has to give a dog a bad name before killing the dog.

Legitimizing of violence

            We have earlier distinguished between original violence and reactive violence, deliberate violence and defensive violence.  We shall now see how man has sought to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate violence both in respect of original, deliberate violence and in respect of reactive, defensive violence.  (We shall bypass the more simple-minded maxim: my violence is legitimate and your violence is illegitimate.  We shall do so not because the maxim is seldom resorted to but because nobody has been able to invest it with any philosophical respectability.)

            Deliberate violence is legitimized as a promoter of peace: it is claimed that it secures one of the ingredients of peace, namely, order in man’s life among men.  It is claimed that the victim of violence is actually the beneficiary – the victim is being punished for the victim’s own good, regrettable though the need for such punishment undoubtedly is.  It is claimed that if man being born free is yet everywhere in fetters (Rousseau, Social contract, 1), this is just so that man is saved from the fate of a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes, Leviathan, 1: 13).  The concept of state authority as the exercise of force whether in respect of the relation between man and man (civil justice) or between man and men (criminal justice) or between men and men (sovereignty within and across the borders) is in consonance with the concept of man being true to his station in life and the concept of security as a prime value.  Whether a person tries to get hold of the right end of the stick or is content with a position at the wrong end of the stick will depend upon his temperament and station in life, but in either case he will accept the importance of the stick.  The other side of this acceptance is what Erich Fromm calls “the fear of freedom”.  So much for the traditional concept of human polity as the organization of power as state authority.

            But there is a radical extension of the concept of human polity seen in recent centuries.  The concept of subversion of state authority and the consonant concepts of man’s being true to his inner self and of freedom as a prime value are a major extension of the political.  To act politically is now seen to be both to exercise force in an organized manner and cope with any resistance to it on the one hand and to resist force in an organized manner and cope with the exercise of it on the other.


            There is only a step from legitimation of force to legitimation of violence by giving violence a good name (like jehad or crusade or kātradharma in Gītā or harakiri).  Then we are not very far from the glorification of violence.  Machismo is not only a celebration of masculinity but a celebration of violence and an abjuring of the dignity of suffering.  War is held up as a great purifying fire and prowess in battle is held up as the very paradigm of heroism.  Revolutions are indissolubly linked by Mao “with the barrel of a gun”.


            Two things are overlooked in this.  First, as we have already seen, to act violently is to do violence not only to the humanity of the victim but also one’s own humanity.  Secondly, violence begets violence.  Alienation comes into play not only in the victim but also in the one exercising force.  Alienation becomes mutual.  And now it becomes difficult to draw the line between deliberate violence and defensive or remedial violence.


            In retreat such a predicament or even the prospect of such a predicament, others condemn violence as such whether deliberate or defensive. The difficulty of drawing the line between the two leads to a refusal to draw any line.  Is such a refusal justified?


The Legitimizing of suffering


            It is one thing to say that suffering is inseparable from life or that some forms of violence (the ones identified as ārambhī hi and udyogī hi) are inherent in life or that the capacity to suffer is an aspect of the capacity to live more fully.  It is quite another thing to say that suffering resulting from legitimized violence (as when one speaks of the unavoidable cost of a desirable industrial or political or social revolution) is to be condoned.  The problem of the legitimizing of violence and that of the legitimizing of suffering go together.  In a way we are back to the transcendental problem as to why there is evil in this world.  The theodicy urge “to justify the ways of God to men” (Milton, paradise lost 1 : 26) has certainly waned, but the urge to find a place for these two forms of disorder – suffering and violence – in the scheme of things persists.


            To begin with, one has to recognize that suffering begets suffering, that suffering- from in the victim of violence or natural causes leads to suffering with the victim and/or suffering for the victim.  Buddhist karuā and Christian compassion are historic attempts to legitimate suffering-with; Christianity also emphasized the remedial action motivated by compassion.  Prometheus and Christ are man-gods suffering for humanity and history books are full of persons suffering for their respective groups.  While it is easy to see how suffering-with and suffering-for are seen to be legitimate modes of suffering, it is not easy to define the relationship between these two modes.  Suffering-with which does not lead to any suffering-for can easily degenerate into a form of self-indulgence.  In reaction to this, suffering-with has been held up as an ideal : the decrying of utopian socialism and ‘do-gooder’ social work are cases in point.  What is not so clearly recognized is that suffering-for without any suffering-with can also degenerate into a form of self-indulgence.  The victim of suffering is dehumanized into a statistical cipher without any ideas of his own, a pawn in a somewhat any ideas of his own, a pawn in a somewhat more suave, even well-meaning power game.


            A more radical legitimizing of suffering is traceable to attempts to ‘place’ suffering within the condition humaine.


            Thus, pleasurable inputs lead to the expectation of more pleasure, these expectations are inevitably frustrated, and this is seen to lead to suffering.  (Buddha’s doctrine of tṛṣṇā, thirst and modern psychological findings seem to agree on this point.)


            Again, remedial, health-restoring, purifying processes come firmly to be associated with unpleasantness and suffering. Indeed this goes beyond the conventional bitterness of pills and kind cruelty of the surgeon’s knife to legitimizing of suffering deemed inevitable in desirable social changes such as industrialization and revolution or in desirable personality changes (wisdom gained only through suffering).


            Again, while some insist on the reassuring fact that “no man is an island” (John Donne, Devotions) and that we are all joined in suffering, others point to the distressing loneliness of man and inaccessibility of other minds (it is as if every man is an island) and insist that we are all sundered in our suffering.


            Again, while some see the major transformations I human life as essentially fulfilling events (the symbol of growth being the child’s joyful discovery of the world), others se in them the painful shocks arising from the destruction of the old (the symbol of forward transition being the birth trauma).


            Again, while some see the exercise of creativity as a wholly satisfying, indeed joyful process (the symbol of creativity being the biological procreative act), others see in it satisfaction muddied with suffering (the symbol of creativity being the labour pains and sense of fulfillment in a mother).


            Finally, while some see the man-god as the master of the situation (the great healer, the great teacher, the great helmsman, or the like), others see the man-god as the sacrificial victim (the martyr, Christ redeeming his fellow men from the Evil One in his passion).


            In the last four examples, one can see an interplay between the optimistic urge to trust the universe and the pessimistic urge to mistrust the universe.


            There is only a step from the legitimizing of suffering to the glorification of suffering.  Certain forms of Christianity indulge in this.  An Indian locus is the Mahābhārata anticipation of the bhakta’s welcoming of suffering seen in Kunti’s prayer that she be visited with suffering so that she may never forget God.


            Violence and suffering are the unavoidable price computer-managed ordering and controlling.  Biologists have anticipated this line of argument that violence and suffering is simply the cost of evolution.  An even earlier anticipation is from the supporter of market economy. The parallel logic, namely, the battle against the law of entropy brings both revenue of effective orderliness and cost of localized outbreak, of containable entropy.  It is not the sort of logic that can dismissed out of hand.


The Search for peace resumed


            Where does all this leave us in respect of our diligent search for peace? 


1.         What cannot be cured must be endured, suffering has a dignity of its own.     When Macduff grieves over the massacre of his children and wife (Shakespeare, Macbeth 4 : 3) –

            Malcolm         :            Dispute it like a man.

            Macduff           :            I shall do so.

            But I must also feel it as a man….     


            Not all the talk of manly courage or of epicurean search for pleasure can cancel this dignity. To live more fully is to be liable to suffer more fully.


2.         What can be cured need not be endured; indeed, it must not be endured.  The desolate crying of a child or a woman is a standing rebuke.


3.         Evitable suffering can never be legitimate, since it would be a form of evitable violence.  (When religion is too successful in making suffering endurable, it reconciles people even to evitable suffering.  There is no such things as a necessary evil except as a practical expedience.)


4.         Self-inflicted violence is still violence and be judged as such.


5.         Glorify violence and beware that it is but a step to condoning suffering. Glorify suffering and beware that it is but a step to condoning violence.  (You can trust religion and other ideologies precisely to do either of these two things rather than to keep the peace.)


6.         Cure can take the form of modifying oneself – analgesia, learning to suffer, self-knowledge, the opportunity to unburden oneself of one’s grievances, or self-inflicted violence.  (Neural adaptation, which can habituate the organism to pain, is nature’s analgesia.  Forbearance or titikā is acquired analgesia. The psychoanalyst, the shaman, or the guru seeks to induce just the kind of self-knowledge that will liberate his charge from certain kinds of suffering.)


7.            Alternatively, cure can take the form of modifying the environment – therapy, learning to forestall a source of suffering, or remedial violence.  (Caring for the earth and demographic prudence will be just such cures in the environmental domain.)


8.            Abjuring all violence is a counsel of despair. Even more so abjuring all politics (to say that all property is theft is to identify it with violence).  This counsel is but a step to condoning suffering and even to doing violence to oneself.


9.         The central problem of ethics is warding off suffering within by promoting internal harmony.  The management of suffering from natural causes to this end is welcome but never enough.


10.            Abjuring all passions and therefore the very possibility of enjoyment is a counsel of despair.  Peace is then identified not with orderliness and enjoyment but with the extinction of desire (Buddhism, Jainism, Brihadaranyakopanishad, Samkhya and Yoga).  This is internal harmony with a vengeance.  It may or may not encourage self-indulgence, but certainly discourages suffering – for, labouring to remove the suffering of others suffering of any kind and of any person.


11.       The central problem of politics is warding off violence without by promoting external harmony – between man and man, between man and men, and between men and men.  The management of suffering from natural causes to this end is welcome but never enough.


12.       How is external harmony to be promoted?  Liberty without equality is liberty for the few and suffering for the rest.  Equality without liberty is equality for the few (“some pigs are more equal than others”, George Orwell, Animal Farm) and living less fully for the rest.  Liberty and equality without fraternity is to be left out in the cold.  Fraternity without liberty or equality is to be left unborn in the womb.  To trust men to act prudently and fairly is to accept their liberty and equality.  To trust men to act humanely is to accept their fraternity.  To trust is to be modest.  To be intolerant is to be insolent.


13.       How is external harmony between men and men to be promoted?  By accepting liberty and mutual tolerance, by accepting equality and recognition of mutual dependence and by accepting fraternity and mutual trust.  Mutual tolerance, recognition of mutual dependence, and mutual trust all call for modesty.  (Thomas Hardy said that if men will stop waging wars they will do so not because they find wars wicked but because they find wars stupid.)


14.            Knowledge confers power including the power of destruction, but it does not confer wisdom including the ability to use power without destruction.

15.       Most men are unsaintly; they’d rather be taken for a knave than be taken for a fool. Most men are unheroic; they’d rather be taken for a coward than he taken for a fool.  It is high time that the saints and the heroes and the social engineers of this world become modest enough to see the frailty of most men.


            If this is not a rousing peroration, that’s because this is but a secular sermon.  A secular sermon only aims at a sobering peroration.





            * This is a thoroughly revised and slightly enlarged version of the paper presented at the International Seminar on Philosophy, Peace, and International Understanding held at New Delhi on 15-18 December 1986 under the auspices of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research.


            This was published in New Quest  No. 68, 79-87.