duḥkha or dukkha (Sanskrit: दुःख; literally means "bad-space"; "suffering"). A “bad” space is a closed and confined space which does not permit growth, learning, expansion of being and the unfolding of one’s potential. The opposite of duḥkha is sukha (good space) — is an open and free space, one in which there is growth, unfoldment, learning and freedom. Duhkha can also be defined as the deferential between our expectations and what we actually achieve. The greater the differential between expectation and outcome the greater the intensity of the suffering. Although duḥkha is often translated as "suffering", its root meaning is more analogous to "disquietude" as in the condition of being disturbed. As such, "suffering" is too narrow a translation with "negative emotional connotations".


Duhkha is not a qualitative assessment of one’s own life, but an ontological thesis — which means an objective statement about the human condition.

A comprehensive modern description of duḥkha is:— disturbance, irritation, dejection, worry, despair, fear, dread, anguish, anxiety; vulnerability, injury, inability, inferiority; sickness, aging, decay of body and faculties, senility; pain/pleasure; excitement/boredom; deprivation/excess; desire/frustration, suppression; longing/aimlessness; hope/hopelessness; effort, activity, striving/repression; loss, want, insufficiency/satiety; love/lovelessness, friendlessness; dislike, aversion/attraction; parenthood/childlessness; submission/rebellion; decision/indecisiveness, vacillation, uncertainty.1

Three sources of Duḥkha

Duhkha arises from three sources :—

  1. Self — issues relating to one’s own body and mind complex.
  2. Others — people, animals, objects etc.
  3. Elemental — heat, cold, storms, volcanoes, earthquakes etc.

The general ontological (science of being) suffering common to all sentient being is codified by the doctrine of the shat-kleshas (six afflictions).

  1. The act of being born causes suffering to both mother and baby.
  2. Sickness is universal and when examined from a microbiological point of view the body is constantly at war with invading pathogens — disease results when the body loses the battle. It would seem then that disease is inevitable and only temporarily being held at bay.
  3. Hunger & Thirst.
  4. Changes and transformation.
  5. Old age — the degenerative process & social isolation and the inability to fulfil one’s simple desires are sources of suffering.
  6. Death — the fear of death as well as the actual process is the prime source of anxiety to all sentient beings.

The Causes of Suffering

This cycle of suffering / dissatisfaction / dis-ease/ unhappiness is set in motion through raga (attraction) to the pleasurable and dvesha (aversion) from the unpleasurable. This swinging from one to the other is founded upon ignorance of one’s true nature, thus the basis of unhappiness in the world is ajñana or avidya (spiritual ignorance).

According to the Hindu sages, joyfulness arises from the understanding of impermanence and suffering and the transcending of the causes of suffering which are a false identification with the mind/body complex.

Life in this mortal realm is in fact a mixture of both sukha (pleasure) and duhkha (pain). There is no pleasure in which there is not an element of pain and no pain in which there is not an element of joy. Cycles of joy alternate with cycles of grief. When one investigates more closely one finds that every thing and every state is temporary and fleeting like foam on water. So even pleasure when experienced, is only momentary, and even at the moment of enjoyment the fear of cessation of that joy arises. Attachment arises with the pleasurable experience and aversion from the unpleasant. After the experience has passed, attachment gives rise to craving for repetition and repeated experience of pleasure gives rise to clinging. This cycle of the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering, craving and clinging are the principle causes of the lack of true happiness. True happiness can only arise when one has overcome both attraction and aversion, clinging, craving and stopped the endless pursuit of happiness in that which is unstable and fleeting.


1. Hinduism for Beginners -- An concise introduction to the Eternal Path to Liberation, By Pandit Ram Sivan (Srirama Ramanuja Achari), Simha Publications.

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