Law of Suffering

The Law of Suffering was defined by Mahatma Gandhi as the necessity of the nonviolent actor to voluntarily endure suffering as a mechanism for transforming an opponent. The law rests on Gandhi’s observation that, “Real suffering bravely borne melts even a heart of stone.  Such is the potency of suffering or tapas. And there lies the key to Satyagraha” (Satyagraha in South Africa, p. 18). In other words, the law does not apply to just any suffering, but to suffering borne voluntarily and without hatred against the opponent. In effect, the satyagrahi deliberately takes on suffering that is already inherent in the situation in order to rouse the conscience of the opponent.  As Martin Luther King put it, this kind of “unearned suffering is redemptive.”

Gandhi established the Law of Suffering early in his career and clearly formulated its definition in Young India in 1931. In Gandhi’s own words:

“The conviction has been growing upon me, that things of fundamental importance to the people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering. … Suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise shut, to the voice of reason. Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I, and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that, if you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head, but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man. Suffering is the badge of the human race, not the sword.” (Young India, 5-11-1931)