A Question On Causality, Purpose And Suffering In Non-Duality

[As students of Non-duality, we often come aross situations that apparently seem to be at variance with the  Non-dual teachings. Here is such a Question raised by a friend of mine and felt that it would be interesting to share our exchange with a wider audience for possibe further discussion — ramesam.]

Questioner:  How could there be no cause and effect? How can things happen randomly with no purpose?  I just can’t accept that meeting you was random, or that I found nonduality, and fell in love with it. It seems to appear everywhere. Jesus said seek and ye shall find. There is no randomness in that. We set goals, work hard, then accomplish them. Some people live for fun, engage in risky behavior, then get in trouble, how could it be completely random that some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, then others are in the right place at the right time. Then there are the people who seem to do everything “right”, then some horrible fate befalls them. Have you ever read anything by Malcolm Gladwell? He wrote The Tipping Point, Outliers, and some other books. His research into why some people are successful and others are not is fascinating.

I remember reading in I Am That, Nissargadatta said that there is cause and effect but we will never be able to figure out what causes things to happen because there is so much going on all the time, to decipher it is impossible. Of course that is my paraphrase!!

Then, of course, there is science. The Earth revolves around the sun, it stays in its orbit. Cells divide, chemicals are produced, distributed, etc. in the cells. The cells seem to know exactly where to go and what to do! To me it seems life is a beautiful orchestra, where there is perfect order. Of course there are also mutations!! But even sometimes those seem to have a purpose!

Okay, so then there are 2 people riding in a car, another vehicle comes careening out of nowhere, there is a crash, and one person is killed while the other escapes without even a scratch. Why was the one person killed and the other spared? Was it fate? Was it totally random? I agree that God did not kill the one and spare the other. How can we know? Do we all have a date stamp on our butts when we come into this world which predetermines the day each of our body/minds will die/transition? Who knows? Finally, I absolutely love that every moment is fresh and new with endless possibilities. It makes randomness seem perfect.


The questions posed by you are very relevant and often quite baffling. They have been raised and debated for times immemorial and I wonder if there is any single straight forward convincing answer that satisfies everyone. I shall attempt here to spell out my understanding from a Non-dual perspective. We can then discuss further and see where it will lead us finally.


What we have in the “now” is what is observed by us.

It is the sum total of all the signal inputs by the five senses and the thoughts and images in the mind at a given moment. That is all that we “know.” Let this totality be called [B] – which is our experiencing of the sum total scene (inclusive of thoughts, sensations and perceptions at the moment).

We think that [B] has resulted as an effect of some cause(s) – let us call the set of causes [A]. What we know for a fact at any moment is only [B]. From [B] we work backwards and infer [A]. Thereby we imply that [A] changed to [B]. If [A] changed to [B], [B] must have been present in a potential form in [A]. If yogurt has formed from the milk, milk must have contained yogurt in a potential form. Is it true in all cases?

Secondly when [A] changes to [B], a movement is involved either in time or space. So time and space must pre-exist for the causal processes to operate. Time and space have to be real and existing for the cause-effect relationship to be real (for [A] as cause and [B] as effect). Do time and space have a reality?

All the examples of [A] giving raise to [B] cited by you from your observation occur in the transactional life we lead in time and space which we take as real. That is our everyday world where we conduct our transactions. Let us call the reality of the world as the “Transactional reality.” The causal relationships are undoubtedly valid in the “Transactional reality” of the world.  No argument there.

But Non-duality points out and it is also our observation that the world is ever changing. It is transitory. Therefore, the reality you find in the ever changing world too has to be transitory. Is there then another type of reality which is not transitory?

Yes. In fact, there are two more. The one we are readily familiar with is the reality in our dream world. As long as the dream goes on, we believe in what we see there. One moment we are in a ship, next moment suddenly we may be flying in the sky or be present at a dining table at the school cafeteria. We do not question this observed reality of the dream when we are watching the dream. We enjoy and suffer the dream experiences while dreaming.  We find it to be unreal only after we wake up from the dream. Let us call this as the “Dream world reality.”

On a deeper examination, we find a third reality (about which Non-duality also tells us). This reality does not disappear like the ‘dream reality’ or keep changing as the ‘transactional reality’. It does not alter with past, present or future time periods. It is eternally the same – that means it is changeless. This reality is called the “Absolute Reality.”

Because there is no change ever in the Absolute Reality, neither ‘time’ nor ‘space’ can arise in it.

Space indicates separation in distance – a thing at Point P separated from another thing at Point Q. The separation enables you to distinguish the two things at P and Q. You may even perhaps relate the two things naming one as the cause and the other as the effect. Similarly, time indicates separation over a period – i.e. one thing at time T1 separated from another thing at time T2. Again you may distinguish T1 and T2 on a temporal scale and say T1 was the cause and T2 is the effect.

But in the absence of distance (space) and time period (time), no two distinct things can be identified and hence no change can ever be detected. Whatever is there, it will forever remain as one homogenous-uniform-immutable-single lump.

Secondly, I notice a change occurring in the transactional reality. Any change can be noticed only against a background which does not change. The unchanging background must exist behind the changing transactional reality. This “Unchanging Background” is the Absolute Reality.

Time, space and therefore, cause-effect relationships cannot exist from the stance of Absolute Reality. Non-duality points you to that Absolute Reality.

Our confusion arises when we mix up these different realities and try to talk from different levels in one breath. Therefore, we should be clear at which level of reality we are speaking when we accept or deny causality.

Just as we can easily see that the dream reality is no reality at all from the Awake state, you will see that the transactional reality too is no reality from the Absolute position. But the Absolute position is the only True position that always exists (eternally) underlying the transactional reality and dream world reality. Just as you consider the dream as an imagination viewed from awake state, you will find awake state to be an imagination from the Absolute position.

Dream world objects appear to be governed by the causal relationships that are valid within the dream world. Those relationships appear to be meaningless and random by the standards of the wakeful world reality. Similarly the apparently valid causal relationships of the wakeful world have no meaning or order from the Absolute Reality.  The so called order that we see in the everyday world is something that evolved by common consent and a belief structure developed by the creatures in it. (For example think of the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. East of the line is 2 P.M of say the 21st of a month. The date on the west of that line is 20th. The dates and the line are all imaginary).


Purpose automatically implies a couple of things.

The first and foremost is to set a goal in order to reach (or obtain) something. That something has to be different from what you have or is available now. Suppose you are sitting already at your home. You cannot have then a goal of “going home.” Going home can be a goal only if you happen to be at the market or office or someplace other than home. So setting a goal and moving with a purpose towards that goal can happen only if the present state you are in “needs” to be changed. Change in turn implies operation over time and space. So purpose assumes the prior existence of space and time.

The second and more important assumption is the presence of an individual separate “I” as the “Doer.” In the absence of a ‘doer’, no “action with a purpose” can take place. Therefore a “me” as the doer has to be a distinct entity operating in a world of time and space.

Here again Non-duality tells us that the separate me is an imaginary non-existing entity. When we see the falsity of a separate me, then the “doer” ends. When the doer ends, how can there be an action with a purpose?  Who is there even to ask for a change of whatever that is? What goal or purpose can arise then?

As long as a separate “me” exists, free will (and choice) has a role.  With the realization of Oneness, it is all whatever that HAPPENS.


Does everything, particularly ‘suffering’ happen for a purpose?

The short and quick answer is that there is no hidden “purpose” to anything, going by the Advaita scriptures. But people including many pundits do speak of a purpose or talk of ‘suffering’ as a redemption of past sins or say that suffering is due to the effect of the innate tendencies (vasanas) or karma etc. etc. — these are all just ideas to help the “person” who is suffering so that he/she can “cope up” with the problem on hand.

“To cope up” means attend to the problem at the physical level (take appropriate medicine etc.) and manage day to day life without blaming others or regretting one’s own life. The “coping mechanisms” help to reduce the mental agitation / worry and help in a calm assessment so that the “person” can find proper steps to alleviate the “suffering.” Therefore, there is no harm if a person thinks in terms of a purpose etc. for the suffering, if it helps him/her to attend to the immediate needs of a problem.

The separate “me” is the “doer” for the actions or “owner” (claimant) for what happens. Say, suffering happens and the separate “me” claims that suffering as “mine”.  Then I become the owner for the suffering and hence I suffer. If there is no owner, the suffering will be orphaned. Unpossessed by anybody, the ‘suffering’ does not get strength and attenuates by itself.

As you know already, Non-duality tells us that a separate “me” is merely an imagination, it does not exist. The Unfindable Inquiry of Scott shows that a “me” cannot be found at all because it does not exist. So the “me” is an imagination.

If the “me” is an imagination, the claimant of “suffering” as the “owner of suffering” is also an imagination.  As long as a “person” thinks that he/she exists as a separate individual human being and that he is the sufferer, the suffering continues. Once he finds that there is no individual “person” there with a solid human body “claiming” the suffering to be his, who is there as the sufferer i.e. the owner of the suffering?

Then nobody would need the “coping mechanisms” of inventing a purpose, or karma etc.

Karen Richards said in her interview with NDM as follows:
“In a way it could be described that life circumstances seemed to engineer an opportunity for all ideas of a personal self to be seen through. It appeared that due to intense physical and emotional suffering the ‘I’ that I believed I was had to really stop.”
From her own life experience, as long as she was claiming the “suffering” as hers (as the “owner”), she continued to suffer. The moment she saw that there was really no any “I” there, the sufferer ended.

If I claim “doership” for my actions and “ownership” for any and everything that happens (good or bad), I will continue to enjoy or suffer the consequences. Non-duality teaches us that the world out there and a separate me here are both imaginary and non-existent. But a “me” and a “world” are the pre-requisites for a “purpose” to exist. Therefore, as we can understand from Non-duality, “Purpose” cannot really exist .

Just as a nightmare sometimes may suddenly wake you up from a dream reality to wakeful reality, a shocking ‘suffering’ may awaken an individual.

Questioner:  A beautiful response! Thank you.