THEIR CIVILIZATION seemed to develop out of nothing; one could easily remember a time when the land was undistinguished by their presence. But soon their magnificent fortress rose above the surrounding terrain, and their influence spread as thousands joined their ranks. Oh, to be a part of the excitement! This masterful civilization seemed destined to become a vortex of cultural development.
But then the lawn mower came.
Millions of ants were rendered homeless as the monstrous blades slashed through their fortress walls. Roads crumbled under heavy black tires. Countless ants were killed in but an instant. But despite the devastation, millions survived in tunnels beneath the ground, and as the lawn mower roared off into the distance, they began at once the task of rebuilding their kingdom.
Scientists estimate that there are at least one quadrillion ants on this planet. On every continent ants build their kingdoms and busy themselves with the drama of their lives. And nearly all of it escapes human attention.
Yet from the ant's viewpoint this life of an ant, a life we barely notice, a life that can be ended by a chance encounter with the bottom of our shoe, holds the full experience of living. Ants have their ant childhoods, their responsible ant jobs, and their relationships within a bustling community. Yet the impact of any one of these lives upon our own is minimal. For us, an individual ant is insignificant.
The world is full of such incidental lives. Birds swoop by, blades of grass bend in the wind, squirrels dash up and down trees, all on the periphery of our awareness.
And think of all the human lives that escape our notice. People rushing about us in their cars, people waiting in line behind us at the post office, people flying over our homes in airplanes more people than even the most gregarious soul could know. People whose names we will never hear spoken. People whose triumphs and tragedies will never move our hearts. All the people who to us mean nothing.
And even the human lives that rise above the others, seeming to affect millions, are crushed into insignificance by the passing of time. How many people now fear Attila the Hun? How many Americans know the names of all past American presidents? "The great kings, leaders, and soldiers fight with one another in order to perpetuate their names in history," Srila Prabhupada observes. "They are forgotten in due course of time, and they make a place for another era in history."
Even the demigods the powerful beings who control the workings of the universe come and go. And from their vantage point, human beings are just as important as well, ants.
Ant societies are wasted by lawn mowers, human societies by wars and disease. Ants and people die and are forgotten. Is there anything that makes our human life more significant than that of the lowly ant?
Ants are forced to race around building elaborate civilizations that will ultimately be ruined, and when such ruination comes, they simply begin again. No lessons learned, no philosophical perspective gained. But a human being can look around and realize, "All of this will be gone in time. Even my body will be finished. Why should I focus all my energy on something that won't last?"
Human intelligence releases us from the mindless behavior of the hapless ants. We are blessed with the power to understand the significance of the eternal soul that animates every material body. So a life that focuses on the body and ignores the cravings of the soul is fine for an ant, but it never fully satisfies the introspective human being. Srila Prabhupada compares humans who ignore the philosophical urgings of the intelligence to misers who have great wealth but never use it. The wealth is simply for show but brings nothing of value.
No one knows when his human life will end. And the greatest tragedy is to lose the chance to free oneself, through higher knowledge, from the frantic struggles of the lower species. For if such an opportunity is wasted, the gracious laws of nature allow us to return to a form of life where we won't have a human intelligence to waste.