Vedic wisdom may seem pessimistic, but that pessimism is the essential launching pad for a realistic and lasting optimism.
After a recent university seminar, I was asked a question that I had myself raised when I first encountered the philosophy of Krishna consciousness: “Why is the Vedic philosophy so pessimistic? When the world offers both pleasure and pain, why does the Bhagavad-gita call the world a place of misery?”
Over a decade and a half of practicing and sharing Krishna consciousness, I have been refining my answer to this question. This recent encounter persuaded me to present the answer in the form of the following article.
In short, the answer is in four parts:
1. The Bhagavad-gita is not pessimistic. It’s realistic. It is a fact that in the material world the balance between pleasure and pain is tilted heavily toward pain.
2. The philosophy of the Gita only appears pessimistic at the outset. Ultimately, the Gita offers a supremely optimistic message.
3. Even the most steadfast worldly optimism fails when tested by the longing of our heart, a longing that is fulfilled only by the vision of reality the Gita offers.
4. The Gita doesn’t teach rejection of this world for another, rather it teaches us how to harmonize this world, the material world, with the spiritual world.
Let’s look at these points systematically.
DIVE into Misery
We can get an insight into the balance of pleasure and pain in this world by examining how pleasure and pain are balanced in the physical body, through which our primary experience of this world comes.
Let’s makes this analysis by using an acronym DIVE.
Duration: The pleasures of the body last only for a few minutes, as in the case of eating or sexual intercourse. However, the pains of the body often last for years, as in the case of chronic back problems, arthritis, or terminal cancer.
Intensity: The body is far more sensitive to pain than it is to pleasure. If we are lying comfortably on a soft bed, receiving a soothing massage, and at the same time one part of our body is pricked by a pin, the intensity of pain from that one pinprick supersedes the intensity of the pleasure we are feeling in all the other parts of the body.
Variety: The ways in which the body can give us pleasure are few, whereas the ways in which it can give us pain are many, perhaps innumerable. The eyes, for instance, give pleasure primarily by perceiving beautiful objects. But those same eyes can give pain by being struck, pierced with sharp objects, or gouged out, or by becoming inflamed, infected, or even blinded by a myriad variety of diseases.
Extent: The body parts that can give us pleasure are few, being restricted primarily to the external sensory organs like the eyes, ears, and skin, whereas the body parts that can give us pain are many. Actually, all the parts of our body have the potential to cause us pain. None of the internal organs like the kidneys, liver, or spine can directly give us any pleasure, yet all of them can give us excruciating pain by becoming diseased in numerous ways.
This analysis shows that the body’s pleasure-pain balance, and by extension the world’s pleasure-pain balance, is tilted heavily toward pain. That’s why, with unsentimental candor, the Srimad- Bhagavatam (7.9.25) declares the material body to be asesa-rujam; virohah, a breeding place for unlimited diseases and miseries, and the Bhagavad-gita (8.15) declares the material world to be duhkhalayam asasvatam, a place of misery where the little happiness we may achieve by our most optimistic outlook is also stripped away because it is by nature inescapably temporary.
When the Worst Takes Us to the Best
But the Bhagavad-gita’s essential message is not pessimistic. It is optimistic. It directs us to the eternal spiritual world, where we as indestructible souls can reclaim our destiny of everlasting happiness. To ensure that we don’t miss out on that glorious destiny due to the futile hope for happiness in this world, it unabashedly proclaims the true nature of this world as a place of misery. Here’s an analogy to understand the strategy that the Gita employs.
Consider a person diagnosed with cancer. In this case, the disease is serious though curable, but only through rigorous chemotherapy. Initially, the patient may flinch when told about the severe treatment, but upon honest examination he may readily accept the treatment, given the two alternatives: a gradual, excruciating, and inevitable death or a grueling treatment that nonetheless leads to recovery. When faced with a grave problem, the path to the most favorable outcome often begins by having a hard look at the worst-case scenario.
The Vedic texts apply this same principle to our current material existence. They explain that at present all of us are diseased we are eternal souls afflicted with temporary amnesia. Though we are entitled to a blissful everlasting life in devotional service to God, due to misidentifying our selves with our temporary material bodies, we unnecessarily have to suffer the miseries of old age, disease, death, and rebirth over and over again. The “bright” side of life worldly pleasure blinds us to these harsh facts of life and fills us with the vain hope that temporary adjustments of our material environment will free us from suffering. Thus, the so-called bright side of life perpetuates our dark diseased existence.
Most of us get so caught up with pursuing worldly pleasures that we forget or neglect the drawbacks of such a pursuit and so lose the opportunity to cure ourselves of the material disease. Curing ourselves requires a sort of therapy wherein we expose ourselves to spiritual stimuli like God’s holy names, His saintly devotees, sacred scriptures that describe His glories and activities, Deities that embody His beautiful form, and His sanctified remnants (prasada). Unlike chemotherapy, which is painful from beginning to end, this spiritual therapy may seem painful in the beginning but quickly becomes joyful after only a little practice (Gita 18.37). In fact, if practiced in the association of caring and competent devotee-guides, the therapy can be joyful right from the beginning. However, experiencing that joy requires committed and sustained practice, a price that most of us are reluctant to pay. Therefore, the Vedic texts offer us an uncompromising and unsentimental look at the two alternatives before us: a string of miseries throughout this life and many future lives, or a devotional therapy that requires endeavor now but eventually restores us to our eternal blissful life. When faced with these alternatives, our reluctance to take up the spiritual therapy evaporates and thus the doorway to eternal life opens.
This profoundly wise Vedic strategy is evident in the progressive flow of the Bhagavad-gita: it initially declares this world to be an unalterably miserable place (8.15) and eventually reveals the potential within each one of us (9.32–33) to attain divine happiness (18.76–77). Thus, the initial pessimism of Vedic philosophy ultimately leads to profound optimism.
Why Underestimate Reality?
At the mention of the spiritual world, a question often arises: “Isn’t this longing for another world, a world filled with happiness, just an attempt to escape from reality?”
Yes, spiritual life is an attempt to escape not from reality, but to reality.
Let us objectively examine what people call “real” life. It is a life of perpetual struggle from the womb to the tomb: struggle for education under back-breaking pressure literally, through schoolbags, and figuratively, through the high expectations of others struggle for employment amidst cutthroat competition, struggle for family harmony amidst domestic strife, struggle for health in spite of the aging of the body, and ultimately the futile struggle against an inevitable death sentence. Amidst all these struggles, we busy ourselves with convoluted versions of animalistic pursuits: eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. The uncertainty of success in these pursuits causes us constant stress, and the hope for success is what we call optimism. Throughout this “real” life, we wake up each morning to witness our body emit a foul-smelling substance if we are fortunate enough to have a body that works properly. We hastily flush away this unpleasant reminder that our body is not what we endeavor to make it look like by carefully dressing it and applying make-up and other cosmetics. However, we can’t flush away the other inconveniences we have to suffer as our body ages, falls sick, and finally succumbs to its ultimate collapse. Even when such distresses don’t overwhelm us, our life gets so boring that more people visit psychiatrists due to boredom than due to distress. Even the most optimistic attitude can do little to change this unpalatable but undeniable reality.
How can we consider a life so inane, so pointless, so disappointing, so deadening to be “real” life? How have we been deceived into accepting as real such a pathetically incomplete realization of our human potential? Let’s try to understand with another analogy.
When people desire to play a virtual-reality video game, that desire divorces them from the reality of their identities and propels them into an illusory cyber-world, where they experience artificial emotions by misidentifying with their individual characters in the game. Similarly, the Bhagavad-gita (13.22) describes that when we desire to enjoy material things, that desire divorces us from the reality of our spiritual identity and propels us into the illusory material world, where we experience artificial, material emotions due to misidentifying with our material bodies. However, unlike a video game, our material misidentification is neither casual, nor pleasant; it gives us insignificant pleasure and significant pain.
When, by good fortune, we somehow realize the flawed, and ultimately doomed, nature of our illusory material pursuits, that realization awakens within us the desire to end our separation from the eternal reality. And the more we give up illusory pleasure and the hyper-illusory optimism that keeps us glued to the pursuit of that illusory pleasure, the more we gain back our rightful real happiness in spiritual love for God.
Our real life is far more dignified than the indignities our material body subjects us to. Our real life is far more graceful than the disgraces the world buffets us with. Our real life is the life of spirit, the life of freedom, the life of joy, the life of eternity. The Bhagavad-gita proclaims that our real life is beyond the life of this miserable, material world. In our real life, our innate longing for everlasting life is fulfilled by recognizing and realizing our spiritual immortality. Therein, our intrinsic longing for love is eternally and completely fulfilled by reposing it in God, the all-attractive all-loving eternal Supreme Person, Krishna. That life of love is our real life, not the ugly and unfortunate parody that we have mistakenly labeled “real” life.
The Symbiosis of the ‘Here’ and the ‘Hereafter’
That’s why the Gita (8.15) urges us to return from the material world, where we presently live the here to the spiritual world, where we actually belong the hereafter. Despite this apparent rejection of the here in favor of the hereafter, the Gita (18.78) concludes by assuring us success in the here. This demonstrates that the Gita’s actual message is of connection, not rejection: the connection of the here with the hereafter, not the rejection of the here for the hereafter. Indeed, the Gita declares that the here is also the kingdom of God (5.29), and that Krishna cares so much about it that He personally descends here repeatedly (4.7) to re-establish the virtuous order (4.8) that will facilitate us in attaining the hereafter (4.9). The Gita (11.32–33) further indicates that by acting responsibly in service to God in the here, we can assist Him in preserving and promoting the order He wishes to perpetuate in this material world.
But if we care only for the here, we will become attached to material things and blinded to the hereafter, thus depriving ourselves of our right to eternal happiness. And if we care only for the hereafter, we will become apathetic and irresponsible about the here, thus failing to play our part in Krishnas plan to preserve order in the material world.
By keeping in mind the beauty, the glory, and the eternality of the hereafter, we can immunize ourselves from being enamored by the fleeting pleasures and the deluding promises of the here. By keeping in mind the role of the here as the arena that shapes us for attaining the hereafter, we can face the challenges of the here with determination and wisdom. That’s why the Gita (8.7) exhorts us to seek a dynamic balance between the here and the hereafter: Aspire wholeheartedly for the hereafter while acting responsibly in the here.
To summarize, the Gita’s initial pessimism is the essential jolt needed to make us receptive to a fulfilment far better than what the best worldly optimism can ever offer.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his site thespiritualscientist.com.