Part IV – Belief that we are mortal, unhappy and ignorant
It appears that everybody is struggling hard to find happiness. The desires are different for each human being. What I want or what I think that makes me happy is different from what others want or think that makes them happy. Thus each one’s likes and dislikes are different. However, the bottom line for all human pursuits is that we are all searching for happiness, thinking that fulfilling this desire or that desire will eventually bring the happiness that we want. However in every gain, by fulfilling the desire, there is always a loss. I thought I was going to be happy when I got married, but with marriage I lost the freedom of my bachelorhood. Thus every gain involves a loss; every achievement involves a sacrifice of one thing or another. There can never be a complete gain without a loss. Therefore, whatever happiness that we get by fulfilling desires is not ultimately fulfilling, since every one of them leaves us in the end unfulfilled or desiring something else to be full. So life itself seems to be a loosing proposition, trying to find eternal and inexhaustible happiness through a variety of means, but not achieving what we want and ending our life miserably. The tragedy is that, even after realizing this, we still cannot stop ourselves from following our desires. Our desires may get sophisticated or cultured but the bottom line remains the same.
It looks like we are trapped, forever chasing after happiness in the game of life. Everyone thinks that those who have more material possessions are happier, while those who have more still feel that what they have is inadequate and continue longing for more to be happy. Even if one is wealthy, he is not healthy. We wanted wealth for security but now we are worried about the security of the wealth.
Some seek religion for solace, since there is a promise of happiness in the afterlife. Most religions promise eternal, inexhaustible happiness in heaven after death. Vedanta recognizes this as the fundamental human problem. Everyone is seeking happiness and Vedanta says that, as long as you are seeking you will never find it. Some are longing for experiences and the very longing prevents them from having or recognizing that experience. Our experiences confirm this since no one has ever become happy and contented and stopped seeking once they have gained what they initially wanted. Life has become an endless struggle. Vedanta says that the solution lies in the correct understanding of the problem. It declares: ‘any dependence on something other than yourself is slavery, while dependence on only yourself is freedom’. All desires - whether for a thing, a person, a position, name or fame - make you dependent, since your happiness depends on the fulfilment of those desires in the way you want. Slavery is insured as they control you rather than you controlling them. Some contend that accepting this slavery is itself happiness. But how can a slave be free? Freedom involves independence. That ‘any dependence, however glorified it sounds, is bondage’ is the true teaching of Vedanta. Freedom or liberation or mokSha cannot be gaining something, or going somewhere since anything that one gains, one can also loose and any thing that has beginning has an end. The state of limitless alone is freedom from all limitations; it should be space-wise limitation (non-finite), time-wise limitation (eternal) and object-wise limitation (unqualifiable or undefinable).
Let us examine how Vedanta approaches this problem. After examining all human pursuits throughout their lives, all over the world, at all times, it concluded that they all originated from three fundamentally erroneous conclusions. A human being is not only a conscious entity but a self-conscious entity. He is not only conscious of the world, consisting of things and beings around him, but also conscious of himself too. Because he is self-conscious, he examines himself and comes to a conclusion about himself or makes judgments about himself. He makes three fundamental conclusions about himself:
1. He is mortal or his life span is limited,
2. He is unhappy and
3. He is ignorant.
He is not comfortable with these conclusions since he has an inherent longing to be an eternal, happy and knowledgeable being. All his pursuits in life are essentially trying to establish himself as eternal, happy and knowledgeable. Fear of death is fundamental for all human beings, arising from the conclusion that he is mortal. This conclusion is supported by the assertion that he is born on such and such a day and will die one day, whether he likes it or not. Thus his existence is time-wise limited by birth and death.
This was the root cause for grief of Arjuna, in the Bhagavad Gita. In spite of this evidence, there is an inherent desire for every one not to die or not to cease to exist. The promise of eternal life, at least in heaven, became the basis for many religions because of this fundamental conclusion. On the other hand, Krishna is emphatic in stating the law of Nature: ‘that which has a beginning has an end or that which is born has to die and that which dies has to be born again’. If my heavenly abode has a beginning then it should end one day, as per the law. This applies even to liberation. If I am going to be free or liberated one day or at some time then it should end too. Hence freedom or mokSha cannot be of the type of gaining something that I do not have. If that freedom is not intrinsic to my nature, and I have to gain it by some process or by some grace, then it is equally likely that I will loose it. Hence Vedanta asserts that there is problem in the fundamental conclusions I have made about myself starting with the one that I am mortal.
Let us examine the second conclusion about myself, that I am unhappy. I do not like this conclusion either and I am therefore seeking happiness by acquiring this or getting rid of that. I want to be happy since I feel currently I am not happy with myself. Therefore I seek happiness outside by gaining something that I like and getting rid of something I do not like. Experience shows that any amount of seeking will not give me the eternal inexhaustible happiness that I want. I become desperate since I cannot get what I want and yet I cannot stop seeking either. This is the tragedy of every life form. Vedanta says the fundamental conclusion that I am unhappy is inherently wrong.
Finally, let us look at the third conclusion, that I am ignorant. This is a strange conclusion that a human endowed with intellect should reach about himself. Nobody wants to be ignorant, particularly about himself. Everyone wants to know what others think of him, or what others gossip about him. This longing to know is an inherent desire to be all knowledgeable, since knowledge is also power. The funny thing is that, the more one knows, the more ignorant one becomes. The reason is that, the more one knows, the more he learns that there is lot more to learn. Any objective knowledge makes one more ignorant. He becomes humble since he knows that what he knows is very limited.
In any objective knowledge one becomes a super specialist in a narrower and narrower field. Such is the nature of objective knowledge. In one upaniShad, a Vedantic student asks his teacher, “Sir, please teach me that, knowing which I will know everything”. It is a tall request. People spend their whole life trying to specialize in one subject. Here the student wants to know that, by knowing which he knows everything, and everything means every thing. This cannot be about any objective knowledge, since knowledge in each area is inexhaustible. One cannot know fully one subject, let alone become an expert in all subjects. On the other hand a Vedantic student wants to know that, knowing which he will know everything that needs to be known, so that his longing to know is fulfilled.
Vedanta says that all pursuits ultimately fail miserably until one quits his life. One can neither gain what one is seeking in terms of the three fundamental pursuits nor can one give up the pursuits. This is the problem of all beings, in the past, in the present and will be in the future. This is what Vedanta calls ‘saMsAra’. Then the question is: ‘what is the solution to this human problem?’ Let us evaluate ourselves whether the above analysis fits us or not. Are we seeking in life something different from that which can be reduced to the above three fundamental pursuits? Are we finding what we want by seeking? One has to evaluate impartially one’s life experiences and come to a conclusion. Only when we have fully and categorically resolved that we cannot get what want by any pursuit, will the teaching of Vedanta become meaningful. Otherwise it will be like any other academic study.
Veda means knowledge and Vedanta means ‘end of knowledge’ or the ultimate knowledge or the knowledge of the ultimate. It has meaning only when we have become committed to understand the ultimate purpose of life itself. This is what was meant by ‘pre-requisite’ in terms of qualification to pursue Vedanta. Our study of Vedanta is not for academic interest – for that we need knowledge of Sanskrit. Here we are not trying to become experts in Vedanta but simply trying to realize the truth expounded in the Vedanta. For that we need a certain discriminative faculty to recognize what is ephemeral and what is eternal and a certain dispassion to reject that which is ephemeral in pursuit of eternal. Most importantly we need faith in the declaration of Vedanta and in the teacher who can explain the teaching in a way that we can understand.
Proceed to the next essay.