EVERYONE WILL AGREE that a human being needs some kind of education. Some teachers stress preparing oneself for an occupation, while others assert that the quest for knowledge itself sufficiently justifies an education. But unless one’s vocational education or search for knowledge can reveal to him his own identity, the purpose of life, his relationship with God and the universe, and the path of freedom from material miseries, whatever else he learns is but a waste of time.
The well-known incident of the unduly proud scholar and the boatman illustrates this point. A scholar once engaged a ferryboat man to row him across a river. Observing that his boatman was quite uneducated, the scholar began to show off his own learning and simultaneously criticize the boatman.
“My good boatman,” the scholar said, “just see how the first stars are appearing in the sky. We may observe the juxtapositions of planets and stars to a degree that is marvelous. Tell me, do you know the science of astronomy?”
“No sir,” the boatman replied, adding that he knew little beyond rowing.
“You don’t know astronomy?” the scholar said. “Poor fellow! Then your life is twenty-five percent wasted.”
Some time passed, and the scholar began commenting upon the various land formations around them, boasting that he was also a master of geology. “Do you knew the science of geology?” he asked. When the boatman said he did not, the scholar declared, “Oh, then fifty percent of your life is wasted.” Then the scholar next launched into a dissertation on psychology, and when the boatman admitted he knew nothing about it, the scholar announced, “Indeed, seventy-five percent of your life is wasted!”
Suddenly black clouds began pouring rain, and a squall rocked the little ferryboat. Within minutes the storm became so serious that waves broke over the ferry’s, sides, and the ferryman, seeing they would have to abandon the boat, turned to the scholar and said, “Sir; I’m afraid this boat is lost. We’ll have to swim for it. Do you know the art of swimming?”
But the scholar replied, “I don’t know how to swim.”
“Oh, sir,” said the boatman, “then one hundred percent of your life is wasted!” He then dove into the river and began swimming, while the educated scholar drowned.
Thus although a man may pretend to be educated, his education is useless if he does not learn how to save himself from the miseries of life and ultimately from death itself. The Vedic literature refers to a human being who does not use his human birth to solve life’s perplexities as a krpana, or miser. The Garga Upanisad states; “He is a miserly man who does not solve the problems of life and who thus quits this world like the cats and dogs, without understanding the science of self-realization.” The real wealth of human life lies in becoming enlightened and solving the problems of life. Education that misses or ignores this must be considered subhuman.
Facing the Problems
What, then, are the problems of existence? First, there are the fourfold miseries birth, death, disease and old age. There are miseries caused by other living entities, such as biting bugs and human enemies; there are miseries caused by the very nature of our bodies, such as mental anxiety, indigestion and broken limbs, and there are miseries inflicted on us by natural calamities beyond human control, such as earthquakes, droughts and floods. For our education to be fruitful, it should help us find a solution these problems.
One might object to our assumption that human life should yield freedom from miseries. Some people think misery the natural human condition. They say we are meant-to suffer. Nevertheless, living entities of all species want to be happy and avoid suffering; no one takes suffering naturally. Misery may seem inevitable, yet philosophers, humanitarians and politicians ever seek its remedies. Not only does a human being try to avoid suffering; even an ant resists being killed. Ask anyone if he is eager to deteriorate with old age. To answer honestly, one would have to say no. What about disease or death? Would anyone like to die right now? “No thanks.” Sometimes people try to block out suffering with sensual pleasure. For example, one might temporarily forget one’s anxieties through drugs or liquor. But after the high wears off, the anxieties return.
One’s claim to be happy and content is a deception if one has not conquered the miseries of birth, death, old age and disease. For example, say we were to visit a friend in the hospital and find that his leg was in traction, he was unable to pass urine unless a nurse brought a bedpan, he had to receive shots regularly, and he could not eat solid food. If we asked our friend how he was feeling and he replied, “I’m all right,” we might ask, “What is that ‘I’m all right’?” With so many miseries, how could he consider himself all right?
Such illusions of well-being and satisfaction are common among lower animals. Cattle and chickens, for instance, eat their grass and grains in contentment, although their master feeds them simply to kill them. A human being, however, won’t stand for being miserable. He protests, or he seeks a solution.
Hedonists, of course, say that the only solution is to go on enjoying the pleasures of the senses and not dwell on miseries, but unfortunately life’s miseries curb their pleasure at every step. One might have palatable food to eat, but if someone were to mix sand into it, no one would be able to enjoy it, for although its taste would still be there, the sand would grit against one’s teeth and nullify the enjoyment. The pains of material life similarly nullify all the enjoyments of the material world. But if despite all sufferings, one is determined to enjoy material life- to eat sweet food mixed with sand-still one cannot. No one is allowed to stay here. We may want to make our home here and enjoy, but death kicks us out. There are no exceptions. Everyone is forced to leave.
Therefore, with the facilities of human life, one should seek an ultimate solution to misery. Still one might object that to stop suffering is impossible, The painter Van Gogh once wrote in a letter, “Misery is eternal,” But the solution is at hand, as we shall describe herein, if only one approaches the problem seriously and receives the proper education.
The Giants Who Fail Us
We should think that if we scrutinized the works of great writers, scientists and artists, they would help us conquer these miseries. But as we consult our great thinkers, we find they do not have the solution. Socrates, Shakespeare, Freud or the latest Nobel Prize winning scientists may be giants in their fields, but reading their works cannot free one from death or old age, Scientists, of course, are well-known for what they supposedly will do in the future. Those called gerontologists even profess to be on the verge of discovering how to stop aging and death. But according to a recent report in Newsweek, “they have not reached anything even resembling an elixir of youth.” In any case, aside from hopes that some heroic scientist may rescue us from our problems, the miseries of birth, death, old age and disease have no solution. No one wants them, but no one is free from them,
Even humanity’s greatest scientists and philosophers cannot solve the problems of life because everyone born into the material world is conditioned by four basic imperfections. First, we are prone to make mistakes-“to err is human.” In India, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi was supposed to have been a very great person, but he too committed mistakes. Five minutes before he came to the meeting at which he was killed, his confidential associates warned him not to go, but nevertheless he persisted. Another imperfection is that we fall into illusion, mistaking one thing for another. We are also imperfect in that we are prone to cheat. For example, I must admit that I sometimes make mistakes and sometimes fall into illusion. But if nevertheless I write a book claiming to be the truth, is that not cheating? How can one subject to so many imperfections claim to be a teacher? And another imperfection is that we have limited senses. With our limited ears we can hear only a certain range of sounds, and with our eyes we observe the huge sun in the sky to be no bigger than a half dollar. These conditions of material nature, imposed upon one and all, limit man in his knowledge.
The Perfect Intelligence
But perfect knowledge to free us from suffering is available-from the perfect source. Unlike knowledge spoken by imperfect, conditioned living entities, that spoken by God is perfect, free of defect. There is a supremely intelligent being, and His intentions toward mankind are loving. As the supreme creator, He can give the knowledge for supreme freedom from misery.
Atheists argue that there is no Supreme God, but they cannot explain how the huge cosmic manifestation of universes, planets and living beings has come about. The pious accept that God is the creator, but atheists speculate that everything has arisen automatically through spontaneous combustion, chance chemical and Sexual combinations, blind evolution, and so on. These explanations identify only intermediate causes; none of them disproves the existence of a Supreme Lord who is the cause of all causes.
The universe displays wonderful management, engineering and artistry, and behind all these huge affairs of nature is a gigantic brain or intelligence. If a child sees a spacecraft orbiting in the sky, he may think it is doing so by chance, without control, but a mature person knows that teams of intelligent scientists and technicians are controlling its flight. Why, then, should we assume, like ignorant children, that these huge spacecraft called planets are flying in exact, grand orbits through space automatically, with no intelligence behind them? Our scientists may observe the workings of the universe and describe how the law of gravity holds the planets in orbit, but simply to observe the phenomenon and label it “the law of gravity” does not really explain or in any way duplicate the inconceivable mystic potency that enables the planets to float and sail through space. Indeed, to observe laws in the universe is to admit that there must be a lawmaker behind them. Thus begins a conviction in the existence of a supreme intelligence, a supreme controller-God-who alone can give man the ultimate knowledge of how to become free from suffering.
The transcendental nature of God is revealed in Scripture, which is His spoken word. The original scripture is called the Veda (veda means “knowledge”). For the benefit of all living beings, God revealed information on how to become free from the suffering of material life, and a disciplic succession of spiritual masters has conveyed it to us. Such knowledge is called apauruseya, which means that it originates not from imperfect men within this world, but, without defect, from God. In Vedic literature the supreme controller, the intelligent being from whom everything emanates, is called Krishna, which means “All-attractive.” The Supreme Lord, Krishna, has given authoritative literature to men in different lands, and His words appear to differ according to the times and places they were delivered, and the understanding of the people in those places; thus we have the Bible, Koran and Bhagavad-gita. Yet the teaching of the Supreme is one, for its conclusion is always the same: obedience to God will end all suffering.
Education Beyond the Body
To take the first step in transcendental knowledge, one should understand that he is not his body but a spiritual soul. Nevertheless, most big scholars, philosophers and political leaders have not taken even this first step. They have not mastered even the ABC’s of real education. Rather, thinking they are their bodies, they identify themselves with their families, races, nations and so on. A person in bodily consciousness thinks, “I am John Thompson,” “I am a white man,” “I am an American,” “I am black,” “I am Christian,” “I am Communist,” “I am human,” and so on. Yet within a few years the demise of the body vanquishes all such designations.
According to Vedic literature, the real self, as an eternal soul who exists in a loving relation to God, the complete whole, does not die when the body dies, nor does he grow old when the body grows old. He cannot be cut; nor can he be killed. He is joyful always. If one understands this, he can disentangle himself from his long history of suffering. But if one does not undertake this study, whatever else he does in his bodily identity is defeated at the time of death.
Human education, then, must not merely instruct us how to prepare for a job or how to speculate upon the imperfect views of great thinkers. Rather, it must enable us to solve the problems of life. A human being should be dissatisfied as long as he cannot extricate himself from the prison called the material world, where everyone is subject to the strict punishments of old age, death and disease. To be gainfully employed within the prison, to try to enjoy prison life to the utmost, or to give up all hope of ever getting out of prison and simply to sit down to read and write books for amusement is not the real nature of a freedom-loving being. Each of us, by our original nature, is meant to be free of the sufferings material nature imposes upon us.
Although our confinement in the material world is under the jurisdiction of the supreme controller, Krishna, He is not to blame for our suffering. We ourselves have brought it about by our ignorance. Lacking education in what is what, thinking we belong to the material world, we have forgotten our spiritual nature. But because Krishna has not forgotten us-even though we have absorbed ourselves in temporary activities and thus forgotten Him-He sends His personal representative, the spiritual master, to offer us the path by which to return home, back to Godhead, to teach us by precept and example the life of God consciousness, a life of eternity, bliss and knowledge.
Lord Sri Krishna, enjoying His pastimes as a cowherd boy, returns home from the pasturing grounds at the end of the day.Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead; He is not impersonal. In His Vrindavan pastimes especially, He is always surrounded by the cowherd boys, the cowherd girls, His mother and all the inhabitants of Vrindavan.
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami, the Editor of Back to Godhead, is currently traveling with His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada, serving as his personal secretary.