Within this short essay I intend to prove that there is no real happiness in the material world. And I have strong evidence to support my argument. But before you quit me, hoping to avoid the curses of some cynical misanthrope, let me assure you that my conclusion is actually of an extremely positive nature, and that I have equally strong evidence to prove that any human being can achieve total, lasting happiness in this lifetime.
My case is not a contradiction: before proving that real happiness is attainable, I have to remind you of the many miseries that plague humankind. As the Bhagavad-gita states, the miseries of birth, disease, old age, and death are inherent in everyone’s life. Aside from these four major spoilers of happiness, the Vedic literature enumerates another three: miseries caused by our own bodies and mind, miseries sent by nature—such as hurricanes, droughts, and so on—and miseries inflicted on us by other living entities. One has to admit these miseries are with us, and are unavoidable.
We don’t want disease, but although advances in medical science have halted some “old” diseases, “new” ones pop up, and many diseases remain incurable. So if, while the suffering of disease is forced upon me, I claim that I am quite happy, my claim is heavily qualified.
In a similar way, old age is forced upon us. We prefer to maintain our youth, but we are helpless before the forces of time. Old age is shoved down our throat.
And who is immune from the miseries and disasters of the elements? Heat, cold, fire, volcanos, earthquakes—the list is almost endless. We may think that happiness consists of enjoying an air conditioner during 115-degree heat waves, but such “happiness” is only a preventative measure against a naturally inimical condition.
As for the miseries forced on us by other living entities, there is no paradise spot on this planet where we may be free from them. If I have made a temporary v truce with my human antagonists, then germs, bugs, or some other species will inevitably come to bite or otherwise attack me. I can defend myself. I can fight and maybe kill them. But I cannot be free of hostilities directed at me by other living entities. We therefore exist in a perpetual state of war against one enemy or another. And “war is hell.”
I promised that this would be a positive essay, but before looking for hope, let us consider the ultimate defeat we all have to face. A die-hard optimist, after hearing of the various kinds of miseries, might bravely persist and claim, “Never-mind. Admitting that into each life some rain must fall, still I am happy. Despite the defects—which are an inevitable part of human existence—I will embrace the world. I will say, ‘Yes’ to life.”
But this won’t help. We may say, “Yes” to life, but death says “No.” If, like Hamlet, contemplating whether “to be or not to be,” we decide to continue our miserable, material existence, death nevertheless declares that we shall not be. If, despite so many kinds of unhappiness, we want to enjoy material life, we are still forcibly kicked out of life. So how can we sanely conclude that material life is a happy proposition?
And yet human existence is a happy proposition, because within the human form of life it is possible to gain knowledge of the real self. In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna describes the qualities of this individual self: it is eternal, undying, full of knowledge, and completely joyful. The inevitable sufferings previously described plague the body, but the eternal self is different from the body, and therefore is immune to all those sufferings. As long as we are ignorant of the real self, we identify with the body, taking this miserable world as our permanent abode. Thus we suffer, although we do not have to suffer. Spiritual education, which begins with understanding our eternal selves, ends the sufferings of repeated birth, disease, old age, and death and situates us in our original, constitutional nature as part and parcel of the eternal, blissful Personality of Godhead.
Just as the miseries of material life are undeniable and easily perceived, so transcendental happiness is also readily available to anyone who practices Krsna consciousness. If freedom from misery is rarely attained in this world, it is because most people never take up the work of achieving transcendental realization. But aspiring transcendentalists, even from the beginning of their progress in Krsna consciousness, feel release from the bonds of suffering by connecting the pure spirit self to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna, through devotional service.
The promise of freedom from misery is not a post-dated check that can only be cashed in after death. The Bhagavad-gita (6.20-23) describes the self-realized soul living within this world:
This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses. . . . Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.
Krsna consciousness, the path of freedom from all miseries, may seem abstract and theoretical to one who has never tried it. It may sound too much like “philosophy,” whereas misery is painfully tangible. But if a personal testimony is valuable, I may offer my own tangible experience. Before practicing the chanting of Hare Krsna and the life of devotional service, I was unhappy, although as a middle-class American I had many material advantages. But now that I’m situated in Krsna consciousness, I feel happy and fulfilled, even when I’m threatened by the miseries of material life. And there are many Krsna conscious devotees whose experience is similar.
But since the personal testimonies of others can never give us direct experience, we invite everyone to both study and practice the way of freedom from miseries—Krsna consciousness. See for yourself that it is the way that leads to eternal life in the kingdom of God, where there is no birth, death, disease, and old age.—SDG