Although not many of us question our existence and the purpose of our life, we ultimately reach a point where consciously or unconsciously we have to decide what we plan to do with it. As humans, we have been given only a limited time on this planet and almost all of us have the desire to do something meaningful out of it. For each individual, this ‘meaning’ might vary but everyone will have something that is their calling. Be it achieving monetary success, fame, family, spirituality etc. The importance of a purpose is therefore very high because we are not machines who just follow a certain code but are sentient beings with the ability to think about our actions unlike the animals which follow the instincts of the senses.
Are Humans same as Animals?
The Hitopadesha talks about this in the following verse:
āhāra-nidrā-bhaya-maithunaṃ cha samānam_etat_pashubhir_narāṇām | dharmo hi teṣhāmadhiko visheṣho dharmeṇa hīnāḥ pashubhiḥ samānāḥ ||
Translation: “Food (eating), sleep, fear (defending) and mating, these acts of humans are similar to animals. Of them (humans), dharma is the only special thing, without dharma humans are also animals.”
Dharma refers to a sense of responsibility which arises from intelligence which is a distinguishing factor between humans and the animals. Therefore everyone ‘lives’ their life to achieve something or towards a certain goal. However, most of these ‘goals’ or ‘purposes’ that people abide by, are extremely fickle. This is because of the inherent uncertainty of our lives.
We have seen over the past year or so, that a very tiny virus which we cannot even perceive with our eyes has caused havoc in the society and everyone of us is bound to our homes against our wills. Most often we forget the very fact of our mortality and live our lives without thinking about the ultimate destination. When we think of ourselves as the body, we are guided by the senses just like the animals.
However, we have the gift of intelligence which we should utilize in questioning whether we really are this body. Ever since we were born, we have experienced this world from the same body. However, the body that we claim to be our identity is continuously changing. Does that change our experience of the world? We might have gained experience throughout our lives so we might act differently but the inherent perception remains the same.
6 Things that every human desires
Although humans have made tremendous technological progress, it has all been to facilitate or ease the process of eating, sleeping, defending and mating. Almost all of our lives revolve in this cycle that begins from birth, then we get some education to earn some money, get married, beget children to go through the struggle to provide them with all their necessities, and ultimately die. Moreover, nowadays we see, in the name of westernization, that even the children leave their parents as soon as they are too old and as a result so many people die alone. The real question to ask for us is what is all this for? Let us try and understand the things people strive so hard to attain and how their lives are affected by it.
Let us start with the most flickering thing people strive so hard to attain, fame or being famous. The irony with being famous is that no matter how talented or entertaining you are you can never claim to be respected and appreciated by everyone. Therefore, how can anyone claim to be famous? What to speak of the world, we see that even in our families, out of our so-called loved ones, not everyone respects us. Having said this, people who do achieve some fame, also fall into depression when they lose it or when even one person says something negative about them. Is life worth living based on someone else’s value?
Narada Pancaratra states:
Translation: “When one is freed from the false designations (in relation with the body) of this world, one is purified (and thus becomes qualified to obtain real knowledge).”
Therefore, living a life of false fame and prestige is only living in illusion because of the temporary nature of our bodies. All these designations – engineer, doctor, scientist, father, mother, son, daughter, etc – are only associated with the body and they will also be vanquished when this body is vanquished. So it is best to detach ourselves from such designations and walk on the path of self realization which transcends the bodily conception of life.
2. Sense Gratification
All living beings are by default, as described in the Vedic literature, Ānanda-mayo ‘bhyāsāt (Vedānta-sūtra 1.1.12): hankering after happiness. When our consciousness is on the bodily conception of life, the only way we derive pleasure is through our senses, by seeing something beautiful, by hearing something melodious, by smelling something fragrant, by tasting something delicious and by touching something soothing. Such pleasures however, are very short lived. For instance, some people claim that they can watch their favourite movie n-number of times.
However, if you ask them to do so, eventually there will come a time when they will start to even hate the movie. Similarly, if someone likes gulab jamun, and you keep a plate of 100 gulab jamuns in front of them, nobody would be able to eat all of them, they will eventually not even want to look at a gulab jamun. Therefore, we understand that the pleasures we derive through our senses are temporary and give diminishing levels of pleasure when we indulge in the same activity again and again.
Many people often live their lives hankering after the pleasures of their senses which as we have concluded is not a permanent pleasure. We see so many people in the world who have everything they desire, they can watch any movie on the planet, hear any song, eat any food, have unlimited sex, yet even after all this, they are not satisfied.
Should we really hanker and work so hard for satisfying our senses which only give us fleeting pleasures and sometimes even pain? Of course, this does not mean that we stop eating or sleeping because after all, we have to maintain this body and not starve to death. But the issue we discuss here is that of overindulgence in sense gratification and being guided by the pleasure for the senses. Vedas speak of the body as analogous to a chariot carried by 5 horses. The 5 horses are the 5 senses of the body, the reins attached to the horses are the mind, the driver of the chariot is the intelligence and the spirit soul is seated on the chariot.
In the name of westernization, we see even in countries like India, the number of people opting to drink alcohol, doing drugs and smoking is rapidly increasing, which is not only physically unhealthy leading to all kinds of ailments, but will also hamper one’s intelligence which should be utilized for self realization. Lung disease, heart disease, and liver failure are only a few of the adverse effects that are born out of such habits. Moreover, the loss of consciousness one experiences, leads one to also commit heinous acts under influence, not to mention the hangovers and constant vomiting associated with drinking. Should we really risk our lives, and moreover this human body, indulging in acts of sense gratification and intoxication?
Everyone is born either a rich man or a poor man, however, none of that wealth is his and when he dies, the wealth he has accumulated over the course of his lifetime is again passed on to his successors and he therefore dies without the wealth. People spend so much time and energy accumulating large amounts of money and property in the name of future investments but ultimately we only need 6 feet of land to lie in our bed at night. Even in this case we need to understand what are the things we really need in life to live peacefully. Several wars are fought for money, not only between countries but also amongst family members.
We work hard to earn so much money and then live in anxiety that someone might steal it away and so we invest that money into security systems to protect the leftover money and the cycle goes on. But to what avail? Factually speaking, a person needs only enough money to maintain himself and his family by having a comfortable place to live, food on the table and maybe for some recreation (which again is not a need but want because of how frustrated/drained we feel after work).
Why do we need a multi-storeyed mansion? Why do we need luxury cars? Why do we need to eat in expensive restaurants when we can easily cook much better and healthier meals at home? How many rich people in the world are actually happy?
Jim Carrey, the famous Hollywood actor made a brilliant statement in this regard: “I want everyone to achieve everything they want in life and they will realise that that was not the answer.” Which when one thinks about in retrospect about their lives should seem very familiar. Every one of us has had something we always dreamt of achieving. Not all of those dreams come true, however, those that do, give us happiness only for a very short time.
For example, someone who really wanted to go to IITs and does make it, they would be happy for the first few months or maybe even a year or so but if you ask anyone whether they would stop doing everything because they achieved their goal? The answer would unanimously be a resounding no. Is life really about moving from one goal to the next, the achievement of which gives only a small amount of happiness in comparison to the amount of effort one puts in? Any intelligent person would understand that the return on investment in terms of happiness is very limited, so why should we not question the ways of this world?
Scientists in today’s world are trying to ‘solve’ the problems such as global warming, extra-terrestrial travel, information technology etc. However, even if such problems are solved, would it really make us happy? The comfortable lives we are now living might become more comfortable but are these the real problems of our lives? Can any scientist claim to prevent the deaths of our loved ones? Can they prevent someone from contracting any diseases? What is more, we are living in a world where almost everyday a new disease emerges and some, like the COVID-19, destroy the structure of our lives as we know it. Can scientists claim to stop aging? They have created various beauty products and cosmetic surgeries which make one ‘look’ younger but eventually everyone gets wrinkles, body pain, organ failures and other ailments associated with old age.
However, not only do these scientists not realise the real problems we face but also they over-indulge into their scientific endeavours which only makes human life comfortable. They work so hard only to have their theories re-written by someone else in the future. What is the use of such knowledge which does not help us face and solve the real problems of life? Even if such knowledge is distributed and people become economically advanced using it, would they really be satisfied? When we look at this knowledge from the perspective of death, what is the use of such knowledge which we will eventually lose?
Some might argue that if the scientists in the past had not worked so hard, human civilization would not have reached where it has today, which is true. However, what happened to those who made all these scientific discoveries? They are nowhere to be seen. Why should we work hard for the possibility that someone else might lead a better life of sense gratification in the future?
A Harvard group studied the lives of Harvard graduates for over 70 years to assess the quality of life and the level of happiness. The results of that study indicated that the greatest measure of happiness in a person’s life is how fulfilling his/her relationships are. As a human being is a social creature, this result from the study is not at all baffling. We all need support and company of like-minded people in our lives to make us feel positive and to keep us motivated. Having said that, even though we derive our happiness from such relationships, it is also important to note that these strong bonds we create throughout our lives are also a source of major pain. We see that no relationship in this world is devoid of differences. People often ‘celebrate differences’, meaning, to debate over different points of view and always ‘agree to disagree’. This eventually leads to misunderstandings, arguments and often such relationships also fall apart.
In ancient India the tradition of joint families was very prevalent, however, we see in the modern era that people are moving more and more towards nuclear families which is an indirect indication of how much people are avoiding joint families owing to their differences. Therefore, the same relationships which give us so much pleasure, eventually have to end at some point owing to misunderstandings, arguments or if there are none, ultimately, by death. Should we really invest ourselves into such relationships rather than understanding our real nature and basing our relationships on that foundation?
When we try and understand deeply why some relationships work and others don’t, we see that relationships where the basis is something higher than either of the individuals, last, while those which are based simply on the pleasure each person derives from the other don’t last very long. The reason for this is very simple. No two people in this world are perfectly compatible, since each individual has his/her beliefs and desires which eventually lead to conflict, and therefore the relationship breaks. On the other hand, when both the individuals have something higher to strive for other than their own personal interests, they can forgo their minor differences. It is important to note here that this basis should not be born from the bodily conception since as discussed earlier, the conceptions we create based on this body are only temporary because this body is subject to death.
Therefore we should strive for an eternal relationship, the information of which is provided to us in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam.
Many people in the world depend on philanthropy as a means of satisfaction. Philanthropy is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘goodwill to fellow members of the human race’. This might take the form of monetary donations, motivational lectures, food distribution etc. Although these are acts of kindness where the donor does not expect anything in return, we have to ask whether these helps are really a help? It is said: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” However, this need for eating is also on the bodily level, and therefore temporary. Even if your contributions to society help people live a better life, eventually when they die what use was all your hard work?
As stated earlier, we are hankering after happiness and loving exchanges which one invariably derives from the dynamics ingrained in our relationships with other people. Therefore the vedic literatures state that our real form is that of spirit soul and the nature of this soul is that of sat-cit-ananda (eternal-full of knowledge-blissful). Therefore, self-realization entails one to realize our true nature and go beyond the bodily pleasures which are available even to the animals. This knowledge can only be obtained through vedic literature or through a bonafide spiritual master. The real philanthropy, therefore, is to help our fellow humans realize the importance of this human form of life and to lead them on the path to self realization.
So far we have seen life as we know it with a nihilistic perspective which is important since unless we understand the futility of life (as we see and perceive around us) we won’t endeavour to find a better way of life. Otherwise, we will simply continue living the way the entire world is, and realize the futility of everything we’ve done on our deathbeds. Therefore, we have to purify our senses and dovetail them towards self realization. When we thereby realize our true self and our relationship with the Supreme Self, we elevate ourselves to the platform of eternally blissful and full of knowledge.
The process of self-realization is explained clearly in the Vedic scriptures like the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, and Srimad Bhagavatam. Why not just read these books like we would read any self-help book or a book with moral stories? Even reading such books with the intention of learning something from them, even material, is greatly beneficial. Although these books were written over 5000 years ago, they are still relevant in today’s day and age of technology, because of the eternal nature of our spiritual identities. There is no cost to pay but a lot of profit to be gained.