Why Is the Bhagavad-gita So Pessimistic?
- Hare Krishna Friends,
Why Is the Bhagavad-gita So Pessimistic? (Expanded with four-point analysis)
April 15, 2014
(As many readers liked the earlier article by the same title and wanted more
analysis along similar lines, in this article I expand on the theme)
People with cursory knowledge of the Gita’s philosophy sometimes ask: “When
the world offers both pleasures and pains, why does the* Bhagavad-gita* call
the world a place of misery?”
Here's a short four-point answer:
• The *Bhagavad-gita* is not pessimistic, but realistic; the reality is that
the pleasure-pain balance of the world is tilted heavily toward the pain
• Even if we still consider the *Gita* philosophy pessimistic, that
pessimism is only initial, not final. In its conclusion, the *Gita* offers a
supremely optimistic message.
• Even the best worldly optimism pales and fails in front of the longing of
our heart, a longing fulfilled only by the vision of reality offered by the
• The *Gita* doesn’t teach us to reject this world for the spiritual world,
but to harmonize this world with the spiritual world.
Let’s look at these points systematically.
*DIVE into Misery*
We can get insight into the pleasure-pain balance of the world by examining
the pleasure-pain balance of our body, through which we primarily experience
the world. For this discussion, I'll use the acronym DIVE.
*Duration:* The pleasures the body can give us, such as in eating or mating,
last only for a few minutes. However, the pains the body can give us, such
as chronic back problems or arthritis or cancer, can last for years.
*Intensity: *The body is far more pain-sensitive than pleasure-sensitive. If
we are lying comfortably on a bed, being massaged by soothing, soft hands,
one pinprick in one part of the body will bring an intensity of pain that
exceeds the intensity of the pleasure experienced in all other parts of the
*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, even innumerable. The eyes
can give us pleasure primarily by seeing attractive objects, but they can
give us pain by being hit, pierced, or gouged, or by becoming inflamed,
infected, or blinded by a myriad variety of diseases.
Extent: A few bodily parts can give us pleasure, primarily the sensory
organs like the eyes, ears, and skin, whereas many – nay, all – the bodily
parts can give us pain. Except in a general way by contributing to a healthy
body, none of the internal organs like the kidney or liver or spine can give
us 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 the pain side.
That’s why, with unsentimental candor, the *Srimad-Bhagavatam* (7.9.25)
declares the material body to be *asesa-rujam virohah, *the 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 attitudes and
actions is stripped away due to its inescapably temporary nature.
*When the Worst Takes Us to the Best*
The *Bhagavad-gita’s* essential message, though, is not pessimistic, but
optimistic. It points 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 candidly proclaims the true nature of
this world as a place of misery. Here’s an analogy to understand this
Consider a person diagnosed with a serious cancer that is curable, but only
through rigorous chemotherapy. The patient may initially flinch when told
about the severe treatment, but may become ready for the treatment when
clearly told about the two choices: an excruciating, gradual, inevitable
death, or a demanding treatment that leads to recovery. When faced with a
grave problem, the way to the best-case result 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 presently all of us are diseased; we are eternal souls
afflicted with amnesia. Though we are entitled to a blissful, everlasting
life in devotional service to God, due to misidentifying with our temporary
material bodies we have to suffer unnecessarily the miseries of old age,
disease, death, and rebirth – again and again. The “bright” side of life –
the enjoyment of worldly pleasures – blinds us to these harsh facts of life
and fills us with the hopeless hope that some temporary adjustments within
our material existence will free us from suffering. Thus, the “bright” side
of life perpetuates our dark, diseased existence.
Most of us get so caught up with pursuing the “bright” side of life that we
forget or neglect its miseries and so lose the opportunity to cure
ourselves. Curing ourselves requires a spiritual therapy wherein we expose
ourselves to spiritual God-centered stimuli like the holy names, the saintly
devotees, the sacred scriptures, the beautiful deities, and the sanctified
remnants of food offered to God (*prasada*). Unlike chemotherapy, which is
painful from beginning to end, this spiritual therapy seems to be painful in
the beginning, but turns out to be joyful after a little practice (*Gita*
18.37). In fact, the therapy if practiced in the association of caring and
competent devotee guides can be joyful right from the beginning. However,
experiencing that joy requires committed and sustained practice, a price
that most of us are highly reluctant to pay. Therefore, the Vedic texts
offer us an unsentimental, uncompromising look at the two options before us:
miseries throughout life that are repeated for many future lives, or a
devotional therapy that requires commitment now but restores us to our
eternal, blissful, natural life. When we're faced with these facts, our
reluctance to take up the spiritual therapy evaporates, and thus the door 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 unchangeably
miserable place and eventually reveals the potential within each one of us
to attain divine happiness. Thus, the initial pessimism of Vedic philosophy
is the essential beginning that leads to its ultimate optimism.
*Don't Underestimate Reality*
Talk of the spiritual world may invite the question “Isn’t this longing for
another world filled with happiness an attempt to escape from reality?”
Yes, spiritual life is an attempt to escape – not *from* reality, but *to*
Let us objectively examine what people consider real life. It is the life of
perpetual struggle from the womb to the tomb. It is a struggle against
backbreaking pressure – sometimes literally, such as under the weight of
schoolbags, and always figuratively. We struggle against the pressure of
others’ expectations, against cutthroat competition for employment, against
family disharmony and hot and cold domestic wars, against the aging body,
and ultimately against the death sentence inherent in our mortal bodies.
Amidst all these struggles, we busy ourselves in complicated versions of the
animalistic pursuits of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. The
uncertainty of success in these pursuits stresses us constantly, and the
hope for getting some success is what we call optimism. But we can’t wish
away the illnesses, aging, and death of our body. Even when distresses don’t
overwhelm us, our life gets so boring that more patients visit psychiatrists
because of boredom than because of distress. Even the most optimistic
attitude can do little to change this unpalatable but undeniable ground
reality: the miserable nature of material existence.
How have we defined as real life a life so inane, so pointless, so
disappointing, so deadening? How have we been deceived into accepting as
real such a pathetically low estimation of our human potential? Let’s
understand with an analogy.
When people desire to play a virtual-reality video game, that desire
divorces them from the reality of their identity and propels them into an
illusory cyber-world where they experience artificial emotions by
misidentifying with a video-game character. Similarly, the *Bhagavad-gita*
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 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 this flawed and doomed nature of
our illusory pursuit, that realization awakens within us the desire to end
our divorce from 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 regain our rightful real happiness in spiritual love
Our real life – our eternal life in the spiritual world – is far more
dignified than the indignities our bodies subject us to, 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. Our real life fulfills our innate longing for
immortality. Therein, our intrinsic longing for love is eternally and
completely fulfilled by reposing it in the all-attractive all-loving eternal
Supreme Person, God, Krsna. That life of love is our real life, not our
present ugly and unfortunate caricature of life we mistakenly label as real
*The Harmony 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 to the spiritual world where we belong. Despite this
apparent rejection of the *here* in favor of the *hereafter,* the *Gita*
(18.78) concludes by an assurance of success in the here. This demonstrates
the Gita’s message 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), which
Krsna cares about so much that He descends here repeatedly (4.7) to
reestablish the virtuous order (4.8) that will help people reach the
spiritual world (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 here.
If we care only for the here, we will become attached to the here and
blinded to the hereafter, thus depriving ourselves of our right to eternal
happiness. If we care only for the hereafter, we will become apathetic and
irresponsible about the here, thus failing to play our part in Krsna’s plan
to preserve order in the here.
By keeping in mind the beauty, the glory, and the eternality of the
spiritual world, we can immunize ourselves against being enamored by the
fleeting pleasures and the deluding promises of this world. By keeping in
mind the role of the material world as the arena that shapes us for
attaining the spiritual world, we can face the challenges of this world with
determination and wisdom. That’s why the *Gita* (8.7) exhorts us to a
dynamic balance between the here and the hereafter: Aspire wholeheartedly
for the spiritual world and act responsibly in this one.
by: Chaitanya Charan das