Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Why Is the Bhagavad-gita So Pessimistic?

Expand Messages
  • prateek sanwal
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 29, 2014
      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
      for God.

      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


    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.