Why is the Bhagavad-gita so pessimistic?
Question: When the world offers both pleasures and pains, why is the Bhagavad-gita so pessimistic as to call the world a place of misery?
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 side.
We can get an insight into the pleasure-pain balance of the world by examining at the pleasure-pain balance of the body because we experience the world primarily through our physical body.
We can analyze the pleasure-pain balance of the body using an acronym DIVE:
Duration: The pleasures that the body can give us last only for a few minutes, as in the case of eating or mating. However, the pains that the body can give us can last for years, as the case of in chronic back problems or arthritis or terminal cancers.
Intensity: The body is far more pain-sensitive than pleasure-sensitive. If we are lying comfortably on a comfortable cushioned bed, being massaged with soothing, soft hands, and we experience one pinprick, the intensity of that pain experienced in one part of the body supersedes the intensity of the pleasure experienced in all other parts of the body.
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 tongue can give us pleasure primarily by eating and singing, but it can give us pain by being bitten by the teeth, burnt by a hot food item or cut by the sharp edge of a fork or by becoming swollen or shrunken or ulcerous or dysfunctional due to a myriad variety of diseases.
Extent: The bodily parts that can give us pleasure are few: primarily the external sensory organs like the eyes, ears and skin, whereas the bodily parts that can give us pain are many, nay, all. None of the internal organs like kidney or liver or spine can ever give us any 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.
The Bhagavad-gita’s essential message, though, is not pessimistic, but optimistic. It points to us the eternal spiritual world where 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.
Thus, the Gita’s initial pessimism is the essential cerebral jolt necessary to make us receptive to its message of ultimate optimism.