Is the Gita’s message life-negating?
Question: The Gita says that life is miserable, and all the pleasures of life are traps that we need to escape. With such a gloomy picture of life, what is left to live for? Isn’t this a terribly life-negating message?
Answer Summary: Not at all. The Gita’s message is profoundly life-affirming – life is a precious gift coming from Krishna and He is eager to help us make the best of this gift. It is materialism that dishonors life and makes us act dishonorably. From the shackles of such life-negating materialism, Gita wisdom sets us free.
Answer: Let’s understand the life-affirming nature of the message of the Gita by looking at its three central messages.
Three life-affirming message of the Gita
The Gita’s first life-affirming message is that biology is not destiny. Life extends far beyond the mortality of the body. Our material bodies are external shells that temporarily house us, as the Bhagavad-gita (02.13) indicates, during our multi-life journey through material existence. We are souls who are capable of accessing and relishing eternal happiness at the spiritual level of reality.
The Gita’s second life-affirming message is that though we are finite, our happiness doesn’t have to be finite. If we link ourselves in love with the infinite, then our heart can become filled and flooded with infinite happiness. Krishna is the infinite in his infinitely charming form; He is God in his highest and sweetest manifestation, an overflowing ocean of love and joy. When we connect ourselves with him through devotion, then everlasting happiness becomes ours, as the Bhagavad-gita (10.09) indicates.
The Gita’s third life-affirming message is that we can make our temporary life in this material world into a catapult to eternal life in the spiritual world, as the Bhagavad-gita (08.15) indicates. This reinvention of life as a launching pad to eternity is possible only for us human beings, so human life is especially affirmed, even esteemed. Of course, all life is a gift of God, for no life is possible without his grace. Still, among all forms of life, the human form is uniquely precious. It alone allows the soul to have the evolved consciousness necessary for perceiving and pursuing spiritual reality. We humans can choose to direct our love towards Krishna and thereby transfer first our heart and eventually our entire existence to his world of undying love. Indeed, human life is so esteemed that even one moment that is not tapped for its spiritual potential becomes a tragic loss, as a famous Vishnu Purana verse indicates. What can be a greater affirmation of life than an exhortation to treasure its every moment?
The autobiography of a materialist
In contrast to this life-affirming message of the Gita, the message of materialism is starkly life-negating. The gospel of materialism, if presented as the autobiography of a materialist, would run something like this.
“Life is a sexually transmitted disease that is terminal and unavoidable. I am a particle of protoplasm that became animate when two people had sex. And that particle slowly grew to become the bag of biochemicals that is now me. Sometime in the future this bag will inevitably be busted by a bug or bang – and that will be goodbye to me. And that ghastly goodbye can occur anytime, even this very moment.
“Before that deadly disaster strikes, I am meant to extract from the mine of the body for the gold of bodily enjoyment. I want pleasures and treasures, positions and possessions, medals and trophies. My heart burns with fierce ambition whenever I see others enjoying these things and crave for the day when I will be able to enjoy them. I never let myself be shackled by obscurantist ideas that mislabel ambition as greed and warn that such greed will keep one always dissatisfied. I welcome dissatisfaction as the fuel of life.
“Yet in my moments of introspection I cannot but wonder whether life might have a better fuel than this perpetual dissatisfaction. Whenever I achieve my goals, I am appalled at how superficial and unfulfilling they turn out to be. When I ascent the summit of success, I find that the summit starts going down a landslide; the value of the success starts going on an inexorable south-bound curve. The medals that I dreamt and slaved for seem nothing more than baubles now. But I never give up. I know one day I will get the thing that will make me truly happy.
“Among all the gold that the body offers, the highest is the 24-carat gold of sexual delight. That’s the perfection of life. In fact, it’s the very purpose of existence. But exasperatingly the 24-carat gold seems to be present abundantly in everyone’s mine except mine. It’s definitely present in the mines of the gorgeous-looking stars, as is evident in their expressions during their erotic movie scenes that send me into a rapture of torture. It’s also present in the mines of my many friends who delight in bragging about their latest sexual conquests. Yet when my turn to mine comes, the gold stock gets exhausted in a few fleeting moments. The body’s capacity to enjoy runs out long before I can play out even a fraction of my fantasies. And I am left with nothing but a burning desire for more pleasure – a blazing inner fire that scorches my insides with perpetual agitation and dissatisfaction.”
The Srimad Bhagavatam (7.9.25) precisely points to the predicament of such materialists. It characterizes sensual enjoyment as visible to the eye like a mirage (mriga-trishni rupah) and audible to the ear (shruti-sukha) but unattainable to experience (durapaih) beyond a drop (madhu-lavaih) that only aggravates, but never quenches, the fire of desire (kamanalam).
What we desperately long to believe about sensual pleasure and what our actual, undeniable experience tells us about it are so conflicting that it underlies most of our mental turbulence. The confrontation between them is so intense that the sparks from the resulting friction short-circuit our intelligence. And we continue to believe in fantasy instead of learning from reality. Pertinently, the same Bhagavatam verse declares that even the learned can’t break free from the seductive charms of sensual pleasures.
This flip side of the materialistic gospel is one of life’s worst-kept and best-kept secrets. Worst-kept secret because it is perceivable in the shrunken faces and shallow eyes of the devotees of materialism after their worship on the altar of parties ends. And it is perceivable in the depression, addiction and self-destruction even to the point of suicide that often characterizes their off-party life. Worse still, the materialistic worldview leads humanity to moral bankruptcy. If they are taught that they are nothing more than matter and one shot at living is all that we get, then why should they let old-fashioned notions of morality deprive themselves of material enjoyment? Even if they don’t intentionally toss morality overboard as unnecessary baggage, they still find their moral muscles afflicted with an alarming atrophy. Whenever they look beyond enjoyment to ethics as a factor in our decision-making, ethics can’t put up much more than a brief fight before they indulge in the enjoyable. Sadly, thought materialists remain unswervingly devoted to their worshipable deity of materialism, their devotion ends up hurting them not just spiritually but also materially. As it leaves them with no avenue for any pleasure other than the material, they become highly vulnerable to ever-intensifying sensual desires that transmogrify into addictions that ruin even their material prospects. Thus does materialism dishonor life by reducing it to to just one brief meaningless lifetime. And it makes people act dishonorably by stripping away from them all moral and intellectual defenses to predatory desires for instant enjoyment.
Yet this flip-side of materialism is also one of life’s best-kept secrets because very few acknowledge publically what experience has taught them again and again: material pleasure in general and sexual pleasure in specific is an unrelenting anti-climax. In fact, most people flinch from admitting this reality privately, even to themselves. They prefer the fantasy of delusion, hoping that someday, somehow the fantasy will become reality. They even bring a righteous veneer to materialism by labeling its alternatives as life-negating.
Break free from life-negating lies
Vedic wisdom declares that we deserve better than such a life of lies. We deserve the truth – the uncompromised, unvarnished truth. And intriguingly, that truth is not life-negating; it is life-affirming. In fact, denying this truth is life-negating.
This life-affirming truth begins with an uninhibited expose of the life-negating beliefs of materialism. Trying to mine the body for a pleasure is a doomed project that leads only to pain as the body becomes old and sick and eventually perishes. Living only for the pleasure of the senses, as the Bhagavad-gita (03.16: mogham partha sa jivati) avers, is life-wasting. In fact, it’s worse that life-wasting; it’s life-wrecking. The Ishopanishad (mantra 3) deems people who lead such lives as killers of their own souls. Though the soul can never be killed, this metaphorical usage “soul-killer” underscores the tragedy of those who destroy their own spiritual prospects by indiscriminate materialistic indulgence.
By tying our hopes for happiness to the body, we bind ourselves to its inevitable misery and mortality. We reduce our prospects for happiness to the sensations that the body can provide – sensations that are fleeting even in youth and become even less available as the body ages. Once we lose our access to those sensations, what is left to live for? Actually, nothing. Such a prospect-less life would be unlivable. So we invent newer and newer ways of stimulating our imagination through novels, movies and websites hoping to get some hitherto unexperienced pleasure. But the materialist story always remains the same – so much allures, so little delivers.
The Gita frees us from lies not just about the nature of material pleasure but also about material existence at large. Its assessment of this world as a place of misery is concerned, it’s simply a statement of fact. Are disease, old age and death not the grim realities of life? Do we not suffer from bodily, social and environmental miseries?
Stating these miseries is not life-negating; it’s reality-acknowledging.
If this reality is negative, denying it doesn’t make it positive. Denying it simply deprives us of the incentive to explore another more positive reality. That supremely positive reality is spiritual reality, the reality of our eternal spiritual love for Krishna and the life of everlasting happiness that awaits us at that level of reality.
Gita wisdom indicates that our present existence is a diseased existence; we are all suffering from the heart disease of misdirected love. Instead of loving Krishna, we love matter. By thus replacing the eternal with the temporary as the object of our love, we subject ourselves to unnecessary misery. The process of devotional service can cure our heart disease by redirecting our love back from matter to Krishna.
To tell sick people that they are sick is not life-denying. Quite the opposite, to not tell them about their sickness is life-denying – all the more so when that concealment deprives them of the impetus to explore a treatment that is accessible and reliable.
Unfortunately, that’s what happens when we call the denial of the eternal as life-affirming and the affirmation of the eternal as life-denying
The Gita’s call to break free from the thralls of materialism is simply a call to honor our intelligence and end the infatuation with fantasy that leads only to the perpetuation of futility.
The Gita’s most life-affirming message
The greatest life-affirming truth of the Gita is that Krishna is ready and eager to help us; we are in the hands of the safest and the best doctor. The Bhagavad-gita (15.15) indicates that he resides in our heart, for he loves us so much that he wants to be our constant escort and friend. From within our heart, he guides us, if we just seek his help, to overcome the dark desires that militate against our spiritual nature. And he doesn’t restrict his guidance to his inner presence. He also manifests externally as guru-sadhu-shastra to help us unlock our spiritual potential.
When, by Krishna’s grace, we control and conquer our lower desires, we become free not only to grow spiritually but also to grow materially in a holistic way that doesn’t run contrary to our spiritual nature. With a clear and focused mind, we are able to do justice to our God-given talents for our as well as others’ good. The many high-class works of literature, architecture, music and other such fields of human excellence that Vedic culture has produced over the centuries that its spiritual focus didn’t lead to the trashing of material talents. Rather, it provided the loftiest inspiration for the unfolding of those talents – use them not just for one’s own ego, but for the glorification of Krishna and the holistic welfare of others. This is evident in the call of the Bhagavad-gita (11.33) to Arjuna to become an instrument in Krishna’s hand and thereby enjoy a flourishing kingdom on the earth.
When we center our life on spiritual truth, we no longer need the torment of perpetual dissatisfaction as a fuel for achievement. Love becomes the fuel – a love that is fulfilling in the joy with which it floods our heart and is also stimulating in its invitation it offers to dive deeper into it by rendering more and more service.
By learning to love Krishna, we become empowered to lead a life worth honoring, a life that is free from the selfish desires and senseless impulses that otherwise sabotage our efforts to live honorably. Devotion to Krishna and the higher happiness it provides bestows as a by-product mastery over our selfish desires and enables us to lead a full and fulfilling life.
When we relish the joy of loving Krishna, the 24-carat gold of sexual delight is exposed to be having as little pleasure as 24 carrots. The great devotee-saint Kulashekhara declares in his Mukunda Mala Stotra (verse 40) that absorption in the holy name of Krishna renders the most cherished worldly objects (such as sexually alluring forms) to be no more attractive than stone or wood.
Such assertions, though they may be far beyond the ken of our present experience, give us glimpses of the ocean of happiness that awaits us as we progress in our spiritual journey. To deny or deprive ourselves of that eternal ecstatic life is the worst negation of life. And to glorify and strive for that life is the best affirmation of life.