Why Is the Bhagavad-gita So Pessimistic?
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Four points to consider regarding Lord Krishna's characterization of life in the material world.
After teaching a university seminar, I was asked questions I had myself raised when I first encountered the philosophy of Krishna consciousness: “Why is the Vedic philosophy so pessimistic? When the world offers both pleasures and pains, why does the Bhagavad-gita call the world a place of misery?”
Over my decade and a half of practicing and sharing Krishna consciousness, I have been preparing and refining the answer to these questions. Here's my 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 side.
• 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 Gita.
• 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 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 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 ashesha-rujam virohah, the breeding place for unlimited diseases and miseries, and the Bhagavad-gita (8.15) declares the material world to be duhkhalayam ashashvatam, 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 strategy.
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 reality.
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 (13.22) 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, Krishna. That life of love is our real life, not our present ugly and unfortunate caricature of life we mistakenly label as real life.
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 Krishna 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 Krishna’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.