By Caitanya Carana Dasa

The moment we turn away from Krsna our misery begins. 

The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, by David G. Myers, is one among several books that use telling facts and revealing statistics to examine the reality behind the globally glamorized American dream of the happy life through wealth and sensual enjoyment. Since 1960:

·The divorce rate has doubled.
·The teen suicide rate has tripled.
·The recorded violent crime rate has quadrupled.
·The prison population has quintupled.
·The percentage of babies born to unmarried parents has sextupled.
·Cohabitation (a predictor of future divorce) has increased sevenfold.
·Depression has soared—to ten times the pre–World War II level.

Has the American dream turned out to be a masked nightmare? What went wrong?

For devotees of Lord Krishna, this sad situation is a vindication of Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad-gita, wherein He declares in text 5.22 that material enjoyment is pregnant with misery; the delivery is only a matter of when, not if. The devotees of the Lord are often more merciful than the Lord, and one way their extra mercy manifests is in their forceful enunciation of the Lord’s teachings. “There is no point in arguing that a materialistic man can be happy” is one of those quotes of Srila Prabhupada’s that, by its sheer conviction, jolts us out of our complacency in material life. Most of the media and culture around us vigorously champions materialism as the way to become happy, but Srila Prabhupada asserts with absolute conviction that materialism can never make anyone happy.

Srila Prabhupada is simply rephrasing an essential and repeated teaching of Lord Krishna’s. To help us grasp this scriptural teaching, Srila Prabhupada gave the analogy of a fish: Just as a fish starts suffering the moment it leaves the ocean, we start suffering the moment we leave the nectar-ocean of Krishna consciousness. Let us reflect on this analogy a bit.

The Fate of the Fish

Imagine a fish in an ocean bordering a vast desert. It sees a mirage onshore and decides one day that life on land will be more enjoyable. From the moment it comes out of the ocean, its suffering begins. The mirage provides no water, and any drops of water it finds are too small to give any satisfaction. The only way the fish can experience happiness is by returning to the ocean. The more it pursues either the mirage or the drops of water, the more it suffers from the scorching heat of the sand underneath and the sun overhead. Had the fish known it would be miserable the moment it left the ocean, it would not have ventured onshore and would have ignored the mirage. Even if it didn’t feel completely happy in the water, the way to greater happiness was never to be found on land.

All of us are like the fish, and Krishna consciousness is like the ocean. From the moment we let our consciousness come out of the nectar-ocean of Krishna consciousness, we begin experiencing misery. We are allured out of Krishna consciousness by sense objects—pleasures and treasures, positions and possessions. No matter how appealing sense objects seem to be, they are simply a sham and can never make us happy. They are temporarily pleasure-giving, whereas we are eternally pleasure-seeking. We can experience happiness only by returning to Krishna consciousness.

The more we pursue sense objects, the longer we suffer as we journey to and fro between Krishna consciousness and sense objects—through the scorching heat of material conditions and materialistic conditioning. The journey is painful and difficult because every action we perform conditions us, creating patterns of thinking and behaving that incite us to repeat that action. The human vulnerability to conditioning traps us in addiction—often unwittingly and sometimes even unwillingly.

That’s why, when we do realize the futility of material enjoyment, it has often become the default setting of our mind; we instinctively, unthinkingly gravitate toward it, and going against that gravitational force becomes difficult and often painful. Moreover, in the pursuit of material enjoyment, we mix and bond with materialistically oriented people, and the emotional bonds we thus form often make it tough for us to turn away from worldly pleasures that have won us others’ approval.

Therefore, when we know we are going to increase our misery by coming out of Krishna consciousness, why should we ever come out? Indeed, why should we even glance at sense objects that might beguile us to come out? Even if we don’t feel fully happy in Krishna consciousness, the only way to greater happiness is not outward, but inward—not out of Krishna consciousness, but deeper into Krishna consciousness.

Noteworthy Nuances

Of course, the fish analogy is not perfect. No material analogy can ever perfectly convey a spiritual truth. But in our present state of consciousness, with our minds still conditioned by the limits imposed by the material energy, analogies can help. So spiritual teachers use material analogies to convey spiritual truths—even if imperfectly. To avoid any misconceptions the fish analogy might have provoked, let us consider its limitations. They reveal important nuances of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness:

1. When the fish comes out of the water, within a short time it dies. We, being eternal souls, never die, but by forsaking Krishna consciousness we “kill” our spiritual awareness—the awareness that we are spiritual beings entitled to spiritual happiness in the spiritual world by reciprocating spiritual love with the supreme spiritual reality, Krishna. The Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Ishopanishad refer to those who kill their spiritual awareness as atma-ha, “killers of the soul”—an apt metaphor.

2. A fish is never allured by a mirage, but we are attracted by miragelike sense objects. This attraction is due to the power of maya, the deluding energy, which perverts our perception by its two potencies:

a. The avaranatmika-shakti (covering potency) obscures our perception of our true nature as spiritual beings and freezes our spiritual desires.

b. The prakshematika-shakti (pulling-down potency) deludes us with the false self-conception that we are materialistic creatures and kindles our material desires.

3. The suffering of a fish out of water is always easy to see, unlike the suffering of people devoid of Krishna consciousness. Factually, no one can be happy without Krishna consciousness, and the statistics quoted at the start poignantly demonstrate this eternal truth. But those living beings who have been living without Krishna consciousness for a long, long time have almost entirely forgotten the taste of Krishna consciousness. As they presently don’t know any pleasure other than the pseudo pleasure of sense gratification, they have become habituated to this pseudo pleasure despite all the miseries that precede and succeed it. Habituated thus, they don’t always know their own misery, as confirmed in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.30.5): “The conditioned living entity is satisfied in his own particular species of life; while deluded by the covering influence of the illusory energy, he feels little inclined to cast off his body, even when in hell, for he takes delight in hellish enjoyment.”

The illusion that materialistic people are happy may beguile even spiritually-minded people to pursue materialistic goals and to alternate between material enjoyment and spiritual purification. But the illusory tastes of sense gratification can no longer satisfy those of us who know something better, who have tasted Krishna consciousness. The sublime and supreme taste of Krishna consciousness is still fresh in our memory—if not in our conscious memory, then at least in our subconscious memory. That’s why even if we consciously turn away from Krishna consciousness to pursue sense gratification, we subconsciously keep comparing the taste of sense gratification with the taste of Krishna consciousness and naturally find the former unsatisfying. The Bhagavatam (1.5.19) proclaims, “Even though a devotee of Lord Krishna sometimes falls down somehow or other, he certainly does not undergo material existence like others because a person who has once relished the taste of the lotus feet of the Lord can do nothing but remember that ecstasy again and again.”

Unfortunately, despite repeatedly experiencing sense gratification to be insipid and inane, our stubborn mind may still impel and compel us to keep pursuing it. In such situations, we can use the graphic fish analogy and the resonant Prabhupada quote as hammers to drive the naillike truth of the futility of sense gratification through the wall-like stubbornness of our mind. Sooner or later we will realize that the pursuit of sense gratification is a lost cause and will turn—or return—to Krishna consciousness. And better sooner than later.