Why should we worry about any future life apart from this life? Why can’t we use spiritual guidance to be happy and get respite just in this life?
This question is an important one. It is natural for us to feel that we should be practical in our approach to spirituality, and this life seems to be our most practical and immediate concern. Therefore it seems that spirituality should help prepare us for this life rather than create worries about a future life.
While this is certainly true, at the same time we also have to recognize that spirituality is a means to broaden our vision and enhance our wisdom so that we can see long-term rather than just short-term, as most spiritually uninformed people do. A child doesn’t understand the long-term perspective and so feels that studying is unnecessary to prepare for a future with a bright career and a promising job. Similarly, spiritually uninformed people, being spiritually childlike, feel that preparing for a possible future life is unnecessary. But a mature parent knows that the child is going to grow up and will have a miserable future if he or she does not prepare for a career by studying now. So similarly, spiritually mature people encourage us not to be shortsighted like a child, but to be farsighted and to recognize that we are eternal beings and our life is not going to end with death but is going to continue on. Therefore they encourage us to be pragmatic in the long-term sense by preparing for the future.
Through children’s past-life memories, there is strong scientific evidence of reincarnation, as investigated by Dr. Ian Stevenson and other scientists at the University of Virginia, as well as in many other parts of the world. And Lord Krishna clearly says in the second chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, verse 27, jatasya hi dhruvo mrityur / dhruvam janma mritasya ca: “One who has taken his birth is sure to die, and after death one is sure to take birth again.” So science and scripture both confirm that we will have another life after this life, and therefore it is farsighted intelligence to prepare for it.
And an important point from the practical perspective is that preparing for a future life will not distract us from being satisfied in this life, but will enhance our satisfaction in this life. How is that? When, instead of fooling around and playing, a child starts studying so that he can have a bright career in the future, he begins to relish life in a far better way. Once he develops a taste for learning, then he discovers a new joy, as a whole universe of information, knowledge, and wisdom opens for him in his studies. Similarly, when we learn to live spiritually, our life becomes purposeful, our relationships become joyful, our mind becomes peaceful, and our struggles and challenges become meaningful. And in this way, by seeing life from a long-term perspective, we gain in the short term because we don’t get overwhelmed by the ups and down of life.
If we don’t consider the future life, then our vision is like seeing life as a hundred-meter sprint. but when we consider that we are an eternal being going through multiple lives, then we understand that our situation is more like a hundred-mile marathon. If life is just a hundred-meter sprint and we lose, then we have lost forever, because the tournament is over. But if life is a hundred-mile marathon, even if we fall back in one lap, we can always make up for it in future laps, and there is always hope for future improvement and success.
We see nowadays that people get overwhelmed by the routine ups and downs of life. For example, students get depressed and sometimes commit suicide because they do not perform well in one exam. A business collapse or stock-market crash causes people to get heart attacks or commit suicide. All this is because people do not see life from a long-term perspective, and so they take the short-term upheavals too seriously. When we see life from a long-term perspective, the short-term ups and downs in life do not affect us as much, and we can be more purposefully focused and resilient in using our talents for our own good, for the service of humanity, and for the glorification of God. In this way, in addition to creating a better future for us in the next life, preparing for a next life helps us better live this one.
Why is the Vedic philosophy pessimistic about life? Why not see the bright side of life?
Pessimism in Vedic philosophy is only initial, never final. In its conclusion, Vedic philosophy is supremely optimistic.
Consider a person diagnosed with cancer that is serious but curable through rigorous chemotherapy. The patient may flinch at the prospect of the severe treatment, but when made aware of the prognosis – excruciatingly painful, gradual, inevitable death – he will become ready for the treatment. That’s why it is wisely said that getting the best outcome to a grave problem often begins by having a hard look at the worst.
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. Having forgotten our spiritual identities, we are misidentifying with temporary material bodies. Due to this misidentification, we have to unnecessarily suffer the miseries of old age, disease, death, and rebirth – again and again. The so-called bright side of life – the worldly pleasures – blind us to these harsh facts of life and fill us with the futile hope that some temporary adjustments within our material existence will free us from suffering. Thus the so-called bright side of life perpetuates our dark, diseased existence.
Unfortunately, in our daily lives we get so caught up with pursuing the so-called bright side of life that we forget or neglect these miseries and so lose the opportunity to cure ourselves of them. Curing ourselves requires a spiritual therapy wherein we expose ourselves to spiritual, God-centered stimuli like His holy names, His sacred scriptures, His beautiful deity, His sanctified food remnants (prasada), and His saintly representatives. Although this spiritual therapy is nowhere as rigorous as chemotherapy – it is, in fact, remarkably peaceful and joyful – still most of us are highly reluctant to start it. Therefore the Vedic texts offer us an unsentimental, uncompromising look at the facts of life: miseries throughout our life’s journey that only worsen as we near the end. When we are forced to face this prognosis of our current life, our reluctance to accept spiritual therapy evaporates and the doorway to eternal life opens.
This profoundly wise Vedic strategy is evident in the Bhagavad-gita, which initially declares this world an irredeemably miserable place (8.15) and eventually shows us the way by which each of us can relish thrilling ecstasy at every moment (18.76–77). Thus the initial pessimism of Vedic philosophy is the essential beginning that leads to its ultimate optimism.