By Satyaraja Dasa
Does Krishna consciousness promote a pessimistic worldview?
My dentist probably expected a more meaningful exchange, perhaps simple pleasantries or a friendly conversation. After all, he hadn’t seen me for quite some time. But I was here to get down to business, and so was he. No time for light talk.
“Let’s see,” he said, looking into my mouth as if searching for gold. “You need a few fillings. Hmm. Root canal, for sure, and definitely a bridge, right back here.”
It was precisely at this point that the oouuch blurted out of my mouth. He poked once too often.
“Come on,” I started. “The idea of all that dental work is depressing—it’s going to cost way too much, and it’s probably gonna hurt.”
“I’m not saying this to depress you,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not my motivation. These are the facts. Your teeth need attention, and they need it now.”
That sent my mind back to a conversation I had had the day before, at the Sunday feast in the Brooklyn Hare Krishna temple. I was explaining certain basic points of Krishna conscious philosophy to a newcomer, telling her that the world is a place of misery, wherein repeated birth and death take place. We all go through birth, death, old age, and disease, I reminded her, and we all suffer from threefold miseries: those caused by our own bodies and minds, by the bodies and minds of others, and by natural calamities.
“Why are you so negative?” she asked.
A bit surprised by her reaction, I explained that the negative philosophy at the base of Krishna consciousness is only a starting point. Using this as a foundation—that the material world can be a nasty place—Krishna consciousness goes on to explain how life can be truly blissful, not only in some hopeful future life but also within our own lifetime, in the here and now.
But now, sitting in my dentist’s chair, I sounded a lot like that young woman. My dentist was only giving me the facts, explaining the state of rot in my mouth. Nonetheless, I found it necessary to rebel, to insist that he was being overly negative. Similarly, when I mentioned the obvious truth of life in an ever-decaying material world, my new friend at the temple needed to respond in kind, as if I was distorting the facts just to depress her.
Optimists, Pessimists, and Realists
People usually fall into one of two categories: optimists or pessimists. They view life as being basically a happy experience or a dismal one. Optimists see the cup as half full, whereas pessimists see it as half empty. These two types of people view the same phenomenon differently. Where would one place the devotees of Krishna? Are they pessimists?
No, they are not. True, they are aware of the miseries of material existence, but that’s called knowledge in the mode of goodness. Knowledge in the mode of ignorance, by contrast, is beleaguered by obliviousness—blindness to the pain and suffering that are very real components of the material world. In other words, Krishna consciousness has much to say about the darker side of life, about the perils of being caught in a temporary material body. At first blush, therefore, Krishna consciousness might appear pessimistic. But a deeper look reveals that it transcends the usual duality of optimism and pessimism altogether. Rather, it is what I would call “realism,” or, better yet, “spiritual realism.” That is to say, it is balanced. This is so because it is not a product of the usual conditioned responses, positive or negative, but it is instead the spiritual consciousness bequeathed to us by the saints and sages of the past. Indeed, Krishna consciousness is like a precious gem, originally revealed by God Himself, and then passed down by self-realized souls in disciplic succession, in an esoteric lineage created by God to help all conditioned souls reach the ultimate spiritual truth.
Pessimism and the Western Philosophical Tradition
In popular language, the term pessimist is applied to people who habitually view life with intense melancholy, who view painful experiences as almost desirable—at least in the sense that they wouldn’t know how to live any other way. Pain is familiar to them. In addition, such people generally have little corresponding appreciation for the pleasurable or positive side of life. Alternatively, pessimists sometimes do want happiness in the normal, positive sense of the word, but they are doubtful about the possibility of achieving it. These are two classic kinds of pessimism.
As a philosophical system, Pessimism addresses the presence of evil in the world, the built-in torment resulting from material limitations. Loved ones leave or die, situations to which we become attached soon change, fundamental anxieties find their way into our lives, especially that black hole of our own mortality—all cause suffering on both gross and subtle levels. In the West the philosopher Leibniz taught that pain is integral to finite and temporary existence. For example, he said, we don’t want to see the end of pleasure, love, and life, and yet end they must. The principle from which pain and evil arise—the temporary quality of all things material—is thus viewed as an essential part of nature. This idea is clear in Buddhist thought as well, where the Four Noble Truths categorize suffering in various ways along with a coherent system for the cessation of suffering. And it is also taught in the Bhagavad-gita, upon which Krishna consciousness rests.
Arthur Schopenhauer is considered one of the fathers of Pessimism as a philosophical school of thought. His words, at least in regards to suffering, merely echo the truths found in the Vedic literature. Ultimately, Schopenhauer tells us, “All life is suffering.” He explains this by noting that everything that lives has desire, wants, and needs. “Life wants,” he says, “and because its wants are mostly unfulfilled, it exists largely in a state of unfulfilled striving and deprivation.”
His analysis reminds me of something I said to my dentist: All materialistic endeavors for happiness fall into three broad categories, and they all result in misery: (1) You try for happiness and don’t achieve it. You’re miserable for obvious reasons. (2) You try for happiness and achieve it, but it doesn’t live up to your expectations. Again you’re miserable. (3) You try for happiness and get it, and it does live up to your expectations. But you lose it after some time. Is there any form of material happiness that doesn’t fit into one of these three categories?
“And even that which we call ‘happiness,’” says Schopenhauer, “is really only a temporary cessation of some particular suffering.”
All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive. It is not a gratification which comes to us originally and of itself, but it must always be the satisfaction of a wish. For desire, that is to say, want, is the precedent condition of every pleasure; but with the satisfaction, the desire and therefore the pleasure cease; and so the satisfaction or gratification can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want.
The Vedic tradition articulates this same idea. Srila Prabhupada often referred to happiness in the material world as merely “the cessation of misery.” He used the analogy of the dunking stool. To punish evil-doers, officers of the court used to tie criminals to a see-saw kind of dunking stool, easing them down into water and then, periodically, lifting them up again. Gasping for air, the convicted felon would enjoy the simple act of breathing as if it were the greatest pleasure. Likewise, Prabhupada taught, because the material world is so devoid of any real enjoyment —of any substantive pleasure—the titillating sensations of the body and mind seem alluring, like a few precious breaths to a drowning person.
So Are Devotees Pessimistic?
It is clear from Srila Prabhupada’s books that suffering is integral to material existence: “Out of so many human beings who are suffering, there are a few who are actually inquiring about their position, as to what they are, why they are put into this awkward position, and so on. Unless one is awakened to this position of questioning his suffering, unless he realizes that he doesn’t want suffering but rather wants to make a solution to all suffering, then one is not to be considered a perfect human being. Humanity begins when this sort of inquiry is awakened in one’s mind.” (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Introduction)
The final sentence in the above quote reveals something about the purpose of suffering in the material world. It is meant to act as an impetus for the human being to inquire about God consciousness. After lifetimes of various kinds of suffering, the wise begin to ask, “What’s life all about? Why am I here? Why should I go on suffering?” These questions separate humankind from the animals.
In Srila Prabhupada’s books he often reveals a kind of hierarchy of consciousness. On the most fundamental level, he says, one believes that the world is safe, that lasting pleasure exists here, and that one can live happily ever after. But he quickly adds that a life based on such thinking is like animal life, where eating, sleeping, mating, and defending are the primary activities and one has little time to pursue God consciousness. Human beings, he tells us, must move on from this basic, animalistic mentality. And if they advance even a little, he says, then they adopt something of a pessimistic view of life, acknowledging the limitations of material happiness, its shallowness and its temporary nature.
Significantly, however—and this is the main point—Prabhupada also talks about a yet higher level of existence, wherein one bids adieu to pessimism and becomes situated in Krishna consciousness. From this perspective, life is full of meaning, full of purpose, full of bliss. It begins while serving Krishna in the material world, and carries on when we attain His supreme kingdom.
Not Naive Optimists
Overall, devotees believe in hope rather than despair, tolerance rather than fear. They believe in love and not hatred, compassion not selfishness, beauty not ugliness, and realized knowledge not blind faith or irrationality. They believe in working hard for the true betterment of humankind, and they give their time and life to help other people. These are not the virtues of the pessimist.
But devotees aren’t naive optimists either. They don’t believe that all humans will necessarily pursue higher goals. Krishna consciousness is a pragmatic philosophy—humans are not necessarily good or evil but they do have the capacity for both. For this reason Srila Prabhupada set up his institution (ISKCON) to encourage the ultimate good while discouraging not only the overtly evil but also goodness diluted by materialism.
On that point many may look at devotees somewhat askance, wondering why they are not more involved in social work or altruistic endeavors. The truth is, devotees favor these things, but they prefer to spiritualize them, to bring them to the next level by using them in Krishna’s service. For example, devotees believe in feeding people, but they insist on feeding them Krishna prasadam, sumptuous vegetarian cuisine that has been offered to Krishna with love. Prasadam distribution is the epitome of food distribution because it nourishes people both materially and spiritually. Devotees favor this kind of holistic endeavor, one they believe can help people overcome evil and pain.
And that’s the question: How are we supposed to overcome evil and human suffering? Many traditional religions teach that we can overcome these only in an afterlife where a benevolent God rules in His paradisiacal kingdom. Krishna consciousness, however, rejects the idea that we must wait for some pie-in-the-sky future. Yes, those who are Krishna conscious have secured a place for themselves in the hereafter, with Krishna in the spiritual world. But that is not their chief concern. Instead, Prabhupada taught devotees that the fight against human suffering and evil must occur here and now. Since each of us is responsible for that which goes wrong in our lives, we are also responsible for making things right. Krishna consciousness teaches that we can indeed make things right, but only if we surrender to God, with a heart full of love and devotion. Devotees try to do that in their own lives, and they teach others the same principle.
Knowledge means understanding how the supreme controller is controlling. People who defy religion and deny the existence of a supreme controller are like the jackal that keeps jumping and jumping, trying to reach grapes on a high vine. After seeing that he cannot reach the grapes, he says to himself, “Oh, there is no need to reach them. They are sour anyway.” People who say that we do not need to understand God are indulging in sour grape philosophy.
Prabhupada here turns the “devotee as pessimist” idea on its head. He sees the materialist as pessimistic—as rejecting God because of a “sour grapes” kind of philosophy. Indeed, from the Vedic perspective the devotees have the greatest hope for humankind—to engage them in Krishna’s service—while the materialists are hopeless, having given up the quest to understand God. And in this hopelessness they sometimes view devotees as negative.
But devotees value this world more than anyone else, because they see it in relation to God. Some people will be pleased by this vision: “Right. It is important to see God in His creation. But why, then, do you devotees tend to emphasize the Creator instead?” The reason is quite simple: Devotees know that focusing on the creation can distract a person from the Creator. Therefore, devotees emphasize the Creator to help one avoid the pitfall of becoming sidetracked. Until one learns to focus on God, the relationship between Him and His creation remains an abstraction. This is not sour grapes; it’s just a fact of life.