From different perspectives, the material world can be seen as a place of misery or of pure delight.

By Mukundamala Dasa

Although Lord Krishna says that the material world is a place of misery, His pure devotees see it in a different light.

We live in a world of variety. This variety extends to all areas of life – we see people of different colors, habits, economic backgrounds, social upbringing, religious practices, etc. Every individual comes with a unique package of these features of life.

We all use our assets and talents in various ways while living in this world. The conditioned soul, with a given set of senses, enjoys a certain mix of this variety under the influence of the three modes of material nature. 

This variety extends all over the creation. The universe, according to Vedic scriptures, is divided into fourteen planetary systems with different gradations of life. The residents of the higher planetary systems enjoy a highly refined form of enjoyment, all in the mode of goodness. Their indulgence is nondestructive and harmonious with their existence. The residents of the lower planetary systems also enjoy pleasures of various kinds, but their indulgence is in the mode of ignorance, which means the pleasures are destructive in nature, involving violence and exploitation of others.

Seeing the Common Essence in Variety

From philosophers, thinkers, and social reformers, we frequently hear about equality and brotherhood. The Bhagavad-gita also talks about equality and equal vision.

When it comes to looking at life and people of this world, an enlightened person sees everyone equally, irrespective of the differences in the externals. In the Bhagavad-gita (18.20) Krishna says, “That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.” Srila Prabhupada explains this point in the purport:

A person who sees one spirit soul in every living being, whether a demigod, human being, animal, bird, beast, aquatic or plant, possesses knowledge in the mode of goodness. In all living entities, one spirit soul is there, although they have different bodies in terms of their previous work. . . . Differences are perceived in terms of the body; because there are many forms of material existence in conditional life, the living force appears to be divided. Such impersonal knowledge is an aspect of self-realization.

And according to Krishna, a person endowed with such knowledge is a pandita: “The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” (Gita 5.18) In the purport, Srila Prabhupada explains:

A Krishna conscious person does not make any distinction between species or castes. . . . [T]hese differences of body are meaningless from the viewpoint of a learned transcendentalist. This is due to their relationship to the Supreme, for the Supreme Lord, by His plenary portion as Paramatma, is present in everyone’s heart. Such an understanding of the Supreme is real knowledge. As far as the bodies are concerned in different castes or different species of life, the Lord is equally kind to everyone because He treats every living being as a friend yet maintains Himself as Paramatma regardless of the circumstances of the living entities.

Because such a person has equal vision towards all, he is able to remain equipoised in all circumstances – honor and dishonor, heat and cold, happiness and distress, fame and infamy. Such a person becomes very dear to Krishna. (Gita 12.18–19)

Seeing the Negative in All Situations

When it comes to looking at the world we live in, a Krishna consciousness person sees with the equal vision that the world is a temporary place characterized by different levels of misery. Although we experience varieties of pleasures in this world, we know that these pleasures are not going to last forever; they are going to end someday, sometime. But the soul by nature is full of bliss – anandamayo ’bhyasat. It is hankering after unlimited, unending joy. Unfortunately, this world is not the place that will allow us to fulfill this desire. That’s what Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (8.15) about the material world: duhkhalayam ashashvatam – it’s a miserable and temporary place.

This principle applies everywhere in the material world, in all the fourteen planetary systems of the universe. Generally, the higher we go in the universe, the better the living conditions become, in terms of facilities, luxuries, and duration of life. Ordinarily, one would consider promotion to the higher planets desirable, and that’s what a major section of Vedic instructions encourage people to aspire for. But a devotee of Krishna is not carried away by such fleeting forms of luxury. Lord Krishna says, a-brahma-bhuvanal lokah punar avartino ’rjuna: Right from the topmost planet in the universe down to the lowest regions, all are places of misery, characterized by repeated birth and death (Gita 8.16). The devotee understands that all material pleasures, because of their inherent temporary nature, are not worth pursuing. Srila Prabhupada writes, “He considers promotion to heavenly planets (tridasha-pur) just another kind of phantasmagoria. In other words, a pure devotee does not place much value in the destination of the karmis (the heavenly planets) . . . .” (Bhagavatam 4.30.34, Purport) The devotee therefore aims for the eternal, the spiritual, that which is beyond all dualities.

paras tasmat tu bhavo ’nyo
’vyakto ’vyaktat sanatanah
yah sa sarveshu bhuteshu
nashyatsu na vinashyati

“Yet there is another unmanifest nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.” (Gita 8.20) Krishna then says, in the next verse, tam prapya na nivartante tad dhama paramam mama: Once we achieve this nature, we don’t need to come back to the material world again and again.

If the material world, with all its attractions and allurements, doesn’t give a devotee the chance to remember Krishna and render devotional service, the devotee considers such a place worse than hell.

One may consider the above vision too pessimistic, making one unable to appreciate the beauty and other good things of this world. But the enlightened person has a different view of the world. A devotee who can remember Krishna and render service to Him in this world doesn’t mind going to even the most horrible place within the universe, including hell. Lord Shiva reveals the attitude of a pure devotee to his wife, Parvati, in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.17.28):

narayana-parah sarve
na kutashchana bibhyati
api tulyartha-darshinah

“Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord.”

Srila Prabodhananda Sarasvati, a great Vaishnava acharya, talks about the outlook of a devotee towards the material world. He writes, vishvam purna-sukhayate: “This world is full of happiness.” Why? Because the devotee sees this world as a wonderful opportunity to render service to Krishna.

Thus we see that a Krishna conscious person is not foolishly hopeful about life in this world but understands its inherent miserable nature. At the same time, the devotee is never depressed in life but remains joyful and ecstatic because of seeing the Krishna connection in everything. As Lord Krishna says, “For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.” (Gita 6.30)