An Old Testament sage holds before us the contradictions of human life.

[From Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015, ISBN 0-89213-449-6, trade paperback $15.95,, a cross-cultural commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes. Available at the store and elsewhere. For this excerpt, we’ve retained the book’s style for dealing with Sanskrit words.]

“Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” So begins the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. By “vanity,” Qohelet (pronounced ko-hell-et), the book’s sagacious speaker, means that life is absurdly meaningless. Yet despite this pessimistic view, Qohelet urges that we enjoy life.

The third chapter of Ecclesiastes opens with the famous lyrical passage “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. . . .” But then at once, in the verses below, he returns to a despairing view. Jayadvaita Swami’s commentary, with a Vedic perspective, explores the text.

3:9–11: Working for God knows what

9 What profit has he who works in that in which he labors? 10I have seen the travail that God has given man to be busy with. 11He has made everything fitting for its time. He has also set the world in their hearts, yet they cannot find out the work that God has done from the beginning to the end.

“Times” in context. Alas!

Standing alone, Qohelet’s “catalogue of times” may seem a lovely poem, celebrating the way all things come and go, each taking its suitable turn within the cycle of nature’s divine arrangement. “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.”

With Qohelet, we can’t get off so easy.1 The scholar George Barton aptly sums up what Qohelet has to say: “Human activities are limited to certain times and seasons in which man goes his little round doing only what other men have done before. His nature cries out for complete knowledge of the works of God, but God has doomed him to ignorance, so that the best he can do is to eat and drink and ignorantly get what little enjoyment he can within these limitations.”

“What gain have the workers from their toil?” Qohelet asks. And his answer is plain: None at all. Under the sun, which pants in the futile labor of its vast and endless cosmic rounds, little men labor for nothing, time forcing them to plod through their routines within the prison walls of days and seasons, year after meaningless year.

“I have seen the business God has given everyone to be busy with,” Qohelet says. And he has already told us (in 1:13) what kind of business that is – “an unhappy business,” all amounting to nothing more than “vanity and a chasing after wind.” We are busy in useless labor. And why? Because God has stuck it on us.

God has made every one of our engagements “suitable for its time” and made them all absurdly meaningless and pointless. Worse still, he has tantalized, vexed, and frustrated us by putting into our hearts something crucial we’ll never get to the end of.

The Hebrew word for what that is has been variously translated and argued over. God has put “the world” in our hearts, or put “eternity” there, or “the course of the world,” or “a sense of past and future.” Or he has put “ignorance” there. Or if (as several commentators have suggested) scribes have inadvertently switched two Hebrew letters, what God has put there is “toil” – mental labor.

However you take it, God has made us in such a way that we long to understand what’s going on – what the meaning of our life is, why the world was made the way it is, what its purpose is, and what our place in it might be. We want to know how our small lives fit into the great picture of endless time, why time exists at all, and what the “right” times might be for the things we have to do. God has made us hungry to know what is ever concealed from us, and yet he keeps it concealed, and keeps us ignorant and frustrated.

“I have seen”

Here Qohelet seems forced to contend with the consequences of the way he has chosen to gain understanding. How will we understand what is what? By direct experience – by gathering evidence with our senses, especially by the powerful sense of sight. “I have seen . . . ,” Qohelet says. And he will say it several times more: “I saw . . . I saw . . . I turned and saw . . .” And if we follow Qohelet’s method, after seeing we will sift and weigh what we have seen – ponder it, analyze it, dwell on it, theorize about it, try somehow to make sense of it.

And ultimately we will fail. We will run up against the limitations of our senses: There’s only so much we can see, and there’s so much we can’t. Put a thin piece of paper in front of my eyes, and I can’t see beyond it. Put too much distance or too much haze, and my vision starts to blur. If something’s too small I can’t see it, or even if too big. I can’t see my own eyelid, the closest thing to the eye. And at night if you turn off the lights I can’t see anything at all. With my mighty power of sight, I can’t see sounds. I can’t see the wind. I can’t see anything that’s hidden. And all my other senses bump into the same sort of limitations.

I can extend my senses with various devices – spectacles, microscopes, telescopes, amplifiers, sensors for heat and movement – but shortly I’ll come to an extended set of limits. There’s no way around this. However many rings I burst through, I will always find the next. However much I can see, there’s always so much I can’t. My vision will always be boxed in.

And when I try to make sense of what I see, I run into the shortcomings of my mind. I see a rope and think it’s a snake. I see a woman and mistake her for a man. I see someone smile at me and don’t realize the smile is meant for someone else. I see a stray toy on the road when in fact it’s an improvised bomb.

And these are just basic errors in the mind’s work of recognizing patterns, of turning sight into perception. Now extend such mental failings to the work of understanding life as a whole. When I try to make ultimate sense of what I see, when I try to find ultimate meaning, my mind will inevitably take wrong turns, or drive about in circles, or get stuck in mental traffic and finally just give out.

According to the Vedic teachings, we are all shot through with four defects: imperfect senses, a tendency to make mistakes, a tendency to get carried away by illusion, and a tendency to cheat. (Despite our imperfect senses and our proneness to make mistakes and get bewildered, we come on like we’ve figured it all out. Cheating, no?)

In short: Direct experience and inductive reasoning may be fine within limits, but when we come to ultimate questions these methods fail, and so we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

Even if we think that there’s no God, that nature just runs on its own, we can’t be sure of that either. Nor figure out how or why existence pops into existence, nor where it’s finally headed or why. Finally, whatever we think and however much we think, the secret remains secret. As we find in the epic Mahabharata (Bhishma Parva, 5.22), achintyah khalu ye bhava na tams tarkena yojayet: “That which lies beyond the power of thought cannot be understood by logic.”

3:12–13: Eat, drink, and have a good time toiling away

12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to get pleasure so long as they live. 13And also for any man to eat and drink and enjoy pleasure in all his labor – this is a gift of God.

Nothing better?

When Qohelet says “I know that there is nothing better” we might well ask him, “How do you know?” All he can reliably tell us is what lies within his experience, not “all that is.” So perhaps he could more defensibly say, “I know of nothing better.”

But let’s not argue with him, because in any case his conclusion doesn’t seem one he’s delighted with. “I know that there is nothing better,” he says, and we might envision him saying it with a disappointed sigh. Again: Is this all? Nothing more than this?

Qohelet has come again to the same place where we found him in 2:24: Having failed at his experiment with pleasure (and that too on a royal level), he now commends as the best there is the very pleasure he has found meaningless and empty.

This is what the Bhagavatam refers to as “chewing the chewed again and again.” In tropical countries people often enjoy chewing fresh sugarcane, which yields a sweet and tasty juice. You chew the cane, relish the juice, and then leave the woody fiber aside. And that’s it. If you try to chew the same cane again – okay, you might get a bit more juice, but not much, hardly enough to be worth it, and if after putting it aside the second time you pick it up and try again, what can you expect?

Such, the Bhagavatam says, is the nature of material enjoyment. We try something and extract a little joy, and then try the same thing again, with diminished results, and then try it yet again. Soon whatever we’re trying becomes dry, tasteless, and frustrating, but for lack of anything better we keep trying, “chewing the chewed,” imagining there’s still more joy to be had from it.

I could talk about kids and how quickly they tire of old toys, but let’s go for the top: the pleasure of sex. Qohelet had it to the highest extent – “many concubines, the delights of men” – and at the end he told us what it came to: “vanity, and a chasing after wind.” And now should we try it again? Our senses cry out for it, and our mind can picture how satisfying it will be this time, and at the end – disappointment.

The pleasure a human being gets out of eating, drinking, or sex is in essence the same as what a hog gets, or a dog, or a mosquito. Finally, eating is eating, sex is sex. And yet, Qohelet says, “there is nothing better.”

In fact, he says there is “nothing better as long as they live.” Even in old age, it seems, people still pursue the same pleasure. And so a study published in 20072 found that of American men between the ages of 65 and 74, nearly seven out of ten were “sexually active,” and for men 75 through 85, nearly four out of ten. For more than half the men in the older group, this meant two or three times a month, and for one out of four, at least once a week. (For women in the same age groups the numbers were lower, in part because of not having a man: Men, on average, marry younger women, and men die somewhat earlier.) As the study’s authors tell us, “The prevalence of sexual activity declines with age, yet a substantial number of men and women engage in vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and masturbation even in the eighth and ninth decades of life.” And this despite arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and an array of troublesome physical ailments directly related to sexual performance. Amidst all this, Qohelet says, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live.”

For those done with sex and too old to enjoy working, there’s still the pleasure of eating and drinking and schmoozing with what’s left of their friends and families. Nothing better? As long as they live? Alas!

And what’s this about “taking pleasure in all their labor” – as many translations have it, “all their toil”? Toil, by definition, is not pleasurable but troublesome, wearisome, miserable. And toil is what Qohelet says. The Hebrew word – ’amal – carries the same strongly negative sense. As we hear from the scholar C. L. Seow, in the Bible the word is closely linked with “extremely negative terms” – trouble, grief, evil, falsehood, vexation, lies, destruction, violence, affliction, poverty, deceit. ’Amal – labor or toil – is not just work or effort but struggle, sweat, drudgery, travail. Is that what we’re supposed to take pleasure in?

As I’ve mentioned before, the word does have a dual meaning. It can refer either to wearisome labor or to its results, what we earn by such labor – or it can refer to both. The two, after all, go together. More than going together, they are bound together. What we earn is a result of our toil, but in one sense our toil is the result of what we earn because it is for the sake of those earnings that we undergo the toil. Work brings us money, but money – the need or desire for it – makes us work. We work for happiness, but since the work itself is misery, the very pursuit of happiness makes us miserable.

That is why the Vedic sages advise that one not work for happiness at all. Happiness, they say, will come of its own accord. After all, no one seeks misery – no one works for it or stands in line for it – yet misery comes anyway, on its own. Then why not happiness as well? By nature’s way, each time a living being is born his physical embodiment brings along with it a certain quota of happiness and distress. Both will find us, in whatever measure we are destined to receive. The Srimad-Bhagavatam therefore advises that one work only to keep body and soul together, for the sake of the true human project of spiritual inquiry. That alone should be the purpose of one’s work.

This, the Bhagavatam says, is the actual gift given by God for a human being: the ability to inquire about our purpose for existing, about ultimate meaning. But if that’s not the gift we want, God (or nature, if you will) has others to offer – in essence, the same gifts offered to other creatures: some food, something to drink, some sex. And for such rewards a life of hard work.

Here to enjoy

Now, let’s look at things another way. We all want to eat and drink and enjoy, and seeing the enjoyments we receive as a gift from God reflects a sense of gratitude toward the divinity, and a sense of humbleness. “So entirely dependent are we on the divine Being, that even the little which we enjoy, is not secured by our own plans and efforts, but by God’s own arrangements.” So writes the nineteenth-century biblical scholar Moses Stuart, with his usual thoughtful piety.

This fits well with what we’ve already heard from the Ishopanishad: “Whether alive or dull, all within this universe belongs to its controller, the Lord. What you may enjoy is only what he has set aside for you as your portion. One should not strive for other things, knowing well to whom they belong.”

Without reference to God the nonreligious person may think, “I am here to enjoy, and by good luck or hard work I’ll do it.” And with reference to God the religious believer may think, “I am here to enjoy, and by God’s grace I can hope to do so.” For both, the central concern is their own enjoyment. And both, therefore, are “chasing after wind.”

In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna says, “Enjoyments born of stimulation for the senses are themselves the very sources of misery. They have a beginning and an end, and one who is wise does not delight in them.”

Yet it is those enjoyments, those “gifts of God,” that religious believers are often keen to receive. By prayers, by rituals, by following commandments, by “being good,” they hope that God will grant them the gifts of good fortune, of peace and prosperity, of a bountiful life in which they can eat and drink and take pleasure in all the results of their work.

In the Vedic literature the part called karma-kanda, “the part concerning karma,” deals with precisely such goals: How can we best act to reap the best material rewards? From the point of view of the follower of karma-kanda, a virtuous or religious life is worthwhile because it will bring us prosperity, which will enable us to enjoy (or after death gain us a welcome into a heavenly realm where we can enjoy still more).

Yet the Srimad-Bhagavatam, in its opening stanzas, rejects such religious life as being materially motivated and as therefore a kind of spiritual fraud. In the name of religion or spirituality or dharma we seek pleasure for the tongue and the stomach and the little organ down below. Spiritual? The Bhagavatam rejects such “fraudulent dharma” and invites us to discriminate between reality and illusion for the sake of our ultimate welfare and the attainment of the highest truth.

1. And like Qohelet’s poem, the lovely expression of contentment in the line above from Robert Browning has an ironic context. It’s from a song Browning puts in the mouth of an exploited Italian orphan girl who had to work long wearisome hours at a silk mill, with only one day off in a year. The girl innocently sings the song while passing by the mill owner’s wife and her lover, who have murdered the mill owner. “All’s right with the world” indeed!
2. “A Study of Sexuality and Health among Older Adults in the United States.” Lindau, Schumm, et al. The New England Journal of Medicine, 357;8, August 23, 2007.