(This is a popular conception which needs to be reexamined in a deeper light. This article looks at this conception in the light of Indian spiritual perspective)
Happiness and Human Development
What is happiness? There is a pleasure which comes from food or sex, which some people call as happiness. But this can’t be the aim of human life because this is more or less living like an animal. There is a kind of happiness which we can feel when all our material and emotional desires are to a certain extent fulfilled and we have no other higher ambitions or aims in the vital, mental or spiritual realms. We have a narrow mind or heart with a few ideas or feelings and there is nothing much to grapple with or solve. Those who have risen to their higher potentials in the vital, mental, moral, aesthetic domains like the artists, thinkers, poets or leaders of action may feel a deeper joy or fulfillment while they are creating, but their life as a whole may not be as happy as those who are in the lower levels of evolution living comfortably self-satisfied in their surface emotional and sensational being. In general, happiness which comes from a self-satisfied ego is not conducive to evolution and progress. Without some form of inner or outer dissatisfaction or aspirations for higher values or aims, there cannot be true progress. So to make happiness as the aim of life may not help in the full flowering of the human potential.
Beyond Happiness: The Higher Aims of Life
Let us now examine what the ancient Indian spiritual thought had perceived on the aim of life and happiness. According to this Indian paradigm, a human being has four legitimate aims or needs, which have to be achieved through four stages of life. They are first Artha, which means economic and material needs; second is Kama, the vital need for enjoyment; third, is the mental and moral need for ethics, values and ideals, dharma; fourth is Moksha, which is the spiritual need for self-realization or the realization of our highest spiritual self beyond our body, life and mind and also beyond our moral and aesthetic being, which is the deepest truth of our being. These four aims correspond roughly to the needs of our physical, vital, emotional, mental, moral and spiritual being. In this scheme, the legitimate needs of the sensational and emotional being for enjoyment and happiness are recognized but only as part of a more holistic vision of life and as a stage in the journey towards higher aims of life. In terms of stages, there are three major stations in the journey of life: student, householder and spiritual seeker. The aim of student life is not accumulation of information or employability but to learn the art and science of right living governed by the higher aims and values of life. The aim of the householder is to fulfill his responsibilities to his family and the community, governed by the values of dharma and enjoy whatever happiness, success or other benefits which come naturally as a result of it or as part of karma. He also has to consciously prepare himself for the final spiritual journey towards his highest destiny, Moksha. In this stage, the vital and emotional needs for enjoyment or happiness are recognized but not given much importance. The aim of the spiritual seeker is to renounce all other aims and focus all his energies entirely on the spiritual aim of Moksha.
Thus we can see here that in this scheme, the aim of happiness is put in its right place, neither ignoring or rejecting it in an ascetic spirit nor giving too much importance to it.
When we conduct our life governed by this holistic vision with understanding, sincerity and persistence, happiness may come as a result, or may not. The opposites of happiness like grief, pain, failure, disappointment are also part of life and they are helpful for our higher evolution. When these harsh gusts of life are met with right inner attitude, it builds character and inner strength. As we have indicated earlier, when our ego and desires are satisfied we call that state as happiness. But spiritual growth comes from a progressive renunciation and conquest over our ego and desire. And this spiritual life is not always a happy journey. When our awakened higher nature makes a conscious effort to overcome our ego and desire and our lower nature desperately clings to them, the conflict and the struggle may lead to much unhappiness and suffering.
So, the Indian teaching is to regard happiness and unhappiness as transient, passing ripples on the river of life. The following story illustrates this Indian attitude with a touch of humor:
There lived a saint who spoke little. One day, a householder called Ramu came to see the saint and went on lamenting about his miserable life, his acute financial problems, his deteriorating health, his family squabbles. The saint listened to Ramu’s tale of woe patiently and said, “Don’t worry. It will pass.” And after a few days, Ramu’s condition flourished, his health became better and his family problems disappeared. Ramu went to the saint again and said “Sir, as you said that day and by your blessings, my difficult situation has passed. I am now wealthy, healthy and happy”. The saint said calmly “This will also pass”.
The message of the story is that we must look at happiness and unhappiness with equanimity and detachment and allow it to pass. We must not cling to happiness when it comes and should not be distressed when it leaves. Similarly we must learn to endure unhappiness without getting unduly disturbed over it. The Indian ideal is not emotional or vital happiness but deep peace and equanimity of the soul, which remains undisturbed under the dual strokes of life like pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, success and failure.
Behind Happiness: The Eternal Delight
However this instinctive quest for happiness is not entirely illusory. There is a deeper truth behind it. The vedic sages intuitively perceived an eternal divine Delight ‘Ananda’ as the inner source of all life. Seeking for pleasure and happiness and whatever joy we get from it or more or distorted reflections of this supreme bliss of the divine Being. And in our human organism, our soul or our true self beyond our body and mind, is a spark of this divine Delight and made of this Delight. So, if we are able to rediscover our true self and unite with it, we can perhaps experience the deep, intrinsic and unbroken delight of our soul even in the midst of all the vicissitudes and dualities of life. But for most of us this is a distant ideal which can be realized only through a long, arduous inner discipline. The first step towards this ideal is what we have indicated earlier- an inner discipline which leads to undisturbed inner peace, equanimity and detachment under all circumstances and dualities of life.