If the ultimate goal of mankind is happiness, what is that which makes us happy is the ultimate question. The materialistic world will say, buying the best home in the neighborhood will give you happiness. Or better still if only you could possess an E-Class Mercedes it would be my ultimate happiness. A woman said her dream was ‘to see Disney-Land’ and she had expressed her wish to her husband. All this is fine for there is no harm in seeing the world, travelling, staying in good homes, possessing the best cars, eating good food and dining in ultimate restaurants. There is nothing against materialism in ‘VEDANT’ at all. Attaining of ‘KAMA’ and ‘ARTH’ (pleasure and material success through excellence) is a valid goal of mankind. But we know, following the ‘law of diminishing returns’, everything material loses its charm gradually. Even diamonds seem to lose their sparkle and diminish in their value. So, what is that that gives lasting happiness is the quest again.
Psychology has made great strides from the times of Abraham Maslow in 1943 as new thoughts have come in. Psychologist Martin Seligman spearheaded the movement of ‘Positive Psychology’ from the year 2000 onwards deviating from the medical model of mental health to extensively researching the ‘signature strengths’ of people. He thought psychology was too focused on illness and disease and its curative/therapeutic methods instead of positive strengths of mankind. Seligman makes an effort to define happiness as constituting of three factors. One factor he says is ‘Pleasure’, which means that anything that gives us pleasure makes us happy. Simple tasks like eating, driving, sports, partying, artistic hobbies can give us pleasure and hence happiness. He says we need to go beyond that to the next level of ‘Engagement’, which means that when our mind is engaged with full attention and concentration on a task and we are also enjoying it, it leads to happiness. Hence people who have found their vocations and are engaged in it are happy people. Conversely, those who feel trapped in their jobs and work are suffering for they do not engage in their tasks to derive happiness. Lucky are the ones who are able to combine work and pleasure leading to happiness. Now Martin Seligman goes up the ladder of happiness to define another concept called ‘Meaning and Purpose’. According to him when a task also gives him a sense of purpose and adds meaning to his life he gets a higher level of happiness. In an experiment with children he concluded that when we do ‘things for others such as helping others’, we are happier than consuming an ice-cream or watching a movie. Such good actions and good feelings remain entrenched in our memory bank longer. Therefore, to sum it up, he talks of ‘pleasure, plus engagement plus purpose’ that gives happiness.
Let us see what th e ‘VEDANT’ has to offer us. The ‘Vedant’ talks of the four goals of life for attainment of happiness and self-fulfilment. The first one is ‘DHARMA’, which should be the basis of all actions and thoughts that humans indulge in. ‘Dharma’ has a very broad definition that includes morality, ethics, religion, duty towards society, unselfishness and doing for others. Dharma is also a code of ethical and moral living. It does not discount the material attainment but it codifies the manner and method of attainment of ARTHA and KAMA on moral and ethical foundations. Any action done for benefit of gaining pleasure and economic gain has to done on moral and ethical principles. This is what the VEDANTA proposes emphatically. This issue of morality was sorely missing among the western psychological thought for years and is now is being talked and written about in alarming tones. Modern times is also being termed as ‘the age of ethical crisis’. Csikszentmihaly Mihaly, one of my favorite psychologist in his pathbreaking book “The Evolving Self” says ‘moral codes have become necessary because evolution, in liberating humankind from complete dependence on instincts, has also made it possible for us to act with a malice that no organism ruled by instincts alone could possess’. What a powerful statement on the need for ‘Dharma’!!!
Therefore, the ancient concept of ‘Dharma’ which is known to be the foundation of all thought and actions in ‘Vedant’ is gaining due recognition after much damage has been done with the sole concept of ‘excellence, self-actualization and materialism’. Although Seligman talks of ‘meaning and purpose’ as vital ingredients of ‘happiness’, and Milahy talks of ‘moral and ethical codes’ of as vital to ‘evolving and developing a harmonious self’, the concept of ‘Dharma’ is more complex and encompassing of many aspects.
Again, western thought stops at morality and purpose, while the Hindu thought goes beyond the material world to talk of ‘MOKSHA’ which is the attainment of self-realization, spiritual liberty, and ‘divinity within’ (as stated by Swami Vivekananda). ‘Moksha’ is a difficult thought to understand and implement but not impossible. It starts with understanding the ‘SELF’, to dig deep into one’s own mind with the purpose of being aware of the self, to understand it, and conquer it. The ‘self’ is chained in ignorance and illusions of its own importance of the ‘ego’, which deludes it and ties it down to the material world.
Self-realization can take place only through self-knowledge which is a difficult proposition because of the peculiar and complex nature of the mind. The Hindu concept of the mind is very complex and not part of my western education unfortunately. The science of Psychology believes in the theory of the three- layered mind- the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious. In 1917 Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychological thought, realised that a person’s actions are determined not by the self he calls self, but by the unconscious mind deep within of which he is not aware. He further said – ‘the difficulty with knowing the self was that no one from outside can know it. Only you can know it. The problem is that humans cannot perceive the subjective self in an objective manner. There are barriers difficult to penetrate. The ego creates illusions around its self and lives in its own created delusions’.
The objective study of the subjective self is akin to a scientific enquiry which has to be done without delusion and prejudice. It has to be done with detachment, without emotions and that’s the difficulty. Albert Einstein was once asked ‘what is the most important thing in scientific investigation?’ He said ‘absence of egoism’. The ego creates illusions around you which does not allow honest enquiry. Only when the fine mind is able to lift the veil of illusions, called ‘MAYA in Vedant’, you become aware of the pure and true nature of your soul, your ‘ATMAN’, which is pure and infinite consciousness leading to infinite bliss. For then we realize that ‘we are one with the Universe and not different from it. ‘We are the Universe’ it says. This leads to liberty from life and from future birth cycles. It answers philosophical questions such as, ‘Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Why was I born?’
The methods to develop self-knowledge are through regular introspection, being brutally honest with ourselves, calmness of the mind, meditation, prayer, Yoga, attention, concentration, through good habits of discipline, good eating, virtuous thinking, discrimination and discretion before making the right choices and leading a good life. It leads to developing good human values such as compassion, empathy, care, love for others, and respect for each organism.
We must empower and enrich our self with the need for self-actualization and the need for self-realization. Only when we develop both self-actualization and self-realization do we blossom fully to become a wholesome human being to attain success and happiness. These are the two pillars of good life that complement each other, enhance each other, and enrich one another.