We pursue so many things in life – money, entertainment, health, job, house, car, companion, children, pets, education, skills, knowledge, etc. We pursue all these with the hope that they will make us happy. We some how seem to have an idea that happiness is the goal of life and these are all the means. With this wrong assumption, seeing poverty, disease, failure, quarrels, war and suffering in the world, we ask the question, “why is there so much sorrow in the world?” We even declare that if there is a God, He/She must be a very cruel person.
Vedanta declares that happiness is not the goal of life. Wisdom is the goal of life. Swami Vivekananda says, “Sense-happiness is not the goal of humanity. Wisdom (Jnâna) is the goal of all life. We find that man enjoys his intellect more than an animal enjoys its senses; and we see that man enjoys his spiritual nature even more than his rational nature. So, the highest wisdom must be this spiritual knowledge. With this knowledge will come bliss. All these things of this world are but the shadows, the manifestations in the third or fourth degree of the real Knowledge and Bliss.” (CW III-4) If we understand this, then everything in the world and our own life starts making sense. The dualities like success/failure, fame/disgrace, wealth/poverty, health/disease, pleasure/pain, etc. keep alternating. This whole scheme, when understood correctly, makes us wiser. Through this wisdom, we go beyond the dualities. The dualities no longer affect us. We are ever peaceful and blissful. This is the goal.
However, the maturity to learn the lessons in life to become wiser does not come in the beginning. So there are two other pursuits which form the steps. The first thing worth pursuing is “good action”. Vedanta declares that good action produces good karma phala, called “punya”. This punya gives better opportunities in life and a better understanding of values. That leads to the second thing worth pursuing. It is “good character”. The character, habits and tendencies of a person is called “samskaara”. This is gives us peace of mind, which gives the balance and freedom from bias, which helps us to see the truth, which gives wisdom. This wisdom is the third thing worth pursuing, called “jnaana”.
Thus, these three things, “punya”, “samskaara” and “jnaana”, are the only things worth pursuing. Vedanta says that a person carries these three from one lifetime to another. Everything else that we acquire in life is left back at the time of death. These three things come with us even after death.
There is a beautiful story about this.
Once there was a rich man in a village. He was a great miser. He loved his money a lot. He never spent the money, nor gave anything to anyone. Suddenly one day he realized that he will die eventually. He did not want to part with his money when he died.
He went to the priest of the temple and asked him, “Sir, when I die can I take my money with me?” The priest told him, “What a foolish man you are! Has anyone taken their wealth with him when he died? When a man dies, his children fight over his wealth. Strangers cheat the children and take a part of the wealth for themselves. A man spends all his life earning wealth only to find that either the wealth leaves him, or he has to leave the wealth at the time of his death.” The miser cried out aloud and ran back to his money in his house. He could not bear the idea that he had to part away from his wealth.
Whenever any pundit visited the village, he went and asked him the same question. The pundits pitied him and explained to him that he cannot take even a broken needle with him. The miser spent sleepless nights in great agony.
One day, Guru Nanak came to the village during his travels. The miser asked the great saint, “Oh Holy Sir, I have spent all my life in earning wealth. I understand that I will die one day. I want to take my wealth with me when I die. Everyone says that I cannot do so. Is there any way by which I can take my wealth with me?” Guru Nanak looked at the miser with great love and replied, “Oh dear, you have worked hard all your life to earn this wealth. Surely it is yours. You can take it with you when you die.” The miser jumped with joy. Finally, he had found a saint who had spoken words of nectar. He fell at the feet of the saint and asked, “Oh great Sir, your words have brought me great joy. Please tell me how I can take my wealth with me when I die. No one whom I have met so far seems to know that it can be done.”
Guru Nanak asked the miser, “Have you travelled to foreign countries?” The miser said, “Oh yes, several times. I have travelled to several countries to do business. That is how I have earned all my wealth.” Nanak asked, “Is the local currency useful in the foreign countries?” The miser replied, “No. They all have different currencies. But I can buy gold and gems for the local currency here and take them with me. Gold and gems are valued in all countries.” Guru Nanak said, “Yes. So, you must do the same with your wealth. The local currency, and even gold and gems are not valued in the world after death. You need to convert all your wealth into a form that is valued across death.” The miser replied, “Yes. You are right. Please tell me into which form should I convert all my wealth into?”
Nanak replied, “Punya is the only one that is valued even after death. Spend your wealth for the good of the society by building schools, hospitals and temples. Help people in distress using your wealth. This way, you can convert your wealth into punya. Whatever you have converted into punya by such activities can be taken with you when you die. Whatever you have still left as currency, gold, gems, land, houses, etc. must be left back here. You cannot take them with you when you die.”
The rich man was very happy. He did not remain a miser any longer. He lived a simple life, and spent all his wealth for the good of the society.
When we have gained sufficient punya, our thinking opens up. It gets refined. We start valuing character. Absence of psychological defects like anger, jealousy, arrogance, lust, greed, etc. are valued by us and we start pursuing values. To whatever extent we are free from these defects, that is our permanent gain. We carry our character across births. So even if we manage to free ourselves from short temper to a small extent, that improvement is a real gain for us.
When we are sufficiently free from the psychological defects, we can see that real happiness does not come from people (Gita 6.9), objects (Gita 6.8) and situations (Gita 6.7). We have the peace and tranquility of mind to become introvert and think deeply on the truths of life. We are able to meditate. We are able to inquire and understand about our own true nature, the nature of the whole existence and our relationship to the whole. This understanding, called “jnaana”, frees us from all anxiety and sorrow. This is called “moksha”, which is the ultimate goal, according to Vedanta.
Everyone has to start with the pursuit of “punya”, then proceed to the pursuit of “samskaara” and then further to the pursuit of “jnaana”. We need not wait. We can start pursuing all the three to the best of our ability, understanding and conviction. Depending on our maturity, that pursuit will make sense to us, bear fruit and take us further.