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Optimism—Pessimism

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine, #35-04, 2001

Optimism and pessimism appear to be opposite terms, but both states of mind can be used in Krishna consciousness. Although everyone is familiar with the meaning of these two terms, I would like to present their dictionary definitions:

Optimism: 1. A tendency to look on the more favorable side, or to expect the most favorable outcome of events or conditions. 2. The belief that good will ultimately triumph over evil and that virtue will be rewarded. 3. The doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds.

Pessimism: 1. The tendency to see only what is disadvantageous or gloomy, or to anticipate the worst outcome. 2. The doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend toward evil. 3. The belief that the evil and pain in the world outweigh any goodness or happiness.

These meanings draw lines, and people tend to place themselves along them—as optimists or pessimists—or somewhere in between.

The phrase “the best of all possible worlds” was posited by the German philosopher Leibniz in the seventeenth century. Leibniz spoke about cause and effect and concluded that we live in the best of all possible worlds. His philosophy was most notably attacked by the writer and thinker Voltaire in his book Candide. I would like to use parts of Voltaire’s story to delineate the extremes of optimism.

Candide’s Tale Of Woe

Candide is named for the book’s main character, a young man in a royal family who is not quite a legitimate heir. He is described as having “sound judgment combined with a great simplicity of mind,” but he falls in love with the baron’s daughter. When they act on that infatuation, Candide is forced to leave the castle, and so the story goes forward.

While he is yet at the castle, Candide and the baron’s daughter have a tutor, “the oracle of the household,” named Dr. Pangloss. Dr. Pangloss is a philosopher who teaches “metaphysico-theologo- cosmonigology,” and it is through this character that Voltaire mocks Leibniz. Candide “listened to [Dr. Pangloss’s] instructions with all the simplicity natural to his age and disposition. [Dr. Pangloss] proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and in this best of all possible worlds, the baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all possible castles and Her Ladyship the best of all possible baronesses.”

Leibniz used his optimistic philosophy to hint at the presence of a Deity. Voltaire attacks that idea as he goes on in this story to show the real misery of human life.

After Candide leaves the castle, he wanders through the snow until he comes to a town. Some uniformed soldiers feed him, assuring him that it is the duty of one man to help another (something Dr. Pangloss had also taught him), and then ask him if he would drink to the king of the Bulgars. Candide agrees. They then tell him he will become the “support and upholder” of the Bulgars. The soldiers put him in leg irons and take him to their army camp. There he is forced to learn the drill, and is beaten with a cane for his mistakes. When he finally performs the drill without mistakes, they tell him he has become a hero. “Candide, utterly bewildered, could not make out very clearly how he was a hero.”

Pangloss The Beggar

After a few more adventures, Candide meets a “beggar covered with sores; his eyes were lifeless, the tip of his nose had been eaten away, his mouth was twisted, his teeth were black, his voice was hoarse, he was racked by a violent cough, and he spat out a tooth with every spasm.” Moved to compassion, Candide gives the beg-gar the money he himself had just received by begging. The beggar then throws his arms around Candide and tells him that he is Dr. Pangloss. The Baron’s castle has been destroyed, Dr. Pangloss tells Candide, and the royal family killed. Dr. Pangloss survived but suffers from a venereal disease.

Candide’s adventures get worse, but the story’s ending is significant. Candide and Dr. Pangloss meet a man and his small family who live off the land, working and not depending upon others. Nor do they try to understand the larger events taking place in the world. Pangloss and Candide decide they want to live like this man. This is Voltaire’s understanding of something positive a person can do in a horrible world to escape the punishments of vice, boredom, and poverty. Voltaire describes manmade and natural disasters, such as an earthquake in Lisbon that killed thirty thousand people, and asks how one can continue to consider this the best of all possible worlds.

As Candide, Pangloss, and the other characters settled down to live a positive life, Pangloss now and then said to Candide, “All events are interconnected in this best of all possible worlds, for if you hadn’t been driven from a beautiful castle with hard kicks because of your love … if you hadn’t been seized by the Inquisition, if you hadn’t wandered over America on foot, if you hadn’t thrust your sword through the baron, and if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be here eating candied citrons and pistachio nuts.

“ ‘Well said,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.’ ”

Self-Reform

This “cultivate your own garden” philosophy can be applied in Krishna consciousness. Whether we’re a “big” reformer or a “small” one, we must all cultivate self-reform.

I took the trouble to present so much material because it affirms what we can do in our own Krishna conscious lives. Like Candide, we have little power against the trials sent by material nature, but we can do small, yet significant, things for our own improvement. Often devotees in the Krishna consciousness movement, in an optimistic fervor, imagine themselves single-handedly making major changes in the world. But we are not likely to be able to make large changes on our own. Rather, our Krishna conscious optimism can be directed more personally: we can create a reform of ourselves and our families (if we have them), and take time to cultivate our spiritual garden. What we plant we will eat. There is little use in philosophizing abstractly like Dr. Pangloss about cause and effect, but, rather, we can live practically and faithfully in the world.

Schopenhauer’s View

After Voltaire, another philosopher disagreed with Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” approach. That was Schopenhauer, also a German. He was the first Western philosopher to study the Upanishads. Schopenhauer especially liked the concept of maya, and the philosophy he posited, after studying the Upanishads, was that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. He used his Vedic studies to support that idea.

And the Vedas do support that idea. The Vedic literature states that material life is full of suffering. It lists the threefold miseries (arising from our minds, from other living entities, and from natural calamities) and the fourfold miseries (birth, death, disease, and old age). No one escapes them. Does this mean that devotees should maintain a negative world view?

Upon hearing the Vedic literature’s sweeping condemnation of life in the material world, Albert Schweitzertermed the Vedic philosophy “world and life negating.” Western philosophers often end up with that misunderstanding, concluding that the highest goal is to merge into Brahman and that everything else is illusion and suffering. We are meant only to escape through self-negation in Brahman realization.

But that’s not the summation of our philosophy: there is something positive and optimistic.

To understand the difference between Dr. Pangloss’s and Schopenhauer’s versions of optimism and pessimism and the Krishna conscious versions, we must face the Vedas’ stated propose of human life. It is not our purpose to resign ourselves to a temporary and miserable world, either imagining it happy or understanding its misery, but to strive for permanent happiness. In the Vedic conception, a person negates life only when he identifies the illusory body with the self. Those who affirm the self accept the opportunity offered in the Vedic teachings to become victorious over death.

I will generalize and say that anyone who aspires to be a devotee in Krishna consciousness is optimistic about the spiritual facts of life and pessimistic toward the opportunities offered by material life. To the degree that that’s not true in us, our lack of advancement is revealed. If, in the name of being a devotee, we remain attracted to material life and unhappy renouncing it for spiritual life, we can say that we are not really devotees.

I remember once walking with Srila Prabhupada. At the end of the walk he turned and said, “If you have any idea that material life is happy, you cannot become Krishna conscious.” At other times he would say, “There is no happiness in the material world.”

Spiritual Optimism

We’re optimistic, but not about material life. I felt that balance between optimism and pessimism early in my own Krishna conscious life. When I was a member of ISKCON’s first temple, a storefront at 26 Second Avenue in New York City, I once arrived late to drive with Srila Prabhupada to a lecture he would give at Dr. Mishra’s Ananda Ashram outside the city. Another storefront attendee also arrived late. Suddenly, someone turned up with a jeep. We jumped in and drove out to the ashram. As we drove, we talked to one another simply as young men interested in the Swami (Srila Prabhupada). We all thought the Swami was great, but we especially liked his philosophy: the self doesn’t die; we are eternal. It gave us such hope.

Most people feel that same hope when they take to Krishna consciousness. That hope is the optimism of spiritual life. A devotee is jolly, Prabhupada would say. He said that if we weren’t feeling the happiness of spiritual life, we were in maya.

Mukunda’s Unparalleled Optimism

There is a wonderful expression of optimism in one of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes. Although playing the role of a devotee and generally hiding His true identity, Lord Caitanya once revealed that He is Krishna Himself. He then called each of His devotees forward one by one, told each devotee something about himself that only the devotee would know, revealed each devotee’s eternal form, andoffered each devotee a boon. As the day went on, however, it became clear to everyone that the Lord had not called Mukunda, a great kirtana singer loved by all the devotees.

Finally, the devotees approached Lord Caitanya and asked, “My Lord, are You going to call Mukunda?”

“Mukunda? Don’t even mention his name. He’s a good-for-nothing. He’s a chameleon. Whoever he’s with, he’s like them. If he associates with Mayavadis, he becomes a Mayavadi. If he comes here, he behaves like a devotee. Therefore, sometimes he offers Me a rose and sometimes he hits Me with a mallet.”

The devotees were shocked. They knew Mukunda was a true Vaishnava. They decided to intercede on his behalf.

But the Lord replied, “No! I will not see Mukunda for millions of lifetimes.”

Upon hearing these words, Mukunda began to clap his hands and dance. “I will! I will! I will see the Lord again!” Mukunda is an example of a true spiritual optimist; he was not defeated by the Lord’s rejection but instead chose to hang on one part of His sentence: “I will.” The Lord had said, “I will not see Mukunda for millions of lifetimes,” but Mukunda heard only “I will.” At that, Lord Caitanya laughed and at once accepted him.

Optimism means we see the silver lining in the circumstances of our lives and understand that the silver lining is Krishna’s mercy to bring us closer to Him. Mukunda could have thought, “Who knows if I will ever be accepted again? After all, where will I be in millions of lifetimes?” Rather, he was optimistic.

No Material Happiness

Yet the Bhagavatam hammers away at our material optimism in verse after verse. We cannot be happy in this world, and if we think we can, we are illusioned. Jada Bharata explains this point concisely to Maharaja Rahugana in the Fifth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, in the chapter entitled “The Forest of Enjoyment”:

“Sometimes conditioned souls exchange money, but in due course of time, enmity arises because of cheating. Although there may be a tiny profit, the conditioned souls cease to be friends and become enemies.” In the purport Srila Prabhupada writes, “Unless one is firmly fixed in the regulative principles, one may perform mischievous acts, even if one is a member of the Krishna consciousness movement.”

Jada Bharata continues: “Sometimes, having no money, the conditioned soul does not get sufficient accommodations. Sometimes he does not even have a place to sit, nor does he have other necessities. In other words, he falls into scarcity, and at that time, when he is unable to secure the necessities by fair means, he decides to seize the property of others unfairly. When he cannot get the things he wants, he receives insults from others and becomes very morose.

“Although people may be enemies, in order to fulfill their desires again and again, they sometimes get married. Unfortunately, these marriages do not last very long, and the people involved are separated by divorce or other means.”

In the purport Srila Prabhupada writes, “Due to the cheating propensity, people remain envious. Even in Krishna consciousness, separation and enmity take place due to the prominence of material propensities. The conclusion is that no one can be happy in material life. One must take to Krishna consciousness.”

This basic understanding of optimism and pessimism must be there in any devotee wishing to advance in Krishna consciousness. We may, however, express individual attitudes according to our psychophysical natures. Some of us may appear more optimistic or pessimistic than others. But the basis for real optimism is in the life of the spirit. There is no happiness in material life.