Pursuing Life’s Pleasures

Complexity: 
Easy


An allegory from the Srimad-Bhagavatam sheds some light on our modern struggle for enjoyment.

When we view the world around us through the eyes of the scriptures, our understanding of it changes. The scriptures tell us that because nothing is permanent in this material world, that which appears desirable-like wealth, fame, strength, or beauty is ultimately not, because it is not retainable. Whatever our material assets, they will be wrested from us in time. Therefore we should shift our focus from the transient to the permanent, from matter to spirit. To illustrate this point and impress it upon us, the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, chapters thirteen and fourteen, describe “The Material World as the Great Forest of Enjoyment,” summarized as follows:

Vanik, a poor merchant, was determined to make money. He bravely ventured into a dense forest intending to collect wood to sell in the city at a good profit. But that forest was quite mysterious. Through its cascades of creepers Vanik glimpsed a mirage: his dear wife and children were healthy, happy, peaceful; they were well-educated, well-behaved, and touchingly affectionate to him.

This is the beginning of a scriptural analogy that explains some of the perplexities of material life. In Sanskrit vanik means “merchant” and represents every spiritual soul in the material world. The soul is transcendental to material life and enjoys transcendental pleasures but, when incarcerated within the body, identifies with it and with the mind. Forgetful of his actual identity, the soul seeks happiness in material circumstances.

As Vanik left his home to explore the forest, so the soul, the living being, left God’s kingdom to find pleasure in the material world. The forest’s tangled creepers are likened to the living being’s desire for profit, praise, and prestige; the mirage is his pipe dream of future happiness.

Spurred by his wonderful vision, Vanik went deeper into the strange forest, enthusiastically collecting wood. But before long a breeze made some dry trees rub together and start a fire. The flames grew quickly, bearing down on Vanik. He could have escaped by turning back, but instead he pressed on—only to be met by rogues and thieves. Vanik sought shelter in a well, but it was already inhabited—by jackals. He fled further, his feet pierced by the thorns and pebbles on the path, while overhead a huge hill loomed forebodingly.

The forest fire represents the threefold miseries of life: miseries caused by natural disturbances, by other living entities, and by his own mind and body. The rogues and thieves are the embodied soul’s senses’ longing for sense gratification. Shelter in the dark well is the hope he has for happiness in family life, and the jackals inside the well are his family members, who spend his wealth without consideration. The hill is his extensive and troublesome social responsibilities—the house, clothing, entertainment, and modern amenities he’s expected to provide. The thorns and pebbles are the tribulations of establishing respect and prestige in society.

As Vanik continued to struggle along, a whirlwind sprang up and blinded him with dust. Rats and flies pestered him, and the harsh sounds of owls and crickets pained his ears. Worse yet, he stumbled upon some cannibals and had to run for his life, but the powerful embrace of a python stopped his escape and all but squashed out his life. He lay unconscious on the forest path.

The whirlwind’s dust is the blinding passion that sometimes overcomes the conditioned soul and forces him to enjoy illicit sex. The rats and flies are envious enemies who disturb his life unnecessarily. The harsh sounds are the tax collectors, who demand large tax payments and, when they come for collecting taxes, are the cannibals that force him to run for his life. The python is sleep that binds him in forgetfulness.

When Vanik had recovered from the python’s attack, he was hungry, thirsty, and still tired, but the trees’ fruits were poisonous, the rivers were dry, and a forest fire was quickly approaching. Despite all this, his attention was diverted by some playful monkeys—until a lion attacked him, and again he had to run for his life. Vicious animals, like buzzards, herons, vultures, and crows, feigned friendliness but were insincere and too insignificant to help anyway. Finally Vanik, thoroughly morose at not having achieved his life’s goal fell into a mountain cave and died.

Satisfying hunger with poisonous fruits is like trying to become happy by enjoying sense gratification. Because the soul is spiritual, material sense gratification leaves him vacant. But without knowing why he feels vacant, he hungrily searches for sensual pleasures and is poisoned by lust and greed.

As one who is thirsty is frustrated by a dry river, so he who wants spiritual life is frustrated when he approaches so- called swamis, priests, and evangelists who concoct their own methods of salvation. Turning to such charlatans and the bogus organizations they run is like jumping into a dry river-it results in increased suffering. Sometimes, however, one will find a genuine spiritualist and will learn to worship the Supreme Lord. But if he is unable to stick to spiritual principles, he falls into the company of low-class men who are compared to monkeys. Monkeys are always frivolous and infatuated with sex. Such monkeylike people forget that their short lives will soon be over and that they will have nothing to show for it.

A lion’s attack means death is coming, and seeking protection among carnivorous birds is like seeking shelter in man-made gods. Such “gods” are too insignificant to save anyone, including themselves, from life’s unhappiness, from fear of death (the mountain cave), and from death itself.

By seeing through scriptural eyes, one can understand that lasting happiness is not to be found in the material world. Happiness is innate within us. But because we lack knowledge of our spiritual nature, we seek happiness in material activities, without considering the suffering that accompanies our endeavors. Instead of venturing farther into the material forest as Vanik did, let us return back from whence we came. Let us return home to the kingdom of God.