From Back to Godhead
By Abhijit Tolley
Presence of joy is higher than absence of sorrow.
I was zooming along a beautiful tree-lined highway when I slammed on the brakes. Screeeech! Thud! Generally, when you run over a squirrel scampering across the road just a little too late for you to stop, you get a sinking feeling. Unless you’re stone-hearted, the next few minutes are not joyful. The guilt of having taken a life lingers until it’s replaced by more important things. But this time I was not gripped by remorse; I had just run over not a squirrel but a rock. Stones are, by definition, already dead. Stone-dead.
Life of a Stone
Suppose for a moment this stone has life. It still has all the characteristics of a stone, but now it knows it exists. No matter how many trucks choose to run over it, it feels no pain. It is, after all, just a stone. And, just as befits a stone, it doesn’t feel joy when spring is right round the corner. Isn’t that a most coveted state of existence? Granted, there’s no exhilaration in life, but not a bad price to pay for escaping the agony of being crushed under the nonchalant tires of some nameless truck. Yes, the stone is happy to be alive!
Wait! This does not sound right. Are we saying a stone’s life is better than ours? Suppose you go and open your heart to someone: “I have a problem. Why am I suffering like this?” and that someone replies: “Because you’re not dead.” This is not an answer that will fill your heart with happiness. Neither will such a stone hearted reply help you.Yet, there are many philosophers who say this-perhaps not as bluntly, but it is pretty much the essence of their philosophies. You are suffering, yes. Suffering is because of your desires. Put an end to your desires; do not rejoice for anything, and do not lament for anything. And so on. What they are suggesting, really, is that you must eventually (not immediately) develop the qualities of a stone.
This philosophy is called impersonalism, and it has many flavors, all with a central theme: ultimately, the highest truth, the source of everything, is a unvariegated oneness. Therefore since the ultimate truth is quality-less oneness, attaining the ultimate truth lies in merging oneself into that oneness. Once merged, all dualities disappear, so there’s no happiness or sorrow, no pleasure or pain, no good, no bad-no feeling at all. Sounds a lot like our friend, Mr. Stone. And what’s more, in that merged state, all individuality is lost in the merger.
Why Impersonalism is so popular
Let’s think about this for a moment. Who will get really hooked on a philosophy whose end goal is negation of everything that characterizes life? The immediate answer that pops into my mind is those who are so totally frustrated with their lives that their lives have become unbearable. To them, the philosophical escape to a featureless oneness sounds like relief. They do not mind the concomitant relinquishing of their pleasure, either, since they don’t have much to rejoice about in their lives.
The other people who tend to relate to this philosophy are those who understand the miserable and temporary nature of this world. Since their understanding is based on a sound philosophical understanding of the temporality of all things in this world, they choose not to be a part of anything and to strive for desirelessness.
So yes, people do have valid reasons for accepting impersonalist philosophy. But if I were to write an essay on the happiest day of my life,”I doubt I will be able to glorify a day I spent doing nothing, thinking nothing, feeling nothing, and with no one around. Instead I imagine will glorifying a day I spent in nature or joking with friends. We seek the surge of joy.
Why then is the impersonal philosophy so prominent in the world? Because most people hardly ever get to live the “happiest day of their life.”And even if they do, their time of happiness is just too fleeting that it stands as insignificant when compared to the number of mediocre or pain-filled days in their lives. So to make all their days “happiest” they redefine happiness as oneness, even a sense of nothingness-and something they will achieve in the future. Happiness becomes the absence of sorrow, and since we can’t seem to have worldly happiness without its counterpart worldly unhappiness, they’re willing to relinquish what they would normally consider joy to avoid their suffering.
But what if we could live that “happiest day” forever? Would we still choose no-feeling? What if we lived in a place where every step was a dance and every word a song? A place where not only is there no sorrow but where happiness abounds? Who in their right minds would reject such a place and opt for a mindless existence devoid of anything at all?
The make-or-break question is whether such a place of boundless happiness exists. It does.This place is called the spiritual world, the kingdom of God, a place full of life and joy, where all the inhabitants are ever engaged in the loving service of God and as a result are completely blissful. The essential difference between this world and the spiritual world is that everything in the spiritual world is eternal and full of knowledge and bliss. We know from our experience in this world that it’s just the opposite: everything here is temporary, ignorant, and filled with sorrow at one point or another. Further, the oneness the impersonalists hope to achieve is simply the light of the spiritual sky rather than the spiritual world itself. Anyone convinced about the existence of the spiritual world will naturally choose to go there.
Those philosophers who choose the spiritual world are known as devotees of God. By serving God, even in this world, the devotees experience spiritual bliss. They do not have to try to become desireless because all their desires are centered on serving God, which brings them joy and no sorrow.Contrast this with the impersonalists’ understanding of desirelessness-no desires whatsoever. The impersonalists do not know that the spiritual kingdom of God exists beyond the oneness of the spiritual sky. Therefore they settle for the lower platform of happiness defined as “absence of sorrow.”
Our journey started with a dead stone. Then we wandered into nothingness with our imaginary Mr. Stone. Fortunately we crossed the featureless oneness and arrived at where we really wanted to be-the spiritual world.