In the great epic Mahabharata, when the one-eyed fiery creature in the shape of a baka, heron named Yaksha, questions Yudhishtra (one of the five Pandava brothers), about the meaning of life, they are put forth in the form of riddles known as ‘prashnas’. Among a series of riddles (prashnas) that Yaksha asks is one which perhaps all of us must ask ourselves. And that is – ‘What is happiness?’
Yudhishtra answers as follows – ‘A person who cooks vegetables in his own home, who has no debts and who is not in exile (he) is truly happy’.
Indeed, a life of such simplicity, where one lives within one’s means, is a life of true happiness. And simplicity does not mean self-denial. A simple life is a life free of complications, living for the joy of sharing our life with our loved ones, of doing justice to our duties through the various stages of life rather than putting up a show for the world.
And yet, what is it about us humans that complicates our seemingly simple life and interferes with our happiness?
Our subjective sense of identity, which gives us a sense of ‘I-ness’, also known as the ego or ahamkara, is afflicted with vanity. It is an integral part of the human condition. This vain self seeks validation for its assumed superiority, by comparing itself to the others and uses material objects to enhance its self-worth. This constant comparison to determine its self-worth creates tension in the inter-personal relationships that the self forges.
Hence, as social beings, the relationships which are meant to be a source of support and joy end up being a threat to our sense of superiority. All to appease our ‘ego’. The ego also interferes with our sense of fulfilment by making us greedy. When we indulge our ego by massaging its sense of vanity, we strengthen it. The stronger our ego, the more one dimensional our life becomes.
When we live by our ego, we take the material world to be the only reality and look towards this world to give us a sense of fulfilment. We try to quench it through material acquisitions. We hoard the material feverishly and relentlessly in the hope that perhaps our next pursuit would gives us a sense of completeness, but in vain.
Osho, the Zen master says, “It is an illusion. And in fact, that which you have possesses you more than you possess it. The possessor finally becomes the possessed. You think you have so many things – riches, power, money – but deep down you are being encaged, enchained, imprisoned by those same things.”
While there’s no denying that as a part of the material world, we need food, shelter and clothing, but to use the material to enhance our sense of self, or seek fulfilment through them, is a delusion (maya). Material things make our life comfortable and give us a sense of well being and dignity. We also need them for their aesthetic value, which brings joy into our life.
When we use them for our dignified existence, we honour it, but when we use the material for our vanity, we exploit it. A dignified existence brings happiness and contentment to our life; a vain existence makes us obsessive and restless.
The ego and its preoccupation with itself, makes us ignorant and interferes with our very purpose of being here, that is, to discover our true nature. When we sublimate our ego, we are able to recognise our connectedness to the whole, rather than seeing ourselves as a separate entity. It is this realisation that brings a sense of completeness and contentment, which we craved for in vain, from the material world.