The pursuit of wisdom, virtue and happiness are lifelong goals, and the process of attaining these goals itself is a worthwhile experience. Such themes from ancient texts continue into contemporary conversation, while the quest for happiness is pursued anew with each generation.
The wise person of the Gita, Sthitaprajna, is concerned with what is right action and how to exercise right judgement. In doing so, the sage becomes a jnana yogi, and by performing the right actions, the Sthitaprajna also becomes a karma yogi. The Sthitaprajna must possess, according to the Gita, a number of characteristics. First, she/he engages and excels in one’s own duties (swadharma). Second, the Sthitaprajna is a believer in the teachings of the Gita (shraddha). Third, she displays equanimity to pleasure and pain (samatvam). And finally, there is the development of non-attachment (anasakti) and tranquility (shanti).
Wise people abandon all desires. They have no sense of possessiveness, sense of “mine”. They discard their ego (ahamkara). Their concern for the self is absorbed into a concern for the divine. They are tranquil and happy. This state is known as the state of wisdom (sthita prajna) or the state of Brahman establishment (brahmi sthiti). This state is no doubt difficult to attain but once attained, it stays with the Sthitaprajna until the end.
The wise person of the Stoic, Seneca — Sapiens — embodies the ethical tenets of Stoicism, which bring them permanent happiness. Seneca describes how to be wise by incorporating the Stoic ethical concepts such as appropriate actions (kathekonta), what belongs to oneself (oikeiosis), virtue (arete), detachment (apatheia), telos (goal) of living in accordance with nature, knowledge of the laws of nature, which together lead to happiness (eudaimonia). For Seneca, happiness essentially means peace of mind, which results from a constant practice of virtue, and intellectual exercise, which is required to perform moral actions. Seneca’s critique of emotions such as anger and grief highlights both the utility and futility of emotions.
In both systems, a wise person is one who has the capacity for making correct judgements when undertaking action, and for these she then assumes complete responsibility. Right thinking results in right action, essential for peace of mind and happiness: Right or moral actions lead to virtue. Happiness results from knowing one has done the right thing at the right time.
There are, however, also significant differences between Seneca’s vision and that of the Gita. The Gita’s metaphysical concept of moksha has no parallel in Stoicism. The Sthitaprajna becomes a virtuous person, achieves moksha and becomes a part of the divine Brahman. The Sapiens becomes virtuous in preparation for death. The conceptual differences illustrate that while the definition of a Sthitaprajna or one with steady wisdom would be applicable to the Sapiens, the terms Yogastha (established in Yoga) or Samadhistha (wrapped in meditation) would not.
Seneca’s treatment of various emotions is one of the most unique features of his philosophical writings. Seneca treats different emotions with the skill of a psychological therapist and shows the futility of those emotions in a logical and sensitive way, without making it sound like a Stoic mandate of denying passions to any individual. Seneca’s great contribution is to make this concept available to everyone by giving people directions instead of merely asking them to rise to a high standard of the ethical expectations of Stoicism.
This article first appeared in today’s print edition under the headline: The Pursuit of Happiness. Mokashi is the author of Sapiens and Sthitaprajna: A Comparative Study in Seneca’s Stoicism and the Bhagavad-Gita.
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