How to be happy, according to Hinduism
It’s not as much about closeness with God as it is about closeness with oneself.
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The time for our ancient philosophy to become relevant in the digital age is back – and why not? Unlike the Gregorian system of calculating/measuring time, we believe that everything in life (the good times and the bad times) is cyclical.
Yoga is on everyone’s lips and hips, self-help and self-awareness books in the West package and promote our ancient traditions vigorously/avidly/enthusiastically and we have gurus who can not only earn the devotion of corporate honchos, but start corporate empires as well!
Mythologists have got our stories, not just at bedtime, but to boardrooms and work spaces as well.
The basic question: How can I be happy?
Everyone is asking, even if in differing ways, how can I be happy? How can I minimise the bad and sad stuff (whether it’s having an odd numbered car on an even day or the loss of a loved one)? How can my plan for my life be played out in the way I want it to?
We ask this question almost as if sad and fearful events are not good and need to be not only reduced but eliminated altogether.
I ask these questions of myself as I flip through Facebook posts during the morning drive to work, posts from gurujis, quotes from sacred texts, tweets from mythology, life experiences from friends across the globe – all give me various answers, and what with WhatsApp groups adding to the pile of suggestions, by 9am, my mind is overwhelmed with information for that most basic of my questions: How can I be happy?
I would really love to have a simple formula, that helps me sort out the quotes, lessons, images and video clips in a way I can easily understand and apply when my boss yells at me for no fault of mine, when I have to console a colleague who feels unfairly treated or when a candidate to whom I have made an offer changes her mind at the last minute on joining my team.
At these times, it’s hard to recall the lovely quotes, stories and dictums. I just want to tear the little hair I have, fling things around and scream.
Spiritual and philosophic traditions have been around since Hinduism started. They focus on knowledge, existence and what is real around us. Surely, then, some bright spark in the old days would have thought of an answer to my basic question: How can I be happy?
Indeed they did, and offered a simple four-level model that in turn can be translated into a three-step action process.
Recognise the model in your life and you can easily put into practice all the quotes and stories, and since it is not connected directly to any one religion, it’s universal.
The focus of the model is philosophic and spiritual, so it’s not as much about closeness with God as closeness with oneself. My happiness is in my hands.
The core of Hindu philosophy lies in the Upanishads. Although Vedic hymns are incantations to gods or rules for performing sacrifices, the Upanishads deal with the ultimate consciousness and make no mention of any God.
Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhava wrote commentaries for the principal Upanishads, and these form the core of ancient HIndu philosophy. They are couched in a complex language for they were, as their name indicates, meant to be learned through dialogue with a teacher.
So how do we net junkies who read, watch, hear, and have no teacher except a computer screen, learn how to be happy?
That’s where the Dharmashastras of Manu, Yagnavalkya and others help. They give us the two part model of how all of us aim for moksha but we are constantly motivated by the twin desires of artha andkama. It is our reality that we live in a world of animate and inanimate objects, and, therefore must be guided by dharma to satisfy our desires but not be enslaved by them.
In the model, every constituent part is important and supports the other. As always, in philosophy, Ayurveda or food, it’s about balance and not one being more important than the other.
There is always a gap between knowing and doing. Just knowing the model doesn’t mean you become happy. The second part of the model is about practicing it. For this, three things are important again.
Change happens only when we have gnana – knowledge of the model, bhakti – feeling it in our hearts and accepting it, and karma – showing it in action.
Jains call it the Triratna, Hindus call it the three Yogas (which is not just body movement but also balanced diet and balanced thought).
The means to put this model into action in daily life are the same. One needs to know the model and that is simple enough – one just reads through it. This is gnana
We need to feel the model deep in our hearts. This one is a more complex process: reading the poems of the bhakti saints and absorbing the flavour, meditating on the model, bringing to our inner eye the images of the relationships we most cherish, so that there is great tenderness in our hearts and we are close to our ideal. This is bhakti.
Finally comes karma which is actually translating the mind and heart’s understanding into action.
Let’s work the model through an example – I tend to get anxious about the future if either I am unable to predict it or if events don’t happen according to my plan.
Moksha, for me, would not be being paralysed in the present because of fears of what may go wrong in the future. In my body, I feel the anxiety in the tightening of my stomach and the dull pressure in my upper skull. Just accepting that this can happen and there is a way out if I become more aware of how Artha, Kama and Dharma can be used is also Moksha for me.
Some part of the anxiety is from my tension around how much of wealth I am earning. My home is being repaired, the resultant noise and disarray is not helping either. Therefore, Artha and Kama are both causing this unhappiness and anxiety.
In my anxiety, fear frequently prompts me to say or do things that harm my relationships at home and work. So I am not "dharmic" in my thoughts and actions.
I now apply this model to my current state of being and run through each box. This is gnana.Puja also appeals to our different senses, makes us feel good, think happy thoughts and hopefully translate them into actions as well.
Then I internalise this into my heart and body by looking at what parts of my body are affected.
Mind and stomach are affected when I am tense about the money angle, head and ears with the noise, stomach with the overall tension. Soured relationships also affect my heart.
Eventually, I commit to a different action: of listing down what my long-term financial goals, so that there is a greater understanding of what I need.
I look for things that soothe me in the garden, or begin my morning with music and asanas for the body to remind me to enjoy life. I eat slowly and relish food more than hurriedly gobbling it. With my every action or thought, I consider if I am being consistent and truly improving relationships.
Of course, this all sounds quite simple, but bhakti and karma are not easy and need practice. They also need frequent reminders and discipline and that’s where rituals and puja come in. Puja is a way for us to hit the pause button and ask ourselves if we are working towards moksha by centering our thoughts on our mind, heart and body.
Puja also appeals to our different senses, makes us feel good, think happy thoughts and hopefully translate them into actions as well.
Sadly instead of becoming opportunities for looking within, puja has now diluted to transactions with the gods outside rather than going within to recognise how one cannot be happy all the time, and the ups and downs of life are inevitable.
The model is deceptively simple but if you have a regular checking system like a puja or a meditation practice, and constantly ask yourself if you are following dharma and surrounding yourself with similar minded folks, it will slowly become practice.
You may always need a reminder, but in reminding yourself that you can’t always be happy, you will recognise that you can extract every little ounce of happiness from every situation in life.