Even a cursory reading of the Vedas will tell us that our ancient seer-poets saw life as celebration. They said that happiness was the highest ideal and called humans by a cheerful name - "the children of immortal bliss" (Rigveda Samhita 10.13.1). Humans seem to be born pure and perfect but over time, we accumulate the dust of pettiness, anxiety, and sorrow. Thus we have forgotten our true self. Realisation is just remembering it.
Our traditional works have an unbridled positivity and optimism that is hard to miss. But they are also realistic and grounded in their approach to life. While life is a celebration, it comes with its highs and lows. This fundamental duality is inevitable. Everywhere life abounds in dualities - good and bad, hot and cold, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, me and others, life and death, praise and blame, honour and dishonour, love and hate. Hinduism recognises this clearly, and says that there is no escape from it, except through it.
Perhaps no other text in the Hindu scriptural canon talks more eloquently about this topic than the Bhagavad-Gita. Speaking about the origin of the duality in 2.14, Krishna says that our senses (ears, eyes, etc) encounter sensates (sound, sight, etc) to give rise to sensations, which are short-lived:
In the following verse (2.15), Krishna speaks about a person who remains unaffected by sensations:
Such a person is said to have conquered (or mastered) his self and is united with the Supreme (see Bhagavad Gita 6.7).
At some point in our lives, we have all felt these opposite experiences and been moved by it - the joy of composing a song or receiving an award or getting a raise; the sorrow of heartbreak or the death of a loved one or losing a job. We also know that these feelings don't last forever. The excitement or melancholy typically dies down after a period of time. In fact, if it doesn't, we worry (and visit a shrink.)
How does one remain unaffected by these opposites? We need look no further than the personality of Krishna, the one giving us the counsel of the Gita. If we look at his life, we find him happy and playful but also pragmatic and strategic. He embraces life in its totality but enjoys it as a game. In the words of Osho, "He [Krishna] is full of love and compassion, and yet he has the courage to accept and fight a war. His heart is utterly non-violent, yet he plunges into the fire and fury of violence when it becomes unavoidable. He accepts the nectar, and yet he is not afraid of poison."
Krishna lives a choiceless life, in that he accepts everything without cherry-picking. He doesn't reject pain for the sake of pleasure or sorrow for the sake of joy. In some ways, Kipling echoes the same sentiment when he says:
Krishna knows that triumph and disaster are the two sides of the same coin. If you truly understand one, you immediately understand the other. He shares the secret of the choiceless life in 4.22:
(He repeats this in different ways with other examples in 12.17-18, 14.24-25 and 15.5.)
Whenever we experience a sensation, our mind seems to automatically assign it with a hashtag: #ThisIsAwesome or #WhatANightmare. Often without conscious thought, we judge our experience and give our verdict - "It was great; let's do it again" or "It was horrible; let's avoid it." This hashtagging is done by the individual, which is why the exact same experience can be delightful for one and a torture for another. Also, there are common hashtags for experiences that are considered dangerous. Perhaps we are hardwired to recognise danger from the early days, else we wouldn't have survived.
But if we learn to zoom out from our current context and see the larger picture, then we realise that there is no need to label every experience. What appears to be sorrow today might become the source for happiness tomorrow and vice-versa. Learning to embrace experiences without the unconscious hashtagging leads to a great deal of serenity. There is less reason to complain or to crave. Distinctions between fortune and misfortune begin to blur. Selfish pursuits steadily transform into actions of larger good. Pettiness slowly expands into magnanimity and generosity of the highest order. We experience an unprecedented self-sufficiency and interconnectedness.
Being an engineer and a science buff, I often imagine life to be like a sinusoidal wave - a curvy line that goes up like a mountain (crest) and then goes down like a valley (trough), and again goes up and down, thus repeating endlessly along the horizontal axis (X-axis). Think of the crest as joy and the trough as sorrow. There are times when we are very happy or very sad (high amplitude) and other times our happiness and sorrow are not so intense (low amplitude). On some occasions, we tend to be happy or sad for extended periods of time (low frequency) and on others, our moods changes are rapid (high frequency). Whatever be the case, if we learn to tread the quiet, inconspicuous path along the X-axis, being unaffected by the amplitudes and frequencies, we can march peacefully towards infinity.
Sreekrishna, Koti and Ravikumar, Hari. The New Bhagavad-Gita. Mason: W.I.S.E. Words, 2011
Osho. Krishna: The Man and His Philosophy. New Delhi: Jaico Book House, 2004