Once a disciple asked Gautama Buddha, “O Lord, where have we all come from? Where do we all go after death?”
I do not know whether Lord Buddha actually knew the answer to this perennial question of humanity, but what he gave as a reply (it is hardly a reply though, if not a pert backchat) not only bypasses the exact question asked, it also steers his disciple away from asking such ‘irrelevant’ questions. He says, “It is none of your concern. What you should be really concerned about is that you are unhappy. You do not get what you desire, cannot preserve whatever little you get and cannot be happy with what you can preserve. Hence, getting rid of this cycle of unhappiness is what you should be bothered about and nothing else.”
Religions have differed in their prescription of ways people can go past this vicious cycle, but they all agree on one account – achieving the ultimate happiness by treading the path of denial of sensory pleasures. “All ethical gymnastics consists therefore singly in subjugating instincts and appetites of our physical system in order that we remain their masters in any and all circumstances hazardous to morality; a gymnastic exercise rendering the will hardy and robust and which by the consciousness of regained freedom makes the heart glad.” (- Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Ethics; translated by Semple)
In effect, the claim is, if ever a person tries to achieve happiness beyond momentary pleasure, there can be no other way than taking resort to carnal rationing. Apparently, though it might seem paradoxical that we are seeking happiness through discomfort, the basic logic behind this school of religious beliefs nevertheless is pretty straightforward (at least as far as I can fathom) – if only there is reduction of one’s innate desires through wilful self-deprivation can it be possible to achieve happiness, sans dependence on worldly possessions and emotions.
I have heard cynics lamenting on how our generation (which is arguably the product of the so-called new-millennium consumerism) has completely forgotten this fundamental precept of life and thus has outgrown the need of a religious belief-system. While it is certainly true that commodity-fetish is a hallmark of our generation (so much so that often the only meaningful calibration that we can provide for our happiness is solely based on amounts of material possession), I cannot say that this is anything to be criticized per se. I believe we have entered an era of a diametrically opposite religious belief-system, where people try to understand the worthlessness of worldly passions not through renunciation (as in the erstwhile religious beliefs), but through over-indulgence. Notice that even in the new system, the goal of achieving happiness transcending material boundaries has not changed. What has changed is that people are no longer conscious about actually choosing a particular way of life to achieve happiness. They are simply indulging in the material pleasures to the fullest extent permitted by their varying personal resources, without thinking whether this will facilitate their freedom from worldly possessions. In other words, previously people consciously used religion and its associated morality to deviate their attention from sensory pleasures, whereas now people do not feel any conscious urge to involve in any such ethical gymnastics. However, this does not mean that they do not eventually land up with the same goal of achieving happiness. They consciously believe that unbridled consumption is capable of rendering them happy, but very soon they eventually realize that renunciation beyond a certain level of consumption is absolutely necessary to be happy. Obviously, today there are idiosyncratic differences in how fast (or with how much consumption) a person can reach that threshold of consumption beyond which he finds any additional consumption as conspicuous and hence abhors any such, just as there used to be in the past, interpersonal variations in how efficiently a person could impose carnal sanctions on himself. Evidently, just as there was no guarantee in the erstwhile days that a person would find it worthwhile to seek redemption from the vicious cycle of more-greed-more-unhappiness, today also there is no guarantee that an individual will ever reach his threshold consumption level. Thus, I feel that the new way of achieving happiness in life that has evolved in the cradle of consumerism is limited by humanity’s innate desire to decongest one’s life after a threshold of consumption, by limiting consumption.
I know sceptics will disagree with me, saying that my idea does not work in the real world, because if it did, we would not hear Steve Jobs blatantly proclaiming, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” I would retaliate by pointing out that if the society wants new things for consumption, it does not necessarily mean that it wants more things for consumption. Moreover, even if a certain section of the society actually does want more consumption, it is only because that section has not yet reached that threshold consumption.
There is only one snag in the new system – the subjectivity of adequacy. While the older school of thought urged people to impose self-restrictions, the new system does just the opposite – it fans the craving for consumption in people until they are satiated. This leaves open the possibility that an individual, particularly one who cannot afford to buy enough consumption so as to be satiated, is never satiated. In the classical religious belief (if you allow me this rather ambitious nomenclature), people, who did not have ‘enough’ resources, were as worthy of finding happiness in life as were their richer counterparts; but this egalitarianism is lost in the new era. Thus, our religious epoch has seen what I prefer to call “religious inequality” – people are no longer equals even in their access to transcendental happiness, let alone worldly pleasure. I believe that the only way to get past this new kind of inequality is to make our Buddhist disciple believe that being the richest man in the cemetery or going to heaven after death does not matter; what matters is going to bed at night saying one has done something today to satisfy his needs better and limit his greed further. Thus, the ability to distinguish between one’s need from one’s greed is the only education that can solve this problem.
As we leave ISI, we must learn to recognize this religious vacuum that is plaguing a large section of our society. I know for sure that most of my ISI friends will achieve enough material resource as well as the required prudence to reach the consumption-threshold I discussed here, but my essay will prove meaningful if they can be instrumental in alleviating this “religious inequality” from society in whatever humble way they can.