“In God as my witness, I will lie, steal, cheat and kill …………. In God as my witness, I will never be hungry again” are the famous words of Vivian Leigh from probably the most famous movie of all time, Gone with the Wind (original book written by Margaret Mitchell). There are circumstances in an individuals’ as well as country’s life which humbles us and leaves behind some learnings which would have been impossible otherwise. As they say, life is the biggest teacher. Undoubtedly, the world, and this time around - India, is going through such a time. Surely and certainly, this also will pass. The resilience of the human civilization will ensure that we will survive. However, it will leave behind a legacy which exposes the limits and weaknesses of the modern civilization. The learning will be there for all of us and hopefully, we all will emerge a better person after the last remains are dusted and done. These years will remain in collective memory for a long time to come as it punctures the arrogance of the modern times and lays bare the fallibility of the human race. It is always the case that progress will be examined and cross-examined in order to pass the test of time with full rigor, be it an individual or the larger human society. It is not success or failure which determines the authentication of our response process, but the grit and determination with which we respond and the commitment and love for life itself. At this time, I am reminded of a quote from Socrates which will help us in facing the reality in proper perspective:  

An unexamined life is not worth living.

One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.

To find yourself, think for yourself.

I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.

When the debate is over, slander becomes the tool of the loser.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.

He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.


Several centuries later, the great scientist Newton echoed the same thought process when he said that all of his life’s work is only like a drop of water in the ocean. While the antiquity believed in looking inwards in order to gain wisdom, the latter day thinking was more based on absurdism and existentialism. Albert Camus was of the opinion that it is not worth it to find order, meaning or happiness in life as the Universe is incomprehensible. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his existentialism, believes that human beings give meaning to their lives by existing and behaving in a certain way. There is no fixed way of finding meaning in one’s life. Simon de Beauvoir, life-long partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, also believed in existentialism. She extrapolated the concept further and opined that “one is not born a woman, but becomes a woman” and taking it further – “one is not born a genius, but becomes a genius”. Interestingly, Albert Camus was also of the opinion that human beings find happiness in their struggle for “achieving heights”. He had also famously warned individuals that “in the struggle between you and the world, always back the world”. So, as we see, all of them agreed that human struggle is the only way to achieve individual goals. However, all of them, including the antiquity, agrees that the sole purpose of one’s life is to look within and ultimately, find happiness. Now, here comes the dichotomy. Socrates wants the purpose of human existence to be inward looking in search of wisdom, while the later day thinking is more on achieving greater heights – ‘climbing the ladder’, as they say. However, both the doctrines are unanimous in one belief and that is, the end purpose of human lives is to attain ‘happiness’.        

This raises a lot of pertinent questions, the principal among them being – How? Which path? Who will show the way? I am reminded of a conversation, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Cassius is trying to convince Brutus to join his anti-Caesar group:

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings”.

The continuous dilemma that all of us face in our minds at all times gets reflected in every which way we approach life. In reality, the material life of the 21st century that believes in happiness through possessions and achieving greater heights is not able to show us the way to happiness. At the same time the pursuit of happiness often turns in to a mirage, alluding us forever. We are sure that material success and happiness are not at all synonymous. We are also reasonably confident of the belief system that attainment of ‘nirvana’ may not be a reality - a way of life for everybody. Our intellect allows us to pursue a dream and maybe, derivation of happiness ultimately flows from the attainment of our dreams. Having come this far, let us now have a short discussion on happiness.

Happiness is of two types – one is the feeling of an emotion of pleasure or joy at any given point in time, the experience here and now. Second is more about a much broader time range. This is an assessment of the entire life as experienced so far. So, one can be overall happy with his life or he can be happy at that given point in time. In antiquity, happiness started off by linking it with morality, as understood by societal norms and practices. With the advent of capitalism, the connection between morality and happiness were broken. Individualism was on the rise and so happiness began to be defined from the perspective of individual psychology. Norms for individual moral behavior, in order to be happy, also came up later. However, Nietzsche countered this concept by conceptualizing that individual pursuit of happiness makes one contemptible. “Mere Happiness” precludes hard work and struggle for excellence. He says that no great work in any field has ever been achieved without struggle, difficulty, and pain. So, according to him, the ultimate goal should not be happiness. Suffering and unhappiness is the source, and probably the motivator, of all things of great value in life. The inner struggle and the conflict within is best expressed by Shakespeare in Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark is torn between conflicting thought processes, and ruminates in his mind:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep …..”

Does this mean that happiness is a function of the state of our mind which can be turned on and off at the individuals whims and fancies, or simply his wishes. The moot question is whether happiness is controllable. If it is controllable, then it must be measurable. Can it be said with certainty that one person is more happy than the other one. This also brings us to the observation that some people seem to be happy always and under all circumstances, while some others are just of the opposite nature. One of the major ways of controlling our thought processes is finding a way of positively influencing and sometimes controlling the inner conversation that every person has. In our subconscious minds, we are always in the process of ‘talking’ to ourselves. Most of the times, we are not even aware of what we are talking to ourselves – what about. The question is whether we are driven by our subconscious minds into various forms of actions, activities, behavior and attitudes – or whether it is our actions and subliminal observations of life that provoke our internal conversations. Whichever way you look at it, the individual must find a way of influencing this conversation. It is only by doing so that the individual will be capable of guiding his actions, supported by his instincts, into leading a fulfilling life. One does not know whether that is enough to find his ideal state of happiness, but something in this direction is, for the time being, better than nothing at all.  

I will not take a guess here on whether self-actualization leads to happiness of a high order. I am not even sure if we look back at our life’s experiences that life satisfaction is in any way related to the degree of self-actualization or “greater heights” achieved. There are many instances of individuals leading unhappy lives in spite of substantial achievements, and vice versa. Very often, the destination is ever evolving and, by itself, confusing to the self and a cause of considerable heart-burn. This is where the advice from Socrates rings true. One of the human life’s important task is to look inwards and determine convincingly – where does it start and where does it all end ultimately. Some thinkers are also of the opinion that it is the journey that matters after all and let life take you where it will. This comes the closest to the concept of destiny or ‘God’, if you will. This is the easiest way to lighten your mind and be happy – everything will be decided by God. This thought process also somewhat absolves the mind of the individual from his own individual accountabilities. One can move from this passive state to one that is more active naturally. The spiritual content of one’s life plays an important role in determining not only the course of his life but also outcomes. There is some sort of a ‘sacrifice’ involved in this approach. As Vivekananda surmised the teachings and learnings of ancient Indian scriptures – Ours is to work, results will take care of themselves. This does not mean that all workaholics lead very happy lives. Expectations from life has to be managed and controlled – and this very much includes a realistic assessment of capabilities and potential of the individual. Over ambition is definitely a very effective means of becoming unhappy, dejected and sometimes, even distressed. It seems to me that a holistic approach to life is the best way to lead a happy life. The holistic life is a truthful life – a life spent in accordance with the tenets of truth wherein truth, according to Plato, is the reality of being and correctness of apprehension and assertion. Added to this is the continuous search for the Ultimate Truth – both, within and without. I leave you all with a quote from Shakespeare:            

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”


R. G. Choudhury   06/05/2021