(Originally Published in Indian Currents on 24 November 2014, Volume XXVI, Issue 48)
Our life is a precious gift requiring a great deal of vigilance and choice. True, life is given to us and we have no choice there. The only choice given is how we live it: upward to a life of fulfilment, or downward to a life of sorrow. Putting the responsibility of this choice squarely in our own hands, life offers us two alternative ways of living, known in Sanskrit as preya and shreya. They are two different lifestyles, two different destinies.
If we live a self-centred life in which our focus is our own pleasure and profit, we are living the life of preya. On the other hand, if we live for the welfare of all, in which our own welfare is included, we are living the life of shreya. In other words, it is a clear choice between what is pleasant and what is ideal.
Curiously enough, the choice between these two alternatives is present throughout our life in whatever we do, say, or think. And yet a conscious choice may not seem like an easy deal for most of us; for the choice is between two lifestyles that are poles apart. Preya, for instance, is pleasing to the senses, attractive, and promising immediate reward—though it won’t last. Remember, preya is centred on the material comforts of our body and mind.
Shreya, on the other hand, is unpleasant at the beginning. It is unassuming, and unattractive. Yet it offers us benefits that lead to our total welfare—material as well as spiritual. Most important, these benefits stay with us, even beyond this life. Unlike preya, shreya is centred on the comforts of the eternal Soul.
In a sense, the choice is a matter of our own priorities in life. But when we consider priorities, shouldn’t we give priority to that which is immortal over that which is passing? When we make sensory satisfaction the purpose of our life, we are choosing the life of preya where we depend upon what is passing in life for happiness. Didn’t Jesus teach: “Make use of temporal things, but desire eternal things?”
The tragic irony is that we never find what we are really looking for—abiding happiness. It must be admitted that sense objects can never satisfy our insatiable thirst for pleasure. As Jesus cautions us, “Temporal goods will never fully satisfy you because you were not created for their sole enjoyment. What are temporal things, if not deceitful illusions?”
Oddly enough, preya seems to be the way of the world. Imagine preya and Shreya as two highways. The very fact that the vast majority of us, including all the VIP’s of the world, travel no other but preya make it the busiest highway in the world! Thomas a Kempis deplores the way of the world with a sense of censure: “The way of the world is absolute foolishness and the way of the senses is death!”
Make no mistake; shreya is not opposed to reasonable sense enjoyment in the course of our worldly interaction. What it doesn’t approve of is making sensual pleasure the object of life, just as we make eating the object of life.
Here is yet another fair and penetrating critique from Eknath Easwaran regarding the way of the world: “When we let the senses follow their own lead, they cannot help going after pleasures; that is their nature. As a result it should come as no surprise to see that most of the world today is on the road to sensory satisfaction.” No wonder, the shreya highway looks almost deserted!
Most of us have yet to realize the harsh reality that we can’t depend on the material world for happiness any more than we can depend on a mirage for water. There is complete fulfilment only in the real world—the Kingdom of Heaven. As Saint Augustine rightly puts it, “Lord, how can I find rest anywhere else when I am made to rest in thee?” To imagine that wealth, prestige, or even power will make us happy is to deceive ourselves.
Nowhere is this theme so dramatically illustrated as in the classic novel, The Razors Edge, by Somerset Maugham. In the novel, the hero named Larry embraces a higher mode of living, which is shreya. That’s not the case with the rest of the characters, Elliott, Isabel, Gray, and Sophie, who have chosen preya by actively engaging in the pursuit of selfish desires—money, prestige, and position. Maugham concludes the novel with a powerful message, “For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position; Gray a steady and lucrative job; Sophie death; and Larry happiness.”
Most people might take the novel as a success story in terms of those who have fulfilled their worldly desires, but it is not. Larry alone finds happiness, which is indeed the message. As a further clarification of the futility of worldly success, listen to the esteemed spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran: “He may achieve his desire and amass a fortune, but the same force that fulfils his desire also brings all the fruits of selfish craving: loneliness, alienation, broken relationships, and the inability to love. We punish ourselves, just as we reward ourselves, by the fruits of our desires.”
Whatever we accomplish in the material world is incapable of giving us true happiness, which we all consciously or unconsciously seek. But we have to seek it with the right choice. Whether we are aware or not, we alone are the makers of our destiny, which is not accidental but the result of our own choice. “Man is made or unmade by himself…” writes Baird Spalding. While preya leads to darkness and sorrow, shreya leads to the light of wisdom and joy. The choice is ours.