Our Placement in the Arena of Life
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on January 23, 1976.)

In this majestic arena of life we witness a series of shifting scenes of persons and things. The world may be compared to a stage wherein the different roles of human activity, human effort and human achievement are enacted. Inasmuch as the world is an observed fact, it can be compared to a stage where different types of enactment are observed from moment to moment.

What is it that we observe in this drama of life? We see whatever we see on a public stage, the entering and exiting of features and characters, all which attract our attention and which we immensely enjoy and appreciate. So much are we delighted to witness the drama that we are even prepared to purchase tickets at heavy prices to see it.

We enjoy the drama because the whole story is before our mental eye. Not a single feature or character or dramatic personae can embody in himself or herself the total picture of the drama. Each character is an individual feature by itself but the role that a character plays on the stage cannot be appreciated adequately if we cannot bear in mind, subconsciously though, the connectedness of this character with the intention of the whole drama. What gives satisfaction to the witness in a dramatic theatre is not merely the dress and the action, the song and the dance of any particular personality on the stage, but its relevance to the total effect of the drama. We already know the whole story, and we interpret every character in the drama in the light of the total picture that is already in our minds. It is difficult to imagine if any person in the audience is aware that this interpretation is going on within his mind throughout the dramatic enactment.

There are, therefore, two features or aspects involved in the appreciation of a play. The first aspect is the visible character individually presented, one at a time or a few at a time; the other aspect is the interpreting activity going on in the mind of everyone in the audience. If the interpretation is absent and the mind of the audience is inactive and impervious to the total effect that is subtly present as a relevance in every particular character, the whole drama would be insipid and without meaning.

This analogy that I placed before you is to give an idea of our role in this world. What we see is a world outside, and we are the observers of the characters called persons and things in the world externally. We always place ourselves in the position of observers and judge the characters even as we judge the characters in the drama. We have to remember that while we appreciate and pass judgment on any character of the drama, we completely forget the role that we play as interpreters thereof. We say that this is fine acting, or a beautiful role that is played by so-and-so. When we pass such a remark or hold such an opinion about any given character in a dramatic performance, we completely ignore the role that we play as observers of the drama. This is the reason why there is an objective enjoyment of the drama.

In a similar manner, we try to enjoy the objects of the world and take advantage of persons and things outside us in a mood of enjoyment, and we identify life with joy. We work hard and struggle indefatigably to acquire satisfaction in life, and the means thereof are the persons and things in this world. These, philosophically, are the objects before us. Even a human being is an object to the one that observes the human being, even as a human character in a drama is an appreciable character and an object of judgment to people in the audience.

But as it was pointed out, the mistake that the observing mind in the audience commits is a subtle forgetfulness of the interpretive character of the mind which judges the drama and wrongly identifies any particular character with the total meaning of the drama. We enjoy the acting of a particular person on the stage because of a total relevance that is hidden or impliedly present in that character, but this total effect is not visible to the eyes. It is conceivable only in the mind, but this total effect of the drama is so much a part of the thinking mind in the audience that it is the entire determining factor of the dramatic appreciation. Yet, no one imagines that such a psychological process takes place in the act of his judgment. What we generally speak of when the performance is over is that it was a beautiful performance: so-and-so acted well, and so on. But we never have the patience to go deeper into the psychological implications of this interpretation that we make in the act of our observation.

In a similar manner, we take things on their surface and forget the relevance they bear to the total effect, which is the reason why anything is beautiful in the world, why anything seems to have a meaning or connotation. The meaning that we read into an object of sense, the significance that we see in anything in this world, is different from the object that we see or the character that we observe.

We are brought up from our childhood in an atmosphere of crude thinking and unscientific behaviour of the mind. We are brought up by traditions of countries, nationalities, etc., and the psychological atmosphere into which we are born also is a kind of beaten track along which we move blindfolded, as it were. We are unable to understand why we enjoy an object at all. Why do we find it possible to read meaning into anything in this world? The inability to understand the significance that is responsible for our enjoyment of things in the world is what we call bondage. Our thraldom in life is explicable only by a kind of inveterate ignorance into which we are born and which we mistake for a logical understanding of things.

Every object in this world, and every person, for the matter of that, is a character. This is to give you a more psychological reading of the persons and things in this world. To give another analogy, the dramatic personae in the plays of Shakespeare are not really persons in the crass definition we give of human personalities. They are characters. They are character readings of a vast generalised nature made with reference to personalities, whether they are historical or otherwise.

It is difficult to understand the genius of a playwright like Shakespeare or Kalidasa if we merely take into consideration the historical discreteness of personalities who are the enactors of the play and forget that they are character complexes, through the presentation of which the dramatist or the playwright gives us a moral of the whole of life.

In the characterisation of Hamlet and the various associated personalities there, Shakespeare is not merely telling a story. He is giving a story of human existence and a picture of the dramatic movements of the human mind in the various forms of movement through the vicissitudes of life. The secret of life is presented by the genius of his writing.

In a similar manner, this vast world which is a stage-play is presented before us as a characterisation of meaning through which we are supposed to evolve into the higher stages of existence. The life of the world is a moral lesson. We are not placed crudely in a context of human personalities such as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies, etc., which is unfortunately the way in which we try to read the meaning of life. We are not in the midst of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, etc.; we are in the midst of certain characters or features of human thought, conduct and behaviour which reflect through their isolated roles a generalised significance that is invisible to our eyes.

The world is not so simple as it looks or appears, even as a dramatic performance, to bring the analogy again, is not merely a stage built of material substance with screens, with paintings, with walls, pillars and people, with various kinds of costumes. This is not the way of judging a drama; otherwise, there would not be satisfaction and appreciation. Appreciation, judgment and reading of significance is a super-sensible act, and we live on account of this super-sensible meaning hidden in life, though we are living in a sensory world. We are living in a world of sense objects because everything that we see, hear, touch or feel in any manner is sensory. But our satisfactions, our joys, our hopes and the impulses for action in life arise not merely because of the physical context of our placement in the midst of localised beings such as persons and things, but because of an inward relevance or meaning that we are subconsciously reading into everything. In other words, we do not know where we are living and what we are actually confronting or facing every day.

Things are not what they seem. This is a line from Longfellow perhaps, in the “Psalm of Life”. Things are not what they seem, and we should not mistake things for what they appear to the senses. The beauty of an object or the value of a substance is different from the object or the substance itself. This is to give an idea of what I mean by ‘relevance’ or ‘significance’. The beauty of an object is different from the object. This may be a very strange statement because we cannot perceive beauty unless the object is there. But the object is not what appears beautiful, and that peculiar meaning called beauty is not the same as the object. Volumes have been written by literary geniuses on this subject of aesthetic appreciation, of the meaning of beauty. Even today people write books on the subject without explaining to everyone’s satisfaction what it really means. They glibly say, “Oh, it is beautiful!” That is all. This is a remark of an ass which has no understanding whatsoever of what is happening either in its own mind or in the world outside.

The beauty of an object, to come to the point again, is the relevance the object bears to other things in the world and to our own mind. So is the case with every value of any object in this world. Whatever worth we recognise or discover in anything in this world is different from the thing itself. The thing, the object, the person or whatever it is acts as a base to project this meaning into our minds and enables us to get deceived into the assumption that the meaning that is read in that object is identical with that object. That is why we run after things in this world. We are attached to objects. We love things merely because we confuse this meaning which is responsible for the value that we perceive in the object with the object itself. What we love is something, and what we are running after is another thing. This is samsara. But this mix-up that we make is, unfortunately, the only possible manner of our thinking.

Bhagavan Sri Krishna gives a clue to this mystery in the Eighteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita when he says that ignorant people, untutored minds, mistake one thing for everything. That is, the visible object is taken for the whole value which attracts us in respect of that object, and we are unable to visualise with our physical eyes the larger significance that is present, or that is peeping through the avenue or channel of that object.

To give another example, a little ray of sunlight passing through an aperture of a wall or a black screen is only an indication of there being a vaster light behind the screen, though the physical eyes cannot, due to the limiting shape of that aperture, see the entire expanse of light that is behind it. Not being able to read this expansive significance behind the limited objects of the world, we are caught up in attachments to things. This is what is called the life of pure materialistic evaluation, taking into consideration only the material body of an object presented before the eyes and completely forgetting the psychological meaning that is behind the act of perception of that object. There is, therefore, a desire for the object. Artha leads to kama, as they say.

Artha and kama mean object and the desire for it. We live in such a world, and we have nothing else. There are only objects and desires for objects, but desires are never fulfilled to one’s entire satisfaction. Rightly so, because what we call kama for artha, or desire for an object, is the pull of this vast significance that is behind life through the instrumentality of the object which appears to attract us through our senses. We cannot be satisfied merely because of this defect that is attached to every act of sensory perception. In every act of perception we commit a blunder; a mistake is made. There is no perception which is not involved in a mistake. Sarvārambhā hi doṣeṇa dhūmenāgnir ivāvṛtāḥ (Gita 18.48): Every endeavour of yours is a blunder, and therefore, suffering is a consequence of even well-intentioned efforts.

Is this not a pity, a tragic consequence following from pious efforts? Well, our intentions may be pious from our own point of view, but intentions alone do not count. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said the poet. What a pity! He is terrifying us. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions alone are not sufficient, my dear friends. The light of knowledge is necessary behind this good intention to give it meaning and value and life. We cling to things with a good intention indeed because we see value in these objects, but this good intention is based on a stupidity which characterises all our intellectual judgments. Our mistake is the incapacity of the intellect of the human being to grasp the total meaning that is behind the particular object of sense to which one is attracted and which is invisible for its own reasons. That which is universally present as the vitalising principle behind every object cannot be an object of sense. Therefore, we cannot see it. Hence, one who desires objects is bound to samsara, to earthly bondage.

People take to yoga practice when they realise that there is something seriously wrong with life. “All my earnings, all my friends, all that I regarded as worthwhile are not satisfying me. I am not having a wink of sleep with all the wealth that I have and with the status that I occupy in human society. Let me take to yoga.” Why do we take to yoga? What is yoga going to give us? We have a hope that yoga will be a solution for all our problems, but since we do not know what our problems are, how can we have a solution? The problems are not clearly perceivable because they are before us like a chaos. A confused mass is naturally not intelligible, and our problems are nothing but a confused mass, a heap of absurdities; therefore, they are not intelligibly capable of being investigated threadbare. So even when we take to yoga, we are going with a confused mind only, without clearly perceiving the nature of our difficulties.

So the great masters, adepts, speak to us with their voice of wisdom that every right activity or act of dedication is to be preceded with correct understanding, or viveka. It is understanding that leads to success, and lack of it leads to failure; and understanding is nothing but the capacity to intelligently appreciate the correct context of any object or person in this world. Underline the word ‘context’. In correct understanding we are not merely appreciating a person or a thing, but also the context of that person or thing, the situation in which that person or thing is placed – the atmosphere, the relevance, the significance. Again we come to the point.

I had occasion to mention a few minutes before that we are not living in a world of persons and things but in centres of activity, effort or endeavour which may be designated as characters or features rather than persons or things. A character is a feature which is definable in terms of other characters by distinguishing it from them. When I say that an object is red, what I mean is that this particular object has a colour which its atmosphere does not have. Now, we forget that in our definition of an object as red, for instance, we have taken into consideration the atmosphere of that object; otherwise, we will not call it red. The atmosphere is not red and, therefore, the object is red. If the atmosphere is red, we cannot see this object as red. Therefore, in every perception there is a distinction drawn by the senses, and consequently by the mind, between a particular object and its atmosphere. But even if we are unable to distinguish between the nature of the object that we are judging or perceiving and the atmosphere which is indirectly acting upon the character of our perception, it goes without saying that the atmosphere counts. Unfortunately, we are unable to take into consideration the nature of the atmosphere. We ignore its presence. This is the mistake we make in our observations.

Likewise, if we extend this analysis further and further, we will find that nothing, not even the minutest object in this world, is definable unless we take into consideration the whole atmosphere, perhaps, of the whole universe. Not one thing can be defined adequately or satisfactorily without the whole universal atmosphere entering into that definition. This is something difficult for the crude mind to appreciate and the uninitiated mind to understand. We are living in a universe. This is the point I am trying to make. We are not living in a multitude of things like heaps of stones or objects. A universe is what we are living in. A universe, again, is not a multitude of objects, and do not make the mistake that it is. The universe is only a vast set or network of relations, without which there cannot be a reading of meaning into any object of this world.

Drawing the logical conclusion from this observation, what we come to know is that every object, every person, has a universal significance. You are, therefore, not a small fry sitting in this hall, as you may imagine yourself to be. You have a tremendous background of significance behind you, on account of which you are able to breathe, due to the presence of which you are able to aspire for success and hope for victory in life, due to the presence of which alone you look like a meaningful person and a substantial something in the eyes of others.

What is our conclusion, finally? It is that we are not the persons or individuals that we appear to be either to ourselves or to others. We are vehicles of a universal connotation. That is why we are aspiring for more and more of things in this world, and asking for endless types and varieties of satisfaction. Our asking is endless; there is no end for it. If we were limited beings, we would ask only for limited things. We are asking for endless things because endlessness, imperceptibly though, is presiding over our limited personality.

Hence, we are living in a universe of interconnected characters or features, and not in the midst of heaped up individualities. This is to rise from the level of ordinary animal perception to the level of logical understanding and scientific observation, of which everyone boasts so much today. But we either do not understand what it means or we are not able to apply it properly to the context. We are, therefore, in a mysterious atmosphere of which we are inseparable parts. By ‘part’, I do not mean we are a segment of a material thing. We are an aspect of a universal meaning, and this universal meaning it is that we call God in the language of religion, or the Absolute in the language of philosophy.

The reality presses us forward and onward through the evolutionary process and makes us take birth after birth for the sake of this achievement which is playing hide and seek before us, masquerading as if it is not there, though only it is there. In order to understand what this so-called universal significance is behind the particular objects of the world, I can give another example. A currency note has great value, though it is only a scrap of paper. The value is the purchasing power that is present in it. The capacity to purchase is what is called money, not the piece of paper. The piece of paper with a stamp upon it that we lovingly keep in our pocket is nothing unless that significance called purchasing power is present in it. For example, a currency note of one country may have no value in another country. It has no purchasing power, and even if we hug it to our bosom it cannot help us because its meaning lies somewhere else, which we have forgotten. This is only by way of an analogy. So are things, so are persons, so is everything.

No person in this world has any meaning or value; no thing in this world has any worth. Nothing is beautiful, nothing is worthwhile, nothing is good, nothing is anything unless there is a power behind it – the purchasing value as I called it in the economic interpretation of currency notes. That value is invisible, just as money is invisible. We cannot see money with our eyes. What we see is only a piece of paper or metal. Money is not a coin or a paper. It is a force which can purchase, as I said. That force is invisible, and yet we are mistaking one thing for another.

So is this inherent universal connotation present in every particular thing in this world, including yourself and myself, and as long as we lose consciousness of the presence of this universal, as in the meaning of money, for example, we have lost sight of the true meaning.

This is to give an outline of the way in which we have to rightly conduct our thoughts in our day-to-day activities in order to be really happy and not to enjoy a feigned happiness with a counterfeit smile, with a gnawing sorrow inside. The real smile comes when the universal speaks through our lips; otherwise, we are only pretending to smile. God has to be implanted in our hearts. I am not speaking of religion when I say the word ‘God’. What I speak of is a sensible attitude to things, though we may not call it religion. It is an intelligible manner in which we have to conduct ourselves in relation to other persons and things and be true to the logical deduction that we ourselves make through our understandings. These deductions that we make through careful observation lead us to a wondrous expanse that gives meaning to all life, and this is the goal of life. This wondrous expanse is the ultimate reality of things, which we are seeking through yoga. Yoga is the union of particular values with universal values. In fact, it is no union at all because a particular value cannot be united with the universal value when it is already included there.

Thus, we have to bring about a thorough reorientation in our ways of thinking, speaking, acting and conducting ourselves in the world. A new type of educated conduct has to be infused into our beings. What I have spoken today is not yoga, philosophy or religion. It is pure common-sense thinking, which everyone should be able to appreciate with even a little bit of patience and understanding.

With these few words, I pray to the Almighty that He bless you with the wisdom of life.