Hinduism, like many of the Eastern religions, does not focus on the relationship with God. Rather it emphasizes ethical and moral principles that improve the seeker’s relationship with the universe. It is the Hindu belief that this is what leads to self-realization.
Rather than proscribing a particular path to enlightenment, Hinduism honors individual differences by encouraging personal approaches. Its focus is not on the path, but in the result.
According to Hindu belief, people pass through four stages in the development of awareness. The stages are: Pleasure, Success, Duty and Liberation. The first two stages, the quest for pleasure and the pursuit of success, are collectively known as “The Path of Desire.” The third and fourth stages, acts of service and the quest for liberation, are known together as The “Path of Renunciation.”
In the first stage, the quest for pleasure, the Hindu approach differs from many other religions that encourage the moderation of pleasure, or in some cases, the prohibition of pleasure altogether. The Hindus have a different, and, I think, far more enlightened, approach. They maintain that if pleasure is what you want, it is unwise to suppress the desire for it. Hindus encourage devotees to pursue their desires fully, intelligently and within the basic rules of morality, but fully, nonetheless.
Regarding the second stage, the pursuit of success, the Hindu deal with it like they do the pursuit of pleasure. So long as any one of the three aspects of success: wealth, fame or power, are active within the seeker, they will obstruct deeper spiritual explorations. The Hindu are careful not to judge success, after all, success provides livelihood with dignity and self-respect, but Hindus also recognize its inherent limitations.
The Hindus learned long ago that anything connected with desire – pleasure, fame, success, self-gratification, wealth, power, etc., is guaranteed to bring a person to grief. First of all, the cravings associated with desire are fleeting and transitory. Everything in the sensory world has a beginning and an end, and every gain is unavoidably linked to its loss.
Secondly, the drive to fulfill desire is insatiable. This is because desires do not address real wants. There can never be “too much fame,” or “too much wealth.” This sends the seeker on an endless quest to satiate what is an unquenchable thirst. The Hindus have a saying, “Trying to extinguish the drive for riches with money is like trying to quench a fire with gasoline.”
Westerners have been taught to believe that people with money and worldly success are happy. The Hindus learned long ago that people who pursue these ends inevitably end up unfulfilled, empty, exhausted, alone and in pain. And after the expenditure of an incredible amount of effort, they inevitably end up dissatisfied.
In dealing with the seekers of desire, Hindu wisdom maintains that to deprive people of the joy of their worldly pursuits is to only make them angry and frustrated. It is like taking a toy from a child. The Hindus know that children outgrow their toys in due course just as adults who pursue pleasure will eventually become frustrated with their pain and emptiness.
It is far better, the Hindus maintain, to allow the individual to come to this realization by themselves rather than pressuring them to conform to some arbitrary standard of socially acceptable behavior. So, Hindu teachers urge people to “go for it,” knowing full well what the end result will be. Their guiding principle is, “to not turn from desire until desire turns from you.”
The lessons of many years of experience have taught them that until the individual extinguishes their own inner fires, dangerous and potentially destructive embers remain smoldering within.
The Hindus also recognize that the struggle with desire is a very important part of each person’s learning process, and to pressure them to conform before they are ready to release the pursuit of pleasure only distracts the individual from the important task of learning and growth. And it also sets the authority figure up as a target for the individual’s frustrations.
Experiencing the inevitable failure of the pursuit of desire (pleasure and success), Hindus have found that people then naturally turn to acts of service. This is the third stage of the path to awareness. Since the pursuit of desire has proved to be universally unfulfilling and unrewarding, people then reach out as they seek something greater than themselves. Essentially the “will-to-win” of The Path of Desire becomes transformed into the “will-to-serve.”
Although acts of service produce notable rewards such as the gratitude of the community and also engender personal self-respect, these are still insufficient compensations for the deep inner longings of the soul.
Frustrated by the pursuit of pleasure and ultimately unfulfilled by service, seekers reach the limits of what can be achieved in the physical world. A person typically then turns to spiritual pursuits in their quest for greater meaning. But this is difficult to realize as long as worldly concerns and desires compete for the seeker’s attention. This is why, in Hindu belief, it is necessary for the individual to extinguish their worldly concerns and ambitions before turning inward. It is only then that the individual is free to pursue the truth.
Having experienced the limitations of the material world, seekers will then typically renounce their connection to it and seek to free themselves in order to explore their spirituality. And with this comes the realization that what they have been searching for was within themselves the whole time. This is the fourth stage of awareness. It is at this point that Hinduism guides individuals to the three things they feel we all really want: Being, Knowing and Joy – collectively known as liberation.
It can be argued that Western society is like a seeker moving through the first stages of Desire. The hallmarks of Western society are materialism power, wealth and fame with their resulting pain and feelings of inadequacy.
And like the Hindu seeker, Western people are starting to realize the inadequacies and limitations of a culture based on greed. More and more people in the West are turning away from unbridled materialism in order to pursue goals of service. And if what the Hindus believe about human development is correct, our culture will eventually mature from acts of service into the pursuits of Being, Knowing and Joy.
But, as with any major social change, this transition is bound to be messy and turbulent, as we can see in the present struggle over health insurance reform, and as we witnessed in the struggles for racial and gender equality that preceded it. But the die has been cast. Change can be delayed, but it is inevitable.