A Hare Krishna take on 'the good life'
In this brief paper, I want to sketch a Hare Krishna perspective on the good life. By Hare Krishna I mean specifically the bhakti-yoga tradition made popular in the Western world by the revolutionary efforts of the distinguished Vedic scholar and teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The bhakti-yoga tradition is grounded in the ancient text known as Bhagavad-gita (the Gita), a magnum opus of Vedic philosophy, and so I propose to confine my presentation to this text alone. The Gita develops a sophisticated philosophy that bears comparison with other great philosophical traditions, and in this paper I wish to draw some comparisons with Aristotelian thought in particular. This is because Aristotle shares a common goal with the Gita. Like the Gita, Aristotle is concerned not just with any good, but rather with the highest good. It is no surprise then that the two take similar systematic approaches to rationalising the highest good, although they ultimately settle on different targets. But while the two diverge in important ways, they propose remarkably similar prescriptions for the good life. My purpose in this essay is to elucidate the Hare Krishna take on the good life by highlighting some of the similarities and differences that can be drawn in comparison with the Aristotelian account.
The broad structure of this essay will be as follows. First, I will outline a basic framework for ascertaining the good life. Using this framework, I will then compare Aristotle’s and the Gita’s accounts of the good life, highlighting important similarities and differences between the two. I will then conclude with a brief consideration of one of the Gita’s most esoteric but appealing propositions, one which goes beyond even the good life, and which we may call the devoted life.
Section 1 – a framework for ascertainingthe good life
Here is a suggested 3-part framework for ascertaining the good life.
First identify the core, essential nature of the human being.
Then equate the highest good with that which realises, exercises or fulfils that nature.
Finally characterise the good life as one directed toward attaining that highest good.
This framework offers a convenient tool for comparing the works of Aristotle and the Gita in relation to the good life, because both Aristotle and the Gita take this same approach when arguing their respective cases. And that’s because the notion of the good life isn’t a relativistic one. It is intended to apply equally to all peoples across all geographies, periods and cultures. This framework therefore anchors the notion of the good lifein the non-relativistic notion of the highest good, that good which is good for all people, is desirable in and of itself, and which is not subservient to any other good. And it further supports this non-relativistic notion of the highest good by grounding it in the essential nature or function of the human being. Of course, determining the essential nature or function, and hence the highest good, of the human being, is itself a contentious issue. And even if an agreement could be struck here, one might anyway challenge whether the highest good should really form the basis for the good life, because a good life may well be attainable without achieving the highest good, so long as one attained substantial good. But that is not what Aristotle and the Gita are targeting when they talk about the good life. Their target isn’t a good life, but rather the good life. A good life is a relativistic notion, but the good life isn’t. And therefore they both take a similar approach to defending it, as summarised in this framework. So let us now use this framework to compare how Aristotle and the Gita present their respective cases for the good life.
Section 2 – the human function
The first stage in our framework is identifying the core, essential nature or function of the human being. Recall that the reason we want to identify this is that it provides a stable foundation for determining the highest good for the human being, the pursuit, attainment or exercise of which characterises the good life. Let’s first consider Aristotle’s famous proposition – that the core function of the human being has something to do with the capacity for reason (Kraut, 2018). Why does he say this? Because the capacity for reason seems to be a unique attribute of human beings. Other capacities, such as engaging the senses, experiencing emotions, and having goals or objectives, seem common to both human and non-human animals. But only the human being seems capable of applying reason in the exercise of these other functions, at least in a sophisticated, non-impulse-driven way. And so the capacity for reason seems to be the sole preserve of the human being, and therefore a prime candidate for the essential function of the human being. So says Aristotle. Let’s see how this compares with the Gita’s perspective.
In addressing this question, the Gita first makes a crucial distinction between the body and the soul, identifying the real person with the soul, and not with the body (Gita, 2.13). For the Gita, the soul is spiritual in nature, unlike the body, which is material in nature. The distinction between spirit and matter is that spirit is conscious and eternal, whereas matter is lifeless and temporary (Gita, 2.18). And so the spiritual soul employs the material body like a machine or tool for interacting with the material world. Much can be said in defence or against this idea, but that is not the focus of this essay. Suffice to say, the Gita proposes that the essential nature of the human being is effectively the essential nature of the soul, and that is eternal and conscious personal existence. So where Aristotle identifies the exercise of reason as the distinctive function of the human being, the Gita instead identifies eternal, conscious and personal existence as the distinctive function of the human being.
Now, one might worry here about minimising the role of the human body in an account of human function, for surely the essential nature of human beings has something to do with being human. Consider that Aristotle’s account doesn’t deny the existence of a soul, but it doesn’t dismiss the human body either, in the way that the Gita seems to do. Upon closer examination, however, we find that the two accounts of human function aren’t so different after all. For when both speak of human beings, both are speaking of persons, subjects of a human life. For Aristotle, the actual subject of the human life may include the human body as part (Lorenz, 2009), but for the Gita, it doesn’t (Gita, 7.4-5). For the Gita, the human body is just a tool, and not part of the actual person, in the same way that the clothing covering a body is just a tool, and not part of the body itself (Gita, 2.22). And so even though the Gita minimises the role of the human body in its account of human function, its account is nevertheless directed toward the same subject as Aristotle, that is, the human being.
But does this mean that the Gita denies that the capacity for reason is a distinctive function for the human being? Not at all; it simply grounds that function within an even more fundamental one: being an eternal, conscious person. Because it is by virtue of being a person that one has the capacity to reason in the first please. So the Gita doesn’t reject Aristotle’s insight, it merely asks - what is it about the human being that gives rise to this capacity for reason in the first please? And it is this more fundamental nature or function of the human being that informs theGita’s perspective on the highest good.
Section 3 – the highest good
Now let us turn to the next segment of our framework, identifying the highest good for the human being. The highest good is equated with that which realises, exercises or fulfils the essential nature or function of the human being. For Aristotle, this is rather straightforward. If the essential function of the human being is to reason, then the highest good for human beings must be to reason well (Kraut, 2018). For Aristotle, fulfilling this core function of the human being is the highest good, because it realises or expresses the unique capacity of the human being. Let’s see how this compares with the Gita’s perspective.
If the essential function of the human being is to exist as an eternal, conscious person, the soul, what does that suggest about the highest good? Could it be the exercise of reason as Aristotle proposes? Not entirely, because as I noted above, the Gita doesn’t identify reason alone as the distinctive function of the soul, although it may be one of many capacities of the soul. The distinctive function of the soul is to exist as an eternal, conscious person, and therefore the highest good must simply be to experience that type of existence (Gita, 4.30, 5.22-24). In other words, the highest good is to live a life in accordance with our true nature. And we don’t need the Gita to tell us that we don’t already experience this. Instead, we experience the inevitability of death. And here is a crucial point for the Gita. By misidentifying ourselves with a material body, we succumb to the miseries of material existence (Gita, 2.71, 5.22). For example, one suffers the anxieties of old age and eventual death, which according to the Gita affect the body, not the soul. This misidentification with and attachment to the material body inhibits our essential function, because the nature of the body is fundamentally incompatible with the essential function of the soul. Therefore the highest goodfor a person must be the rectification of this deep-rooted misidentification problem, and the eventual release from material bondage altogether.
A natural question might arise here. Don’t we need the human body to experience a personal, conscious life? How could we experience this without a body? Is the Gita promoting instead some sort of ethereal, ghostly, formless existence for all eternity? Not at all. For the Gita, renouncing the material body doesn’t entail renouncing personal existence. The Gita points toward a spiritual destination that is the natural habitat for the spiritual soul, recommending a life there, unaffected by material encumbrances (Gita, 8.20-21). But for most of us in this material world, we become very attached to the flavours and experiences here, their transient nature notwithstanding. And so long as we remain infatuated with the pleasures of the material sphere, we remain entangled in it (Gita, 2.62-63). Therefore the highest goodrecommended in the Gita is to realign with our true spiritual nature and rid ourselves of the problems of material existence.
Let us now consider how Aristotle’s and the Gita’s differing conceptions of the highest good inform their respective conceptions of the good life.
Section 4 – the good life
Recall that in our framework, the good lifeis that life which is dedicated toward the pursuit and attainment of the highest good. For Aristotle, the highest good involves the exercise of reason, and so that life which facilitates or cultivates the proper exercise of reason constitutes the good life. But the ability to reason alone doesn’t guaranteethe good life, for it does not entail the properexercise of reason. We may be able to reason well and still make suboptimal choices that adversely affect our lives. Perhaps I may reason that smoking is bad for my health, but yet I may disregard the voice of reason and continue to smoke. Therefore, in order to fulfil our human capacities by using reason well to make the right choices, Aristotle says we need to cultivate virtue orexcellence of character, both moral and intellectual (Kraut, 2018). These virtues or excellences allow us to exercise reason in an optimal way, and so fulfil our unique function as human beings. Hence Aristotle develops his renowned theory of ethics, focusing on the virtues (Hursthouse and Pettigrove, 2016). For Aristotle, therefore, the good life isn’t merely the passive ability to reason, but an active life that displays virtue and exercises good reason.
How does this compare with the Gita’s account? Interestingly, despite its different target for the highest good, the Gita’s proposal for the good life looks remarkably similar to that suggested by Aristotle. We’ve seen that, for Aristotle, the good lifeis one which involves virtuous action and good reason. And these three elements of action, virtue, and reason also feature prominently in the Gita’s account of the good life. Recall that, for the Gita, the highest good involves rectifying the problem of misidentification with the body, because that misidentification inhibits the natural function of the soul. So for the Gita, the good life is one which facilitates that purpose. Now, the Gita notes that we cannot achieve this purpose by simply renouncing action (Gita, 3.5), and so, as with Aristotle, the good life must be an activeone, not a passive one. But what sort of action facilitates the purpose of the highest goodfor the Gita? Not surprisingly, the Gita recommends virtuous action in response to this question (Gita, 3.34). The reason is that a virtuous life naturally subdues the sort of sensual over-indulgence that nurtures the kind of attachment and preoccupation with the senses that reinforces the misidentification with the body, which opposes the highest good (Gita, 3.29). This cultivation of virtue promotes the restraint and resolve needed for a deeper realisation of the true self (Gita, 2.58), culminating in the eventual liberation from material limitations in this world (Gita, 3.19). And so, much like Aristotle’s account, virtue plays a crucial role in the good life proposed in the Gita. Finally, reason also plays a crucial role in the good life for the Gita, because without it we could not pursue the good life (Gita, 3.43). Without sound reasoning, any commitment toward the highest goodcould be easily undermined by the distractions of more immediate material allurements, and so any progress towardthe good lifecould be easily derailed (Gita, 2.41, 2.44). Indeed, according to the Gita, it is this reason that enables us to escape material bondage in this world (Gita, 2.39, 2.50). And so the good lifeof the Gita aligns remarkably well with the good lifepromoted by Aristotle, for both are characterised by virtuous action and reason. But while they may look very similar externally, they are fuelled by very different internal motivations, because as discussed earlier, they have different targets for the highest good. For Aristotle, a life of virtuous action based on good reason is itself sufficient for the good life. But for the Gita, it’s not. And that’s because one can live a virtuous and rational life and still nurture a deep-rooted attachment to the body, undermining one’s ultimate good of renouncing material limitations (Gita, 14.6). So for the Gita, it is only when that virtuous and rational life is directed toward the goal of realising and attaining one’s true spiritual nature does it truly fulfil all the criteria for the good life(Gita, 18.37).
Section 5 – the devoted life
I want to close now by drawing attention to a distinct proposal in the Gita, one which seems to transcend the notion of the good life. Recall that for the Gita, the essential function of the human being is to be an eternal, conscious person. The highest goodis to attain that quality of life, and the good lifeis one dedicated toward pursuing that goal. But while the Gitastrongly encourages us to pursue the good life, it also makes a deeper appeal. It invites us to not just free ourselves from material limitations, but to further devote that spiritual freedom in loving relationship with Krishna, God, the spiritual origin of the soul itself (Gita, 8.15, 15.7). The portrayal of God in the Gita is a very appealing one. The Gitapresents Krishna, God, as disarmingly personal, rational and intimate, the father, mother and friend of all souls, and their most ardent well-wisher (Gita, 9.17, 5.29). And Krishna personally invites all souls to reciprocate with Him in eternal loving relationship (Gita, 9.34, 18.66). This appeal goes beyond the good life, because it involves devoting the good lifeto Krishna. Note that one may pursue the good lifeand still choose to forego a spiritual relationship with Krishna (Gita, 2.55, 4.23-24). The good life of the Gitadoes not require that it be offered to God. That particular path is a matter of individual choice, but Krishna urges it because it complements the good lifevery naturally. As eternal conscious persons, we not only have the natural urge to avoid the transience of material life, but also to engage in eternal personal relationships (Gita, 2.51). Therefore Krishna urges us to not only pursue the good life, but to pursue the devoted life (Gita, 9.34).
You may wonder why did I bother identifying material liberation as the highest goodwhen in fact the Gitaultimately targets something more, that is, devotion to Krishna? I have taken this route to pay tribute to the Gita, which also emphasises the sanctity of free will and choice. And the devoted lifeis ultimately a matter of free choice. In the Gita even Krishna respects that freedom of choice (Gita, 18.63). Whereas being a soul isn’t a matter of choice; it’s an ontological fact. Therefore in the Gita, Krishna graciously facilitates the good life to all, whether they choose to devote that to Him or not.
In conclusion, the good life isn’t a relativistic notion. It applies to all people, across all times, places and cultures. Both the Gita and Aristotle ground the notion of the good lifein the notion of the highest good, which derives from the essential nature or function of the human being. For Aristotle, a life dedicated toward the proper exercise of reason fulfils the good life, but for the Gita the good life is one dedicated toward realising one’s true nature as an eternal, conscious person. In practice, the good life looks remarkably similar in both cases, involving virtuous action and good reason. But the internal motivation that fuels the good lifediffers for both. For Aristotle, the exercise of reason is itself the main purpose, but for the Gita the good life is one directed toward realising our true identity. That being said, the Gita also makes a further appeal beyond the good life,which we have called the devoted life. It invites us to devote the good life to Krishna, God, and relish the flavours of eternal, personal relationships with Him.
Kraut, R. (2018). Aristotle's Ethics. In: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University.
Lorenz, H. (2009). Ancient Theories of Soul. In: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.Stanford: Stanford University.
Hursthouse, R. and Pettigrove, G. (2016). Virtue Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of PhilosophyStanford: Stanford University.
Bhagavad Gita verses taken from:
Goswami, H. (2015). A Comprehensive Guide to Bhagavad-gītā with Literal Translation. Gainesville, Florida: Krishna West, Inc.