Narayanan: ‘Don’t outsource your happiness to what others think of you’

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Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, talks about the different types of happiness in the Hindi culture during Wednesday Interfaith Lecture at the Hall of Philosophy.

Many classical Hindu texts say that humans have four goals in life: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Each one brings its own particular kind of pleasure or happiness. However, the four must be delicately balanced to achieve true happiness.

“If it makes you happy, go for it,” Vasudha Narayanan said. “The trick, like coffee, is to find the right blend.”

At 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy, Narayanan delivered a lecture titled “Enduring Happiness for Now, Enduring Happiness for Good: Some Hindu Perspectives.” She was the third to speak on Week Five’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

Narayanan has authored and edited numerous books. She is a distinguished professor in the University of Florida’s department of religion and a past president of the American Academy of Religion.

Narayanan explained the four Hindu goals of life, beginning with dharma, meaning virtue or duty. In Hinduism, some virtues are recommended to all human beings, while others are specific to certain groups based on age or gender. Among the virtues that apply to everyone are gratitude, generosity, lack of envy and nonviolence toward all creatures.

Artha [is] wealth … or, by implication, all that wealth involves, including glory and power,” she said. “And kama [is] desire or pleasure relating to the senses.”

Millions of pictures of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, grace homes, shops and offices across India. In the picture, Lakshmi is sitting on a red lotus flower with one hand raised, a signal not to be afraid, and the other showering gold coins. Wealth, Narayanan explained, is considered a good thing in Hinduism.

And desire and pleasure are also good — after all, India is the land of the Kama Sutra, she said. Marriage can help people achieve all the Hindu goals of life and is thus considered one of the best ways to happiness.

“The Tamil text Tirukkural lauds married life: If love and virtue reign in the household, this is the perfect grace and gain of life,” Narayanan said. “Among all those who labor for future happiness, it says, the person who is married is the best.”

When considering goals like artha and kama, an issue arises — although Hinduism encourages wealth and pleasure, it also promotes detachment.

“Almost every self-help article tells us that buying stuff … doesn’t bring us more happiness,” Narayanan said, “but they don’t tell you that the flipside — that is, cultivating a sensible detachment — leads one to the real bliss: the lasting, enduring happiness of liberation.”

The lotus flower is commonly used as a symbol for detachment, she said. One important characteristic is the plant’s hydrophobic leaves.

“It’s this observation that we find in the Buddhist and Hindu texts,” she said. “The Bhagavad Gita tells us that the person who is steady and who is truly happy is not touched by sin, just as a lotus leaf is not touched by water.”

Happiness doesn’t come from the outside world, such as through possessions, she argued. Rather, it comes from the inside. To illustrate this idea, Narayanan told a story about the musk deer, which lives in the Himalayas and other mountains in South Asia.

“It’s said that the musk deer … produces a heady fragrance and charges around trying to find the source of that perfume, not realizing it’s within itself,” Narayanan said. “The moral of the story is, don’t outsource your happiness to what others think of you or let your possessions be your persona.”

Many Hindu texts claim that to find happiness, one needs to find oneself first, or, in other words, find one’s connection with the supreme being.

“This supreme being in Hinduism is called Brahman,” Narayanan said, “a being which is ineffable, beyond thought, smaller than the smallest, larger than the largest.”

She explained that when someone realizes his or her connection with the cosmic ground of Brahman, all karma is erased and all pain is transformed into enduring happiness. This is moksha, liberation from the cycle of life and death and transcendence into the realm of bliss, where nothing is fleeting, and happiness is true and eternal.