World Happiness and Indian Philosophy

Holi in Vrindaban – Wikimedia Commons

As the exuberant celebrations of the ‘Holi’ festival last month were dying down, a slight dampener came in the form of the release of the ‘World Happiness Report 2023’.  The report authors managed to rank India as 126th out of 136 countries surveyed, far behind countries such as Pakistan (108) and Ukraine (92).  Going further, the authors label India a ‘weak state’, meaning that –

“they are politically unstable … the abilities to raise revenue, protect property rights and support markets, or to deliver welfare services are limited … Low state capacity and pervasive conflict limit the incentives for private investment, which may lead to a vicious cycle of poverty and conflict.” (p.88)

The report findings may be easy to laugh at, thereby ironically increasing world happiness, yet, being serious for a moment, it is interesting to probe more deeply into the nature of happiness, which is in fact a subjective experience.  Indian culture, characterised by its wealth of joyous festivals, may in fact help us in this endeavour.  Thus, for example, Abhinavagupta, a perceptive psychologist besides many other things, astutely observes that the happiness of each person is intensified simply by sharing the experience with others as part of a singing and dancing crowd (Tantrāloka Chapter 18 verses 374-378).  We are reminded of scenes from the great religious festivals, or perhaps this scene from the life of Sri Ramakrishna –

“The crowd seemed to become infected by the Master’s divine fervour and swayed to and fro, chanting the name of God, until the very air seemed to reverberate with it.  Drums, cymbals, and other instruments produced melodious sounds.  The atmosphere became intense with spiritual fervour.  The devotees felt that Gaurānga himself was being manifested in the person of Sri Ramakrishna.  Flowers were showered from all sides on his feet and head.  The shouting of the name of Hari was heard even at a distance, like the rumbling of the ocean.”

[The gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p.253]

Indeed, from the Indian perspective, the entire universe, no less than the individual human body, is comprised of Śiva dancing in divine ecstasy –

“Our lord dances his eternal dance …
The eight quarters are His eight arms,
The three lights are His three eyes,
Thus becoming, He dances in our body as the congregation.”

[from ‘Vision of the Sacred Dance’, quoted in ‘The Dance of Śiva’, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, p.90]

The poet Bhāravi also likens the Himālayan mountain range to the body of Śiva, booming with laughter –

From one side, lit by the moving sun,
From the other, constantly covered in darkness of night,
As if Śiva is breaking through the heaped darkness in front of him with his laughter
While his elephant hide lies behind him

[Kirātārjunīya 5.2; my own translation]

Abhinavagupta in fact describes and systematically analyses how all forms of aesthetic appreciation promote greater happiness, including enjoyment of nature, of literature and poetry, of music and dance, of delicious Indian food, and so on.  Indeed, it is this precisely this insight that undergirds India’s complex and exuberant cultural traditions over vast spans of time.  Thus André Padoux writes –

“The sensitivity to sensual beauty is a fundamental Indian trait.  The aesthetic and the metaphysical or religious experiences tend often to coincide at their apex with an overwhelming experience of ecstatic wonder (chamatkāra, in Sanskrit).”

[From ‘Tantra Song’, Franck Andre Jamme, p.10]

Going further, Vedāntic and Tantric texts agree that our awareness is fundamentally based on the emotion of happiness.  Thus the well-loved А̄nanda Vallī or ‘Happiness Chapter’ explains that ‘one’s own nature [ātman] is comprised of happiness [ānandamaya]’ and that this happiness fills the entire human body (Taittirīya Upaniṣad, А̄nanda Vallī, fifth anuvāka).

The above survey all-too-briefly suggests how India’s speculative literature makes insightful and important claims about human happiness, and how and where it is found.  Indeed, as Indians know, happiness is in fact the essential nature of our human conscious awareness.  I would suggest that it is precisely the longstanding dharmic traditions of the Indian people that give both a theoretical understanding of the nature of happiness and a practical guide to its flourishing within our hearts. Indeed, a genuine and heartfelt engagement with the happiness traditions of India may in fact pave the way towards a more robust methodology for measuring world happiness too.

Thus, whereas the authors of the ‘World Happiness Report 2023’ advise that we need new ‘secular movements’ (p.24) in order to make us happy, I suggest that we might remember a lovely verse from the Rig Veda that somehow encapsulates the spirit of India in 2023 –

We the living have turned away from the dead.  Our invocation to the gods has been successful.
We have come forth to dance and laughter, getting longer life for the future.

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 18 Mantra 3 by Ṛṣi Saṅkasuko Yāmāyana; my own translation]
Singing Holi Geet – Wikimedia Commons

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