By Dr. Ashwini Mokashi
The pursuit of wisdom, virtue, and happiness are lifelong goals, and the process of attaining these goals itself is a worthwhile experience. Such themes from ancient texts continue into contemporary conversation, while the quest for happiness is pursued anew with each new generation. Ancient wisdom has stood the test of time and it behooves us to apply these principles to modern situations.
The wise person of the Gita, Sthitaprajna, is concerned with what is right action and how to exercise right judgment. In doing so, the sage becomes a Jnana-yogi, and by performing the right actions, the Sthitaprajna also becomes a Karma-yogi.
The Sthitaprajna possesses the following characteristics:
Wise people abandon all desires and have no eager and earnest longings. They have no sense of possessiveness, sense of ‘mine’. They discard their ego (ahamkara) or a sense of pride in themselves. Their concern for the self is absorbed into a concern for the divine. They are tranquil and happy. This state is known as the state of wisdom (sthita-prajna) or the state of Brahman establishment (Brahmi-sthiti). This state is no doubt difficult to attain but once attained, it stays with the Sthitaprajna until the end.
Stoic Seneca’s Answer
The wise person of Stoic Seneca, Sapiens, embodies the ethical tenets of Stoicism, which bring them permanent happiness. Seneca describes how to be wise by incorporating the Stoic ethical concepts such as appropriate actions (kathekonta), what belongs to oneself (oikeiosis), virtue (arete), detachment (apatheia), telos (goal) of living in accordance with nature, knowledge of the laws of nature, which together lead to happiness (eudaimonia). For Seneca, happiness essentially means tranquility and peace of mind, which results from a constant practice of virtue, and intellectual exercise, which is required to perform moral actions. The choice of action may not be conventional, but it is always moral. The integrity of moral thoughts and actions results in tranquility, which leads to happiness. Seneca’s critique of emotions, such as anger and grief highlight both the utility and futility of emotions, which emphasize the need for detachment from passions in the pursuit of virtue.
In both systems, a wise person is one who has the capacity for making correct judgments when undertaking action, and for these s/he then assumes complete responsibility. Right thinking results in right action, essential for peace of mind and happiness: right or moral actions lead to virtue. Happiness results from knowing one has done the right thing at the right time. Whatever a wise person chooses to do is for the good of mankind. In that sense, s/he is divine. Such people enjoy constant happiness.
Seneca’s treatment of various emotions is one of the most unique features of his philosophical writings. Seneca treats different emotions with the skill of a psychological therapist and shows the futility of those emotions in a very logical and sensitive way, without making it sound like a Stoic mandate of denying passions to any individual. Seneca’s great contribution is to make this concept available to everyone by giving people directions instead of merely asking them to rise to a high standard of the ethical expectations of Stoicism.
This is a repost of the piece first published in the Op-Ed section of the Indian Express on August 12, 2019.