Happiness is a term known to all, understood by few, and truly experienced by fewer. Invariably and habitually, most confuse happiness as relief from trouble, or pleasure arising out of certain experiences, physical or mental. But sanātana dharma defines happiness as much more than just the temporary state of elevated emotions. In fact, sanātana dharma does not even categorise happiness as an emotion, but rather a state of equanimous existence, where irrespective of the situations, one is not perturbed positively or negatively and thereby remains in a state beyond dualities.

Nevertheless, sanātana dharma does recognise different kinds of happiness that one can experience, and yet it keeps true happiness out of all categories and classifications. Since the most important experience that everyone pursues, from an insect to the most intelligent humans, is happiness, let’s try to understand what sanātana dharma promulgates about happiness, its quality, and its categories.

In an interesting episode from bhṛguvallī of taittirīyopaniṣad, the disciple-son bhṛgu, desirous of brahmavidyā, approaches his father vāruṇi to understand the truth of brahman behind all existence. vāruṇi being a perfect teacher, does not deploy the usual method of discoursing his disciple, but rather encourages bhṛgu to find answers to the question himself through self-inquiry, and only adds more clues to his query by asking him to investigate through questions like – ‘where does all the creation come from?’, ‘what sustains it and where does it all go at the end?’ He tells the son, ‘Know that; that is brahman’. bhṛgu goes back to observe and contemplate on these questions and concludes that anna is brahman (annaṁ brahmeti vyajānāt) as everyone is born out of food or anna; all are sustained by food and at the end all merge into food, which is to say, one creature becomes food for another in the food cycle. But father vāruṇi isn’t satisfied and asks bhṛgu to further investigate. The dutiful disciple bhṛgu, does so obediently. After much contemplation, bhṛgu returns with a newer insight that prāṇa or life force is brahman (prāṇo brahmeti vyajānāt) as all beings are born out of a life force, they live due to the life force and ultimately when the life force is withdrawn, they disappear as well. But yet again, vāruṇi is not satisfied and urges bhṛgu to think deeper. So, this time after due thinking, bhṛgu returns with a deeper insight that manas or mind is brahman (mano brahmeti vyajānāt) as all is because of the mind or manas. It is the mind that directs the life force according to which, creation, sustenance and destruction of all beings eventuate. Therefore, the mind is the basis of all.

This story has a deeper meaning about different kinds of happiness that we all pursue in life; because as humans, we have a layered existence – with one layer of our life deeper and subtler than the other.

Unsurprisingly, the teacher-father vāruṇi is not impressed yet. So, bhṛgu goes back to meditate further only to return with a newer knowledge that intelligence or vijñāna is brahman (vijñānaṁ brahmeti vyajānāt), as intelligence is the basis of everything and all creation emerges into existence due to a certain intelligence that governs birth, growth and death of all creatures. This instinctive intelligence is in-built in all which governs the mind, which further directs the prāna. vāruṇi is happy but not satisfied with his son’s answers, and sends him back to further meditate upon all that he had been observing thus far. This time, after meditating deep and long, bhṛgu realises that ānanda or bliss is the basis of all existence (ānando brahmeti vyajānāt). For the sake of seeking happiness all are born, live, and finally perish. bhṛgu loses himself in the experience of that ānanda and does not return to his father. So, this time vāruṇi scouts for his son and discovers that he has finally found the truth of brahman, that of the divine joy which is the basis of all creation.

You may wonder why this story now? Well, this story has a deeper meaning about different kinds of happiness that we all pursue in life; because as humans, we have a layered existence – with one layer of our life deeper and subtler than the other. The first one is that of the body, represented by food or annamayakośa – the very basic level of human existence, which makes the body happy and without which there is pain and agony of hunger. Most beings are happy with such ‘creature comforts’ or sense pleasures and don’t seek any further. However, this pleasure is the lowest kind and lasts only as long as the body is able to find avenues to experience it. But in the absence of the pleasure giving objects including food, this joy too disappears.

The second and higher quality of happiness rests in the security and safety of oneself represented by prāṇamayakośa, or life-force sheath – when one is able to lead a safe life without threats of injury or extinction and is able to feel secure that one can be happy; that’s precisely why people find happiness in power and wealth and resources through which they feel protected. But this too is temporary and lasts so long as one is powerful, wealthy and resourceful in the society.

The third and a higher grade of happiness is that of the mind, represented by manomayakośa or the sheath of mind. As we have learnt earlier, the mind is simply a bundle of thoughts and emotions, and its job is to think, decide and emote, akin to a software programme installed in the hardware of the body. So, when one is able to think clearly and able to decide well, also feel the warmth of positive emotions like that of friendship, family and society, one is happy. But this happiness is also temporary for obvious reasons.

The fourth kind and a higher kind of happiness is that of intelligence, represented by vijñānamayakośa, wherein one is satisfied only when one is able to be creative and contribute positively to the society using one’s intelligence. Most scientists and researchers, as well as creative individuals fall in this category; they aren’t so much bothered about their food, finances, friendships and families as they are interested in intellectual pursuits and creative achievements.

ānanda or bliss is the basis of all existence

And the final and highest kind of happiness that one can pursue is that of pure bliss, represented by ānandamayakośa or the sheath of bliss. This is experienced only by those who have transcended the carnal cravings of the flesh – striving for one’s strength and supremacy over the others, desires of the mind for mutual company and incessant chasing of intellectual pleasures of scholarship. This is only for those sage-like-beings who have ascended to the state of pure existence where they are able to love all unconditionally after having renounced the selfish motivations of the lower kinds of happiness. This happiness is lasting and eternal, for it does not depend on anything or anyone. This springs forth from a fountain of joy deep within oneself, where there is no selfishness and self-interest. This is the highest quality of happiness wherein one hoards nothing but shares everything, one takes nothing but gives everything, one asks for nothing but offers everything.

The same concept can be easily compared with Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, starting with the basic physiological needs represented by annamayakośa, to safety needs indicated by prāṇamayakośa, to social needs similar to manomayakośa, to esteem needs comparable to vijñānamayakośa, to self-actualisation needs akin to ānandamayakośa. The idea of self-actualisation according to Maslow is the fullest expression of one’s capacities, and in sanātana dharma, the truest and fullest expression of human potential is to realise one’s divinity. That’s when one finds true happiness and fulfilment, which is eternal.

Another way to look at it is that different kinds of people were pursuing different kinds of happiness – śūdra or the service-class were happy with food and physical pleasures, whereas the kṣatriya who by their very nature were warriors, rulers and administrators, derived joy from authority, power, and protection above physical pleasures. The vaiśya or traders were happy only if they were wealthy and socially respected, whereas brāhmaṇa or the intellectual-class found happiness in erudite pursuits of all kinds of knowledge. However, above all were saints and sages, who having purified their bodies, minds and intellects, transcended them, and instead derived the highest joy from Self-Realisation.

The kind of happiness that one can pursue is up to oneself. However, if one must invest one’s time and energies to find lasting happiness, sanātana dharma guides one to seek the truth of one’s own self as Divine and thereby attain the supreme, unsullied, eternal state of purest happiness. The verse from kaṭhopaniṣad declares that it’s only to them the eternal happiness belongs, who perceive the Self within, which otherwise is manifold in the creation outside.

एको वशी सर्वभूतान्तरात्मा एकं रूपं बहुधा यः करोति ।
तमात्मस्थं येऽनुपश्यन्ति धीरास्तेषां सुखं शाश्वतं नेतरेषाम् ॥

eko vaśī sarvabhūtāntarātmā ekaṁ rūpaṁ bahudhā yaḥ karoti ।
tamātmasthaṁ ye’nupaśyanti dhīrāsteṣāṁ sukhaṁ śāśvataṁ netareṣām ॥

कठोपनिषत् kaṭhopaniṣad 2.2.12

(That) One (Supreme) controller, the soul of all beings, who makes His one single form manifold – those wise men who perceive Him as existing in their own hearts, to them belongs eternal happiness, and to none else.