I grew up in an orthodox South Indian Hindu family where success was defined in terms of high educational qualifications and a prestigious job title, preferably in the United States. As a 3rdgrader, I distinctly remember my mother pointing her finger out of the bus on our way to my aunt’s home. She was pointing to the Indian Institute of Technology (I.I.T), which is equivalent to M.I.T and accepts one percent of its applicants each year. She said, “You must worship this place from your heart. This is where you must study.” Sure enough, it left strong impressions in my mind and I wanted to shine in her eyes.
It was only after I got admitted to the I.I.T ten years later that I felt a strong dissatisfaction in my heart. It felt like after all that I had achieved over the course of my life, I was filling up a bottomless bag, into which each time I dropped a “medal” I could not hear it clink. I motivated myself by constant comparison to the students whose success I covertly envied. Each time I equaled them or surpassed them, I felt on the top of the world, for all but a few hours. And then it was back to the emptiness. I had to concede that my notion of success had a very short shelf life. I was getting tired of this relentless pursuit that had no real longevity, in spite of the accolades that friends and family showered upon me.
Perplexed and internally confused, I turned to Hindu scriptures and its broader understanding of the meaning and goal of life. I found that Hindu scriptures consider success an important part of life. It is called artha. Artha means that which is an asset or that which is meaningful. Hinduism classifies success according to stages of life – the first half of life and the second half of life.
Many scriptures focus on the first half of life success. They directly recommend pursuit of education, family, wealth and fame as essential to healthy and fulfilled living. But that could be pursued only in a moral way by following dharma or sanctioned codes of living. Such success, according to ancient Hindu culture, is a necessary source of security, continuity, predictability and impulse control that we need to establish a sound ego structure – before the chaos of real life shows up. Ironically, according to Hinduism, you need a very strong and disciplined ego structure before you let go of the ego itself. The creation of that disciplined ego structure is considered to be success in the first half of life.
The success of the first half of life is only understood when the second half of life sets in – usually not by our own doing. According to Hinduism, we “fall” into the second half of life. Usually that fall manifests itself in the form of an existential crisis that we cannot avoid using first of life success formulae. In the modern day context, such existential crisis is usually referred to as mid-life crisis. Hinduism says that such crises keep appearing in our lives. We usually respond to them by starting new projects, finding new relationships or pursuing new careers. The crisis disappears, only to reappear in the form of a bigger, deeper and unexplainable anxiety that is brought out by life’s unplanned events.
At this juncture, the Hindu scriptures explain, the individual is invited unwittingly to pursue success in a very different form – to inquire about the true meaning of life itself – its artha. The Vedanta Sutra, the essential conclusion of all the Hindu scriptures, in an anticipatory way begins with the statement, “Athatho brahma jignasa” which means, “Therefore, inquire into your identity”. I was amazed to find a text that began with the word “therefore”. In an almost unassuming fashion, it was expecting me to get here – waiting patiently and congratulating me for the success of the first half of life – that after all the pursuits, I have been able to ask the question that truly mattered. The question is, “What is my essence, my soul, really calling me to achieve?” According to the Vedanta Sutra, it is not possible to ask this question if the first half of life has not been done right.
Whatever success is, however defined by the neurosis of the moment, what the ego and the collective culture define as success and what the soul asks of us to do seldom have any relationship with each other. We can drive ourselves to be successful and realize later that we are further and further from ourselves, the more so as the goal of success has driven our efforts. True success, according to Hinduism, is in relentlessly living the second half of life question. It is not in the achievements of the first half of life, but in the unraveling of a deeper mystery of our authentic identity and relationship with this transient world.