By Suma Varughese
By staying faithful to shreya [what is right and beneficial], instead of preya [what is pleasant], we win the sweetest fruits of life, from success to happiness to enlightenment
There are some marvellous concepts in Vedanta that reduce the spiritual quest into essential principles. Among them are the twin concepts of Preya and Shreya.
What are these? Apart from the fact that they are delightfully rhymed (notice how Sanskrit specialises in related concepts that rhyme? Yogi-bhogi, tan-man, smriti-shruti, one could go on!), they are connected, for they illustrate the vital importance of fusing our desires into one single-pointed direction.
Preya stands for what is pleasant: a holiday in Goa, channa bhaturas and gulab jamuns, driving a Mercedes Benz, designer clothes and shades, a blazing love affair, etc. Shreya, unassuming and circumspect, stands for what is beneficial to us: eating healthy, maintaining an exercise regimen, staying within one’s income, maintaining fidelity in marriage, doing one’s duty. All the world will agree, especially today, that Preya is the hip swinging chick, while Shreya, let’s face it, is the dowdy one. Boring, for heavens sake.
Little wonder then that most of us beat a path to Preya’s door, while Shreya’s threshold is definitely the road less taken, indeed almost never taken.
All through our lives, we chase the objects that promise us happiness, like money, love, good times, fame, power, success, etc. But the paradox, as Vedanta says, is that we never really get happiness. Why? Because we look for it in the wrong place. Outside, not inside. Preya seduces us through our senses and we gallop after all that it flourishes, horse racing, cigarette smoking, Formula One races, and what not. But no sooner do we get there than the promised happiness either dissolves or is seen to not exist.
In the Katha Upanishad, the body is likened to the chariot, the five senses to the horses, the intellect to the charioteer, the mind to the reins, and the Self to the rider inside the chariot. As long as the intellect and the mind do not do their duty by reining in and controlling the senses, the horses will run amok, charging after whatever attracts them without discrimination or restraint. And what happens? The rider never gets to the place he wants to go: peace of mind, happiness, health, even enlightenment.
Shreya, on the other hand, can seem like a dull piece of goods when first we make our acquaintance with her dull —and exacting—like a stern school marm, but as we get to know her better we will have to admit that she really has our interest at heart. You are on a diet, she will remind us, just as we are about to lift a grilled cheese sandwich to our mouth, and if we can make ourselves replace it with a vegetable sandwich instead, we will savour the sweet sense of a victory over the senses. Or we may be itching to watch TV and she will remind us of the vegetables to be peeled or the ironing to be done. Or her small still voice stalls us when we contemplate a temptation at work that requires us to bend the rules just a little in order to make a fortune.
Most of us pay obeisance to both Preya and Shreya for we are awfully torn between them. Instead of fusing all our energies into one direction, we fritter them by being pulled into two opposite directions. We long to stay slim, fit and healthy, but no sooner do we see a mutton biryani or hariyali kabab than our goal forgotten and we chomp right into them. We regret it later, but that simply adds to the problem because now we have guilt to contend with as well, which also sends us headlong into Preya.
We long for success but instead of gritting our teeth and working our heads off, we apple polish the boss and bitch about our colleagues. We vow not to gossip or bitch about others but no sooner do we catch hold of a juicy morsel, than we hasten to spread it among our buddies. Life is a long and wearisome struggle to get out of the hold of Preya and towards Shreya.
For we will never get what we want as long as we do the opposite.
The Katha Upanishad tells us that Preya and Shreya stand for the two choices that we have to make at any given time. Consciously or unconsciously, we choose either Preya or Shreya. And the two go in opposite directions.
One towards lasting happiness and fulfillment, the other towards temporary satisfaction and permanent regret. At the end of our lives, we will be able to gauge which of the two has been our guide and inspiration by examining where we stand. Are we happy, energised, buoyant and radiant? Clearly, Shreya has been our mentor. Are we tired, ill, impoverished and unfulfilled? Oh dear, we have been too enamoured of Preya.
So how do we get out of the hold of Preya and move towards Shreya?
Ramakrishna Paramahansa put it in sublimely simple words. If you want to go East, don’t go West. If you want to lose weight, don’t eat fattening food. If you want to be fit, don’t give up your exercise. If you want to finish your project, stop chatting with your colleagues and checking the mail.
If you want to get enlightened, stop chasing good times. All we have to do to obey Shreya is not to obey Preya. Refuse to betray your friends or your own values. Refuse to chase money, fame or power at the cost of values or principles. Refuse to indulge the senses.
And lo, your task is done. Preya soon wilts away into a gossamer shade, and Shreya waxes strong and beautiful. With Shreya at our side, the battle of life is eventually won, for she teaches us to put the long term over the short term, the principle over expedience, the right over the tempting.
By staying faithful to Shreya we win the sweetest and most sought after fruits of life, from success to happiness to enlightenment.
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