One of the crucial lessons that 22 years in India has taught me is that knowledge and wisdom are critically different.
During the first 25 years of my life, I was a top student and a graduate of Stanford University. My test scores were always in the highest range. I was, I believed, smart. I even believed I was intelligent and wise.
However, despite my ability to read, assimilate, remember and regurgitate information from books back onto exam sheets with profound acumen, I had no idea what life was about. I had no idea who I was, let alone what the world was.
I believed that my personal worthiness was reflected in the grades I received in school. A top grade meant I was worthy. Less than the top grade meant I was less worthy.
I believed that my identity was an intricate tapestry, woven by the threads of my experiences—the trauma and the ecstasy, the challenges and the accomplishments and that I WAS the sum total of what I thought, felt and knew. I WAS what I could do, where I’d been, how I struggled, loved and laughed, and the minutiae of the drama of my life.
It never occurred to me that there might be more, that this tapestry was, in fact, only the doorway, a beautiful, intricate doorway but nonetheless only the doorway into the truth of who I am.
In India, at the feet of my Guru and steeped in a spiritual culture that emphasises content over form, and essence over packaging, I got a glimpse of what wisdom looks like.
It is not in facts or figures. It is not in someone else’s discoveries any more than the satiation of hunger is in a book about food.
We only learn about life through living—through living with focused awareness on the essence, on content, on life in the depth of the ocean rather than in the frenetic undulation of the waves on the surface.
Wisdom is what emerges from the source within ourselves when we are quiet and still enough to create space for it.
Just as knowledge does not beget wisdom, neither does money purchase happiness. In the contemporary, mostly Western-influenced, model of success, there are a few distinct criteria: financial prosperity, a high ranking on the career ladder, social acclaim and status. Most of us spend our lives aiming to achieve these socially determined markers.
However, as has now been shown conclusively by every piece of research data from the United Nations to social scientists to spiritual philosophers and theologians, once one has risen above poverty level, once one has enough food to eat, basic medical care and educational opportunities, additional increases in income have very little impact on overall personal joy.
Sadly, no, that new car is not the answer to what ails us. Rather the answer, the deepest and most fundamental answer, is a connection. Connection to the Divine however we envision, conceive or worship God; connection to ourselves, to the truth of who we are.
Connection to those around us—not as drinking buddies or shopping buddies or one-night stands—but connection of the essence of who we are to the essence of who they are, soul-to-soul, heart-to-heart connections; connections in which as we say in “Namaste”, the Divine within me bows to the Divine within you. This is the soil in which the trees of a truly happy and meaningful life grow.
This truth, of the ingredients of which real joy is made, was an inscrutable mystery to me when I arrived in India. I noticed it immediately, though, as I looked at children in Rishikesh who lived below the Western standards of poverty but in whose eyes gleamed more joy, more light, more brilliance than I’d ever seen. Their eyes shone with a deep contentment that no one I knew had. “There is a secret here,” I realised, and it was a secret I knew I needed to discover.
There is a song which we sing each morning at Parmarth Niketan that tells us:
Mahaloṇ meṇ rākhe cāhe jhoṇpaḍī meṇ vasa de
Dhanyavāda nirvivāda Rāma Rāma kahiye
Jāhi vidhi rākhe Rāma tāhi vidhi rahiye
Mukha meṇ ho Rāma-nāma, Rāma-seva hatha meṇ
Wherever God keeps us—in a palace or in a hut—let us be grateful. Let us keep God’s names on our lips and let our hands keep doing the Divine work.
This is the same teaching that Lord Krishna gives in the Gita for a truly happy and successful life: “Remember me and fight the war,” or more generally “Remember me and fulfil your duty.”
There is nowhere that it says, “Remember me so that thou shalt achieve great name and fame,” or “Remember me so that thou shalt become CEO,” or “Remember me and thou shalt win the lottery.”
Rather, the key is simple: Remember God, connect with God, sing the glories of God, be grateful to God and thou shalt find the true meaning of life.