ESSAYS

What is "good" and how can it ultimately be defined?

The obvious answer to the question “What is ‘good’?” is that good is the opposite of bad. And yet, the first thing to know about “good” and “bad” is that both are in the eye of the beholder. Concepts such as good/bad or beautiful/ugly are a part of our subjective reality and don’t exist in empirical reality or in absolute reality (non-dual consciousness). Nature just is, it’s indifferent to how we choose to define it; and non-dual consciousness can only ever be free of objects—including concepts. So in the end, good or bad are simply ideas based on our likes and dislikes. Furthermore, our idea of what’s good or bad is constantly changing. Any concept of “good” is reconsidered with every new generation.


Nevertheless, “good” is generally thought to be that which elicits pleasure and “bad,” that which causes agitation or pain. But sometimes a little pain is necessary to gain some pleasure (like working a full-time job so you can go on vacation every now and then). Likewise, sometimes a lot of pleasure can result in some pain (like when your dream vacation turns into a giant hangover and in spite of a job, more mounting debt). So, there appears to be no absolutes or constants when it comes to good or bad. “Good” isn’t always good, nor is “bad” always bad!

How about “good” as that which is moral? The Bhagavad Gita suggests leading a spiritual life that abides by certain universal laws and disciplines that help condition the mind toward moksha—spiritual freedom. These universal physical, psychological and moral laws can collectively be referred to as dharma. An understanding of these laws, as intuitive as they might seem, is important both in protecting the individual from harm as well as protecting others. Most of us live in a relatively safe environment only because those around us have also chosen to live by certain rules that respect the well-being of others. Without abiding by certain rules, society would quickly unravel and chaos would ensue (which is what happens during times of war).


Dharma’s most fundamental principle is “do no harm.” The Vedic tradition has a lot to say about dharma, including ten values that are said to make up an ethical life. Five are to be avoided and another five to be followed. These are sometimes referred to as the “Ten Commandments of Hinduism” although they really aren’t religious and really come down to just living life intelligently.


The five negative precepts include:

  • Avoiding violence (including physical, mental or verbal violence)

  • Avoiding untruthfulness (lying, exaggerating, bending the truth for one’s benefit, etc.)

  • Avoiding taking that which isn’t yours (or gaining benefit through illegitimate dealings)

  • Avoiding inappropriate sexual relationships (in both actions and in thought)

  • Avoiding acquiring, using or keeping more than you need

The five positive precepts include:


  • Cultivating purity (externally and internally)

  • Cultivating contentment (with what is given through legitimate means)

  • Developing self-mastery (through discipline)

  • Spiritual study (to gain right knowledge)

  • Accepting all experiences as a gift (even the bad ones, which often provide a lesson)


The word “dharma” can also refer to:


  • Having a sense of duty or responsibility

  • Recognizing and having respect for God’s order

  • Recognizing the nature of a particular thing (e.g. It’s the dharma of fire to burn)


In general, it could be said that which is dharmic or “good” is that which is in harmony with God. But a dharmi doesn’t necessarily need to be religious, they just need to recognize they are in a special relationship with nature that includes, other beings. In other words, they need to set aside their sense of small-self in order to reap the benefits of being a part of something much greater.


The Gita also recognizes “good” using various other terms. For example, having “good karma” (punya karma) is benefiting from the fruits of one’s proper actions. Karma theory says that by accumulating good karma, we are setting ourselves up for a better afterlife, including being born in an environment that will help foster our spiritual aspirations (i.e. moksha).

The Gita also mentions in several chapters, the gunas or the impersonal forces that make up our outer and inner world. We can choose to either cultivate or abate these inner forces. There are three gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Without going into too much detail, we are encouraged to make every aspect of our life sattvic to the extent we can. Sattvic desires and actions are those that leave the mind clear without agitation. They tend to result in actions that not only support one’s spiritual quest, but also in actions that are unselfish and contribute to the Total. An individual with a predominance of sattva tends to be happy, balanced, generous, kind, accommodating, wise—in short, “good.”


The Gita also warns us that better is one’s own dharma, imperfect as it is, than the dharma well performed of another. The latter, it tells us, is fraught with fear! We do ourselves an injustice when we try to be something we are not. The Gita suggests we are all created with a certain role to play in this karma matrix. So if you want to be in harmony with God/nature, you need to start with the person and understand we each have a part in this tragicomedy.


Thus, good is also what is most in harmony with our personal nature (svadharma). Our personal nature is our personal programming and might incline us to become a doctor, teacher, small business owner, caretaker or stay-at-home mother. It might simply be what we choose to do in our free time when we aren’t occupied with other duties.


As an extension, “good” might also be considered to be what is in harmony with the body-mind. For these animal bodies, that means eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and getting enough sleep. For the mind, it would be avoiding prolonged stress, managing our emotions and finding ways to keep the mind engaged in stimulating and constructive ways.

What’s not in harmony with our nature should be obvious because it’s what eventually makes us sick. Not only the quality of something can make us sick, but also the quantity. “Everything in moderation,” the wise remind us.


Suffering is an obvious sign that what we are doing is wrong and that it goes against our very nature. That’s because what is natural to us doesn’t include suffering. If it did, we wouldn’t be trying to run away from it every waking moment. We might not always know why we are suffering, but we definitely know when we are suffering. Suffering is always felt as the result of some kind of limitation. As individuals, we experience many different kinds of limitations but there are three in particular that we find hard to accept.

The first is sorrow. Nobody can stand being sorrowful for very long because being sorrowful all the time is debilitating. It may be appropriate to be sad and express grief during certain occasions and for a certain amount of time, but nobody wishes to have the kind of binding sorrow that lasts months or years and that saps the very life out of you.


Sorrow is what has the warrior-prince, Arjuna, in the Bhagavad Gita throw down his weapon and declare he would rather be killed than kill. Arjuna’s sorrow is so binding, so debilitating that it endangers his life and the lives of his entire family and army. As obvious as it sounds, sorrow typically develops from either not getting what we want, or getting what we don’t want. When we aren’t able to get what we want, our desire can turn into anger, then delusion and finally, sorrow and loss of freedom.

The second is time. Nobody wants to die. Even suicides really only want to put an end to their misery, not their self. We come into this world, and if we are fortunate enough, we are able to build beneficial relationships, wealth, property and knowledge—only to have it taken away from us on a day not of our choosing! Mortality presents itself as the cruelest of limitations, one for which we are constantly trying to distance ourselves from.


The third is ignorance. Nobody wants to be ignorant and to suffer as a result. We all wish to know and better understand our circumstances so that as individuals, we can avoid getting hurt and instead, thrive. Suffering is always the result of ignorance—that which keeps us in the dark, bumping into objects and making a mess of ourselves and everything around us.


The opposite of being limited is, of course, being unbound or free. In our heart of hearts, what we all desire is total freedom. It might not be obvious that everything we do, we do to be free from that which binds or limits us. We eat to be free from hunger, drink to be from thirst, or sleep to be free from exhaustion. Everything we do is fundamentally motivated by our desire to be free! Including our desire for pleasure (freedom from agitation, dullness, boredom, etc.) and our desire to be principled (freedom from impurities, sin, bad karma, etc.).


Vedanta tells us that our true essence is the Self as whole, complete, eternal, limitless, ever-shining non-dual awareness, and that the nature of our Self is total freedom/total satisfaction. This, however, is lost on us due to our identification with the body-mind, which is, by its own nature, limited. There’s nothing we can do about the fact that these bodies will eventually grow old, become diseased and die. Due to this acute sense of limitation, we attempt to seek fulfillment through external means: by acquiring more and better stuff, completing a bucket list of things to do and places to visit, or by looking for that special someone—anything to make us feel complete and more free! And yet, as the wise say, the actual freedom we seek is already what we are. Thus, actual freedom isn’t to be found externally, but from within.


So, if what is “good” is that which doesn’t limit or bind us (the definition of freedom), and if total freedom is synonymous with the nature of the limitless Self, then everything that we deem “good” must be indirectly pointing to the Self. We may seek out objects, experiences and relationships that bring us a sense of temporary freedom, but what we’re all really looking for is total, complete, unrestricted freedom—the Self! So, if this logic is correct, then in absolute terms “good” is the Self (our true limitless nature) and it’s only due to our ignorance that we believe it to be found in inert objects and fleeting experiences.


And yet, if the essence of who/what I am is the Self, and the Self is absolute good, why don’t I always feel good? Why is the good that I am, feel so elusive even though my essence is supposed to be of the nature of total freedom/total satisfaction?


To understand this, we need to look at another topic related to “good”—happiness. It’s no secret that what is good makes us happy. And what is happiness? It depends which happiness you’re talking about—the temporary, elusive kind found in the world, or the eternal, permanent kind which is the nature of the Self? The temporary kind is said to be only a reflection or transient “blip” of original happiness. The temporary kind is subject to degradation, so it comes and diminishes over time. Even with our most desired objects, the spell is eventually broken and what generated so much happiness before, just begins to blend into the background with all our other stuff.


We don’t always recognize our nature as “good” due to the gunas and the misidentification with the body-mind. Figuratively speaking, there are said to be five sheaths—graded objects/functions of the body-mind from gross to subtle—that cover the brilliance of the Self. The more gross the sheath, the less the Self is able to “shine” through. Think of an onion with the Self as its center. As we peel away the outer, thicker layers of the onion, we begin to recognize a light emanating from within. The last layers of the onion are quite thin. So, from the innermost layers it’s easier to sense the light.


In order, the five sheaths include the body sheath (the outermost sheath), the energy sheath, the mind sheath, the intellect sheath and lastly, the bliss sheath (the most subtle sheath). The bliss sheath represents the limited/temporary reflected happiness we mistake to be the Self. When we finally obtain the object of our desire we may feel complete and whole, but unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Because we identify with the five sheaths, we miss the fact that our true essence is other than the body, physiology, mind, intellect or experiential bliss. The Self isn’t an object, nor is it experiential. So, the only way to know of it is through gaining right knowledge (i.e. scripture). Thus, the first reason we don’t always feel “good” is because of this misidentification with the five sheaths or the body-mind, which is, by its own nature, temporary and always changing.

The gunas can also be blamed for hiding our true nature. They do so by projecting the false (rajas) and concealing the truth (tamas). If pure sattva is a clear blemish-free mirror, then rajas would be a cracked mirror, and tamas would be a mirror after greasy hands have been all over it. In both cases, the ability for the mirror to reflect light has been severely diminished. Such changing conditions of the mind would mean that the nature of the Self doesn’t always reflect back at us. It’s only when the mind is still and clear that the reflection of the Self can be known.

So far, I’ve discussed how we experience reflected happiness and might be fooled into thinking that it is real. After all, a reflection of the sun isn’t the sun! It’s important to emphasize that real happiness is different than ordinary, temporary, object-oriented happiness. It isn’t the kind of happiness that makes one want to jump up and down like a child on Christmas. Perhaps, “happiness” isn’t even the right way to describe it because this kind of happiness is much more subtle. Maybe “satisfaction” or “contentment” are a better choice of words for real happiness.


This is how Vedanta teacher, James Swartz describes real happiness:


  • Happiness is the sense that nothing is missing or lacking on any level, inwardly or outwardly; that no matter what, one is perfectly equipped to deal with whatever life has to offer.


  • Happiness is the feeling of endless possibility, invincibility and unqualified freedom seen in children before they’ve been compromised by conditioning.


  • Happiness is wholeness, completeness, an unshakable conviction that nothing can be gained or lost. Even if someone or something very dear is taken away, one is undiminished.

  • Happiness is the knowledge that one is more powerful than all the objects in the world and all the thoughts in one’s own mind. It is the knowledge that no separation exists between oneself and the world, between oneself and others.


  • Happiness is unconditional, disinterested love for the sake of the beloved. It is fearlessness, fullness, inexhaustible inner abundance.

  • Happiness is the absence of [binding] desire.

  • Happiness is beyond the intellect and unaffected by time. It is “the peace that passeth understanding.”


  • Happiness is consciousness, our very essence. Not thoughts and feelings, but the awareness illumining thoughts and feelings; the “state of meditation;” the Self—an unshakable identity beyond the body and mind.

For each of these, we could substitute “happiness” for “good” and retain the same meaning. Not only is good the sense that “nothing is missing or lacking on any level” but as previously mentioned, good is our very essence—consciousness; the Self. Real happiness then, like real freedom, is the Self. Once again, the conclusion is that good = the Self.


And while all this (with its frequent reference to goodness and light) might begin to sound like just more religion, what was shown using logic is that it’s not just mere belief. Furthermore, we can also conclude that “good” is real in spite of one’s subjective view, because we cannot negate that which is our true essence. Vedanta shows us that we can negate everything else, but not consciousness—our true self. In fact, it could be argued that good exists but “evil” doesn’t because evil comes and goes and in the end, is just ignorance. Good, on the other hand, is that which never changes, is never born and never dies. That is to say, “good” really is good.

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