The Role of Entertainment in Vedic Life

By Satyanarayana Dasa

It is often thought that life in Vedic society was very austere, full of rules and rituals, with no value placed on entertainment. It may seem like drudgery, when seen through the eyes of modern society. This is, however, far from true. On the contrary, the ancient Indian civilization, molded under the Vedic principles, placed great importance on entertainment and happiness.

Although Vedic lifestyle was not given to overt sense pleasure and comforts, there was indeed value placed on entertainment. Life in the Vedic society was very balanced, set up to take care of the different needs of a human being. It was not focused only on material pleasure or only on spirituality. In fact, Vedic society acknowledges kama (pleasure and entertainment) as one of the four pursuits of human life, along with dharma, artha, and moksha.

Four Pursuits of Human Life

  • Dharma refers to the principles of virtue, such as non-violence, truthfulness, charity and surrender to the Supreme Soul. Dharma is necessary for the proper development of buddhi (intelligence). Dharma is described in the Manu-Smriti by Manu.
  • Artha refers to ethically fulfilling one’s economic goals. Artha is needed to maintain the physical body.  Artha is described in the Artha-Shastra by Kautilya.
  • Kama refers to enjoying sense gratification without transgressing religious principles.    Kama is described in the Kamasutra by Vatsyayayana.
  • Moksha refers to living with austerity to free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is the final emancipation of the soul. Moksha is described in the Vedanta-Sutra by Veda Vyasa.

The Kama Shastra specifically deals with mundane pleasures, such as the company of the opposite gender. Of the four stages of life (student, married, retired and renounced), the married life is the stage where one pursues kama. Kama is defined as the pleasurable contact of the five senses with their corresponding sense objects. It is predominantly in the mind and, therefore, is also called manasija (that which is born in the mind). Every human being has an inbuilt liking for kama, which is the cause behind all creation. Freud called it “libido.” All actions in this world are impelled by kama. In the Veda, it is called the original deity (kamastad agre samavarttata).
The Sublime Entertainment

Although Kama was one of the four pursuits of human life in Vedic society, there is a sea of difference between the entertainment prescribed then and now in modern society. In Vedic society, entertainment and mundane enjoyment had a higher purpose, i.e., to attain the ultimate salvation. The Kamasutra (2.1) states “shatayurvai purusho vibhajya kalam anyonyaanubaddham paraparsyanupaghatakam trivargam seveta” (A person should divide his/her lifespan of 100 years into the various stages, and then pursue virtue (dharma), pleasures (kama), and wealth (artha) in such a way that these three remain linked up mutually and do not become an obstruction to each other.)

The theory visualises the lifespan of normal human beings to be 100 years (allowing one to enjoy 100 Diwali celebrations!).  This is only possible when one leads a healthy, balanced and stress-free life, in other words, when one’s health is not sacrificed in the pursuit of wealth. One must earn wealth in such a way that it does not undermine one’s health in the process.

Wealth at the Cost of Health

Today, it is easy to find many people who have sacrificed their health and peace of mind to achieve economic success. It is a paradox that people from the poor strata in India have a very good appetite, but no proper diet, while people from the same strata, working hard in the city and getting wealthier, may become susceptible to all sorts of illnesses related to lifestyle.  These illnesses include dyspepsia, insomnia, bronchitis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Health and peace of mind are the basis of all pleasures. Without them, what enjoyment will people derive from their wealth and high position in society?  Personal wealth can only give transitory mental satisfaction.

The peril of wealth and good health is that one is always tempted to enjoy these without any restraints, only to lose both at the end of the day.  Hitopadesha, a book dealing with artha and kama, says (1.11): “Youth, wealth, power and lack of discrimination are individually sufficient in themselves to cause misery, and disaster, if combined together.”

Things like wealth, health and youth are not meant to make us miserable, but they often do, because most people are not judicious in their usage. Sage Vatsyayana, the author of Kamasutra, advises that one should pursue artha, kama and dharma harmoniously. One should not overstress one of these at the expense of the other two. This is possible only if artha and kama do not become independent of dharma, and the ultimate goal of life, moksha, is always kept in mind. Considering this intent, entertainment in Vedic society was very balanced and related to dharma which is meant to bring prosperity and emancipation (yato’bhudaya-nihshreyasa siddhih sa dharma)

Education in the Principles of Virtue

In Vedic society, entertainment served as the means to educate people in the principles of virtue.  This was, in fact, the very purpose of Indian drama and musical performances.

The marriage celebration in India is still at least a week long, replete with music, dance, and abundance of food and drinks. While the celebration is highly enjoyable, the rituals associated with it all have a deeper meaning. Similarly, other Indian festivals, such as the Dussehra (triumph of good over bad), Diwali (festival of lights) and Holi (festival of color) are hugely entertaining, being very colorful with stage performances, music, dance and feasts. Yet, they are fundamentally different from modern-day events, such as birthdays or marriage anniversaries, arranged in five-star hotels. In spite of the fact that a lot of degradation has already occurred, propelled by globalization, these festivities have not yet completely diverged from the basic concept of being under the auspices of dharma.

Besides festivals and rituals, entertainment in the form of music, dance, and drama was a way of life in Vedic society. The Natya Shastra, the magnum opus of Bharata Muni, composed more than 2,000 years ago, depicts all the major fine arts, encompassing the performing arts, theatre, dance and music.

Sanskrit literature includes two types of kavya (plays)—drishya (plays enacted on stage) and shravya (plays merely recited). There were also various types of sports for entertainment, such as wrestling, club fighting, kabbaddi, sword fighting, acrobatics, and athletics.

Lord Krishna was supposed to be an expert in 64 arts, besides being a great athlete, acrobat, dancer and musician. His symbolic dance with the cowherd damsels, the rasa dance, is the acme of all entertainment. It consists of singing, dancing and music in divine happiness. There are still regular stage performances of the rasa dance, as well as performances depicting the pastimes of Lord Krishna (called Krishna-Lila) and Lord Rama (called Rama-Lila).

A Beautiful Set of Guiding Principles

Drawing from the above, I think, I have said enough on the importance of entertainment attached to the Vedic principles and philosophy, which I wholeheartedly recommend to all as a panacea to the modern-day problems. But be aware that Vedic principles are no insipid, morose body of dictates, but a beautiful set of guiding principles ingrained in Ayurveda and Yoga to help you lead a happy, healthy and balanced life.