The time is sevenish, the place New York City, and the date 15 April 1966. On the top floor of 94 Bowery – that’s dirty, dingy and musty – an elderly Indian swami in his early 70s is lecturing on the Bhagavad Gita. Seated erect and cross-legged on a wooden platform, he despises the peace proposal made by Arjuna on the war field of Kurukshetra. For the Swami’s audience, a small group of American hippies numbering less than a dozen, the names “Arjuna” and “Kurukshetra” ring no bells. But that hardly concerns them. What is of concern, however, are the swami’s remarks favoring a battle. Most of them, like that ancient warrior named Arjuna, want peace. And so do millions of other Americans who oppose their country’s involvement in the ongoing Vietnam War. 

But what exactly was this war in Vietnam about? A detailed and satisfactory answer, even tomes have failed to expound. So it’s pointless here to even attempt an elaboration. But in essence it was a civil war between the pro-Communists and anti-Communists of Vietnam, the US actively supporting the latter group. But that’s just one perspective. Some others see it as a nationalistic war for independence fought by the Vietnamese – the majority of whom supported communism – against the Americans, who had interloped in a foreign land to support a minority capitalistic group. And from yet another stance held by a few, the war was America’s noble attempt to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Regardless of how you look at it, the US intervention cost millions of lives, and that was tragic. 

The swami’s audience – those peaceniks on the Bowery loft – is especially concerned about their President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of US involvement in the war. Having sent additional troops to Vietnam, Lyndon seems, in part, want-driven. Perhaps he is concerned for his own reputation and legacy. “A man of towering ambitions, he shuddered at the thought of becoming the first president to lose a war,” remarked a newspaper article years later. Johnson had ignored a report from the CIA – Central Intelligence Agency – that in no unclear terms denied any necessity to continue with the war. The study said that a defeat at Vietnam wouldn’t undermine America’s strength, and the damage to national security would be limited and short-lived. In fact, a withdrawal would be perceived as a sign of maturity by other nations. Notwithstanding the CIA report, the president had soldiered on.

Johnson, in retrospect, cannot be singled out for being selfish in his approach. Every president – from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson – feared to take the blame for losing in Vietnam. So they carried on the war legacy, hoping for the next president to brave that blame.

It would be unfair to say all these presidents were motivated purely by personal interests. They were also concerned about how well the world looked upon their nation. But ironically, their war policies in Vietnam ended up painting the United States as a militarist and imperialist power that was want-driven, bent upon proving its supremacy. American citizens themselves felt guilty of that blemish, as millions of Vietnamese, mostly civilians, lost their lives in US bombing that seemed to serve no end. Overall, the battle efforts of America were more self-centered, and lacked a selfless drive.  

The nationalistic Vietnamese on the other hand, saw the fight against America as their struggle against neocolonialism, a purpose-driven war for freeing their countrymen from foreign oppression. They saw Americans as opportunistic imperialists who had entered Vietnam following the end of the colonial era of the French and the Japanese.

Being want-driven is dissatisfying; being purpose-driven is satisfying 

When you are want-driven, you feel dissatisfied and empty, and what you are doing starts seeming meaningless — especially in the long-run. That’s how the American war camp felt as the war dragged on for decades. Between 1965 and 1973, 30,000 of the US troops involved in the Vietnam War were dishonorably discharged for desertion. About half a million men dodged the compulsory war draft that would otherwise force them to the battle front. 

While more and more American soldiers felt their nation’s intervention as senseless, the Vietcong, the military wing that waged a guerilla war against the American forces, felt a sense of fulfillment. A French reporter held hostage for 16 days by the Vietcong marked how strictly disciplined they were.  “I saw no evidence to suggest that that discipline was enforced,” wrote the journalist. That paradox reveals a high level of self-motivation that results when you are convinced you are doing something meaningful. Despite no draft boards in place, youngsters aged 15-20 voluntarily flocked the Vietcong’s training camps – to lay down their lives for a higher cause.

When you have a purpose that’s bigger than you, you enter the realm of selfless service. There you experience a deep fulfillment and meaning that stems from your very core, from your very soul, because the soul longs to unconditionally serve. 

I live at the ISKCON center in South Mumbai, close to Marine Drive. A lot of millionaires and billionaires visit our temple. Primarily because it’s gorgeous, and also because it’s located close to their residences. A head honcho of a multibillion dollar corporation who is a regular, once commented to one of our monks: “All that I own is like the vast quantity of water contained in the ocean. As against that, whatever little possessions you have is akin to the water contained in a well. The ocean water, though unlimited, cannot quench one’s thirst, whereas the limited well water can. You utilize whatever little energy and resources you have in selfless service. And that, I reckon, is the cause of your satisfaction, which is evident from your bright and smiling face. I, on the other hand, am always dissatisfied, for I invest my unlimited energy and resources in selfish endeavors.” He had eloquently pitted a purpose-driven life against a want-driven one. And in the process, had breathed life into a famous quote by Hollywood star Jim Carry: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

The want-driven are overwhelmed by obstacles; the purpose-driven overcome obstacles          

Needless to say, in the absence of inner-fulfillment, one is overwhelmed by reversals and pains. Returning to our discussion on the Vietnam war, the want-driven American side, unable to handle the war pressure turned to opium and heroin – thousands of soldiers. Some others released their pent-up frustration on their own officers – resulting in hundreds of injuries and deaths. And post war, half a million Vietnam vets suffered from P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The fulfillment that accompanies a purpose-driven mindset, on the other hand, helps you overcome obstacles, reversals and pains that inevitably trespass on the journey towards your goal. That’s how Nguyen Thi Do, who was a nurse at Vietcong, cruised through unthinkable hardships. “Some days we had nothing to eat but a fistful of roasted dry rice,” she recollects. At one point their group had to walk through jungles for three and a half months to accomplish a mission. “The leeches were the worst. There were so many of them, all along the way…we didn’t even have enough clothes to wear. We walked through the forest all day, and at night. We were hungry the whole way there. Sometimes we had to eat leaves, or roots.”  

I first hand witnessed how one who is driven by a purpose is able to brush aside reversals when in 2018 my nephew was detected with Chondrosarcoma, a type of soft-tissue cancer. The disease had already reached its fourth stage. When I visited him in Bengaluru, I saw my sister nurse his degenerating body tirelessly, nurture his declining spirit continuously, explore for a promising doctor endlessly, all the while praying to God hopefully. Despite all that she did, her son’s cancer was spreading unremittingly. Every time his body was scanned, the report showed that the cancer had reached out to engulf yet another organ. Notwithstanding, she never slowed down. She worked all through the day and hardly got to sleep even at night. And this went on for days, weeks, months, and years, until my nephew passed away. Even the best nurse, no matter how much you paid her, could have been as committed as my sister was. No want-driven person could match my sister’s purpose-driven endeavors which were unabating even in the face of reversals.

The want-driven seek external validation, while the purpose-driven don’t feel that need

Another thing that follows a lack of inner-fulfillment and meaning is – you need to look outwards for validation of your actions. The dissatisfied American soldiers looked towards their homeland for authentication of their war efforts. But to their dismay, anti-war protestors were on the rise even back there, dipping further the troop’s already low morale.  

The Vietcong, being purpose-driven, needed no external validation. They benchmarked their actions against the purpose they stood for. Their camp commander had said to the French reporter, “They have told you at Saigon that we are bandits. That is not true. We are Vietcong—Communists.” The leader was proud of the role he was playing. And so were his subordinates, who shared the same clarity of purpose. 

There’s a fable that illustrates the point I am trying to make. Once a passerby spotted a man picking up starfishes off the seashore and throwing them back into the sea. A high tide had brought the creatures onto the land, and if not put back into the waters, they were destined to die in a matter of hours. The passerby appreciated the man’s compassion on the dying starfishes, but couldn’t help noticing that there were tens of thousands of them on the shore. “Given all your noble intentions, all you can do is save just a tiny fraction of these sea stars. What difference will your efforts make!” the passerby challenged. The man didn’t respond at first. Instead, he picked yet another sea star and threw it back into the sea. As the animal plopped into the waters, the man pointed his finger in that direction and replied, “I made a difference in that sea star’s life.” 

Because he was truly driven by a sense of purpose — to save the lives of as many sea stars as he could — he couldn’t care less about people judging how successful his endeavor was. He sought no external validation for his action.    

Returning to 94 Bowery, the anti-war proponents there are justified in their anti-war sentiments, but they have failed to catch that while America’s intervention in Vietnam is want-driven, Arjuna was asked to fight, being purpose-driven. So the swami isn’t pro-war per se; but he is pro the purpose-driven war that Sri Krishna wanted Arjuna to fight. In fact, the swami himself is waging a purposeful life. Having come from India, alone and practically penniless, he is trying to reach out to people with the message of Bhagavad Gita, which he deeply believes is the panacea for all of their life’s problems. Michael Grant, one among the swami’s audience, jotted down later in his memoir published in 2011:

I took stock of all I had seen and heard that evening. I couldn’t really make out what the Swami was getting at when he spoke, but his strident tone – his urgency – convinced me that he had something important to say…And his humble surroundings intrigued me. Unlike the other “spiritual” people I’d met so far, the Swami obviously wasn’t after pursuing his share of wealth or followers or the American dream… 

I added it all up, trying to fit together the pieces of this unusual puzzle – his tone, his scholarly appearance, his age, his surroundings.

“He’s got to be here for some sort of mission,” I thought. “Why else would he speak the way he does? Why else would someone his age choose to come here of all places?”     

This spirit of selflessness is fulfilling, meaningful, empowers you to overcome obstacles with ease, motivates you from within – and above all, is beneficial for others. And this purpose-driven mindset, through the positivity it forges in you, furthers your chances of success in your endeavors. For instance, it’s this attitude that eventually catalyzed the victory of Vietnam, a military-dwarf, over the United States, a military-giant; it enabled Arjuna to ultimately win the war of Kurukshetra against all odds; and it empowered the swami at the bowery – A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada – to establish a global spiritual organization with millions of followers, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. 

Is being purpose-driven correlated with yoga?

Six years and six months after his lecture at that loathsome loft of the Bowery, Swami Prabhupada was discoursing at a delightful hall of the University of California in Berkeley. Following the talk, snack-bags filled with popcorn were given out to the attendees. The Swami also had some of the fluffy, spiced kernels and was pleased. “Oh, this is nice,” he exclaimed. 

The next evening he had a speaking engagement elsewhere. When it ended, his followers again offered him a bag-full of popcorn, encouraged by the Swami’s relishing them the day before. But this time he refused: “No, I am old. I cannot do things like that very often. It is good, but it is very difficult for me to digest.” He then wrapped the issue with a positive note: “It is very good. I like it.” 

On the way back from the speaking venue, the Swami revealed to his secretary that if he ate something in the evening that was difficult to digest, it would interfere with his rising at 2:00 am to do his translating work of the Vedic scriptures from Sanskrit to English.

This quasi-uneventful incident in the life of Swami Prabhupada, a paragon of purposeful living, demonstrates a fact that’s corroborated even by modern science: that “wanting” a thing is different from “liking” it*. It was not that the Swami hankered for the popcorn; nevertheless, when someone offered, he accepted them and enjoyed them. That he merely liked those snacks – and didn’t want them – was testified when he let-go of them with ease when they interfered with his purpose. The lesson to be learnt: even when you are purpose-driven, you might gladly accept what your senses like. But because of the fulfillment you are experiencing from within, you are able to take-in those external delights with a sense of detachment, enabling you to let-go of them with ease, in case they interfere with your purpose. 

Speaking of “letting-go”, a purpose-driven life sure helps you do it with ease; and so does yoga, as we have discussed previously. Interestingly,  both facilitate “letting-go” by providing you with something higher to lug-on to. The two seem correlated. Don’t they? As it turns out, they are. But how exactly? That will be clear a little later, as our discussion on a purpose-driven life evolves through the chapters that follow. 

Meanwhile, to add it all up, in a purposeful life you are in the driver’s seat enjoying life to the fullest – not just through inner fulfillment, but also through external pleasures – while steering clear of enslavement by the likes and dislikes of the mind and senses. But when you are want-full you feel a void within; moreover, your likes and dislikes turn into needs, making them hard to let-go of.

All said, knowing the upside of a purpose-driven life is one thing, but to live it is where the challenge lies. We may have that experience of starting off a task or a project on a noble note, with a selfless intent; but with time selfishness seeps in insidiously, and we start expecting returns – some sort of gratification either for the senses or the mind. Or else, our experience could be of stretching ourselves to be selfless, and then ending up with regrets for having gone too far. 

The habit of being want-driven is so deep-rooted! To replace it with the habit of being purpose-driven is going to be neither easy nor quick – as with any other habit-change. And that’s why Sri Krishna will reveal to Arjuna a process of gradual transformation. 

*In his book Irresistible, author Adam Alter cites a research by neuroscientist Kent Berridge. In one experiment, rats were given a delicious sugary liquid. After eagerly drinking it they licked their lips – which was an indication of the pleasure they had experienced. Next, a brain surgery was performed on the rats that stopped dopamine production. Now when they were fed the same sweet substance, their eagerness for it was gone. But when they were administered the liquid anyways, the rats did respond by licking their lips. The conclusion – the surgery had stopped them from “wanting” the delicious sugary syrup, but they continued to “like” it.