“Material happiness and distress come as soon as we accept a material body, regardless of what form. We cannot avoid such happiness and distress under any circumstances. The best use of human life, therefore, lies in reviving our relationship with the Supreme Lord, Vishnu.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.6.3 Purport)
Prahlada Maharaja tried to stress the importance of making the most of the human form of body. The audience was people who were barely old enough to realize that humans are different from other species, that the same spark of spirit is the animating force inside every living being.
“Devote your life to Vishnu. That will bring the greatest happiness. In fact, there cannot be an accurate comparison. Like with the mathematical concepts of divide by zero and conducting null or infinity comparisons, the ananda from bhakti will be beyond anything else experienced.”
Prahlada’s message was something like this. One point of contention may be that children are meant to be happy, to match their carefree attitude. If they get too much caught up in the serious issues pertaining to life and death, they will miss out on the fun. The saintly son of the Daitya king therefore highlighted the fact that such happiness and distress are automatically found. In other words, there will be nothing to miss.
1. As an animal
The behavior of a dog is an easy example to understand. They are happy when the owner arrives at home. It is like they are saying, “Where have you been all day? I missed you.” They also feel distress when separated from the same person. They are pleased to get good food to eat and unhappy when disease strikes.
The same is found across the entire animal community. The degree of covering of the consciousness varies, which in turn affects the ability to experience different emotions, but the pain and pleasure are there all the same. It is something like the changing of seasons described by Shri Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita.
मात्रा-स्पर्शास् तु कौन्तेय
तांस् तितिक्षस्व भारत
mātrā-sparśās tu kaunteya
tāṁs titikṣasva bhārata
“O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.14)
2. As a child
The conversation took place during recess session. Rather than run around and play to release energy built up while sitting in the classroom, Prahlada thought it was the perfect opportunity to share real jnana with others. Why keep everything to yourself, especially if you hold the key to happiness?
Even without trying, a child will find happiness and sadness. One day they are so pleased to discover an empty box. They play with it for hours. A few moments later they are upset to be forced into a diaper change. They put up a struggle, not realizing the necessity of the process.
3. As an unmarried adult
On the happiness side, you are free to do whatever you want. Perhaps there are responsibilities pertaining to the job, but once the clock hits five in the evening, nobody is around to watch over you. No deadlines to meet. No concern over staying awake for several hours at a stretch while sitting at a desk. Complete freedom, or so you think.
On the distress side, there is the feeling of loneliness. You see others spending time with their significant others and family members. You can’t help but wonder when the same will happen for you. As time passes, people around grow more concerned.
“When are you getting married? Don’t you think it is time already? Do you want to stay a bachelor forever?”
The questions arrive so frequently that you begin to choose isolation. Why meet with others when they are only going to nag you, bringing you down for no reason?
4. As a married adult
Married with children. Problem solved, or so you think. Constant companionship. People in the home happy to see you, for the most part. No issues in social circles. When meeting strangers, you can always make jokes about your wife and how much pressure she puts on you. It is easier to fit into the societal structure around you.
On the unhappiness side, the added pressure is significant. Previously, you could quit your job if you wanted to, at any time. Enough money saved up to live like you are on vacation for a while. But now that option is gone. You have to work. You have to pay the bills. Otherwise, the dependents won’t eat.
Forget about living someplace nice. You have to be closer to the business center of the city in order to earn a high enough salary to satisfy everyone at home. No more watching television sitcoms or sporting events. The only respite is sleep at night, but there the pressure of the next day weighs on your mind.
5. As king of the world
Prahlada’s father held this post. He was the most feared person, for even the powerful celestials felt the need to assume disguises in order to avoid his potential wrath. Hiranyakashipu had the happiness that you would naturally expect from world domination.
At the same time, he was terribly distressed due to the devotional nature found in Prahlada, who was only five years old at the time. So much power in that king of the Daityas, and yet he was helpless in removing the influence of Vishnu from the kingdom.
The happiness and distress from sense interaction can arrive in any situation and in any existence. A special endeavor is not required. Therefore, why make it the primary focus? Prahlada and Vaishnava saints like him recommend reaching for a higher taste. That is the boon of the human existence, as it brings the potential to ask sobering questions and receive both philosophical and practical evidence of the solutions.
Even as child for devotion ready,
Happiness and distress already.
Like the single person without wife,
Free without a care in life.
Later on family and children accepting,
Their needs priority now respecting.
Same duality in wherever to place,
Thus for bhakti Prahlada making the case.