“In the tender age of childhood, when everyone is bewildered, one passes ten years. Similarly, in boyhood, engaged in sporting and playing, one passes another ten years. In this way, twenty years are wasted. Similarly, in old age, when one is an invalid, unable to perform even material activities, one passes another twenty years wastefully.” (Prahlada Maharaja, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.6.7)
मुग्धस्य बाल्ये कैशोरे
क्रीडतो याति विंशतिः
यात्य् अकल्पस्य विंशतिः
mugdhasya bālye kaiśore
krīḍato yāti viṁśatiḥ
yāty akalpasya viṁśatiḥ
“Do you ever feel as if your entire life has been a waste of time? More than feeling inadequate. This isn’t just thinking that you haven’t amounted to much, that you turned out to be a failure.
“I am thinking in terms of an honest retrospective. Flipping through photo albums. Revisiting past adventures, important moments with friends and family, rites of passage, significant milestones, and the like.
“What did it really matter? How have I actually benefitted? I am on the same course as everyone else. There really is only one path. The end result is the same for every individual who takes birth.
“The end of which I speak is death. I know I shouldn’t think this way, as every person is important. I respect others for their accomplishments, for the struggles they endure, for the way they conduct themselves, in how they teach others by example.
“At the same time, I can’t help but lament the passage of time. For instance, if I watch an episode of a classic television show, I realize that today every member of the cast is no longer with us. Yet, at that moment, when the filming occurred, they were as alive as ever.
“What happened to them? To where have they gone? Did they live life to the fullest? Does that even matter? What difference does it really make, if you are destined to end up in the same place? What have I really done with the time that has passed? What will happen to those fading memories?”
Such questions are rooted in intelligence, and they also serve as impetus for understanding higher truths. The sharper vision perceives that success and failure, piety and sin, good and bad, and other pairs in duality have the same destination when analyzing for the long-term.
In Shrimad Bhagavatam, Prahlada Maharaja provides a breakdown in the passage of time for the typical journey through life. The child knows nothing beyond play. If they find earrings in the home, they want to wear them. They may ask to purchase another set for their dear friend, who is their playing partner.
It is one request after another, with no toy providing full and complete satisfaction. Maturity brings further desires. A new bike. A video game system. A personal computer. A car. A house. A monthly allowance, and so forth.
In adulthood, when there is increased independence in terms of choice of action, it is easy for decades to fly by without serious consideration to the meaning of it all. There are too many responsibilities in a day to keep track of. These continue as the years pass.
Then there is old age. Too tired from having played and enjoyed for so many years, take the same amount of time to sit idly, to retire from strenuous activities. This retirement can be short or extended, but there is only one thing waiting on the other side.
The instruction from Prahlada is not intended to depress, to dampen spirits in enthusiasm. Rather, there is a call to urgency. Instead of looking back later on with regret, wondering where the time went, we can work in such a way that there is meaningful progress made.
As soon as there is birth, there is death, but as soon as rebirth stops, there is no more fear of death. The only way for rebirth to stop is to find transcendence. The human being has the best chance for this achievement, and fortunately there is no correlation with period of time.
That is to say, liberation can occur as late in life as mere moments prior to death. It can also take place early on, as visible in the five-year old son of the Daitya king. Prahlada knew the Absolute Truth. He was aware of the real purpose to an existence, and he tried to warn his classmates against wasting decades in illusion, in thinking that fake enjoyment can be a substitute for real and meaningful engagement.
What is done is done. The situation is what it is. What to speak of many decades from the present lifetime, we have likely been in illusion for many births. Now is the time for correcting the mistakes, for understanding the spiritual. Athato brahma-jijnasa.
येषां त्व् अन्त-गतं पापं
भजन्ते मां दृढ-व्रताः
yeṣāṁ tv anta-gataṁ pāpaṁ
bhajante māṁ dṛḍha-vratāḥ
“Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life, whose sinful actions are completely eradicated and who are freed from the duality of delusion, engage themselves in My service with determination.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.28)
Let us consider the past as the exhaustion of sinful reaction. Taking the chance to self-cleanse, to remove the impurities, we can move forward, free of delusion. Following the advice from Prahlada Maharaja, we can engage in the service of the Supreme Lord with full determination, understanding that there will be no regret in a future retrospective.
When years later to reflect,
Not regret to expect.
Since meaningful progress made,
In obeisance to Supreme paid.
And from acharyas wisdom earned,
True value of time learned.
Whether early on or at end’s arrival,
Krishna’s shelter nothing to rival.