Commentaries on Solomon's book of Ecclesiastes
by Swami Anand Nisarg
The book of Ecclesiastes is a unique text in the Hebrew Bible. It is unique because it presents a teaching that is totally unlike any of the other books. It is so different, in fact, that it contradicts the beliefs of the Jewish, and Christian, traditions as found in other books of the Bible. So Ecclesiastes was special, and must have been written by someone very special. In the first verse, instead of a name, he is introduced by a title. He is called 'The Preacher'. But we are also told that he was the son of David, and king. Thus we know it was Solomon who is said to have written Ecclesiastes. Is it possible that he did? Or is that just a myth? Indeed, was Solomon himself a myth? I tell you that it must have been Solomon who wrote this book. For the simple reason that this is a very spiritually dangerous book. It contains real teachings that are not found anywhere else in the old testament. If a normal man or prophet had written this kind of book, it would never have been included in the scriptures. In fact, the people and the priests would have had the author killed. Clearly, the one who wrote this book had such power that he could not be eliminated, and had so much prestige that he could not be censored. Solomon was such a man, a great teacher.
Vanity of vanities, what does Solomon mean by this? The real word is very difficult. On the one hand, vain means hopeless, fruitless. Something that will not succeed is vanity. But vanity also means pride. It means thinking oneself more than one is. So when Solomon says "all is vanity" he is saying both that all things are beyond hope, that all things come to naught, and also that everything we do is the product of our own false ideas about ourself or our importance in the world. A misunderstanding of our role.
What does a man gain from all his efforts? Why is life filled with struggle, and is anything gained of it in the end? Solomon is presenting the question that has troubled those who are led to the mystic path since the beginning of time.
Solomon draws your attention to the greater scope of the world. Many people have come to me with problems. Often, these problems stem from the fact that people do not recognize themselves as part of a vaster process. It is easy to think your work is great, your goals are important, and your failures tragic, if you think you are the center of the universe. Gaining a proper perspective of your relative insignificance means that you can shift your focus to the more significant things. People run around chasing all these silly things, in time they all come to nothing. Meanwhile the sun also rises and sets, the moon follows on her path, the wind flies in its circuits. As it did before your life and goals and problems, and as it will afterward.
Notice that, much like the ocean is never filled by the river, and the river never is emptied in its flowing, the senses of a man are never satisfied. There is never and end to your desires. Solomon is pointing out that this is the cause of struggle, of labour, that you are never emptied of desires. So long as you want more than what is before you, you will have to continue to labour in your life.
'There is nothing new under the sun'. We seek out novelty, we want more, but really we are only reliving the old. It has all been done before, and we repeat it. We do not remember the misery we had before, and will forget this misery afterwards. Likewise, we forget all those 'important' people who had the same lives and problems in the past, and we will be forgotten in time. It all continues, in a pattern.
It is said of Solomon that he practiced all the techniques that had been known by the ancient masters. In doing this, he became close to God, and God told him that he could have any one thing he wished. Solomon wished for a discerning heart, for wisdom. God was pleased that he asked for this, rather than long life, wealth, or the death of his enemies. And as a reward God made Solomon the wisest of all men who ever were or would be. Here, in Ecclesiastes, Solomon says that he has used this wisdom to seek out an answer to man's suffering.
It was in this wisdom that Solomon became aware that all is suffering. And this suffering comes from man's desire. What is desire? Fundamentally, it is an attempt to put your conditions on life. To try to make the world work the way you think it should, rather than the way that is natural for it and for you. When Solomon says that there is nothing crooked that can be made straight, People always want to make things become the way they think is perfect; straighten what is meant to be crooked, or bend what is meant to be straight. And Solomon is saying that in the end, nothing can be altered from its natural course. Things are to be the way they are meant to be. Of course, one can change things, but only when that change falls in the realms of the natural, not when the change is unnatural. Anything you can do, comes not from your will but from the divine.
In the final verses of this chapter, Solomon reveals that even the search for wisdom is vanity. We seek out wisdom as just another effort to 'fix' the world to what we would wish it to be. People will first be motivated to seek wisdom not for its own sake, but for a cause. They will seek to understand folly, to know what doesn't work and what does. To try to find a way to solve the madness of the world. But Solomon warns that even the pursuit of wisdom leads to vexation, frustration. That much wisdom only leads to much grief, and much knowledge only leads to much sorrow. This is because like any other goal, when you seek wisdom or knowledge from your desires, you will never have enough. And the more you know in effort to solve your problems, the more questions will arise. You will never have a satisfied mind. You will only become more aware, rather than ignorant, of the hopelessness of your situation.
Copyright © 2003 by Swami Anand
Nisarg. All rights reserved.