How does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul? This was a question that Jesus had posed to His disciples, and it is even more pertinent today in this era of globalization that we live in. Every one’s secret dream of gaining the whole world, perhaps in one’s fist, is no longer just a fantasy but is becoming more and more realizable. The process of acquisition, however, is extremely demanding and it asks for our very self in exchange. That is the reason why humanity which is going digital, is trying hard to retain its soul by simultaneously going spiritual.

One has only to do a little channel surfing to find the numerous TV channels dishing out 24×7 spirituality in different languages, vying with one another for a slice of the morning prime time. They are all there, explaining the scriptures, narrating anecdotes from mythology, telling amusing stories, singing praises, performing miracles, shouting or whispering, entertaining or inspiring, serving as God’s agents or appearing God-like, holding out hope for our sagging spirits for the next 24 hours.

Then there are newspapers that have space reserved daily for excerpts from sacred writings and the thoughts of the wise and religious. The Sunday newspapers offer complete pages of spiritual matter, produced by writers known and unknown, professional and amateur. They carry interviews with famous and successful people about how they feel about God or what they are doing about their souls.

And we have the bookshops that we can conveniently visit while waiting for a delayed flight or train to leave, that sell stepwise guides guaranteed to take us along a much faster spiritual journey.

What the King James Version of the Bible described as a “vexation of the spirit”, is now translated as “chasing after the wind” in the New International Version. The spirit and the wind are indeed similar. Both are invisible, formless, impatient and powerful. In fact, they share a common word pneuma in the New Testament Greek. 

The phrase “chasing after the wind” appears only in one particular book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes. This is a philosophical book that attempts to find the meaning of human life on earth and ponders on its apparent futility, unfairness and lack of purpose. The book discusses the particular paradox that even when all human ambitions are fulfilled, all material pleasures enjoyed, all wisdom gained, happiness does not necessarily follow. So the tragedy is that when you crave for something, you are unhappy, and when you get it, you are still unhappy.

The authorship of Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon, the wise, powerful, rich and famous king, who is said to possess everything and yet embarks on a search of the meaning of life. The author, who calls himself “the Teacher”, tries to go through various material and emotional experiences himself, but cannot arrive at a convincing explanation.

Ecclesiastes begins as follows: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun? (verses 1:1-3)

The Teacher brings out the insignificance of human life against the permanence of the solid earth and the majesty of the heavenly bodies:

Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. (verses 1:4-5) 

He compares human toil with the movement patterns of the wind, what we now call the general circulation of the atmosphere. He also compares the emptiness of life with the sea, whose waters get evaporated as a part of the ceaseless process that we now describe as the hydrological cycle:

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. (verses 1:6-7)   

Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher repeatedly describes human toil as a “chasing after the wind” (verses 1:14, 1:16, 2:17, etc). The wind signifies life’s illusory goal, something that flies away as you try to reach it, what you cannot grasp or retain in your hands, something that is beyond understanding. You do not know the path of the wind (verse 11:5), he says.

It is the experience of the Teacher that the pursuit and achievement of wisdom, pleasure and riches, are all meaningless. He finds so much oppression, toil, envy and friendlessness everywhere in this world. He accepts that life can be unfair and that the labours of men do not necessarily bring in commensurate rewards:

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. (verse 9:11)

However, the beauty of the book of Ecclesiastes lies in that its author is not pessimistic about life, and his sad and despairing inferences are interspersed with several positive thoughts and advice. Again and again, he tells us that it is the gift of God that we should live a happy life, find enjoyment in our work and have gladness of heart:

So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work. (verse 3:22, 5:19, 5:20)

For the younger generation, he has this advice:

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”. (verse 12:1)

To those going through bad times, he offers this solace:

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. (verse 7:14)

To those whose work is hard and difficult, he exhorts:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. (verse 9:10)

To those who are constantly worried, concerned and feeling depressed, he gives encouragement:

Banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body. (verse 11:10)

The Teacher particularly cautions against excessive worry about what may happen tomorrow. And here again, he uses wind and weather to make his point:

Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. (verses 11:4) Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it. (verses 8:7-8)

What we see all around us today is the simplification of spirituality: we are told to play soulful CDs in the background, commune with nature, take a dip in the river, attempt mountain treks, visit holy lands, and so on. Spirituality is indeed easy, simple and beautiful when God is kept out of it.

In today’s world, the book of Ecclesiastes is a reminder that we have to stand in awe of God (verse 5:7), not in awe of nature or in awe of the marvels of human ingenuity. And at the end of the book, we are clearly warned against the exclusion of God from our lives, and told what we are expected to do:

Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (verse 12:13)

– R. R. Kelkar, May 2007