The late Bill Shankly, football player and manager, when asked if he thought football was a matter of life and death, famously said, “It’s more important than that.”
Judging by the wall to wall media coverage of the World Cup, compared to the miniscule programming for trivial matters such as what happens to us after death, it seems Bill had a point. Everywhere the flags are out, the talk is all about Wayne Rooney’s foot, and a nation waits on its sofas for the show to begin.
Heaven forbid that by the time this piece is published England’s hopes of glory are dashed, but are such sporting events the right place to repose our hopes? What indeed are we hoping for? Success, of course, but why? What is it about a national sporting victory that makes us so euphoric?
Every ‘true blooded’ Englishman (or perhaps Scots, Welsh or Irish) will probably read these words with horror. What is he talking about? Obviously we want our team to win. How could we even brook the possibility of a German victory, or worse still, a French one? It surely does not bear thinking about.
But let’s just give it some thought. Here we have a perfect illustration of a key Vedic teaching. Although we are eternal souls that ultimately have nothing to do with anything in this ever-changing world, in material consciousness we identify with the temporary body and the land in which it took birth. We thus imagine ourselves to be English, Scottish, Welsh or whatever. England’s success is therefore my success, and I am over the moon when it happens.
But is this imaginary elation really happiness? How long will it last? Will it solve any of the problems of my life, such as my growing old, becoming diseased and dying? If the glorious event should occur and our team lifts the cup, will any of these problems be in any way diminished? It might provide a distraction for some time, but isn’t that simply a head in the sand approach to life’s real issues?
Srila Prabhupada called frivolous sports gambling and it is true because we gamble with that most precious of all things, time. We do not know how much time we have in this human life. It is a rare and valuable opportunity to permanently solve all problems by achieving pure God consciousness. Reclining on the sofa to watch football rests on the assumption that we will have time later for dealing with our material predicament. But who knows? If our team wins we may have a heart attack right there on the couch.
Enjoyment of this kind is described as “mental concoction” in the Bhagavad-gita. If England wins I experience joy because I think I am English, but what is my feeling if I think I am German? I may get a knock on the head and forget who I am, that I am “English”; such amnesia sometimes happens. What then will England’s victory mean to me? Material so called happiness is always like this, born of the mind, relative and temporary – and on top of that the cause of such joy will very likely be the cause of misery to someone else.
On the other hand, spiritual or absolute happiness, the happiness of the spirit soul, is real and leaves no one feeling miserable. It results from pleasing God, which is compared to watering the root of a tree; the whole tree is thereby nourished. If the tiny twig of England is watered, the rest of tree gets no benefit at all. Indeed, even the watered twig itself remains unnourished.
But can sport not be employed in the Lord’s service? Do devotees of Krishna never enjoy a game of anything? And do we not talk about Krishna’s “sporting pastimes”? In response to the latter we can see where our desire to enjoy sport originates. In the spiritual world devotees are eternally enjoying with the Lord in so many ways, but without the despair of losing. Because Krishna is pleased everyone wins, experiencing the highest possible happiness.
Sport in this world can also have its spiritual utility if we understand life’s true goal. We need to keep our bodies fit for spiritual life, and sport is a good way to exercise. It can also teach useful skills like teamwork, helpful in spiritual life too. But when it becomes more than life or death it is surely time to rethink our values.
So let’s keep fixed in life’s real mission, knowing and pleasing God. Then, if the unthinkable should happen and our team are eliminated we won’t feel like wrecking the town.