Perception of the evil and pain associated with the body is a divine quality that the Bhagavad Gita (13.8) describes as a sign of knowledge. This perception helps us cultivate dispassion for physical pleasure and devotion to God.
The body goes through six stages: birth, objective existence, growth, transformation, decay, and death. The Atman, the divine core of our being, is free of them. When young and strong the body is not a source of pain, and is looked upon as a vehicle for enjoyment. But old age reveals to us the truth that the body is an abode of disease and pain.
As the body ages, it begins to weaken and easily falls prey to various maladies. Organs that did not make their presence felt when the body was healthy make us painfully aware of them when they are affected by disease. Diseases are a sign of decay and signal the inevitable approach of death. Sri Shankaracharya poignantly describes the human condition: "Childhood is spent in sport and play, youth is lost in the sweetheart's charms, and old age is spent in worries [about the security and future of wife and children]. Alas! No one yearns to be one with Parabrahman." (Bhajagovindam, 7)
When we grow in wisdom we realize that human life has a higher goal: God-realization. We understand that the body is not meant for enjoyment, but is an instrument for the practice of spiritual disciplines. We begin to value time and try not to fritter it away in pursuit of useless things. Some people erroneously think that study of scriptures and practice of spiritual disciplines are meant only for old age. They give the mind free rein, but in old age they discover to their dismay that the mind cannot easily turn to God. Desires do not diminish with age, but only grow stronger because of their fulfillment. Nothing can be more miserable than old age with diminished vigor but growing desires. Sri Shankaracharya describes the ravages of old age, and stresses the need to remember God: "The body has grown feeble, the head is bald, the gums are toothless, the back is bent, and the old man is on his crutches. Yet his desires do not leave him. Therefore, worship Govinda." (Bhajagovindam, 15)
With a decline of physical and mental powers, old age will be a period of frustration if in our younger days we have not trained our mind to dwell on God. Life is too short and uncertain to leave scriptural studies and spiritual pursuits for the evening of our life. A Sanskrit verse brings home the point: "A person who thinks that he will turn to God when all his worldly responsibilities are over is like the fool who thinks he will have a dip in the ocean when all the waves have subsided." The solution, says the Bhagavad Gita (8.7), is to always keep our mind on God: "Therefore, at all times, constantly remember Me and fight [the battle of life]."
Witnessing the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, Prince Siddhartha, who became Buddha, lost all relish for life and longed for nirvana. The Bhaga- vad Gita teaches that we have to repeatedly perceive (anu-darshanam) the evil and pain associated with birth, old age, disease, and death. That will sharpen our discrimination, strengthen our devotion, and take us closer to God.