The first question:
Are there different levels of hedonism? I suspect “Eat, drink and be merry” means different things to different people.
Yes, there are two levels of hedonism, and they are almost polar opposites to each other. Because of that, much misunderstanding has prevailed down the ages.
The lower hedonism is of the body, and the higher hedonism is of the soul. They both speak the same language: Eat, drink, be merry. They both propound the same philosophy of life: Live in the moment, don’t think of the morrow. They both want that one should not be worried about the past, should not be concerned about the future. This moment is enough unto itself. Their language is the same, their proposal is the same, yet they are diametrically opposite.
To the first hedonism – the material, the physical, the outer hedonism – belong the philosophies of Charvaka in India and Epicurus in Greece. To the second philosophy, the spiritual hedonism, belong all the great masters: Buddha, Krishna, Christ, Zarathustra.
Where do they differ? Where do they go diametrically opposite?
If you live only as a physical being, then you will remain unaware of the non-physical dimension that is continuously penetrating you. Then you will know only the visible, and the invisible will remain unknown to you. And the invisible is far bigger, far more essential. The visible is just a covering, the visible is just a shell around the invisible. It is there to protect the invisible. The body is the shrine of the soul. If you live only in the body, and you only take care of the body and the physical sensations dominate you, you will never become aware of the non-physical dimension – the divine dimension. If you are utterly lost in the body – as you will be if you think “Eat, drink and be merry” is the goal – then you will live at the very superficial level.
It is as if you have been given the Bible and you go on looking at the cover, and you start worshipping the cover and you never open the book, and you never go inside and you never see what is there. The cover can be beautiful – it can be leather bound, printed in gold, maybe diamonds are studded on top of it; it can be beautiful, it can be very precious – but still it is nothing compared to that which is inside the book.
Your body is only a cover. It is beautiful, it is precious, but it is carrying something far more precious in it. The man who thinks of “Eat, drink and be merry” in the physical sense is a man who receives a letter and worships the envelope. and forgets the message. The message is important. What a message you are carrying inside you! What a destiny you are carrying inside you!