When a fictional world becomes sufficiently complex and sketched out, you can typically start to recognize almost all of the basic concepts of a philosophy within it. Someone has already explained this for Taoist concepts with Winnie the Pooh.
I like Spongebob Squarepants, it’s lighthearted and you can see some important principles illustrated too if you look carefully enough. I hope to write a series of articles in which I explore these from a Dharmic angle. To start with, you must ask yourself what the three main characters, Spongebob, Patrick and Squidward, personify.
If you look carefully, you can see, they illustrate the three Gunas, the three qualities that permeate all life. Everything is made up of Rajas, Sattva and Tamas. Rajas is becoming, Sattva is being, Tamas is ceasing to be.
Food similarly can be fitted into one of these categories. I have been over this before, but just to give some examples again, spicy foods will be Rajasic, they stimulate the senses. Sattvic foods are things like most fruit and vegetables, they provide clarity of mind. Tamasic foods sedate, they insulate us from understanding how things really are.
And you can see these same three principles illustrated in the deities of the Trimurti. Brahma is the creator. He is not really worshipped. Then comes Vishnu, the sustainer. Finally comes Shiva, the destroyer. Most Hindus primarily worship either Vishnu or one of his avatars, or Shiva.
Now I want you to take a look at Spongebob, Squidward and Patrick. Can you see, who illustrates which of the three gunas? It’s easy.
Spongebob is Rajasic in nature. He is young, adventurous, still full of plans, desires and ambitions. He starts out looking to get a job, he wants to get his driver’s license and he wants to get a girlfriend (Sandy). He doesn’t yet know how the world works, so in all his endeavors he depends on Squidward and Patrick. Squidward and Patrick are ultimately much more mature and they have chosen two of the spiritual paths that people most commonly take.
Because Spongebob is still young and full of desire, he has not yet had to find a spiritual path. Spongebob is bad at everything he does: He can’t lift weights, he can’t drive a car, he can’t think of a better joke than ripping his pants, he plays the Bassinet, but happens to be terrible at it. But because he is young and full of Rajasic energy, his lack of talents and skills does not harm his self-esteem.
Children have to be Rajasic. Parents generally don’t like this. They tend to wish their child was more like Squidward. But if you take away the Rajasic element from a child, the child will burn out. It’s easy to extinguish the flame, by drowning the child in your own desires. Many parents in our age are guilty of this.
Squidward is Sattvic. Squidward knows exactly how the world functions, which is why he is so disappointed and miserable. How Squidward deals with this reality, is by attempting to follow what Krishna, avatar of Vishnu recommends to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: To go through the motions, to perform his duties, without attachment.
He works at the Krusty Krab, he hates it, but he tries to the best of his ability to accept the hand that life has dealt him. He is a Vaishnavist. The Vaishnavists encourage the life of a householder, that of the nuclear family. Squidward tries to preserve the things he values. Hence he lives in an Easter Island head, he orients his mind towards his ancestors. He values the classical arts, although, like Spongebob, he has no innate talents for them. In contrast to Spongebob, Squidward has developed self-awareness with maturity. But this self-awareness, is also what limits him. Often he imagines things to be impossible, that Spongebob and Patrick proceed to go on doing.
You can understand the philosophy of Squidward, through one sentence from the episode Slimy Dancing:
“SpongeBob, dancing isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be ART. And art is suffering!”
Squidward aims to teach Spongebob to prepare for a life of duty.
Finally, there is Patrick. Patrick is in the process of forgetting, of extinguishing. Unlike Spongebob and Squidward, he has no job. He is a Shaivist: He follows the path of Shiva, the destroyer. He is a renunciate.
Patrick makes no attempts to preserve any tradition he inherited. He has the least fancy of the three houses, being content living underneath a rock. The Shaivists are the most ascetic among the main Hindu traditions. Because he is in the process of forgetting, of renouncing the world, he is easily fooled. As an example, Squidward can fool him into thinking Spongebob does not want to be his friend. By indulging in Tamasic foods, he has gained a lot of weight.
To understand Patrick’s philosophy, think of this sentence:
“Dumb people are just blissfully unaware of how dumb they are.”
Now the most interesting thing, is to look at how the three interact. When Spongebob and Patrick come together there is happiness, but nothing productive is achieved. They go jellyfishing, or they go out and eat icecream. In contrast, when the energy and enthusiasm of Spongebob is combined with the realism and understanding of Squidward, work can be done. Things can be created, based on a tradition that predates Spongebob’s arrival, like a Krabby Patty. It is through the interaction between Spongebob and Squidward, that the world can be sustained.
On the rare occasions Squidward and Patrick interact, there is typically just destruction and chaos. Take the previously mentioned example, of Squidward fooling Patrick into thinking he’s not his friend. Or, consider what happens when Patrick answers the phone, which is normally Squidward’s job: “Is this the Krusty Krab?” “No, this is Patrick.” They lose the customer.
This happens because Patrick and Squidward ultimately represent conflicting but complementary traditions. The world can’t exist without Patrick, because the life of Squidward in isolation is one of suffering. It is to be aware at all times, of all the limitations. He knows he has a shit job. He knows he can’t properly play the clarinet. He knows he has no wife.
The world can not exist without Squidward either, because Patrick alone, would plunge the world into darkness, decay, ignorance, nihilism, chaos and destruction. There would be no Krusty Krab. There would be no Krabby Patty. Patrick is the man who solves the problem of there being too much in life. But Patrick without Squidward, means there would eventually be nothing.
So the question you’ll find yourself faced with is: Alright, we have Squidward who worships Vishnu. We have Patrick who worships Shiva. So who worships Brahma? Spongebob? And that’s the thing that makes Hindu philosophy so different from the Western philosophical tradition. Although Shaivists have the tendency to ascribe qualities of creation and sustaining of everything to Shiva, the creator of the Trimurti, Brahma, isn’t really worshipped.
In most Abrahamic traditions, we’re enthusiastic about the creation of the world. But like Gnostic Christians, the Dharmic religions are much more ambivalent about its creation. Brahma generally just isn’t worshipped much, he has a handful of temples, but there exists no specific tradition devoted to him. And the reason for that may tie into the fact that the Dharmic religions see incarnation as self-evident.
In contrast to the Christian tradition, in which we are promised eternal life after death, you don’t have to accomplish anything in the Dharmic religions to live forever. Die and you will simply become another living being. It is escaping the creation, that is a challenge. So why worship the creator?
If you want the equivalent of a Brahma worshipper in Spongebob Squarepants, the closest thing would be the relationship between Spongebob and Mr. Krabs. Mr. Krabs created the Krusty Krab. He created the Krabby Patty. How he accomplished it is a secret that must be kept safe at all cost from the invisible demon (Plankton).
But he is not a character worthy of worship. And Squidward knows this. His relationship is one of reluctant subservience. Patrick presumably knows it too. It’s Spongebob, who is still young, naive and keen to dance to the tunes of Mr. Krabs.
And the trick as a viewer, is to balance the three gunas. You can be like Squidward, you can develop full awareness. And you should strive for awareness, the Sattva guna is held in highest regard. But with full awareness comes suffering, unless you can imbibe yourself with the naive energetic enthusiasm of the sponge, or can sedate yourself like the starfish who lives under a rock.
You may think to yourself: “How can Squidward be held in high regard? He’s mean and cynical.” But ultimately, all the three characters are flawed beings, who are in themselves good. Patrick is useless and stupid, but he means well. Spongebob is destructive and incompetent, but wants to do good. And Squidward is cynical and disillusioned. But whenever someone genuinely mistreats Spongebob, like the man who ordered a pizza and then complained about not receiving a drink, Squidward intervenes on his behalf.
Squidward only looks like the bad guy of the three, because he was given the heaviest weight to carry in life. And in carrying this burden, he is actually the most noble. The souls of the three characters are ultimately pure and unblemished. The challenges life casts upon them are just so severe it makes them look like flawed beings. Mr. Krabs is more explicitly morally flawed, his soul is tainted by greed.
Then finally, we have to consider that all three characters, Squidward above all, are losers. They have all achieved just a shadow of what a human being can achieve. Patrick just does nothing all day. Squidward works at a fast food restaurant he hates. And Spongebob fails at just about everything he attempts.
Why is that? Well fundamentally, they’re born into a flawed world. It is a world that puts good people at the bottom, literally and metaphorically. They live at the mercy of the human Gods high above, who can fish them out of the ocean at any moment, or annihilate Bikini Bottom with nuclear weapons. In this world the powerful are evil, the powerless are good.
This ties into another concept I hope to elaborate upon in a future article, the dark era that these three noble men found themselves born into: The Kali Yuga.