15. What is the purpose of life?
A certain boy had burning questions such as ‘what is the purpose of my life’, ‘why God created me’ and so on. He wandered through many places for several days, and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. He was told by fellow travellers that it was there that a wise man, who could answer his question, lives.
Upon entering the main room of the castle, rather than finding an old man with white beard, the boy saw a magnificent person wearing majestic clothes, ornaments and weapons. The room was bustling with activity; visitors came and went, children were playing in a corner, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there were tables covered with platters of seemingly the most delicious food. The wise man conversed with visitors, served them food and played with children. The boy had to wait for some time before it was his turn to receive attention.
The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s question, but told him that he didn’t have time just then to give answer. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in three hours. “Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something,’ said the wise man, handing the boy a lamp. “As you wander around, carry this lamp without letting the fire die”.
The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace through many rooms, keeping his eyes fixed on the lamp. After three hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was.
“Well”, asked the wise man, “did you see the beautiful statues in my living room? Did you notice how many books I have in my library? Did you see the exotic plants and pets in the garden that I have collected from all over the world”?
The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to let the fire in lamp die.
“Then go back and observe all the marvels of my palace”, said the wise man. “It would be an honour to the host if you appreciate his taste in decorations and creativity”.
The boy picked up the lamp and returned to explore the palace again, this time observing the works of art on the ceilings, floors and the walls, gardens and fountains, beautiful servant maids and so on.
Upon returning to the main room, the boy expressed his wonder and appreciated the wise man’s taste. “But where is the fire in lamp that I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man. Looking down at the lamp, the boy saw that the fire was gone. The wise man said, “the purpose of life is to serve God and His creation, without getting distracted by the marvels of the creation”.
A well-known psychologist Abraham Maslow posited that human needs can be arranged in the below hierarchy.
- Biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.
- Safety needs – protection from natural elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
- Love and belongingness needs – friendships, relationships, intimacy, trust and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love.
- Esteem needs – (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g., status, prestige).
Self-actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. It is a desire to expand and become everything one is capable of becoming.
This five-stage model can be divided into deficiency needs and growth needs. The first four levels are often referred to as deficiency needs (D-needs), and the top level is known as growth or being needs (B-needs).
Deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the motivation to fulfil such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied. For example, the longer a person goes without food, the hungrier they will become.
When a deficit need has been ‘more or less’ satisfied it will go away, and our activities become habitually directed towards meeting the next set of needs that we have yet to satisfy. These then become our salient needs. However, growth needs continue to be felt and may even become stronger once they have been engaged.
Growth needs do not stem from a lack of something, but rather from a desire to grow as a person. Once these growth needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization. Every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. Unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by a failure to meet lower level needs. Life experiences such as failed relationships and loss of a job may cause an individual to fluctuate between levels of the hierarchy. Therefore, not everyone will move through the hierarchy in a uni-directional manner but may move back and forth between the different types of needs.
The sages, to explain how a person can balance these needs in an organized manner, have divided the purpose of life into the below four parts:
- Dharma (righteous living)
- Ardha (earning money for livelihood)
- Kama (fulfilling righteous desires)
- Moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth)
The above four are called purushardhas and said to be the main goals of human life. ‘Purusha’ means a person and ‘Ardha’ means purpose or meaning. These four are equally essential to both men and women.
These four goals are in no sequential order, and are not airtight compartments. They often run into one another, in any order. For instance, we need to earn money or satisfy desires without violating dharma. All four are important, but in cases of conflict, dharma is considered more important than ardha or kama. Moksha is considered the ultimate goal and destination of human life.
At the time of education, an individual has to learn about dharma. He has to practice dharma throughout life. For example one should not cheat in exams or resort to giving bribes, using influences etc in obtaining employment. One has to perform duties with heart‘s content and involvement and without accepting bribes. Thus a person has to live as per dharma and earn money to sustain himself, family and the society.
Even non-performance of righteous duty is a violation of dharma, in the grand scheme of things. He has to fulfil his righteous desires such as obtaining children and simultaneously pursue path to liberation. Liberation is not something that might happen after death. We should attain it, here in this life itself. In reality we are never separate from God, but it is ego that binds us to body and mind, and makes us appear separate individuals.
First part of this e-book explains the principles necessary for success in materialistic life or economic wellbeing. Such success is needed because it is difficult for an individual to think of higher goals, as long he is struggling to make a living. But, materialistic gains without a spiritual base leave emptiness, dissatisfaction, and sadness. Hence man’s life becomes effective only when he pursues materialistic goals with a spiritual foundation.
Unfortunately many people believe that spirituality is only for the old people retired from active life. But their childhood is spent in ignorance and sports. Youth is spent in satisfying sensual pleasures and chasing money. Old age is spent in worries about children, regrets about past, ill health and so on. They will never get a chance with spiritual success because there are three problems with this approach.
- We don’t know for sure how long we are going to live, and any moment can be our last moment.
- For a person immersed in material pursuits for long time, a transformation to spiritual pursuits is very difficult, because deeply imprinted tendencies are hard to break.
- Mind and body become very weak in old age and are not conducive for any new spiritual pursuits.
In ancient days spiritual education was given to students of an early age, say 8- 12 years. At that age they are not burdened by family responsibilities and their brain cells are very active and their learning process is at its best. However those people who start late in spiritual pursuit need not despair. Better late than never and the right time for spiritual pursuit is right now! The wise say that we should not seek possessions first and God last. If we first seek God through Self- realization, all things such as wealth, wisdom, power and immortality will be added unto us.
There are estimated to be 8,400,000 species of life – including aquatics, plants, birds, beasts, insects, and human beings. The wise say that it is a very rare opportunity to be born as a human being, of all creatures. Human beings can be distinguished from other creatures through many characteristics, the chief among them being thinking and the reasoning and discretionary power to choose between the good and evil. All other creatures are driven by instinct and live as nature intends them to be. They do not have the concept of good or evil, punishments for bad behaviour.
However, we humans have the discretionary power to choose between good or bad, and also have developed systems such as prisons to punish and reform the bad. We also have notions of heaven as reward for the good deeds and hell as punishment for the bad. Having such reasoning power, we might wonder, at one time or another, what is the purpose of being born? Is it just to eat, sleep, enjoy the pleasures and die like all other creatures? Or is there any worthy goal that makes this life worth living?
Most of us spend our days in the familiar world of five senses. But what lies beyond that, if anything, we have no idea. Most of us are happy to stay where we are. We may be even little afraid to explore the unknown. Why we should leave the familiar world, we might ask.
Yet there are always a few who are not content to spend their lives indoors. Simply knowing there is something unknown makes them very restless. They have to see what lies out there – as someone said of Mount Everest, “I have to climb it, because it’s there”.
That is true of adventurers of every kind, but especially of those who seek to explore not mountains, jungles and oceans, but consciousness itself. While the rest of us stay put, they quietly slip out to see what lies beyond.
Then, so far as we can tell, they disappear. We might not have any idea about where they have gone. But every now and then, like friends who ventured to mysterious islands, they report back with fantastic photos, rambling messages about a world beyond ordinary experience, urging us to come and see. ‘Look at this! Isn’t it marvellous? I wish you were here to see this’.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of such earliest reports given by the sage Veda Vyasa to inform us that there is more to life than the everyday experiences of our senses. It guides us with a map of territory, shows various approaches to the summit with their rewards and dangers, and tells us what to pack and what to leave behind.
According to the great epic Mahabharata, wicked Duryodhana and his brothers, Kauravas, usurped the kingdom belonging to their cousin brothers Pandavas. When all peace negotiations failed to resolve the dispute, vast armies were assembled on either side to fight in what came to be known as the Great Bharata war.
Just before the start of war both Duryodhana and Arjuna, one of the Panadva brothers approached Krishna asking for support. Krishna declared that one side could have all his army and ammunition while He Himself would not fight but only will be a charioteer and guide to the other side. Duryodhana chose army and ammunition while Arjuna chose Krishna.
Upon seeing the vast armies Arjuna became despondent and had thrown away his weapons saying that he cannot fight against his cousins and would rather let them keep his share of kingdom. Krishna taught The Bhagavad Gita to him, and motivated him to fight. Kaauravas got defeated and the Pandavas became victorious. ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ in Sanskrit means ‘Song of God’. It is also called ‘Brahma Vidya Upanishad’ or ‘Supreme Science’ because it explains the co-ordination of inner and outer worlds.
Though Krishna teaches rules of dharma to Arjuna, it seems that He Himself did not advocate adhering to them on many occasions during the war, which seems very confusing to understand. During the game of dice Dharmaraja, the eldest of pandavas loses kingdom and wife Draupadi. When she was threatened by the Kauravas with humiliation Dharmaraja did not protest because he gave importance to the rules of dice game.
But Krishna teaches that spirit of dharma is greater than mere rules of wars. He prompted Arjuna to kill many Kaurava warriors by violating the rules, when situation demanded. He reasoned that rules cannot be allowed to become weapons in the hands of evil people who ignore them when it suits their purpose but claim their protection at convenient times. An evil person cannot be allowed, to tie the hands of the righteous by rules of dharma, to impose adharma.
In Karna Parva of Mahabharata (8:69) Krishna tells Arjuna “scriptures provide for morality, but they do not provide for each individual situation. Whatever sustains beings is dharma”. Hence anything that is not for the welfare of beings should be discarded as adharma.
The Mahabharata war can be seen as metaphor for the perennial war between the forces of good and evil in every human mind. Thus seen, The Bhagavad Gita is not just an external dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. It is an internal dialogue, between our mind full of questions about life and our Divine Self, taking place in the depths of consciousness.
Krishna’s words make sense when we keep in mind that he is not speaking of himself as a mortal human being or as a personal God. He is speaking as Arjuna’s higher Divine Self, Truth, Consciousness; whereas Arjuna’s lower self is ego.
For instance when Krishna says, “worship Me alone, love Me alone and serve Me alone”, he is not instructing Arjuna to worship Him as a personal god. He means that, we should listen to Truth, Consciousness or Divine Self within alone, and not to our ego. We should love and serve the mankind (realizing our oneness with universe), instead of just pleasing our ego.
When Krishna says ‘abandon all dharmas and take refuge in Me alone’, He means that there is no rule or god or religion or nationalism or whatever shelter higher than Truth, Consciousness. Where ever there were words such as ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘My’ they should be interpreted as referring Truth, Consciousness, Divine Self.
Another clue to understand the Bhagavad Gita properly is to remember that it was not uttered in spoken language by God to a man, but it was a heart-to-heart communication in Arjuna’s inner consciousness, beyond the limitations of physical senses and thinking.
In this background one may wonder ‘what is the difference between spirituality and religion?’
Spirituality aims at finding God within the Self whereas religion aims at finding God outside of the Self. For a spiritual person the Self within guides him in his actions whereas a religious man is bound by rituals and moral codes imposed by organized religion. There are more crimes and violence done in the name of organized religion. A ritualistic religion, instead of eliminating ego, often strengthens it and steers the practitioner away from the ultimate goal which is liberation. Another obstacle in the path to liberation is ‘maya’. How to transcend maya will be explained in the next chapter.