The Meaning of Life 1


Life…a great irony, being one of the shortest, yet profound words of the English language.  Embraced within its four letters are such varied events of our existence: birth, childhood, youth, middle-age, old age and finally death.  In between these stages themselves, we encounter a complex amalgam of experiences:  learning and ignorance, profession and unemployment, friendship and enmity, single then spouse, childless then parent, wealth and lack, good health and disease, births and deaths…an endless list of opposites.  This is life; every individual’s life.

I also seem to have certain irking questions.  However hard I try to eradicate them from my thinking, they haunt me incessantly – arising and subsiding like waves in a stormy ocean.  I know I exist but who gave me life?  I don’t remember choosing to be here.  Did my parents decide?  Then who gave them life?  My grandparents?  Why am I here?  What happens after I die? Universal doubts with responses that fade into infinite regression.

An age-old Sanskrit verse states;

आहार-निद्रा-भय-मैथुनं च समानमेतत्-पशुभिर्नराणाम्  …

āhāra-nidrā-bhaya-maithunaṁ ca samānametat-paśubhirnarānām 

Natural to both human beings and animals are four factors:  food, sleep, fear and procreation.  But is this really the purpose of my life?  Am I only born to eat, sleep, fear the ‘other-than-me’, reproduce and finally die?  Am I just another species of animal?  Can there really be definitive answers to such and other queries?

An ancient series of scripts available to mankind seem to hold so.  The Vedas have meticulously analysed life and the human condition.  Their sentences explicate the meaning of the phenomenon we call ‘life’.  Questions surrounding our existential dilemma are logically handled, with not a stone left unturned.

The Vedas initially discuss the common ends available to every human being, regardless of caste, colour, creed and other differences.  All of us are driven by the need for security, be it financial, relational or material; ‘If I have money, possessions, certain people and particular situations in my life, I am happy’, implying that, ‘Without these, I am unhappy.’  So, this need for any form of security in order to be happy, is known as ‘artha’ in Sanskrit.  We also want to fulfil our every desire and derive as much pleasure as possible.  Whether we enjoy a wild night out on the town or appreciate the subtle beauties of art and literature; whether unrefined or refined pleasure, we humans love pleasurable experiences.  We love to be happy!  The gain of any form of security, then, is expressed through the fulfilment of desires, known as ‘kāma’.

‘Hey, hang on a minute…I am not satisfied by living this way anymore.  I crave for something more.  I want to be a contributor.  My purpose is to reach out to my fellowman, to all living beings and make this world a better place.’  Well, the Vedas have certainly not disregarded your wish!  Social service, acts of kindness, aiding another in any way, falls under the heading of ‘dharma’.

A concept of great significance in Vedic culture, dharma is pregnant with context-dependent meaning and does not lend itself easily to any English equivalent.  Within this framework of a life purpose, dharma produces joy experienced through activities that alleviate another living being’s pain and suffering.  It is not to be equated with kāma, pleasure born of desire fulfilment.  Many-a-time, no form of security is required to stumble upon the unique joy stemming from dharma;  a kind word, a helping hand, even a compassionate regard, can give rise to a distinct state of happiness.

Doing what is to be done by you at a certain time, place and in a specific situation also gives rise to the joy born of living dharma, eventually, if not immediate.  Dharma yields its satisfaction from living a life of harmony; a life of caring and sharing, where the Golden Rule of ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’, is valued.  Living thus, we discover the maturity of a conflict-free mind that becomes translatable into our pursuit of both security and pleasure.  Dharma stands now predominantly among all the human ends discussed thus far.

‘Well, I have lived a highly ethical life. I have tried not to hurt anyone or anything intentionally.  Much of my life has been spent in work which reaches out to all in need.  I cannot do more and there is still suffering and pain.  This makes me unhappy. I feel inadequate, limited.  Can’t explain.  Something niggling inside…’

The Vedas understand you.  They answer, ‘Dharma, is also not the end in life’.  Can you not see the one correlation between all your pursuits?  What is it you are really seeking?  Throughout your life’s journey, do you not want to be happy?  By gaining security, artha, what is it you really gain?  Happiness.  Through fulfilling your desires, what do you feel?  Happy.  Helping others, reaching out, doing what is to be done, what do you experience?  Happiness.  All the human ends you run after lead you, again and again, to the experience of happiness.  But the seeking never stops because happiness never seems to last!  Our lifespan is slowly depleted in a relentless quest for unlimited happiness.

The Vedas’ assertion is that our life on earth has but a sole purpose, deceptively interwoven within three conventional pursuits.  Although pervading in and through the other three human ends, this objective is separately mentioned in the Vedas, in the upanishads, which are sub-texts within the Vedas, generally referred to as ‘Vedanta’.  Why?  Because we remain ignorant of what we essentially desire – the end known as ‘moksha’, literally meaning freedom or liberation; freedom from all sorrow, limitation and from the seeking itself!  The Kaivalya Upanishad, ninth mantra, declares:

sa eva sarvaṁ yad bhūtaṁ yacca bhavyam

sanātanaṁ jñātvā tam mṛtyum atyeti nānyaḥ paṅthā vimuktaye

Indeed, that is all that was and will be, eternal. Knowing that, one transcends death. There is no other way to liberation.

The desire itself reveals that sorrow is not our nature.  We long to be rid of it.  But how?  Indeed, our spiritual pursuit begins with this question. The Vedas reveal that we are the sole source of the happiness we seek.  It is our very nature.  Like a musk deer frantically searching all over for the wondrous fragrance, not realising it emanates from itself alone, we spend our lives running after droplets of happiness, not realising the vast ocean already available with us.  This recognition is moksha!

to be continued…

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