The Purpose of Life
Sri Swami Sivananda
The life of man is an indication of what is beyond him and what determines the course of his thoughts, feelings and actions. The wider life is invisible, and the visible is a shadow cast by the invisible which is the real. The shadow gives an idea of the substance, and one can pursue the path to the true substance, by the perception of the shadow. Human existence, by the fact of its limitations, wants, and various forms of restlessness, discontent and sorrow, points to a higher desired end, incomprehensible though the nature of this end be.
As life on this earth is characterised by incessant change, and nothing here seems to have the character of reality, nothing here can satisfy man completely. The Bhagavad Gita has referred to this world as anityam, asukham, duhkhalayam, ashashvatam “impermanent, unhappy, the abode of sorrow, transient.” The sages of yore declared with immediate realisation that “Truth is One” and that the goal of human life is the realisation and the experience of this Truth.
The universe is inconstant, and it is only a field of experience provided to the individuals so that they may evolve towards the experience of the Highest Truth. It is the glory of the people of Bharatvarsha that to them the visible universe is not the real and the invisible Eternal alone is the real. They have no faith in what they perceive with the senses. They have faith only in that which is the ground of all experience, beyond the senses, beyond even the individual mind.
Earnest seekers used to seek shelter under great sages who purified the holy region of the Himalayas with their mighty presence, and lived the austere life of Yogis in order to attain freedom from the trammels of earth-bound life and rest in the beatitude of the Absolute, Brahman. This they considered the true life, and thus the way of fulfilling the law of the Eternal.
The great law-giver, Manu, after describing the various tenets of Dharma, finally asserts: “Of all these Dharmas, the Knowledge of the Self is the highest; it is, verily, the foremost of all sciences; for, by it, one attains immortality.” The pursuit of Dharma, Artha and Kama has its meaning in the attainment of Moksha which is the greatest of all the Purusharthas (ends of human life). Dharma is the ethical and moral value of life; Artha is its material value; and Kama is its vital value; but Moksha is the infinite value of existence which covers all the others and is itself far greater than all these. Others exist as aids or preparations for Moksha. Without Moksha, they have no value and they convey no meaning. Their value is conditioned by the law of the Infinite, which is the same as Moksha.
The Vedas and the Upanishads are the expirations of the Divine Being, and they give an exhaustive commentary on spiritual life. They are expositions of the significance and the import of human life and of the method of the transmutation of the mortal appearance into the Immortal Essence. The instance of the great Nachiketas and the story of his adventurous search for Truth narrated in the thrilling Kathopanishad serve as exemplars to all men capable of thought and reflection.
Nothing of the world of sensibility can be of real value–this is what Nachiketas taught through his memorable act of renunciation. Not even the longest life and the immense wealth offered to him could tempt him. He persevered in his quest for the Highest and, in the end, achieved the Highest. Nothing short of it could satisfy him. Such are the ‘Dhiras’ or true heroes. A real hero is not he who stands against bullets or risks his life in hazardous attempts, fights battles, dives into oceans and climbs high cliffs, but he who subdues his senses and overcomes his mind, recognises the supreme unity of life and casts aside dualities and desires. To achieve this is the duty of man; this is the immortal message of the sages of the Upanishads.
The tangle of sense-experience in which man is caught is most vexing, and hard it is to free oneself from it. Man is deluded by the notion of the reality of the so-called external relations of things and thus he comes to grief. The Mahabharata says that the contact of beings in this universe is, like the contact of logs of wood in a flowing river, temporary. Yet the attachment to sense-percepts is so strong that phantoms are mistaken for facts, the impure is mistaken for the pure, the painful for the pleasant, and the not-self for the Self.
The message of the ancient sages is that the life one lives in the sense-world is deceptive, for it hides the Existence underlying all things and makes one feel that the particular presentation of forms before the senses alone is real. “Children run after external pleasures and fall into the net of the wide-spread death. The heroes, however, knowing the Immortal, seek not the Eternal among things unstable here,” says the Upanishad. The call of the ancient sages to man is: “O son of the Immortal! Know yourself as the Infinite; become the All. This is the supreme blessing. This is the supreme bliss.” This is the undying message to man.
The sages have again and again stressed: “If one knows It (i.e., the Immortal Being) here, then there is the true end of all aspirations; if one does not know it here, great is the loss for him” (Kena-Upanishad). And sage Yajnavalkya says that all great deeds done in this world without the knowledge of the One Imperishable Being are not worth anything. Humanitarian services, fasts and charity, one’s political, national, social and individual life, should all be based on the feeling of universal brotherhood which is the external expression of the Reality of universal Selfhood.
Humanity can hope for peace when this condition, discovered and laid down by the Rishis, viz., abiding by the Law of the Divine, is fulfilled. Peace can be had only to the extent the system of the Divine is adhered to in life. And this peace is inversely proportional to the love of body, individuality and its relations in the world, in which humanity is generally steeped. An ‘awakening’ of a higher consciousness is necessary so that disorder and discontent may be abolished.
Education of humanity in the right direction is the precondition of world peace. Materialism, atheism, scepticism and agnosticism which are rampant in these days, and which have robbed man of his reverence for the Supreme Absolute, are mainly responsible for the increasing selfishness, craving, confusion, violence and agitation of minds that are seething in the world. Man should learn that behind the appearance of materiality, discreteness, externality, doubt and impermanence, there is the reality of spirituality, unity and infinity, certainty.
Without the recognition of this reality, life loses life and becomes an emptiness, devoid of meaning and purpose, dead, as it were. To live in the divine is to die to the narrowness of the sense-world; and to be confined to the latter is to ‘destroy oneself’ (in the words of the Ishavasyopanishad). The present trend of life has to be overhauled, and a re-orientation in it brought about in the light of morality, ethics and spirituality. The change that is required is not merely in the outward form but in the very perspective and the inner constitution of the system of living.
This can be done when man’s ideals are based on the truths of the spirituality of Oneness, lifted above blind beliefs, differences and materiality. When this is achieved, man would have fulfilled his great duty here. For the man scorched in the waterless desert of worldliness, the only hope is in the cool waters of the Ganges of wisdom, flowing from the Himalayan heights of the sages of the Upanishads. Drink from this perennial fount, and refresh yourself.