The purpose of life

There is only one way to nurture this mother -- leave the world a bit better -- even an iota of progress matters. This then becomes the purpose of life, simplified.

| I.J. Singh | Opinion | 14 Oct 2015 | Asia Samachar |
RANDOM SCENE: The crowd at an Indian restaurant in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur - PHOTO ASIA SAMACHAR
RANDOM SCENE: The crowd at an Indian restaurant in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur – PHOTO ASIA SAMACHAR

By I.J. Singh

I am minimally computer savvy, yet better than 55 e-mails have filled my inbox, each indulging in some micro-fine hair splitting of “The Purpose of Life.” Some are book length papers on the question.  And this entire bagful has inundated my inbox in less than two weeks.

These are Sikh sites so they largely dissect the idea from the perspective of Sikhi. But sometimes they lean on comparisons with other religious systems that surround us. Mine is a brief take today that should equally engage people who are religious-spiritual or plainly spiritual minus any religious label. And even apply to those who may be agnostics or atheists.

Why frame my view by deliberately leaving out religion?

Although religions mostly parse life exactly for this purpose – the paradox of the goal or purpose of existence, it is undeniably true that a large segment of humanity is non-religious or is at the ever shifting borderline between faith and reason.

And if there is a purpose that’s common to all humanity then it should be able to stand without necessarily leaning on one or many religious systems of mankind.

If the purpose of life is to meet God and merge in him at death then the sooner one dies the faster will be the union and that seems to dismiss any overarching purpose to life.  Similar reasoning prevails if at the end of life there is a heaven or hell waiting for us, as many religious systems insist. They seem like different versions of “Waiting for Godot” and perhaps equally without hope. I would think that the “Day of Reckoning” doesn’t have to wait for the uncertain and unwelcome time of death, but instead it occurs every moment of every day.

The models of heaven and hell that occupy most religions are universally and uniformly unrealistic but remain a tribute to human imagination and its yearnings. But to be living for heavenly (decidedly unearthly) reward seems childishly unrealistic regardless of what one is hoping for – a heavenly court with a seat near a prophet, or next to an imaginary physical form of the Creator, enjoying an endless company of beautiful sirens (for men) and what (hunks?) for women. Then, of course, there is the hell for non-believers or those of the “wrong” faith, perhaps like Dante’s Inferno. I recommend Mark Twain’s “Letters from the Earth” as a wonderfully creative but instructive riposte.

Sohan Singh, a Britain-based Sikh, has written a nice little book titled The Real Purpose of Life detailing the Sikh perspective on the matter. Guru Granth Sahib, instead of promoting a largely imaginative model of life after death, talks bravely of Jeevan Mukt, a concept that speaks of liberation while living a life (Aap pachhanae manu nirmal hoe; Jeevan mukt har pavae soi, p 161) that is well and productively lived – a life attuned to a perspective that is bigger than the self (Aap gavaaye seva karay ta kitch paaye maan, p 474). And that beckons an unmatched purpose of life

And then I think of the variety of systems – religious as well as secular non-religious ways of life — that humans have evolved over eons. A quick survey will convince us of a commonality of core beliefs and practices that transcend what we commonly encounter — stark differences between the many religious models. The differences among them are raving mad is how I would put it.

If religions have given us a purpose larger than life they also have, as their critics assert, willed us the Pandora’s Box of war, hatred, pestilence, destruction and so on, in an endless list.

And then there are the non-religious models of human development. Some stem from politico-economic necessities, others flow from psychological underpinnings of human behavior – ego, anger, envy, lust, greed and their cousins, but also those that define their kissing cousins on the other side of the coin – love, kindness, charity, loyalty and their ilk.

They, like religions, give us hope and sometimes the opportunities to dream big but they too, carry their boxful of troubles with them.

There is an ongoing discussion on the purpose of life on Gurmat Learning Zone (GLZ) that is perhaps destined never to end but it will surely take a breather.

I want to submit to you a model that both the religious-spiritual minded and the non-religious could equally embrace without feeling diminished or left out.

My perspective here starts with the obviously self-evident fact that at birth, we inherit the world as it is — the good, bad and the ugly. This has always been true as it will always be.

True that technology was not as advanced millennia ago or even 500 or 100 years ago as it is today but the wheel had been invented, along with many other things that made life remarkably richer. The car, computer and the telephone did not exist. Today’s generation has much more complexity to its life along the instruments of convenience that were not available then. And the next generation would do even better in such matters. Our inheritance includes not just the technology but also the cuisine, music and history etc that make a culture. This is self-evident.

The point, however, is that at birth we are on a certain rung on the ladder of achievement and progress because we are at a certain point on the timeline of human existence. Where exactly? It depends on the education, resources, opportunities and the personal talents as well as our cultural context and constraints. This then defines our moment. At birth we inherit a full bucket.

So, look at the rung of the ladder of existence that we are on at birth or at any given time of our life. Now, that is a debt that we are born with. How do we pay back this debt that we inherited? How then to treat what makes life possible, our Earth Mother, known to us by her many monikers – Terra Mater, Tellus, Gaia, Panchamama, Prithvi, Dharti – the Mother of a myriad  names. Her singular voice rumbles through our endless variety. There is only one way to nurture this mother — leave the world a bit better — even an iota of progress matters.

This then becomes the purpose of life, simplified.

But what exactly do we mean by leaving the world a bit better? How will we define progress? I leave the details to my readers at this time; it is however, something that should be a primary goal of education, whether religious or secular. 

The goal of human societies — religious or secular – remains unchanged. Both recognize that the puny human alone is too slow and weak to escape or manage the existential threats that threaten him. Safety and progress demand the creation of coalitions into families, sangats, congregations, religions and collectives, clans, tribes, and progressively larger groupings, even nations.

The collectives make it possible for us to survive and thrive. They enable us to bend nature and its forces to our will and needs. Ergo, our desires have to be progressive and goal oriented.

The traditions that morph into religious codes and laws of society become the glue that binds a people. In time, such traditions become sacred, and then good people will live and die for them. That is what social scientists tell us. There is strength and unmatched collective power in a community that transcends individual initiative and achievement. That’s why sangat is supreme.

Fair warning: sometimes the glue sets and hardens to the consistency of crazy glue and then rather than binding people it imprisons and chains them.

Here I have focused on the common goals of humanity regardless of which religion, if any, or culture we follow or which language or definition of God claims our fealty. Then why do the religions differ so vehemently, even violently, in their assumptions and processes?

This baffled me until I looked at the trade that I have plied all my life. Look at education and how we impart it. The fundamentals of mathematics or anatomy (I teach anatomy) do not change at all from country to country or from one school to another. But often different school systems differ in how they teach and where they place their emphasis. What shapes the teaching is the language, cultural context and economy, even socio-political realities.  Yet the student is expected to master largely the same material and put it to similar use in life.

Let different schools (of thought) compete as they do even in religions but we need to recognize the common ground which makes life possible, even magical.

Fragment of an old poem from my school days comes to mind. It reminds us that:

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage.  

Richard Lovelace (In To Althea from Prison)

I absolutely do not mean to split the purpose of life from the fundamentals of Sikh core values. Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikhs, pointedly challenges us in a manner that applies to all – those of any religious persuasion or none. It says:

Eh sareera merya iss jugg meh aye ke kya tudh karam kamayya (p 922).  In other words, this challenging line forthrightly asks us what footprints we would leave in the sands of time.

And the Guru Granth further tells us (“Ghaal khaaye kitch hatho deh; Nanak raah pahtchanay seh”, p 1245): From an honest living share your rewards; in that, says Nanak, is found the true path of life.

Sikhi fully embraces the progressive meaning of this teaching with a life inseparably connected to the One Creator of all creation.

That to me speaks timelessly of the primary goal of life.

[I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. This article was dated 10 Oct 2015. Email:]


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