What is the Meaning of Life?

What is the meaning of life? GURNAM SINGH examines two prominent viewpoints within this discourse: the meaninglessness of life inherent in natural processes, and the perspective of life's significance intertwined with a universal divine consciousness.


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

For millennia, humanity has grappled with the profound question: what is the meaning of life? This existential inquiry has spawned a multitude of interpretations, ranging from nihilistic pronouncements to declarations of profound purpose.

In this piece I examine two prominent viewpoints within this discourse: the meaninglessness of life inherent in natural processes, and the perspective of life’s significance intertwined with a universal divine consciousness. I explore these opposing hypotheses through the lens of established academic sources and spiritual traditions, particularly the teachings of Gurbani.

Hypothesis 1

The first perspective argues that life lacks inherent meaning. Proponents of this view, such as the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, point to the indifference, and even cruelty of the natural world. Famously associated with the phrase, “death of God” Sartre draws attention to the rapid decline of traditional religious belief in modern society. It’s not that all of a sudden modern man has proclaimed God literally dead, but rather that God’s influence on human existence has significantly waned. Sartre believed we create our essence, our (human)beingness, through our choices and the idea of God as a preordaining or all-knowing being, negates this basic proposition.

Whereas existential philosophers such as Sartre focus on the question of human ontology, evolutionary scientists, such as Richard Dawkins draw attention to the that countless species, including our potential predecessors, have emerged and vanished throughout Earth’s history, their existence a mere blip in the vast expanse of time. Humans, despite technological advancements, remain subject to the same natural forces that determine the fate of all living things. The ever-present threats of viruses, war, climate change, and cosmic events serve as stark reminders of our vulnerability and the fleeting nature of human existence. As physicist and cosmologist Bernard Carr posits, the “fine-tuning” argument for a purposeful universe is flawed, as countless configurations could have supported life, potentially with vastly different outcomes. From this perspective, life appears as a random by-product of a chaotic universe, devoid of any preordained significance or meaning.

Hypothesis 2

Standing in stark contrast is the opposing viewpoint, which posits that life within the universe holds profound meaning that transcends mere randomness. This perspective draws an analogy with complex human inventions like the iPhone. Its intricate design and functionality necessitate a conscious and creative mind behind its creation. Similarly, the breathtaking complexity of life, from the intricate dance of subatomic particles to the emergent properties of ecosystems, hints at an underlying intelligence guiding its evolution. This view aligns with the concept of panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, present at its very inception and permeating all existence.

Spiritual traditions from diverse cultures echo this sentiment. The Vedas, ancient Indian texts, speak of Brahman, the ultimate reality or universal consciousness, while the Tao Te Ching, a foundational text of Taoism, describes the Tao as the underlying principle that governs the universe. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi, echoes this idea by emphasizing the concept of “Ik Onkar” or “One Universal divine essence or spirit that pervades all creation”. As Guru Arjan states in the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS), “ਏਕ ਰੂਪ ਸਗਲੋ ਪਾਸਾਰਾ” or “One Form Extended into Everything” (GGS, p. 803.). Elsewhere he states that “ਇਕਸੁ ਤੇ ਹੋਇਓ ਅਨੰਤਾ ਨਾਨਕ ਏਕਸੁ ਮਾਹਿ ਸਮਾਏ ਜੀਉ “ or “One Manifested into Multitudes of Creation, Nanak the One is Imbued Within the Multitudes”. (GGS, p. 131)

The Path of Spiritual Connection

Spirituality offers a compelling pathway to connect with this divine essence, both within ourselves and in the greater universe. And it is this realisation of the dialectic between self and the universe that is captured so perfectly by Bhagat Peepaa Ji in the following Shabad.

ਕਾਯਉ ਦੇਵਾ ਕਾਇਅਉ ਦੇਵਲ ਕਾਇਅਉ ਜੰਗਮ ਜਾਤੀ ॥
ਕਾਇਅਉ ਧੂਪ ਦੀਪ ਨਈਬੇਦਾ ਕਾਇਅਉ ਪੂਜਉ ਪਾਤੀ ॥੧॥

ਕਾਇਆ ਬਹੁ ਖੰਡ ਖੋਜਤੇ ਨਵ ਨਿਧਿ ਪਾਈ ॥
ਨਾ ਕਛੁ ਆਇਬੋ ਨਾ ਕਛੁ ਜਾਇਬੋ ਰਾਮ ਕੀ ਦੁਹਾਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥

ਕਾਯਉ ਦੇਵਾ ਕਾਇਅਉ ਦੇਵਲ ਕਾਇਅਉ ਜੰਗਮ ਜਾਤੀ ॥
ਜੋ ਬ੍ਰਹਮੰਡੇ ਸੋਈ ਪਿੰਡੇ ਜੋ ਖੋਜੈ ਸੋ ਪਾਵੈ ॥
ਪੀਪਾ ਪ੍ਰਣਵੈ ਪਰਮ ਤਤੁ ਹੈ ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਹੋਇ ਲਖਾਵੈ ॥੨॥੩॥

“Within the body, the Divine essence is embodied. The body is the temple, the place of pilgrimage, and the pilgrim. Within the body are incense, lamps and offerings. Within the body are the flower offerings.

I searched throughout many realms, but I found the nine treasures within the body. Nothing comes, and nothing goes; I pray to the divine for Mercy. ||Pause||

The One who pervades the Universe also dwells in the body; whoever seeks Him, finds Him there. Peepaa prays, manifest as the supreme essence; He reveals Himself through the True Guru. ||2||3|| (GGS, p. 695; Translation by Sant Singh Khalsa, slight modification)

Kaayo Dhaevaa Kaaeiao Dhaeval Kaaeiao Jangam Jaathee ||
Kaaeiao Dhhoop Dheep Neebaedhaa Kaaeiao Poojo Paathee ||1||

Kaaeiaa Bahu Khandd Khojathae Nav Nidhh Paaee ||
Naa Kashh Aaeibo Naa Kashh Jaaeibo Raam Kee Dhuhaaee ||1|| Rehaao ||

Jo Brehamanddae Soee Pinddae Jo Khojai So Paavai ||
Peepaa Pranavai Param Thath Hai Sathigur Hoe Lakhaavai ||2||3||

While it lacks empirical verification in the scientific sense, the lived experience of many spiritual practitioners suggests that consciousness transcends the limitations of the material world. Neuroscientist Michael Graziano, for example, explores the possibility of consciousness existing independently of the brain, suggesting a deeper understanding of the mind-body relationship is necessary.

Guru Nanak’s teachings, particularly the concept of the “4 Padh” (four stages of spiritual development), illuminate this path. Each stage focuses on cultivating awareness of the divine within oneself, in our interactions with others, in the natural world, and ultimately, in the transcendent reality. Through practices like meditation and selfless service, individuals can tap into their divine potential and recognize the divinity inherent in all things. This spiritual connection fosters a profound sense of unity and reverence for the interconnectedness of all beings, as beautifully expressed in Guru Nanak’s “Arti,” a devotional hymn that celebrates the universality of the divine essence. Indeed it was Nanak’s genius in his composition to capture the essence of existence that moved the celebrated Bengali poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, to proclaim it as the ‘Universal Anthem of the World’.


The exploration of divinity, universal consciousness, and the meaning of life reveals a fascinating duality of perspectives. Whereas the transient nature of our existence can induce a feeling of meaninglessness, the intricate tapestry of life and the profound experiences of spiritual connection point to a deeper purpose. Science may not currently offer definitive answers regarding the inherent meaning of life, but it continues to illuminate the extraordinary complexity of the universe. Furthermore, the study of consciousness offers intriguing possibilities for unravelling the nature of our subjective experience and its potential connection to a larger reality.

Ultimately, the quest for meaning becomes a deeply personal journey, drawing inspiration from both scientific inquiry and the profound experiences offered by spiritual traditions. And so, coming back to the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, whether one seeks the answer through microscopes and telescopes or meditation and contemplation, the important thing is to have life with a meaning. Whether we see human existence as a manifestation of divine purpose or biological functioning, we can all agree with Socrates who, during his trial proclaimed that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


Harmony in Chanting and Silence: Exploring Spiritual Practices through a Sikhi Lens (Asia Samachar, 17 April 2024)

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  1. How does one define LIFE?
    When did Life begin?
    How does the Big Bang Theory fit here-was the Universal Consciousness present then?
    Should we now discard the Theory of Evolution, and lay our origins simply on the Universal Creator?
    Was evolution part of His grand scheme anyway? Preordained and sustained by Him?

  2. What is meaning of life or what is life ?
    Sir you mentioned two views:
    (1) “death of God” Sartre draws attention to the rapid decline of traditional religious belief in modern society. It’s not that all of a sudden modern man has proclaimed God literally dead, but rather that God’s influence on human existence has significantly waned.”
    ie philosopher who don’t believe the Creator and His creation philosophy.
    (2) Those who believe the Creator and His creation. One section among them believe the creator living somewhere else but as per Gurmat :
    # ੴ ie the God was self-existent before His creation of this universe, is/will be pervading in His creation.
    # ੴ created this universe with His one command.
    ਕੀਤਾ ਪਸਾਉ ਏਕੋ ਕਵਾਉ ॥ ( ggs 3 )
    # Sum total of mass and energy remain the same. Only one form change to another.
    ਨਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਆਵਤ ਨਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਜਾਵਤ ਸਭੁ ਖੇਲੁ ਕੀਓ ਹਰਿ ਰਾਇਓ ॥
    ਕਹੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਅਗਮ ਅਗਮ ਹੈ ਠਾਕੁਰ ਭਗਤ ਟੇਕ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਇਓ ॥੪॥੧੫॥੧੩੬॥
    ( ggs 209 )
    Example : We think that a living thing dies but as per Gurmat, force of life (ਜੋਤੀ) get merged with supreme force ੴ and body elements get merged with elements of His creation. There is no change in overall elemental components of the universe ie they remain steady.
    ਰਾਮਕਲੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੫ ॥
    ਪਵਨੈ ਮਹਿ ਪਵਨੁ ਸਮਾਇਆ ॥
    ਜੋਤੀ ਮਹਿ ਜੋਤਿ ਰਲਿ ਜਾਇਆ ॥
    ਮਾਟੀ ਮਾਟੀ ਹੋਈ ਏਕ ॥
    ਰੋਵਨਹਾਰੇ ਕੀ ਕਵਨ ਟੇਕ ॥੧॥( ggs 885 )
    That is why Guru Sahebs have asked Gurmukhs not to mourne on death of anyone but to obey His laws (Hukam).
    All living bodies in this universe are governed by His Hukam. His command (Hukam) is codified in DNA structure of each species ie the body structure, age etc are predetermined/codified in DNA.Even the structucture of each non-living object’s elements have specific number of neutrones and protons. What a beauty of His creation that lines of any two human beings doesn’t match with each other among entire population of the world.
    But what is life ?
    Though we are successful in finding the codes of DNA, treating hereditary ailments by modifying its structure, creating hybrid species but still far away from the secret of that force ( ਜੋਤੀ) responsible for life. Only ੴ knows. To know that secret I am to have oneness with ੴ. But those who have that state are unable to define the state of their mind, the bliss they have just like a dumb can not tell the taste of a sweet he has eaten. That secret remains with them. Perhaps it is also a law ੴ. I don’t have that wisdom yet.
    ( ggs 635 )
    ਜਿਨ ਚਾਖਿਆ ਸੇਈ ਸਾਦੁ ਜਾਣਨਿ ਜਿਉ ਗੁੰਗੇ ਮਿਠਿਆਈ ॥
    ਅਕਥੈ ਕਾ ਕਿਆ ਕਥੀਐ ਭਾਈ ਚਾਲਉ ਸਦਾ ਰਜਾਈ ॥
    With regards, Karnail Singh

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