The Purpose of Life
Recently, a question – or rather a series of questions – was submitted to Advaita-Vision that read as follows:
Q: What is the purpose of life?
If, as stated in Advaita, we are actually in a state of sat-chit-Ananda and we are actually this ‘Self’ already, why have these ‘illusions’ and this ‘ignorance’?
How can we believe in lila? What could be its purpose? There is no convincing answer – I am sure you will concur.
This then raises my more fundamental query. This ‘Self’ on which reams have been written – what is the proof that such a ’Self’ exists?
The root problem is that in the end, even Advaitic teachings finally rely on ‘blind faith’ to put their point across. There’s nothing wrong in having faith. All religions ask for blind belief in the almighty to get you your promised ‘Kingdom of God’. It’s only in Advaita that folks try to push their case by saying: “No, it’s not pure faith, it’s by reason and discourse that we reach the truth etc”.
To quote Gaudapada in his Mandukya Upanishad kArikA, “That which is stated in the scriptures ‘and is supported by reason’ is true and nothing else”. The ‘reason/discourse’ argument for following Advaita is pure bunkum, in my opinion. It relies on blind faith not on a deity, but in an obscure ‘Self’.
And even if reality is non-dual, why this seeming duality? Why does this mithyA of life exist?
Though its fundamental concern is the seeming purposelessness of life, this series of questions and comments directly expresses or implies various other doubts that beg for clarification in order to better understand and more fully appreciate the existential predicament in which we find ourselves as apparent human beings.
Given its multi-pronged nature, the format through which we will address this fundamental doubt is a series of inquiries that will progressively consider each aspect of the rather complex and enigmatic issues of whether or not life has a purpose, and if so what it could possibly be.
Inquiry 1: What is the Purpose of Life?
Question: What is the purpose of life?
This is perhaps the single question most frequently asked by those embarking on a journey of self-discovery. In fact, the timeless Vedantic method of self-inquiry (i.e. atma vichara) as it was taught to me begins with an examination of one’s motivations, so this question is the perfect starting point from which to launch an inquiry into the nature of reality.
The ancient rishis were great taxonomists. They categorized the vast array of actions that humans execute into four basic pursuits: security (artha), pleasure (kama), virtue (dharma), and freedom or liberation (moksha).
The first thing people seek is security. The dualistic world is characterized perhaps most fundamentally by uncertainty. Everything in it is constantly changing. Nothing stays the same. Moreover, no one’s well-being is guaranteed. Though most people – especially those living in the West – enjoy a greater or lesser degree of affluence, the globe is littered with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who struggle daily to meet even their most basic needs. And even those who enjoy an a affluent lifestyle suffer a subtle but incessant anxiety that one day the well will run dry, that the investment market will take a downward turn, that they will be laid-off from work, that they will fall short of the money needed to pay the rent or the mortgage on the house and so will lose their home, that they won’t be able to afford proper health care, etc. Such being the case, it is only natural that people strive to secure various objects, both subtle (i.e. love, respect, power, fame, etc.) and gross (i.e. money, food, shelter, clothing, etc.), which they feel will provide them with an adequate degree of invulnerability.
Once people feel secure, the next thing they go after is pleasure. This is only natural. Once your needs are met and you have some time on your hands and perhaps a little extra cash burning a hole in your pocket, the tendency is to look for some means by which to enjoy yourself and have a little fun. In today’s world, it seems that virtually everyone is a pleasure-seeker to a greater or lesser degree. It might even be said that the foundation of modern society is this very fact. Our obsessions with sex, food, sports, fashion, movies, music, muckraking, social networking via the internet, gaming, gambling, drugs, and alcohol all testify to people’s incessant craving for the sensory titillation and/or psychological stimulation that passes for pleasure, which serves to temporarily distract them from the nagging inner sense of inadequacy and incompleteness by which they are troubled.
The third thing people pursue is virtue. For numerous apparent reasons, most, if not all, people don’t feel good about themselves, or are at least beset with the feeling that they could be, even should be, better human beings. Spiritual types, especially those with a strong religious bent, quite often see themselves as at least lacking in the areas of kindness, compassion, and unconditional love, if not as altogether inherently corrupt sinners who, try as they might, will never succeed in measuring up to the impeccable precedents set by such spiritual superheroes as Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna, Gandhi, or Mother Theresa. Others, after having enjoyed a fair – often even excessive – share of pleasurable experiences and perhaps even having as a result realized the ultimately hollow nature of their enticing promises, pause to take stock of themselves, reach the conclusion that there is more to life than simply satisfying one’s desires, and thereafter dedicate at least some part of their lives to helping others and/or championing worthy causes. Yet others find themselves mired in a state of shame for their misdeeds and hope that through some act of repentance they can change God’s mind and secure a spot amidst the heavenly host after their inevitable demise.
The fundamental problem with any of the myriad pursuits that fall within the bounds of these three general categories is that they are object-oriented. In other words, they are structured upon the foundation of an individual subject seeking to secure a particular object. Given that reality is non-dual – a fact not only asserted in scripture, but, moreover, one for which an assiduous examination of our own experience provides irrefutable evidence – this dichotomy immediately puts us on precarious footing for our journey toward permanent fulfillment, peace, and happiness. As previously mentioned, the defining characteristic of the apparent dualistic reality is change. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Nothing lasts forever. No sooner do I get what I want than the object of my desire changes. And if the object doesn’t change to a noticeable degree, then quite often I do. Or at the very least my desire gets redirected elsewhere. Invariably, one or the other or both of these things happen, and despite having procured that which I once so ardently sought and so adamantly believed would provide me with a sense of fulfillment I again find myself wallowing in an all to familiar state of discontent.
Even if it were possible to permanently secure an object and indefinitely sustain my affection for it, the problem with an object-oriented solution to my suffering is further exacerbated by the fact that the happiness I am seeking and of which I time and again get a fleeting taste apparently through my interaction with certain desirable objects is not actually coming from the objects. In other words, the objects of my desire are not themselves the source of the joy I seem to derive from them. For most of us, accepting this fact is about as easy as swallowing a brick. It seems quite obvious that my joy comes from the object of my enjoyment. A simple analysis of the logic of our own experience, however, reveals the error of this belief.
As an example, consider the following. In my capacity as a high school English teacher, I throw out a question to the class at the beginning of each period that serves as a fun way to bring the students’ focus to the matter at hand and help us get to know one another and thus bond as a class. For instance, I might ask, “If you were treated to a dinner at any restaurant of your choice, what would you order for your meal?” As we make our way around the room, a wide variety of answers are proffered. “Steak.” “Lobster.” “Buffalo Wings.” Inevitably, when my turn comes and I say, “A garden burger” or “A tossed salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing” a chorus of groans erupts and the students ask, “Why?” And when I tell them that I am a vegetarian, a cacophony of gasps, shrieks, and occasionally even expletive-laden phrases of astonishment resounds throughout the room. The students cannot believe that I don’t crave bacon cheeseburgers and bar-b-cue ribs, that I prefer broccoli and bean burritos over pepperoni pizza and fried chicken. The point is that the same object doesn’t satisfy everyone.
If the joy that we seemingly experience through our interaction with a given object were actually an attribute of the object, then that same object would bring joy to everyone who encountered it across the board. But we all know that this is not the way it works. While I cringe at the sound of the screaming lead singer and roaring guitar riffs issuing from my teenage neighbor’s car stereo, listening to Krishna Das chant God’s name would have little Johnny Death Metal gnawing the black polish off his fingernails out of sheer boredom. The conclusion with which we are inevitably left is that the joy is not in the object.
“Well, then,” we might very well ask, “what is the source of the joy?”
From the relative point of view, according to Vedanta, there are only two things in existence: me, the subject, and everything else, the objects of which I am aware. Since we know from direct experience that joy does indeed exist and have determined from the logical examination of said experience that the source of joy is not the object, then the only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that the joy is in me. Ironically, I, myself, am the source of the happiness I seek to experience through my ceaseless pursuit of both “inner” objects (i.e. emotional and psychological states) and “outer” objects (i.e. relationships, possessions, and experiences). Moreover, following this line of reasoning to its inevitable end, I realize that joy is my true nature. I am joy itself.
“But if happiness is my essential nature,” you might wonder, “then why does it seem like the joy is in the object?”
In order to answer this question, we need to look at the mechanism of desire, its cause and its ramifications. Because I am ignorant of my true nature as limitless awareness, I feel inadequate and incomplete. Out of whack as they are with my true nature, such feelings are quite painful. I, therefore, seek to assuage this emotional turmoil by pursuing objects (both gross and subtle) that I believe will complete me. While the desire for objects seems quite natural and essentially harmless, it actually agitates my psyche to a greater or lesser degree depending on the intensity of the desire and directs my attention away from my own inner reservoir of peace and happiness, pointing it outward toward the objective world (which in terms of Vedanta includes the mind) where it hopes to find a source of satisfaction. At those moments when I am seemingly fortunate enough to secure the object for which I have been seeking, the desire causing both the inner agitation and the extroversion of my attention dissolves and my own innate joy floods forth and bathes me in a feeling of fulfillment. The object only acted as a catalyst that evoked an experience of my own innate peace and happiness. The most important conclusion to be drawn from this phase of our inquiry is that it is never actually the object itself that I desire when I pursue objects, but rather the peace, happiness, and general sense of fulfillment, which I seem to derive from them.
Though there is no doubt that we do experience joy when we procure and/or interact with the object of our desire, there is a fundamental problem with the pursuit of joy through objects – namely, all object-oriented joy is only temporary. As was earlier established, the very nature of the apparent reality – and, therefore, every component within it – is mutability. Every object – both the apparent individual I take myself to be and all the gross and subtle phenomena appearing “around” and “within” me – is in constant state of flux. Coupled with the fact that every mutable object is inherently limited, how likely is it that the limited actions – or interaction – of two limited objects will produce a permanent result?
Despite my erroneous identification with the apparent individual entity I take myself to be, I am not limited. I am not temporary. I am whole and complete, limitless, unborn, non-dual awareness. Nothing can be added to me. Nothing can be taken from me. And if my nature is joy – which it is – then that joy must be permanent, for I cannot be taken away from myself.
So if the joy that I seek through object is actually in me, is indeed my own true nature, then it is only logical that I should pursue joy directly in myself rather than wasting my time and energy scrambling after objects that are ultimately incapable of providing me with any lasting fulfillment. In other words, it’s time I cut out the middle man and reap 100% of the only worthwhile profit there is to be “gained” in life – that of my own innate and immortal perfection.
This is the realization from which the fourth pursuit – freedom or liberation (i.e. moksha) – takes its cue and enters into the drama of my life. At this point, freedom from limitation becomes my top priority, the guiding goal that gives purpose to all my actions.
Since immortal perfection is my nature, however, it is not something I can acquire, procure, get, or gain in the same way that I do the objects I chase in the apparent reality. Not only is my nature not an object, it is moreover not something that is separate from me. In other words, I already possess that which I am looking to find. My only problem is that I don’t know I have it. In a word, my only problem is ignorance.
So what is the solution? What will remove my ignorance and reveal my true identity?
Here again, reason rather than faith comes to the rescue. Logical inquiry leads inevitably to the conclusion that only one thing can give me what I’ve already got: knowledge.
Only knowledge will liberate me from my erroneous notions of limitation and thus “give” me the freedom that is already mine. Therefore, according to Vedanta, both the point of knowledge and the purpose of life are one and the same.