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Living Life: But For What Purpose? By Yoginder S. Sikand

From the moment we get up in the morning till we go to sleep at night, everything we do, we do with a certain purpose in mind. We get out of bed even if we’d rather not because we don’t want to miss office or skip school. We brush our teeth because we want to keep them in good shape and we don’t like bad breath. We have our breakfast because we need the energy to work and because we don’t want to feel hungry. We smile at a friend because we want to express our warm feelings for him. We wish our boss because we want to be in her good books or because we are genuinely pleased to see her. We snap at someone because we want to express our irritation with him. We prepare for an examination because we want to get good marks so that we can get admission in a good college. And so on. From morning to night, each one of us is busy, at every single moment, doing something or the other, and for one or more purposes. Even ‘doing nothing’—lying down in bed and staring at the ceiling, for instance—is a sort of doing, and it, too, is for a certain purpose: in order to relax and unwind or simply to experience ‘non-doing’ for a few moments for a change.

Our everyday lives can thus be seen as a vast collection of actions or doings that we engage in from moment to moment, and all of these for some purpose or the other. We could call these purposes as ‘micro-purposes’ or ‘immediate purposes’. It doesn’t require much effort for us to understand the micro-purposes behind the many actions that fill our daily existence. Often, we engage in certain actions fully aware of the purpose(s) for which we do so. If sometimes we are not sure about why we have performed a particular action, a few moments of reflection can help give us greater clarity about the issue. And sometimes when we do something for reasons that seem beyond our control and which we cannot understand, psychological counselling can help to make us aware of their underlying causes.

But besides and beyond these micro-purposes of the myriad actions of our everyday lives is something much larger—the overall or overarching purpose of our life as such. Generally speaking, while most of us are generally clear as to our purpose in engaging in a particular action in our everyday lives (for instance, reading a book in order to gain knowledge or simply to amuse ourselves), few of us have a clear idea of the macro-purpose of human life in general and our own life in particular. Not many of us know what the grand purpose of our short stay on this planet is, especially in the backdrop of the fact that we have to die one day (this being the only thing about the future that we can be absolutely sure of).

This issue, of the macro-purpose of human life (which becomes starker when seen in the context of our inevitable death), is undoubtedly most important existential question that we could ask ourselves. And yet, how many of us ever care to think about it deeply? Many of us are so deeply engrossed in our innumerable immediate, micro-purposes of our day-to-day existence that we refuse to let our minds turn to the subject. For some, the issue seems so baffling, forbidding and even frightening that they just don’t want to think about it. Others believe the question of the ultimate purpose of human life is simply unanswerable and hence not worth bothering about at all. And so, they waste their lives drifting from one immediate purpose to another, sometimes just to keep themselves busy and thereby maintain a semblance of sanity, till they finally drop dead.

How many parents ever discuss the issue of the macro-purpose of life with their children? Mine never did. How many of our teachers talk about the overall purpose of life with their students? Mine never did—and I happened to study at some of the supposedly best educational institutions in India and abroad. I can’t recall my ‘elders’—be it at home or at school or in the several universities I studied in—ever once broaching the subject. I think the same is true for the vast majority of the people I have known—such is the deafening silence on what is the most important question of life.

A basic prerequisite for successfully engaging in a particular action is to be clear as to the purpose for which one is doing it. If one lacks this clarity one is bound to make a mess of things. If we aren’t aware of the ultimate purpose of our life, we are likely to fritter it away on purposes other than this one, keeping ourselves busy with all sorts of things that take us away from our real purpose—so that, ultimately, our lives end in waste and failure. It is like using a book to drive away mosquitoes or to fan oneself with instead of reading it for passing an examination. But if, on the other hand, we have clarity about the overall purpose of human life, the reason why God has created us and has sent us to spend a brief time on earth—which we can derive only from authentic religious scriptures—we are more likely to spend it in the right manner, and in this way, successfully pass the examination of life, the only examination that truly matters.