Chapter Three: The Purpose of Human Life
A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.
- Kurt Vonnegut, “The Sirens of Titan”
All religious traditions contrast the impermanent, imperfect physical world with an ideal Divine Reality. The Ultimate Divine is said to be eternal, all-knowing and ever-present. On the other hand, this transient, imperfect universe presents an opportunity for sentient beings to embrace their inner Divine consciousness. What are the implications of these universal metaphysical teachings to human morality? How does one escape his or her base, transient nature in order to commune with and enter the Divine Presence?
These six religious traditions, deriving from and teaching about the common Source, naturally give a common instruction to their followers. There are three shared imperatives found in each text: universal compassion, the quest for true knowledge, and the control of material desires. Fulfillment of these vital obligations is the basic purpose of human life.
Properly understood, true wisdom, selfless deeds, and anti-materialism are all one and the same. We must act with the knowledge that material comfort is temporary, but the Divine is eternal. Actions in service to others are really actions in service to the Undying. When one understands the true nature of this world as a test, he or she can engage in compassionate deeds without the restraint of personal greed. Realization of these eternal truths must be manifested in daily activity in order to bring an individual closer to the Divine ideal.
Confucius was intimately concerned with morality. Like the other sages who founded the major religious movements of humanity, Confucius ultimately bases his instructions for ethics on compassion. Chapter one, verse six of the Analects offers succinct instructions of moral perfection to the followers of Confucius:
The Master said, 'A youth, when at home, should be filial, and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies.'
This section explains the vital necessity of compassion. Explicitly, the followers of Confucius are instructed to "overflow with love for all." Completely impartial empathy and service allows human beings to recognize the Divine Virtue within themselves and others. Empathy is the natural root of family love and respect to elders, and sincerity in action and truthful words are necessary components of a morally upright life. True compassion knows no boundaries. Besides helping our fellow human beings, we are invited to gain more knowledge study in order to further benefit humanity and expand our own awareness.
Chapter sixteen, verse five of the Analects further explains the Confucian method of achieving perfection in human action:
Confucius said, 'There are three things men find enjoyment in which are advantageous, and three things they find enjoyment in which are injurious. To find enjoyment in the discriminating study of ceremonies and music; to find enjoyment in speaking of the goodness of others; to find enjoyment in having many worthy friends:-- these are advantageous. To find enjoyment in extravagant pleasures; to find enjoyment in idleness and sauntering; to find enjoyment in the pleasures of feasting:-- these are injurious.'
One should find satisfaction through enlarging one’s knowledge and genuine friendship. These actions emulate and seek the eternal Virtue, and help to bring about a better existence for all beings. This is the vital instruction for living a life that seeks and embraces the Eternal Consciousness. Conversely, wantonly seeking sense-gratification through sloth, ease, and corporeal excess is harmful to the better nature of humanity. To focus one’s life on the perpetual quest to gratify insatiable material desires is to waste the immense potentials that accompany sentient existence. Human beings should use the opportunity of this life to seek the Eternal through compassionate actions and the unceasing expansion of knowledge. Confucius clearly taught that learning, compassion, and self-restraint are the three essential purposes of our earthly existence. As the reader shall soon see, this fundamental moral teaching is found in all of the holy scriptures of humanity.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus offers the timeless description of the moral perfection that brings humanity closer to God. Chapter nineteen, verses sixteen through twenty-four of the Book of Matthew contain the following dialogue:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
A man asked Jesus how to escape the transience of earthly existence and find eternal life. Initially, Jesus instructs his supplicant to follow the old commandments of Judaism. Murder, theft, lying and sexual misconduct are forbidden. Beyond and above these instructions, there is the command to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Herein lies the crucial point in this passage, an instruction repeated throughout all religious teachings. All humanity owes its existence to the God that created the universe, and all human beings have an essential imprint of the Divine within. Our apparent differences are trivial. The basis of true and complete compassion is the ability to see the Divine potential in all of humanity. This unspoiled vision allows one to truly empathize with another to the point of selfless action. Jesus instructs the (generally morally upright) wealthy man to give up all his material possessions to the destitute. Such unrestrained charity would constitute an act that would display one's contempt for the imperfections of the passing material world, and a complete trust in the undying Divine Justice. Jesus equates such a trust in the perfectly-just order of the universe with moral perfection. Conversely, Jesus warns that those who are mentally entangled by their abundant possessions will not be able to escape the inevitable destruction of physical forms, and will fail to fully commune with and enter the eternal abode. Sentient beings must use their minds to seek the undying through moral virtue, and not wallow in the mud of material lust. There is an unbreakable correlation, found throughout humanity’s spiritual teachings, between true knowledge, compassion, and detachment from material longings.
The Book of John offers a complimentary account of Jesus' instructions for perfection in action. In chapter thirteen verses fourteen and fifteen, Jesus tells his followers:
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.
For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
This passage emphasizes selfless action. That Jesus would abase himself in order to wash another person's feet (a highly subservient action in a Semitic culture) is testimony to Jesus' universal compassion and disdain for social rank. Through this service, Jesus sought to set an example for his followers. One is to trust in God, and to manifest this trust in the Higher Power by ungrudgingly working for the good of all people. The similarities between the teachings of Jesus and Confucius on the purpose of human life are manifestly apparent. The Divine Ideal must be sought through the selfless actions that recognize the ever-present Eternal Consciousness in all beings. This simple yet vital commandment is shared by all sincere religious instruction, and is the cornerstone for all human morality.
The Buddha also taught the universal ethical imperatives of compassion, learning, and escape from material desires. Chapter twenty-one, verses one through four of the Dhammapada read:
If by renouncing a lesser happiness one may realize a greater happiness, let the wise person renounce the lesser, having regard for the greater. One who seeks one's own happiness by inflicting pain on others, entangled by the bonds of hate, will never be delivered from hate. For those who are arrogant and heedless, who leave undone what should be done and do what should not be done--for them the cankers only increase. Those who always earnestly practice mindfulness of the body, who do not resort to what should not be done, and steadfastly pursue what should be done, mindful and clearly comprehending--their cankers cease.
The "lesser happiness" spoken of in the first verse is the fleeting pleasure of material satisfaction. Those who abuse and exploit other beings in order to increase their own material welfare will become mentally entangled in the ultimately unsatisfactory transient world. They will also suffer the karmic ill-effects of their misdeeds. Note that moral perfection and happiness are to be sought through correct actions, not merely lofty ideals. To be “mindful” - to embrace one’s omniscient Higher Nature, act morally upright, and spurn material lusts are the keys to overcoming the trials of this transient realm.
The Buddha's instructions for morality are further explained in chapter nineteen, verses twelve through fifteen of the Dhammapada:
Not by observing silence does one become a sage, if one be foolish and ignorant.
But that wise person who, as if holding a balance-scale, accepts only the good and rejects the evil--that person is truly a sage. Since both (the present and future) worlds are comprehended, that person is called a sage.
One is not a Noble One who injures living beings. One is called a Noble One because one is harmless towards all living beings. You should not rest content merely by following rules and observances, nor even by acquiring much learning; nor by gaining absorption, nor by a life of seclusion; Nor by thinking: "I enjoy the bliss of renunciation that is not experienced by the worldling." O renunciates, you should not rest content until the utter destruction of the cankers is reached.
To be completely beneficent to all living beings - to fully embrace ahisma (nonviolence) is the path of the Noble Ones. Observe that in the second verse of this passage, true comprehension is equated with the perfect morality. This is in a similar vein to Jesus' instructions to completely shun materialism and trust in Divine Justice. Again, as in all religious texts, the basis for this instruction is universal compassion. Not only do benevolent action and non-materialism benefit other creatures, they are also the path to peace within oneself. It is imperative to understand that actions and attitudes are more important than mere words.
The quest for self-improvement is inseparable from compassionate deeds. As verse nine of the fourth chapter of the Dhammapada states:
As from a great heap of flowers many garlands can be made, even so should many good deeds be done by one born a mortal.
One is to pass the test of this world through kind and selfless action. When one sees the lack of true fulfillment gained through satisfying material longings and recognizes the Divine within all beings, limitless compassion is possible. This life presents an opportunity both for self-realization and the accumulation of good works. Humanity should not waste this precious and fleeting gift. The words from the Dhammapada closely mirror and confirm the teachings found in the other five holy texts. One can attune his or herself to the Eternal through knowledge, renunciation of greed, and ceaseless compassion. These attitudes and actions are inseparably linked, and are the fundamental purpose of every human life.
Section forty-nine of the Tao te Ching offers the same message of universal compassion as taught by the Buddha, Confucius and Jesus (and Krishna and Muhammad):
The sage has no mind of his own.
He takes as his own the mind of the people.
Those who are good I treat as good.
Those who are not good I also treat as good.
In so doing I gain in goodness.
Those who are of good faith I have faith in.
Those who are lacking in good faith I also have faith in.
In so doing I gain in good faith.
The sage in his attempt to distract the mind of the empire seeks urgently to muddle it.
The people all have something to occupy their eyes and ears, and the sage treats them all like children.
Universal empathy is the strongest basis for universal compassion. To seek perfection one must recognize the Eternal Consciousness residing in all people. In a very real sense, we are all in the same predicament in this world. We all come from and shall return to the same Divine fold. We are all torn between our base instincts and our higher ideals and potentials. Lao Tzu says that the cultivation of goodness and sincerity is simple - one must be good and sincere to others, even if they do not reciprocate such beneficence. A "sage" views all of humanity as his or her children. The logic of this timeless instruction is infallible. If the Divine Presence is eternal and everywhere (including within oneself and others) then all people must be treated with equal love and respect. We must constantly strive to overcome selfishness and work for the good of others.
A later section of the teachings of Lao Tzu offers a somewhat more mystical guidance for achieving moral perfection. Section sixty four of the Tao te Ching reads:
A tree that can fill the span of a man's arms
Grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine storeys high
Rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles
Starts from beneath one's feet.
Whoever does anything to it will ruin it;
Whoever lays hold of it will lose it.
Therefore the sage, because he does nothing, never ruins anything;
And, because he does not lay hold of anything, loses nothing.
In their enterprises the people
Always ruin them when on the verge of success.
Be as careful at the end as at the beginning
And there will be no ruined enterprises.
Therefore the sage desires not to desire
And does not value goods which are hard to come by;
Learns to be without learning
And makes good the mistakes of the multitude
In order to help the myriad creatures to be natural and to refrain from daring to act.
Surrender to the will and way of the universe, as taught by all religious sages, is the focus of this passage. "To act", to indulge one's ego and greed in order to bring about selfish goals, is to go against the Tao. Those who seek to live a pure life do no harm, and lay no claim to passing material illusions. They are always careful in their affairs, and act with the constant awareness of the Eternal Way. Such personal attributes and deeds have their roots in the compassion one should have for the fellow creatures emanated from and dissolved into the same Ultimate Source. To be different from the mass of creatures is the lot of the fully sentient being. Base instincts and desires must be overcome in order to fulfill our true potential. This path is difficult to achieve. However, to ceaselessly seek such self-mastery, unrestrained compassion, and ultimate knowledge is the fundamental purpose of our human existence.
In the Bhagavad Gita, as in all holy texts, the Ultimate Source reveals the vital instruction for universal compassion. Chapter six, verses twenty-nine through thirty two disclose the metaphysical realities that necessitate ultimate empathy:
A true yogi observes Me in all beings and also sees every being in Me. Indeed, the self-realized person sees Me, the same Supreme Lord, everywhere.
For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.
Such a yogi, who engages in the worshipful service of the Supersoul, knowing that I and the Supersoul are one, remains always in Me in all circumstances.
He is a perfect yogi who, by comparison to his own self, sees the true equality of all beings, in both their happiness and their distress, O Arjuna!
These verses command the universal imperatives of compassion, anti-materialism, and knowledge. The basis for moral perfection is the ability to see the welfare and sufferings of others as one's own. An individual who, while suffering the imperfections of life in this realm, remains aware of the ever-present Perfect Essence is never overcome by the material illusion. Every single person can take refuge into their inherent higher nature through such wisdom. The true vision of universal equality inspires acts of limitless beneficence.
How are we to live and work in this imperfect world, and yet remain detached from material longing? The Bhagavad Gita (like every holy scripture) instructs humanity to be detached from material illusions in order to serve and enter Brahman through compassionate action. Chapter two, verses forty-seven through fifty three of the Gita offer the following formula for moral perfection:
You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.
Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.
O Dhananjaya [Krishna], keep all abominable activities far distant by devotional service, and in that consciousness surrender unto the Lord. Those who want to enjoy the fruits of their work are misers.
A man engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad actions even in this life. Therefore strive for yoga, which is the art of all work.
By thus engaging in devotional service to the Lord, great sages or devotees free themselves from the results of work in the material world. In this way they become free from the cycle of birth and death and attain the state beyond all miseries [by going back to Godhead].
When your intelligence has passed out of the dense forest of delusion, you shall become indifferent to all that has been heard and all that is to be heard.
When your mind is no longer disturbed by the flowery language of the Vedas, and when it remains fixed in the trance of self-realization, then you will have attained the divine consciousness.
Identical to other religious texts, we see in this passage the interdependency of right thought, right action, and indifference to worldly pleasures. An individual must never act from pride, ego, or the desire for reward. We must perform correct deeds as an act of worship, and such actions constitute a self-sufficient recompense. The ultimate compassion one acquires when he or she realizes that the immutable Divine Spark is within all creatures sustains this attitude of worshipful service. Momentary corporeal loss or gain cannot compare to the blessings earned from knowledge of the Eternal within. One's mind, in the state of ultimate knowledge, becomes free from transient distractions, and is ever joyful. The most important duty of all humanity is to act with the knowledge of the ever-present and eternal Divine within all creatures. Such awareness leads to universal compassion, which is the basis of all transcendental morality. The basic purpose of material creation is but to try the individual soul on the journey back to Brahman. Human beings must let go of physical comfort or distress, and commune with the Supersoul through compassionate deeds.
Many passages of the Qur'an testify to the crucial importance and unbreakable interdependence of compassion, true awareness, and right action. Verses twelve through twenty one of sura ninety two ably expound upon this inescapable reality:
Verily We take upon Ourselves to guide,
And verily unto Us (belong) the End and the Beginning.
Therefore do I warn you of a Fire blazing fiercely;
None shall reach it but those most unfortunate ones
Who give the lie to Truth and turn their backs.
But those most devoted to Allah shall be removed far from it,-
Those who spend their wealth for increase in self-purification,
And have in their minds no favour from anyone for which a reward is expected in return,
But only the desire to seek for the Countenance of their Lord Most High;
And soon will they attain satisfaction.
The Qur’an teaches of the vital nexus between correct belief and correct action. One who chooses to reject the immutable nature of the Divine, embraces base materialism, and lives in such a way that testifies to the belief in his or her own unaccountability, will meet the ill-effects of these foolish attitudes. Conversely, true devotion to the All-Powerful is the same as giving up one's wealth to purify one's soul. An individual who offers help to other people, motivated only by a desire to see the face of the All-Compassionate has trust in the complete justice of the cosmic order. As in the Gita, these selfless devotees do not seek the earthly rewards of their selfless actions, but rather offer up such charity as an act of pure worship. Such wise people are promised their due reward.
The purpose of human life is further explained in verses four through seventeen of the ninetieth sura:
Verily We have created man into toil and struggle.
Thinketh he, that none hath power over him?
He may say: Wealth have I squandered in abundance!
Thinketh he that none beholdeth him?
Have We not made for him a pair of eyes?-
And a tongue, and a pair of lips?-
And shown him the two highways?
But he hath made no haste on the path that is steep.
And what will explain to thee the path that is steep?-
Freeing the bondman;
Or the giving of food in a day of privation
To the orphan with claims of relationship,
Or to the indigent in the dust.
Then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion.
Sentient existence is a trial. These verses state explicitly that this world is a realm of hardship - Allah and the angels (the first-person “We”of the Qur’an) created human beings to “toil and struggle.” Individuals who waste their lives in the obsessive pursuit of material wealth and fleeting pleasures fail to realize the innate potentials of their own true consciousness. These misled people fail the test of life, for to waste the gift of human consciousness by obsessing over fleeting riches and comfort is to misuse the opportunity of life itself. The quest for true knowledge is essential. All have been blessed by the Divine with means of perception, and have been shown in their hearts the “two highways” of righteousness and wickedness. Many human beings fail to tread the difficult road of universal compassion. In order to tread the “path that is steep”, one must recognize the Divine in all people; selfless compassion is to be exercised towards all fellow human beings who are in need. We must work to liberate the oppressed, feed the hungry and encourage patience and charity in all people. The Qur'an holds that the fundamental purposes of human life are to overcome material lusts, seek knowledge, and acknowledge the Divine realities through unrestrained compassion towards all fellow human beings. This is the universal spiritual teaching on the purpose of this imperfect realm.
Humanity finds itself in a unique position amongst created beings. We have the blessing (and curse) of self-awareness on a level far beyond even the most intelligent of animals. Furthermore, we have an innate knowledge of morality, and unparalleled power over our natural environment. We are capable of acts of great selflessness and creativity, and senseless deeds of immense destruction. The traditions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, and Confucianism all share in common the essential teaching that we must overcome our lesser natures and embrace a Divine reality through compassionate action and mental restraint from corporeal whims. To live thusly is to be possessed of true wisdom. Our minds, our bodies, and our societies can either cultivate an Eternal essence and thrive, or wither away due to callous materialism, violence, and insatiable greed. The purpose of this fleeting life is to allow the Divine within to be made manifest through selfless deeds based in ultimate awareness. Only in this manner can individuals overcome their flawed natures and commune with the Deathless.