Life is a tale told by an idiot
Sometimes we pose a question to ourselves “What is life?” We contemplate about the purpose of life and how it should be lived in the broader context of the society and the environment we confront each day. This boils down to a philosophical or religious or theosophical question. One can examine the issues concerning life in a variety of ways influenced by factors such as ethics, values, happiness, salvation, religious commandments and what not.[English Text only]
Sometimes we pose a question to ourselves “What is life?” We contemplate about the purpose of life and how it should be lived in the broader context of the society and the environment we confront each day. This boils down to a philosophical or religious or theosophical question. One can examine the issues concerning life in a variety of ways influenced by factors such as ethics, values, happiness, salvation, religious commandments and what not.
The question concerning the purpose of life has provoked serious thinking amongst many thinkers and philosophers since time immemorial. The Greek philosopher and thinker Socrates said, “Know thyself” – a guiding principle of profound significance for human beings. We may find a purpose of life as revealed in this two-word statement of Socrates indicating the meaning of life lies within oneself. It is an ‘individual’ self that is life and the individual itself can influence the way a life is to be lived to secure a meaning within the God’s creation. The good and the evil that we see around basically originate from within ‘ourselves’.
While religion teaches us to pursue the good to be happy in life together with other fellow members of the society, we may often fail to do so because of the unique nature that is in-built within us as human beings. The motivation to make efforts on the part of a person to help achieve collective good involves philosophical reasoning that involves intricate and complex inter-relationships between players living in the society at large.
One body of thought considers pleasure as the purpose of life. To be happy means “Eat, drink and be merry”. The literal meaning here is the pleasure of the senses without bothering about the need for the soul that resides in us. “I shall drink life to the lees”, said the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Here the poet expressed his deepest love for life and glorified it to such a height as to imply that the life deserves to be enjoyed to the fullest extent possible. Shakespeare was conscious about the ultimate end of life through death, a tragedy. It is a time when everything will be taken away – however, the soul will triumph over the body. Does this indicate a contradiction – a conflict between the body and the soul?
Achieving peace of mind could be another way of describing the meaning of life. It is something that most people desire. However, a Buddhist priest is of the view that “peace of mind is often like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow‐ it tends to be elusive for most people”. When are our happiest times – a bliss point in our life? Is it when we experienced a deep sense of contentment or peace of mind? We do not live in a perfect world and the world around us is full of struggles and conflicts. Can there be peace of mind in these circumstances?
We cannot fix all our problems in life – that is given for sure. We may need to adjust our way of life to seek and achieve peace and happiness. We cannot control many things happening in the world – things happen in a unique way. Therefore, we can only find peace of mind and achieve the meaning of life by embracing the imperfections of life, so to speak. Peace of mind is internal and so it can be controlled without being too much influenced by external affairs surrounding us.
Religious view of the meaning or purpose of life takes various interpretations depending on the theological underpinnings of particular religions. For example, Buddhism believes that life is riddled with a range of sufferings that are mainly attributed to strong attachment to material or non-material welfare. Pleasure of the senses does not translate into lasting happiness in this transient world. So what is the way to end the sufferings to human beings? The Buddhists believe that some sort of dispassion and indifference to material wealth and gains ignoring the associated pleasures is a way to achieve Nirvana or salvation – a state of freedom from sufferings and the chain of rebirth.
In Hinduism, the concepts of Karma (causal action), Sansara (the birth and the cycle of rebirth) and Moksha (liberation) are central to the purpose of life. In short, the love of God and His grace are attached to the meaning of life. The ultimate objective of life is to attain Moksha – the real happiness in life, so to say.
In general, the religion of Islam urges its followers to worship Allah (the creator) by following the Divine commandments and the Tradition of the Prophet to achieve peace of mind in this world. Beliefs and actions in this world will determine the place of human beings in the hereafter.
The famous mystic poet, thinker and philosopher Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi considered that the human soul (the ruh) is here in this world for its own joy. What is the soul’s joy in this world? How do we know the soul is satisfied? The soul’s joy became the true meaning of life for Rumi. Like many other Sufi poets of Persian literature, Rumi believed that the purpose of life is the reunion with the beloved (the ultimate and absolute truth - God) because we became separated from this primal root through birth. Love for the beloved was the essence of Rumi’s idea about the true purpose of life. Thus he suggested that the immortal soul desires to restore the missing link through reuniting with the beloved or the primal root. In other words, the soul is keen to return to where it originated.
Why do babies cry after birth? Are there anatomical and physiological reasons for this? There could be a metaphysical reason behind the crying of the infant as well. The birth of a baby is a transition from one state of environment to another state. The soul of the baby used to reside in a world of light, a world of divine peace; through its birth the baby is exposed to a world of darkness and imperfection. So the baby starts crying after birth remembering the divine light and spirituality with which the soul was associated in a heavenly world. Thus the primal root is broken resulting in pains and sufferings with which to live a life in this world. This again boils down to the spritual explanation by the Sufis in relation to the ultimate purpose of life.
In fine, life has a purpose and a meaning. Should we subscribe to the Shakespearean world view “Life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing”? May be not - life signifies something positive and deserves to be lived fully to serve a purpose, I suppose.
To know what life is, we need to keep living. However, nobody lives forever so how will we know what life is?
Abdul Quader writes from Canberra