The Meaning and Purpose of Life


by Jayaram V

From the time you become conscious of the world and your place in it, let there by a series of purposes to guide your actions for the highest purpose, which is to create the life you want to lead. Jayaram V

Purpose means reason or intent. Meaning means what you get out of something or what that thing can contribute. Let us examine these two ideas with regard to life itself.

Is there a purpose or meaning to life? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do? What is the significance of life itself? Are we meant to pursue our own interests and ensure our survival and wellbeing or do we have to serve a greater purpose or a higher power?

These are tough questions for which there is no definite answers. Religions provide speculative theories about them to reinforce their beliefs and practices and strengthen the faith and commitment of their followers. They may not appeal to everyone unless one believes in them and practices them. They may help their followers to find meaning and purpose in their lives and seek fulfillment through them. However, they do not adequately satisfy the curiosity of inquisitive and rational minds.

For example, Abrahamic religions believe that the purpose of human beings upon earth is to express God’s glory through their actions, abide in God’s laws and seek his forgiveness for their sins to attain an eternal life. According to them life offers an opportunity to the sinners to redeem themselves from their sins and earn God’s love and grace through their actions.

Hinduism suggests that human beings have to dedicate their lives in the service of God as his devotees and perform his duties upon earth as a sacrifice or service, without desiring their fruit to escape from karma and attain liberation from the cycle of births and deaths (samsara).

Buddhism holds that life is full of suffering and our purpose here is to escape permanently from it by realizing the Four Noble Truths and practicing self-purification on the Eightfold Path. The Buddha preached that suffering and rebirth would not end until the dissolution of beingness and attainment of Nirvana.

According to Jainism the purpose of human life is to cleanse the karma which accumulates around the soul by practicing right perception, right knowledge and right conduct and observing strict vows to become an adept or a pure and the omniscient soul (jina) and ascend to the highest heaven. Similarly other religions such as Sikhism and Zoroastrianism offer their own explanations.

Religious dogmas regarding the meaning and purpose of life have their own merits. However, they not adequately address the concerns of everyone. There are many people in the world who would prefer to live for themselves in a meaningful and purposeful manner, without practicing any religion or faith. They would prefer to rely upon practical approach to find their own truth.

Rationally speaking, it is difficult to convince oneself in the light of mounting evidence that there can be a specific meaning or purpose why life exists upon earth or why we come into existence or why the world or the universe exists. Science also fails to provide satisfactory answers. It may, at the best, suggest that the purpose of all life upon earth is to express and serve the aims of Nature. However, it cannot tell you why even Nature exists at all and for what end.

The question of meaning and purpose has baffled many philosophers since the earliest times. I would like present two widely discussed theories. The first one is by Nihilists, who believe that life has no intrinsic value, meaning or purpose and nothing can be said with certainty about anything since it is impossible to attain true knowledge or validate it conclusively. Some Nihilists believe in existential nihilism, according to which our presence or absence does not make difference to the universe.

The second theory is by existentialists. They also believe that there is no inherent value, purpose or identity with which beings are born upon earth. Their absence can potentially lead to existential angst or despair or dread. To avoid it one must develop meaning and purpose in life and live responsibly, positively and passionately without being oppressed by the suffering and Despair which are inherent in our lives.

In other words, according to these modern philosophies, your life is what you make of it, what meaning and purpose you impart to it, and how you create your own story or reality by being authentic to yourself or the identity which you want to create for yourself with authentic thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions.

No one can say whether human beings are born with a purpose and meaning from birth or whether they have to find them on their own and actualize them through self-effort. We cannot let ourselves suffer from confusion and existential despair and waste the wonderful opportunity which life offers to us to live our lives to the best of our abilities and values. At the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to chase mirages and irrational beliefs, following speculative theories about the purpose and meaning of life.

Life may or may not have meaning and purpose, but we can find them through the actions we perform, the decision we make, the goals we pursue, the values we cherish, the relationships we build, the feelings and emotions we experience, the knowledge we acquire and the life we create for ourselves and others. The world may not be under anyone’s control, but we cannot let any extraneous entity control our lives. The existence of a person or an entity may not make any difference to the universe, but it should make a difference to each of us because we matter to ourselves and to those whom we love.

In this regard it is worth remembering, Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian Psychiatrist and author of the famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He found that having purpose and meaning gives strength and will to people to face adversity and continue against odds. With purpose, they find courage and conviction to face toughest problems and sustain their optimism.

His book is based upon his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration death camps in Poland during the Second World War. He noted that those who managed to survive in the death camps or prolong their lives against odds were those who had something to look forward to. They found a reason to live and survive by whatever means, sometimes setting aside the basic norms which govern our behavior and conduct.

They were able to bear with the extreme conditions which prevailed in the camp, the callousness and inhumanity of the Nazi guards and the constant dread of facing death anytime because they kept their hope of seeing light at the end of it all and start their lives afresh once they were released by rejoining their families or their beloved ones

Therefore, it is important that you to find the meaning and purpose of your life through the goals you pursue, the actions you perform, the decisions you make, the relationships your build, the resources you acquire, the values you cherish, the choices you make, the dreams you pursue, and the person you wish to become.

As Nietzsche said "he who has a Why to live can almost bear any How." If you know the purpose of what you do, you will find it easier to ascertain the “how” of it. When you have purpose, will have clarity, strength, willpower, focus, courage, hope and perseverance. You will find opportunities to solve your problems and overcome obstacles to celebrate your victories, learn from your failures and actualize your potential.

It’s probably the most sensible and practical way to live your life according to your best values, hopes and aspirations to be the person you believe yourself to be or want to be. Life may be a mystery or an enigma, but it gives each of us each of us an opportunity to experience life and create our own meaning, purpose, and value.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page