By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Almost the only time when the batch of students I was teaching while volunteering at a school recently appeared genuinely interested in what I went on about was the day I decided we should discuss the purpose of life. That day, even students who preferred to sleep or gossip in class keenly participated in what turned out to be a lively discussion. Never before, the students said, had this topic, which surely haunts everyone of us at least sometime in our lives, been discussed in the classroom. While most of my students rarely had anything to say on any topic that I broached for discussion, this time many of them enthusiastically expressed and shared their opinions. Clearly, it was a question that touched the very core of their existence.
You can’t think of a more basic existential issue than the purpose of life, including your own. I don’t suppose there can be anything more fundamental than that, for the answer you supply to the question of what the purpose of life is determines the way you choose to spend yours. Given this, it is simply shocking the casual way this most important question is generally treated. Many parents simply don’t ever raise this issue with their children. Possibly, they find it ‘too embarrassing’ or ‘esoteric’ or ‘irksome’ to worry about. Or, perhaps they themselves are not clear as to what the purpose of their own life is. Maybe they want to avoid looking too deeply into their own lives for fear of finding them empty and meaningless. Moreover, raising the issue of the purpose of life inevitably brings in the question of death, which is a fundamental reality that most people generally hate recognizing. I don’t recall my parents even once talking about the purpose of life. Even mention of the word ‘death’ was sheer anathema.
Nor is the question of the purpose of life generally talked about in schools. My teachers and classmates never raised the issue. Life was simply taken for granted, and few people seemed to care if there was any underlying meaning to it. It was as if we lived simply for the sake of living, and that there was nothing else to it. If you talked of any higher purpose of life beyond material ‘success’, your friends would think you were mad or else ‘too religious’, and, therefore, definitely ‘odd’ and avoidable. If you dissented from the crowd and insisted that the purpose of life was not, as they argued, simply ‘having a good time all the time’ they would readily accuse you of being ‘too serious’ and ‘morose’. Your teachers and parents might even think you needed psychiatric treatment if you started pondering ‘excessively’ about such ‘abstruse’ matters.
Now, it isn’t that ‘modernity’, which we’ve been seduced into believing, is the panacea to all our ills and the only road to ‘success’, has nothing at all to say about the purpose of life. Despite claiming to distance itself from religion and to abstain from imposing an answer to the question of the purpose of life, ‘modernity’ is informed by a quasi-religious conviction about life having a definite meaning, although it may not announce it as explicitly as religions do. In contrast to religion, ‘secular modernity’ sees the purpose of life as being geared to material ‘success’—limitless acquisition and consumption and relentless titillation of the ego, driven by boundless avarice, ambition and competition. This is the subtle message that the two major propaganda arms of ‘modernity’—the educational system and the mass media—ceaselessly send out. The richer and more powerful you are, the closer to fulfilling what ‘modernity’ regards as the fundamental purpose of life, even though you might have a hopeless personal life, possess a terrible temper and lack any concern for those you consider ‘below’ you. If you are poor and powerless, your life, you are made to believe, has been an utter failure, even if you are content with your lot and at peace with the rest of the cosmos.
If you carefully analyse the ‘modern’ educational system and mass media you can clearly see that this is the notion of the purpose of life they are essentially driven to promoting. They are the missionaries of a godless religion, wherein material acquisition has displaced ethical and spiritual development and devotion as the basic purpose of life. Few students who pass through the ‘modern’ school system are left unscathed by the deadly and deadening logic that it is premised on. After years of brainwashing in school and college, they are almost universally programmed into firmly believing that becoming rich and famous is the purpose of human life. The more intense their exposure to the mass media and the advertising industry the more unshakable this conviction.
Many ‘decent’ folks may be too embarrassed to admit this, for it might appear simply too crude, but, really, probably the majority of us have come to be conditioned to see the fundamental purpose of life in crass material terms. In this the ‘modern’ educational system, which is now considered to be almost mandatory for everybody, has a major role to play. With the ‘modern’ educational system geared essentially to promoting individual ‘success’ based on virtually limitless consumption and competition, this being seen as the fundamental purpose of life, it is hardly surprising that the expansion of ‘modern’ education is leading to numerous crises that its advocates probably never expected, not least a major crisis of meaning in people’s lives. If the purpose of life is to maximize material wealth and consumption, the rape of the earth is only to be expected and it is little wonder that we are today faced with global ecological disaster. If ‘success’ in life is all about fierce competition and aggressive ambition, is it at all surprising that this logic is leading to the breakdown of families and to exacerbation of conflicts between social groups engaged in cut-throat competition for the same goodies?
These were some of the issues we discussed in class that day. You should have seen the emotions that the discussion provoked even in some of the otherwise most disinterested students! They had hardly given the purpose of life any attention before this, they admitted, and were glad for the opportunity to collectively reflect on the issue. There was definitely more to life, they insisted as the class drew to a close, than what they had all along been led to believe. If death was an inescapable reality, and if, on dying, one went back as alone and empty-handed as when one arrived in the world, wasn’t it completely absurd, some of them asked, to invest money, wealth and relationships with a significance much more than they warranted? If, as all religions claimed, death was again followed by life, even possibly life eternal, and if one’s future in the life after death had nothing whatever to do with one’s wealth and education, but, instead, everything to do with the quality one’s ethical and spiritual life, then, some of them wondered, hadn’t the ‘modern’ education system and the TV channels they were hooked on to got it all horrendously wrong? Some students even ventured so far as to insist that the logic of ‘success’ as defined by the educational system and the mass media was definitely inimical to ‘success’ in the life after death, and that it worked to undermine, rather than promote, what they saw as the basic purpose of life: ‘success’ in what might possibly be an eternal life after this ephemeral one.
Whether there is any single, predetermined purpose of life I have not the faintest idea. Perhaps each of us has to invent or discover our own life’s purpose. But, whatever the case, it is definitely an issue that ought to be openly and continuously discussed in families and schools. Sadly, though, it generally isn’t at all, with the result that many children—and this happened in my case, too—are conditioned by their parents, peers and teachers into simply drifting through life without a higher purpose, most being readily seduced by the inane logic that the purpose of life is just, as they say, ‘making it big’.