Who am I? What should I do in life? What is the meaning of life? Humans have been asking these questions from time immemorial. Every generation needs a new answer, because what we know and don’t know keeps changing. Given everything we know and don’t know about science, about God, about politics and about religion – what is the best answer we can give today?
What kind of an answer do people expect? In almost all cases, when people ask about the meaning of life, they expect to be told a story. Man is a storytelling animal, that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings. When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what is my particular role in the cosmic drama. This role defines who I am, and gives meaning to all my experiences and choices.
One popular story, told for thousands of years to billions of anxious humans, explains that we are all part of an eternal cycle that encompasses and connects all beings. Each being has a distinctive function to fulfil in the cycle. To understand the meaning of life means to understand your unique function, and to live a good life means to accomplish that function.
The Bhagavadgita relates how, in the midst of a murderous civil war, the great warrior prince Arjuna is consumed with doubts. Seeing his friends and relatives in the opposing army, he hesitates to fight and kill them. He begins to wonder what are good and evil, who decided it, and what is the purpose of human life. The god Krishna then explains to Arjuna that within the great cosmic cycle each being possesses a unique ‘dharma’, the path you must follow and the duties you must fulfil. If you realise your dharma, no matter how hard the path may be, you enjoy peace of mind and liberation from all doubts. If you refuse to follow your dharma, and try to adopt somebody else’s path – or to wander about with no path at all – you will disturb the cosmic balance (whatever it means?), and will never be able to find either peace or joy. It makes no difference what your particular path is, as long as you follow it. A washerwoman who devotedly follows the way of the washerwoman is far superior to a prince who strays off the way of the prince. Having understood the meaning of life, Arjuna duly proceeds to follow his dharma as a warrior. He kills his friends and relatives, leads his army to victory, and becomes one of the most esteemed and beloved heroes of the Hindu world.
The 1994 Disney epic The Lion King repackaged this ancient story for modern audiences, with the young lion Simba standing in for Arjuna. When Simba wants to know the meaning of existence, his father – the lion king Mufasa – tells him about the great Circle of Life. Mufasa explains that the antelopes eat the grass, the lions eat the antelopes, and when the lions die their body decomposes and feeds the grass. This is how life continues from generation to generation, provided each animal plays its part in the drama. Everything is connected, and everyone depends on everyone else, so if even a blade of grass fails to fulfil its vocation, the entire Circle of Life might unravel. Simba’s vocation, says Mufasa, is to rule the lion kingdom after Mufasa’s death, and keep the other animals in order.
However, when Mufasa is prematurely murdered by his evil brother Scar, young Simba blames himself for the catastrophe, and racked with guilt he leaves the lion kingdom, shuns his royal destiny and wanders off into the wilderness. There he meets two other outcasts, a meerkat and a warthog, and together they spend a few carefree years off the beaten path. Their antisocial philosophy means that they answer every problem by chanting Hakuna matata – no worries. But Simba cannot escape his dharma. As he matures, he becomes increasingly troubled, not knowing who he is and what he should do in life. At the climactic moment of the movie, the spirit of Mufasa reveals himself to Simba in a vision, and reminds Simba of the Circle of Life and of his royal identity. Simba also learns that in his absence, the evil Scar has assumed the throne and mismanaged the kingdom, which now suffers greatly from disharmony and famine. Simba finally understands who he is and what he should do. He returns to the lion kingdom, kills his uncle, becomes king and re-establishes harmony and prosperity. The movie ends with a proud Simba presenting his newly born heir to the assembled animals, ensuring the continuation of the great Circle of Life.
The Circle of Life presents the cosmic drama as a circular story. For all Simba and Arjuna know, lions ate antelopes and warriors fought battles for countless aeons and will continue to do so for ever and ever. The eternal repetition gives power to the story, implying that this is the natural course of things, and that if Arjuna shuns combat or if Simba refuses to become king, they will be rebelling against the very laws of nature.
If one has to believe in some version of the Circle of Life story, it means that I have a fixed and true identity that determines my duties in life. For many years I may be doubtful or ignorant of this identity, but one day, in some great climactic moment, it will be revealed, and I will understand my role in the cosmic drama, and though I may subsequently encounter many trials and tribulations, I will be free of doubts and despair.
Other religions and ideologies believe in a linear cosmic drama, which has a definitive beginning, a not-too-long middle and a once-and-for-all ending. For example, the Muslim story says that in the beginning Allah created the entire universe and laid down its laws. He then revealed these laws to humans in the Quran. Unfortunately, ignorant and wicked people rebelled against Allah and tried to break or hide these laws, and it is up to virtuous and loyal Muslims to uphold these laws and spread knowledge of them. Eventually, on Judgement Day, Allah will pass judgement on the conduct of each and every individual. He will reward the righteous with everlasting bliss in paradise, and toss the wicked into the burning pits of hell.
This grand narrative implies that my small but important role in life is to follow Allah’s commands, spread knowledge of His laws and ensure obedience to His wishes. If I believe the Muslim story, I find meaning in praying five times a day, donating money to build a new mosque, and struggling against apostates and infidels. Even the most mundane activities – washing hands, drinking wine, having sex – are imbued with cosmic meaning.
Similarly other stories like Nationalism, Communism, Capitalism, Liberalism have their own narrow meanings to life.
When looking at the entire range of stories that seek to define my true identity and give meaning to my actions, it is striking to realise that scale matters very little. Some stories, such as Simba’s Circle of Life, seem to stretch for eternity. It is only against the backdrop of the entire universe that I can know who I am. Other stories, such as most nationalist and tribal myths, are puny by comparison. Zionism for examples holds sacred the adventures of about 0.2% of humankind (Zionists) and 0.005% of the earth’s surface (Israel) during a tiny fraction of the span of time. The Zionist story fails to ascribe any meaning to the Chinese empires, to the tribes of New Guinea and to the Andromeda galaxy, as well as to the countless aeons that passed before the existence of Moses, Abraham and the evolution of apes.
Such myopia has serious repercussions. For example, one of the major obstacles for any peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians is that Israelis are unwilling to divide the city of Jerusalem. They argue that this city is ‘the eternal capital of the Jewish people’ – and surely you cannot compromise on something eternal. What are a few dead people compared to eternity? This is of course utter nonsense. Eternity is at the very least 13.8 billion years – the current age of the universe. Planet Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have existed for at least 2 million years. In contrast, the city of Jerusalem was established just 5,000 years ago and the Jewish people are at most 3,000 years old. This hardly qualifies as eternity.
As for the future, physics tells us that planet Earth will be absorbed by an expanding sun about 7.5 billion years from now, and that our universe will continue to exist for at least 13 billion years more. Does anyone seriously believe that the Jewish people, the state of Israel or the city of Jerusalem will still exist 13,000 years from now, let alone 13 billion years? Looking to the future, Zionism has a horizon of no more than a few centuries, yet it is enough to exhaust the imagination of most Israelis and somehow qualify as ‘eternity’. And people are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of ‘the eternal city’, which they would probably refuse to make for an ephemeral collection of houses.
Even Simba – for all his devotion to the everlasting Circle of Life – never contemplates the fact that lions, antelopes and grass aren’t really eternal. Simba does not consider what the universe was like before the evolution of mammals, nor what would be the fate of his beloved African savannah once humans kill all the lions and cover the grasslands with asphalt and concrete. Would this render Simba’s life utterly meaningless?
All stories are incomplete. Yet in order to construct a viable identity for myself and give meaning to my life, I don’t really need a complete story devoid of blind spots and internal contradictions. To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions. First, it must give me some role to play. Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. So, the story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself.
Billions of people throughout history have believed that for their lives to have meaning, it is enough if they just ‘leave something behind’, thereby ensuring that their personal story continues beyond their death. The ‘something’ you leave behind is ideally your soul or your personal essence.
If one is reborn in a new body after the death of their present body, then death is not the end. It is merely the space between two chapters, and the plot that began in one chapter will carry on into the next. Many people have at least a vague faith in such a theory. They don’t need an elaborate dogma – they just need the reassuring feeling that their story continues beyond the horizon of death. This theory of life as a never-ending epic is extremely attractive and common, but it suffers from two main problems. First, by lengthening my personal story I don’t really make it more meaningful. I just make it longer. Indeed, the two great religions that embrace the idea of a never-ending cycle of births and deaths – Hinduism and Buddhism – share a horror of the futility of it all. Millions upon millions of times I learn how to walk, I grow up, I fight with my mother-in-law, I get sick, I die – and then do it all over again. What’s the point? If I accumulated all the tears I have shed in all my previous lives, they would fill the Pacific Ocean; No wonder that both Hindu and Buddhist sages have focused much of their efforts on finding a way to get off this merry-go-round rather than to perpetuate it. The second problem with this theory is the paucity of supporting evidence. What proof have I got that in a past life I was a medieval peasant, a Neanderthal hunter, a Tyrannosaurus rex or an amoeba (if I really lived millions of lives, I must have been a dinosaur and an amoeba at some point, for humans have existed for only the last 2 million years)?
People who doubt that some kind of soul or spirit really survives their death therefore strive to leave behind something a bit more tangible. That ‘something tangible’ could take one of two forms: cultural or biological. I might leave behind a poem, say, or some of my precious genes. My life has meaning because people will still read my poem a hundred years from now, or because my kids and grandchildren will still be around. And what is the meaning of their lives? Well, that’s their problem, not mine. The meaning of life is thus a bit like playing with a live hand grenade. Once you pass it on to somebody else, you are safe. Alas, this modest hope of just ‘leaving something behind’ is rarely fulfilled. Most organisms that ever existed became extinct without leaving any genetic inheritance. Almost all the dinosaurs or Neanderthals eventually became extinct.
Attempts at leaving behind some cultural legacy is also seldom successful. Nothing has remained of my grandmother’s legacy except a few faded faces in the family album. To the best of my knowledge, she hasn’t left behind any cultural creation – not a poem, nor a diary, nor even a grocery list.
One of the peculiar things about us human beings, is our mortality. As a child I wondered about it. I didn’t care much about my own mortality, but I was worried about the fact that if my consciousness disappeared would the entire universe disappear. That was frightening. But I stopped being bothered by it.
As far as meaning of our existence here on earth is considered – I feel there is NO meaning to life as such. Our life on Earth in a geological time scale is an extremely brief moment in time. Our meaning in life is something that we answer by our own activities. There’s no general answer. We determine what the meaning of it is. Meaning in the sense of significance of our life is something we create on our own.
Life has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning. They just need to realize that there is no meaning, and thus be liberated from the suffering caused by our attachments.