Sunday, 16 December 2012



It seems that in modern times, more and more people today have the means to live, but less and less see any meaning to their lives.
To comprehend the purpose of life we first have to understand what is life. I know from my undergraduate studies in philosophy and Ayurveda that the best minds in the fields of natural sciences and philosophy have been trying to understand life since the dawn of civilization, however it remains a mystery. No one past or present has been unable to offer a clear definition and understanding of “life”. There has never been a consensus on exactly what it is that which distinguishes a living organism from other categories of physical objects. Before we present the Vedic perspective on this question, let’s examine some other viewpoints.
Democritus (460 BC), was an early proponent of atomism—holding that everything was made up of tiny “atoms”. He thought that the essential characteristic of life was having a psyche (soul), a term he used to mean the principle of living things that causes them to function as a living thing. He thought the psyche was composed of fire atoms, because of the observable association between life and heat, and also because fire moves.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD), like Aristotle, posited that life could form from non-living material material—an early example of the theory of abiogenesis.
Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) is the famous statement proposed by Rene Descartes in 1637, which defined life. The simple meaning of the famous phrase is that if some entity is able to think about whether or not he exists, that in itself is proof that he does exist because, at the very least, there is an "I" doing the thinking.
Spinoza (1632-1677) argued that Nature (the material universe) and God are one and the same and that Nature/God contains an infinite number of attributes, including Life, which are extended to substances. He claimed that everything is pre-determined and therefore, in a sense, the future already exists.
In 1944, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger defined life as that which resists decaying back to disorder and equilibrium. This definition relates to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that closed systems will naturally gain entropy, or disorder, over time. Essentially, like a house, without any maintenance, it will inevitably break down and decay. But by taking in nutrients and metabolizing them, living things can work against this trend.
However, this definition would mean that crystals, which take in energy and create order when they form elaborate lattices of particles, would satisfy the requirement of life. This is the problem with most proposed definitions of life: They tend to all have loopholes.
For example, some have proposed that life is that which can reproduce itself. However, that definition would exclude mules, which are born sterile. Others have suggested that life is something that can metabolize — that is, take in fuel convert it to energy and use it to move or grow, and release waste — but many nonliving things, like cars and lawnmowers, can do that. Fire consumes oxygen, grows and moves; clouds move and react to the environment—yet most would agree these objects are not living.
In 1952, two Chicago chemists filled a flask with ammonia, methane, water and hydrogen – a mixture similar to the Earth's primitive atmosphere - and ran an electric current through it. After just a week of this Frankensteinian experiment, they had all 22 amino acids which constitute protein, the basis of all living material.
The Vedantic View of Life
The Vedanta speaks of fivefold tattvas, truths or elements. These are, (1) Brahman, Universal Soul or Spirit; (2) Jivātman, Individual Soul or Life; (3) Prakrti or Matter; (4) Kala or Time; and (5) Karma or Action. Let’s explain these five tattvas, focusing on the difference between Matter and Life.
Vedanta and Ayurveda proclaim that Spirit and Matter are two distinct categories of reality. Besides the physical characteristics encoded by the genetic material, there is a spiritual element of life (soul or Atman) in every living being. Our consciousness and free will are the properties of Spirit. Matter, however complex it maybe, can never be conscious. Spirit and matter can intermingle in the realm of time (Kala) resulting in what we recognize as biological Life. Brahman is the origin of both, beyond the perception of the physical senses. Matter is completely unconscious whereas Atman is the conscious energy of Universal Soul.
According to the Vedas, there are 8.4 x 106 varieties of life (microorganisms, plants, aquatics, birds, reptiles, animals, humanoids and human beings). Atman passes from less conscious life forms to more conscious life forms according to the subtle laws of Karma (cause and effect), until it reaches its pinnacle: the human form. In human form of life, consciousness is fully developed and one can inquire.
What Is Life?
According to Ayurveda, all living beings are endowed with the presence of a non-chemical, non-molecular, non-physical fundamental spiritual particle—atman. To know about the Atman, no microscope or other physical instrument could be of use; another method of knowing is required.
It was self-evident to our ancestors that our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness. Separated from it by the flimsiest of barriers were other completely different forms of consciousness such as the intuitive and creative form we encounter in the dream state. But besides dreams, early Vedic sages challenged their common rational thought and sought higher levels of consciousness and a fuller and larger experience of who they really were.
Modern western science views consciousness as an epiphenomenon of matter. In other words, we are physical entities which have developed nervous tissues and brains and we then acquire the ability to become aware and think. Vedanta has a diametrically opposed understanding. It says that matter is the epiphenomenon of consciousness. We—humans as well as all other life forms—are thoughts and bodies created from Consciousness; we are aggregates of intelligence which have acquired mental and physical structures.
According to Vedanta and Ayurveda, the brain is an important organ of the body into which consciousness is transmitted; however it is neither created nor confined there. Conscious energy is Brahman (Universal Spirit) flowing into matter.
In today’s science textbooks, living beings are generally defined as having potential respond to stimuli such as light, heat and sound, to grow, reproduce, move, and are sustained by the processes of nutrition, respiration and metabolism. But what makes these living systems grow? We explain growth as being due to multiplication of cells through cell division (i.e., mitosis). But why does any cell start dividing in the first place? Why does a fertilized ovum begin to divide eventually creating a complete complex mind-body? The ancient Vedic sages asked this question and concluded that it is due to the presence of Atman that the material body becomes animated and active and experiences five phases: It is conceived, grows, produces offspring, gradually degenerates, and finally the mind-body dissolves back to its elements and Atman merges back to its source.
An analogy is that of a beautiful, new, red Ferrari and its driver inside. When the driver leaves, the car cannot move. Similarly, when the Atman leaves (i.e., death) the body can no longer be animated in spite of the fact that all the molecular structures of the body might still be intact.
The Srimad Bhagavad-Gita (7:4-5) affirms that Spirit, however hidden it may be to us, is the substance by which the entire physical universe is sustained.
bhumir apo 'nalo vayuh kham mano buddhir eva ca ahankara | itiyam me bhinna prakrtiradhaapareyam itas tv anyam prakrtim viddhi me param | jiva-bhutam maha-baho yayedam dharyate jagat ||
Translation: “Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind [manas], intellect [buddhi] and ego [ahankara]: this, My prakriti, is divided into eight parts. This is My lower Prakriti, but know My other, higher Prakriti, consisting of spirit-beings, by which this universe is sustained.”

The unalterable, unshakable truth of the creation is that behind and separate from all entities is Brahman, the Supreme Consciousness that is inseparable from all beings and is the very Cause of the existence of all things, and our own jivātman, our own individual Self.
“The immortal Self is the sun shining in the sky, he is the wind blowing in space, he is the fire
burning on the altar, he is the guest dwelling in the house; he is in all men, he is in the gods, he is in the ether, he is wherever there is truth; he is the fish that is born in water, he is the plant that grows in the soil, he is the river that gushes from the mountain–he, the changeless reality, the illimitable!” (Katha Upanishad 2:2:2)

The Primary Purpose of the Human Life
The first aphorism of the Brahma Sutra, an important Vedic text, states: athato brahma jijnasa, meaning: “having acquired the human form of life, one must inquire about the Ultimate Reality”. In the human being, consciousness (cetana), intelligence (buddhi), mind (manas), senses (indriyas) are fully developed. Thus, a human being is totally equipped to make the deepest jijnasa (inquiry): the spiritual inquiry. A similar message echoes in the statement of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20th century Austrian-born philosopher, who stated “to seek God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter”. This then is the most important duty of the human being. Therefore, everything should be utilized to conduct this inquiry, including the works of the scientists, religious figures, poets, and artists. In a nutshell, this is the view of Ayurveda regarding the prime duty of humanity.
Inquiry, jijnasa, is the fundamental quality of life. Everyone and everything inquires about something or the other. An amoeba inquires about the location of water and nutrients; a sunflower inquires about the location of the sun. In the course of human life, we experience different obstacles like sickness, unhappiness, old age, and many other varieties of suffering. We naturally search for solutions to these problems. Every question is a kind of inquiry. However unless a person is awakened to the position of questioning his true nature and the nature of the world, he is not to be considered a full human being. Humanity begins when this sort of inquiry is awakened in one’s mind. Inquiry is not only the beginning of wisdom, it is our purpose. We should seek to know about things that are beyond what we can perceive with our senses alone. Distracted by our logical rational minds, we invent machines like the electron microscope, telescopes, etc. to try and satisfy our curiosity. But it is not enough to simply extend our senses. We must at some point continue our inquiry into the mystery of life through means other than our limited senses and their artificial extensions. But how? Teresa of Avila left us a clue.
"God gave us faculties for our use; each of them will receive its proper reward. Then do not let us try to charm them to sleep, but permit them to do their work until divinely called to something higher." —Mother Teresa of Avila
But more than being an opportunity, this inquiry is viewed as the prime duty of the awakened man or woman. Consider the emphatic language in the Taittiriya Upanishad: “That from which all beings are born, that by which having been born they are sustained, that into which they merge when they die; seek verily to know that. That is Brahman.” (Taittiriya Upanishad 3:1)
The ability to inquire about the ultimate truth of life makes the human being uniquely different from all other forms of life. There are indeed many paths which lead to realization of the Ultimate Truth. Jnana Yoga, the Path of Knowledge, is one of those paths. It is a process of learning to discriminate between what is real and what is not, what is eternal and what is not eternal. Through a gradual progression in realization of the real and the unreal, what is eternal and temporal, one develops deeper and deeper understanding. This is essentially a path to enlightenment through knowledge and discrimination, and has been described as being the "shortest, but steepest" path to God and the most difficult one.
Life can be seen as an eternal process of joyous spiritual discovery and growth. In the first twenty years of human life, a person usually undergoes a period of formal and informal education which, if it is successful, establishes the basic intellectual and spiritual tools necessary for a lifetime of inquiry and growth. When a child is growing up, he inquires from his parents about many things around him, such as ‘What is this?’, ‘Why is that?’ Then when the individual reaches physical maturity in early adulthood, he or she becomes responsible for their own further progress, which now depends entirely on the efforts they themselves make. As time advances, through the daily struggles and challenges of material existence, people gradually deepen their understanding of the spiritual principles underlying reality. This understanding enables them to relate more effectively to themselves, to others, and to God. In the later years, the individual continues to grow and develop understanding of the spiritual world, which naturally becomes more attractive than the physical world. Since conscious intelligence is fully developed, human beings can make different levels of inquiry including the deepest questions about life. The most important inquiry of human life should be to find out about the Absolute Truth, the Self.
For millennia the story in the Chandogya Upanishad about the sage Uddalaka teaching his son Svetaketu about the Self has inspired countless people. Time after time, using many different examples, Uddalaka establishes the existence of the Absolute Self as the Source of All, concluding each time with the exhilarating words: “This is the soul, the subtle essence of all that is, this is the Truth, this the Self, and That thou art, O Shvetaketu.”

Even those that do not yet have direct knowledge of the truth of these words (“That Thou Art”/”Tat Twam Asi”) are somehow curiously moved upon hearing them, knowing subconsciously of their truth. Deeply moved, seekers throughout the ages have been awakened to the path of Self-inquiry by Uddalaka’s confident declaration that they, too, are THAT.

So this is the purpose of life. Our time spent dwelling in the human body is far more than a tool for mere learning and happiness. It is a means of evolving from “finity” to infinity, from limited to unlimited consciousness. And if we believe Ayurveda—Knowledge of Life—that evolution is as inevitable and natural as the rising of the morning sun.

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