The purpose of life according to the Upanishads8 min read

In all the mystic Schools of the East, although their methods of approach may vary, it is taught that man is not just a fortuitous combination of atoms, subject to death, but that his life on earth is a pilgrimage, the goal of which is Self-realisation or ‘union’ (yoga) with the supreme Spirit.

It is further taught that man should pursue this spiritual purpose most resolutely, by all the means open to him, for under the guidance of the divine Will—personified in a traditional Teacher (Guru)—all creatures are ultimately brought to their perfection. Thus, by benevolence, devotion and knowledge, by righteous living, transcendence of emotions, intellectual cognition and finally, through Grace, the soul attains complete liberation from the bondage of ignorance (avidya) and the manifold veils of all that is Not-self, which hide from it its own divinity.

When this goal of complete freedom is attained, man realises or re-discovers his true Nature, which is conscious Immortality and unending Bliss. St. Paul voiced the same truth when he said : “ All men are called to be saints,” for this high calling is not merely the concern or vocation of a specially chosen elect of God. The divine Love calls to the hearts of all and embraces all men in Its Infinite compassion and saving grace.

One essential teaching in the Upanishads concerning this divine purpose of life cannot be overlooked here, for it lifts the soul’s aspirations to spiritual heights far above the doctrine of rewards or punishments, embodied in orthodox creeds. The central truth of the doctrine of purpose, as taught in the philosophy of Toga, is that Love is its own reward and nothing less than God is its goal. As Abu Sa’id has truly said :

“ The veil between God and His servant is neither earth nor heaven, neither the Throne nor the Footstool ; thy selfhood and its illusions are the veil ; and when thou removest these, thou hast attained unto God.”

Those who live for this supreme purpose, by faith, discipline and devotion to Truth, acquire here and now what is called “ spiritual wealth ” which attracts the grace of God and in this very life they realise their own Oneness with Him. “ By whatsoever Path, blessed the feet that seek Thee . . says this Arabian mystic.

No man is truly satisfied with the “ selfhood ” he now possesses, subject to sufferings on the wheel of necessity called “ birth and death ”, with all its limitations, fractional joys and oft recurring griefs. How wise then is the teaching in the Chandogya Upanishad, where it is said :

“ According to the purpose a person has in this world, thus does he become on departing hence. Therefore let him form for himself a spiritual purpose.”

These solemn words of the Sage also contain a warning note. Woe unto him who wastes the precious gift of human life on anything less than efforts towards its spiritual end—Union with the Supreme Selfhood and unending Bliss—attained by following here and now ‘ the pattern of the saints ’.

Al-Ghazali, great scientist, theologian, philosopher and saint, says in his Ihya :

“ The material world has no real existence ; its relation to that other world is like the relation of the shadow to the body ; the real Essence of man does not consist of his shadow. So, also, the corporeal form has no real existence but is the shadow of the Reality, which is Divine. Therefore, nothing belonging to this world can claim the allegiance of the servant (of God), for the worship of shadows is abhorrent ; true worship must be directed towards the One Who is Real.”

What then is the purpose of life (Purushartha) taught in the Upanishads ? It is said to be fourfold and when followed, brings to fruition the four stages of unfoldment in the life of man.

They are :
(i) Righteousness (Dharma),
(2) Prosperity (Artha),
(3) Love or Delight (Kama),
(4) Liberation (Moksha).

1.Righteousness (Dharma). This is the essential prerequisite, if harmony and right conduct are to prevail in all human relationships, whether one be man or woman, monk or householder. If it is true that “ the way of the transgressor is hard ”, it is equally true that “ the devotee of the Lord is dear to the Lord ” as the Gita teaches ; that Righteousness (Dharma) upholds and protects those who protect and uphold Righteousness ; that God prospers the endeavours of the striving soul and confers many of the benefits of His grace on it. Whatever comes the truly righteous man accepts, as from the hands of God Himself, whether thorns or roses be scattered on his way, realising that “ all things work together for good to them that love God.

2.Prosperity (Arthd). This means material well-being and the blessings of God in daily life. All men are entitled to the bread of life. Poverty, in the mystic sense, does not mean want. The body, like a good horse, needs its food and shelter to sustain it on the path, and extreme poverty only harasses the soul and robs it of the poise and tranquillity necessary for prayer and meditation. Wealth, earped by legitimate means, can be shared with others, which is also an aspect of Dharma.

Happiness or prosperity is attained by keeping the scriptural injunctions, by offering sacrifices and the giving of alms—and through these acts of devotion and benevolence obstacles to the higher knowledge are eliminated on the path of the devotee. Even when the clouds are densest and the way but “ a dark night of the senses,” as St. John declares, grace comes to visit and refresh the faithful heart of the devotee, for “ the Lord Himself is a Lantern to the feet of those that love Him.

To live by faith is to know our daily needs of body, mind and soul are met, or, as it is said in the Gita : “ the Lord protects what we have and supplies what we need.”

3.Love or Delight (Kama). Here, in the third stage of the divine purpose, the joys of a higher love possess the devotee and begin to bear their fruit ; the blessings of the soul that has risen above the grosser demands of the passional life and animal instincts ; love that never degrades us in our own eyes, but rather that ennobles, uplifts and inspires us to adoration ; the joys of great music, art and literature, raising man’s consciousness to higher and yet higher levels and appreciations of aesthetic beauty. What the ears and eyes perceive is but a reflection here below of the beauty of God—for Beauty Absolute is the essence of His Being.

Higher than these is the beauty made manifest in the lives of the saints, the God-men of the world of all ages, which it is our duty to study and whose example it is our spiritual privilege to imitate, following in the footsteps of their way.Delight (Kama) means emotional transcendence or spiritual Joy, the mystic love or rapture of the soul for the Lord ; a Joy which may cause it to mount, as on wings of adoration, to the heights of ecstasy, and there to behold, as in a mirror, the vision of the Beloved. This is called by Sufis “ fana ”—“ the passing out of oneself ”—or complete forgetfulness of ego in the selfless contemplation of the divine Lord. In the Upanishads this unfoldment of the divine purpose is termed the samadhi of the contemplative Yogi,, in which “ flashes ” of illumination, revealing the Object of Love, are glimpsed, after the mirror of the soul has been cleansed of all its dust and defilements.

Love or Delight also denotes the blossoming of the lotus in the heart of the lover of God, a state worthy of a devotee’s utmost endeavours to attain, through meditation and contemplation, for the fragrance of this mystic lotus, this “fana” lingers long in the recollected soul and leaves great spiritual virtues in its train. “ Whoso knows his Lord, loves Him.” Yet, even these glimpses of the Beloved, which come and go, are not the goal, as taught in the Upanishads. To be, as it were, face to face with God, to stand naked on the frue “ Ground of Being,” means to die to self, utterly and forever ; to know the Truth and be free ; to be liberated- in-life from all the bonds of unwisdom and the fetters of duality.

4.Liberation (Moksha). The last stage is Self-realisation or Conscious Immortality. This is the goal ; the supreme fulfilment of man’s destiny ; the rediscovery of his own Selfhood. It is called in the Upanishads “ the End of knowledge,” since nothing further remains to be known, for it establishes the eternal identity of the individualised soul (Jiva) with the Absolute Consciousness (Brahman). “ Not by austerities, nor by Scriptures, not by much learning,” teach the Upanishads, but only when “ (He) who through His own Grace lets Himself be known” (Atma- buddhi-prasadam) is the God-Self known.

Again, in his Ihya or ‘ Book of Love,’ al-Ghazali says :

“ That with which the heart has most affinity is Gnosis for the heart of man is a Divine Spirit, which belongs not to the brutes or to brutish men,
but to the Prophets and Saints;and that which is Itself Divine  reaches out to the Divine. . . .

“ From Gnosis the mystic has passed to Vision and in that Vision he ‘ passes away from self ’ into the One—and attains the state of Union, which is the end of quest.”