Meaning of Life

Jarnail Singh

 What is the meaning or purpose of our life? At some juncture of our life, this question has invariably crossed the mind of every single person on this planet. Humans are designed to question, and they can’t help to interpret their very own being, their very existence. It is a kind of hermeneutical conundrum and also a paradox that human existence is both the subject and cause of this query. There are plenty of answers floating around. Several scientists, philosophers, and theologians have spent their lifetime finding an answer to this question. Besides, due to the ever-growing knowledge and consequent changes in human lifestyle, these answers are also being reinterpreted and new answers are also coming up. The place and milieu a person is born and lives in determines the first answer he or she will get in his life. Most people prefer to live with that answer but there are a few who feel prodded to pursue a solitary path. They question the existing answers. Before discussing the purpose of life as per “Gurmat” i.e. as per the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, the text Sikhism is based on, it is appropriate to discuss some of the existing answers n brief.

Scientific View: Let us start with the scientific view. Darwin’s theory of evolution is now a universally accepted view among the scientific community. Most atheists also prescribe to this view. As per this theory life on earth evolved to the current state through natural selection and is still evolving. Evolution is a relentless and inexorable force that drives every specie to replicate itself via its DNA as quickly as possible. Natural selection ensures that only the most suitable or fit survive to replicate themselves. This process and the varying climate conditions in different parts of the world resulted in the spectrum of species that we have today. There is ample data and solid proof to support this view. However, while this view does explain what Aristotle called “material cause”, “formal cause” and “efficient cause” but it does not explain what he called the “final cause” i.e. the purpose or end (telos) of this process. (1) Human mind is trying to understand what is the purpose of all this creation? Is creation a purpose in itself? Why there is suffering in life? What happens after death? These and some other questions are still to be answered to the satisfaction of the human mind.

Buddhist View: Buddhism starts with the recognition and statement of the problem and then gives its solution. The problem is euphemistically described as four noble truths. 1. Suffering or “Dukkha” is a fact of life. 2. The cause of suffering is attachment and cravings or “Trishna”. 3. It is possible to get rid of suffering. 4. This riddance is achieved by living a life full of virtue, wisdom, and mediation. In order to live such a life Buddha prescribed an eightfold path comprising of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. If you look at the current state of Buddhism it appears that the last of the eightfold path has taken over all other paths. Buddhism has become synonymous with meditation. Buddhism believes in the cycle of birth and death and reincarnation. (Lamas are said to reincarnate themselves.) The explorer of this eightfold path is called “bodhisattva” and this journey leads to the ultimate awakening called Buddhahood which extinguishes suffering in life. This eightfold path is the direction that each explorer has to follow to reach the destination. That in short is the purpose of life as per Buddhism.

Hindu View: Hindus believe in the theory of Karma and the transmigration of the soul. Whatever we do in our current life determines the life we will reincarnate into after our death. Reincarnation is not necessarily as a human. It can be in any species. The better deeds you do, the better life you will get after death. Human life is considered the best as in this life one can attain “moksha”, the riddance from this cycle of death and birth. That in short is the purpose of life as per Hinduism. In this cycle of death and birth, the soul migrates from one body to another body accumulating the wealth of “Karma” till this wealth is sufficient enough to earn “moksha”. The sufferings and happiness in life are also dependent on the “karmas” of your previous life. Also, there are a plethora of rituals available that one can do to rectify the bad deeds. Donations to the priest (Brahmin), pilgrimage to religious places, charity at religious places, special worship performed by the Brahmin priest are some of the rituals prescribed. That is the reason these rituals dominate the everyday life of a Hindu.

Semitic or Abrahamic View: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim views can be clubbed together as Semitic view. These religions, also called Abrahamic religions, though different in many aspects, have a common belief in the Judgement Day and Heaven and Hell. Probably that is the reason they bury and entomb their dead instead of cremating them. The purpose of life is to come out with flying colours on the Judgement Day and secure a place in heaven. These Abrahamic religions believe in one God who created and governs this universe. They have their own separate sacred books (Torah, Bible, and Quran) to follow. While Christian worship Christ as the only Son of God, Muslims treat Mohammad as the last prophet of God. However, the end goal of the followers of all three religions is to secure a permanent place in Heaven and avoid the burning fires of Hell. For this, they follow the Ten Commandments. It is also mandatory for Christians to believe that Christ is the only Son of God, and for Muslims, Mohammad is the last and final prophet of God. They do have their own separate way of worship and rituals, but the end goal of all this is to secure a place in Heaven. They believe that on the Judgement Day, the dead will be raised from their graves, and judged as per the deeds they have done. At this point, interestingly, this view does have some similarity with the theory of “Karma”.

Sikh or Gurmat View: We can see that, if represented graphically, Hindu and Buddhist view of life is circular while the Semitic view is vertical. Reincarnation envisages life going in circles of life and death till “Nirvana” is achieved. Semitic view on the other hand progresses vertically up into heaven situated somewhere up in the skies. If you visit a Gurudwara, a Sikh place of congregation, and listen to the preaching therein, you will find a strange cocktail of these two views being preached. Barring a few, most of the Sikhs and Sikh preachers believe in reincarnation and also talk about heaven and hell. However, an independent and objective study of Guru Granth Sahib, the text Sikhism is based on, gives a totally different view. The view that emerges from this study is neither circular nor vertical but horizontal like the scientific view. It runs like a straight line across the life span of a person who gets judged during the current life itself. Why and when this dichotomy between the Gurudwara and Guru Granth Sahib happened is an interesting subject, but in order to remain focussed on the subject matter of this write-up, it will be better to leave it untouched here. The subject matter of this article demands that we consider only the view as enunciated in Guru Granth Sahib. Otherwise, we will be doing injustice to the Sikh Gurus who so painstakingly preserved their original message in Guru Granth Sahib. This is apposite and of paramount importance in the light of the fact that Guru Granth Sahib is the only religious text that has the original message preserved in it as professed by the Gurus.

Reincarnation Repudiated: Reincarnation is based on the concept of soul and “Karma”. The Soul is the spiritual or immortal part that outlives the body of a person and migrates to another body after death. “Karma” drives this migration. Based on their “Karma” a person is reincarnated into a new life form. Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) repudiates this concept. The term for the word soul in Punjabi is “Atman” and interestingly it is never used in this meaning in the entire Guru Granth Sahib. It occurs only 11 times in the whole text and that only in its alternate meaning as “self”. While the theory of “Karma” assumes that life on earth is a never-ending cycle, it has been stated many times in Guru Granth Sahib that life on earth and this creation have come to an end many times. (2) This rebuts the basic premise of reincarnation that “karma” triggers the transmigration of the soul after death into different bodies. When creation comes to an end the “karmas” become ineffective by default and when life starts afresh again then there is no “karma” at all to drive this migration. (3) Instead Guru Granth Sahib gives a different but logical explanation for the start of life on earth. Human life on earth springs up as part of the energy that is the foundation of the entire creation. (4)  

Heaven and Hell Rejected: Guru Granth Sahib also rejects the concept of Heaven and Hell. At page 969 it has been clearly stated that the wise man rejects both heaven and hell. (5) One thing common in Buddhist, Hindu, and Semitic view is the emphasis on doing good deeds. If someone is doing good deeds in the hope of getting into heaven or avoiding the suffering in hell, then this goodness is tainted from inception. Ego drives this goodness. It is like a fruit in which the insects have injected their eggs. As the fruit matures it rots and becomes useless because the insect of ego also grows to its fullness.

The Sikh or Gurmat View Explained: The purpose or meaning of life has been stated very clearly in the first stanza of Guru Granth Sahib. The relevant part of the verse from page 1 and its English translation is given below.

ਕਿਵ ਸਚਿਆਰਾ ਹੋਈਐ ਕਿਵ ਕੂੜੈ ਤੁਟੈ ਪਾਲਿ॥ਹੁਕਮਿ ਰਜਾਈ ਚਲਣਾ ਨਾਨਕ ਲਿਖਿਆ ਨਾਲਿ॥1

How to dismantle the pall of falsehood; how to see the truth

Appreciate and abide by the will of God manifest in nature, says Nanak.

The purpose of life is to break out of the cocoon of falsehood and realize the truth. This raises some questions. First, why do we have a cocoon of falsehood around us? Secondly, how we break open this cocoon. Thirdly, what is it like when you realize the truth? Answer to these questions will help us understand the purpose of life in detail.

An interminable grand show of life & death is being enacted ad infinitum on this earth. Life springs up and dies back into the same elements. It has been called “chalat” or “Khel” in Guru Granth sahib (6). Behind the scene, two forces are operating this show. They are called “Liv” and “Dhaat”. (7) The force that drives the entire creation in this show is called “Dhaat”. It is a mad race to live and stay alive come what may. For example, driven by this force, tech giants like Google are now spending millions on projects to elongate the life expectancy of the human race by finding an anti-aging drug. (8) The show has been designed in such a way that life eats life to remain alive (9). This force (Dhaat) is a kind of drug and its ingredients comprise of ego, attachment, greed, anger, and lust. (10) Intoxicated with this drug, humans forget that the finishing line of this race is death. This mad race is responsible for spinning this cocoon of falsehood. Oblivious of their inevitable end or death, inebriated humans start amassing wealth and power by hook or crook. This obfuscates human understanding of this show of birth & death going on this earth. Human beings mistake falsehood for truth and cling to it. Confounding the problem, the clever people (who also work under the influence of this force) use this weakness to exploit their fellow human beings by cooking up stories (theories) about soul, reincarnation, or heaven and hell. Apart from being an escape from death or its fear, these theories give birth to the institution of the priesthood and a multitude of rituals like pilgrimages, sacred baths, donations to expiate for sins, etc. All of this contributes to build the cocoon of falsehood. The second force called “Liv” or rapt attention and is a kind of antidote to the first force. It neutralizes and controls the madness of “Dhaat” and helps humans to see through the reality of birth & death on this earth. Everything is happening as per the set laws of nature. While “Dhaat” is a kind of primal instinct driving humans into selfish actions, “Liv” on the other hand is a controlling force helping humans think beyond their selfish interests. An example will suffice here. Humans are exploiting the natural resources of the earth for their benefit under the influence of “Dhaat”, while “Liv” is telling them to stop this madness. It helps them understand the order behind this creation and prompts them to work in harmony with this order because otherwise they are doomed. To harmonize our life with the inner logos of creation on earth, we need to understand this logos. The order or logos behind the creation is called “Hukam” in Guru Granth Sahib. This basically is the purpose of life as per Sikhism – to understand and live in harmony with “Hukam” or the inner logos of creation. In order to understand and appreciate the internal logic operating in nature, we need to reign in our ego and cultivate rational thinking or discriminating intellect. That is why rational thinking is also called Guru in Sikhism. (11) Once we understand the “Hukam” or inner logos of creation, the cocoon of falsehood breaks open and we see the truth of this show being enacted on our earth.

We can see that purpose of life as per Sikhism is similar to what mankind is heading towards with the help of science. It is a horizontal view of life. Our current life is the only opportunity we get and we need to make the most of it. (12) We need to cultivate or strengthen the force of “Liv” or rational thinking that helps us understand the force of “Dhaat” operating this show of life & death on this planet. Both of these forces are part and parcel of the plan or order (Hukam) that operates this cosmos. Those who become meek servants of “Dhaat” start gathering falsehood, but once they develop rational thinking the pall of falsehood crumbles down and they see the truth. Falsehood is the product of ignorance and misgivings about this show of life & death. It is to be noted that Sikhism does not condemn “Dhaat” nor does it recommend asceticism like many other religions.

Luckily we also have a verse in Guru Granth Sahib on this subject which is a befitting closure of this topic. In this verse, located at page 156, Guru discusses the raison d’etre of human existence. (13) To understand this verse we need to keep in mind that the prevailing view in India at that time (and even now) was/is that a child’s parents are preselected as per his/her karma or actions in a previous life. For example, based on the deeds in a previous life, it is pre-determined if a child is born into a rich or poor family. Guru rejects this concept in the very first line of this verse by asking a number of questions. Whose mother? Whose father? From where did we originate? All we know for sure is that a child grows from the sperm in the womb of his mother. Guru then throws up a question for discussion in the verse. What is the purpose of human life? Since this verse expatiates about the purpose of the creation of human life, in the punch line of this verse (which is called “Rahao”) Guru juxtaposes the immeasurable virtuosity and creative feats of God with countless human failings. When God acts it results in fathomless creative diversity. Millions of flora and fauna and millions of creatures like snakes and birds are being created.  On the other hand, human beings act in greed and ego. They start living in a cocoon of falsehood. They steal and rob or do other dodgy things incognito. They go on pilgrimage to atone for their sins, but they are mistaken as nothing is hidden from God. They are unaware that they are continuously being judged for their actions. This results in the accumulation of innumerable demerits and only a prayer to merciful God can save their sinking ship. Actions out of greed and ego result in immense suffering and their guilt burn like a fire inside and pierce through their hearts like scissors. The only way to get rid of this pain is to understand and live in harmony with the inner order operating in this cosmos. We can do this by reigning in the force of “Dhaat” with the force of “Liv”. Sikhism believes that humans have no control over birth or death which occurs as per the order operating in nature. (14) The vehicle that implements this order is called “Dhaat” in Sikhism and evolution in scientific terminology. However, humans can control the way they live and die. That, exactly is the purpose of life as per Sikhism.

November 22, 2021


  1. David Haig in the prologue of his book “From Darwin to Derrida” describes Aristotle’s four causes. Material cause is the stuff all things are made of, the formal cause is the distinctive kind or shape it takes, efficient cause is that which sets things in motion and the final cause is the purpose or end (telos).
  2. For example on page 276 it says, “ਕਈ ਵਾਰ ਪਸਰਿਓ ਪਾਸਾਰ॥ਸਦਾ ਸਦਾ ਇਕੁ ਏਕੰਕਾਰ॥”Translated into English it will read like this. “Multiple times this cosmos was created, but the creator has always been same and singular.”
  3. At page 748 Guru Says,” ਜਬ ਕਛੁ ਨ ਸੀਓ ਤਬ ਕਿਆ ਕਰਤਾ ਕਵਨ ਕਰਮ ਕਰਿ ਆਇਆ॥ਅਪਨਾ ਖੇਲੁ ਆਪਿ ਕਰ ਦੇਖੈ ਠਾਕੁਰਿ ਰਚਿਨ ਰਚਾਇਆ॥“. Translated into English it will read like this. “When there was nothing, who performed the “karma” that triggered the cycle of birth and death. Truth is God sets this play of creation in motion.”
  4. At page 921 Guru says, “ਕਹੈ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਸ੍ਰਿਸਟਿ ਕਾ ਮੂਲੁ ਰਚਿਆ ਜੋਤਿ ਰਾਖੀ ਤਾ ਤੂ ਜਗੁ ਮਹਿ ਆਇਆ॥“Translated into English it will read like this. “Nanak says that human life emerged when God created the basic energy source in the Universe”.
  5. The original in Punjabi is “ਕਵਨੁ ਰਨਕੁ ਕਿਆ ਸੁਰਗੁ ਬਿਚਾਰਾ ਸੰਤਨ ਦੋਊ ਰਾਦੇ॥“. Translated into English it says both heaven and hell means nothing to the wise man. (page 969)
  6. At page 1077 Guru says, ” ਆਵਣੁ ਜਾਣਾ ਸਭੁ ਚਲਤੁ ਤੁਮਾਰਾ॥ਕਰਿ ਕਰਿ ਦੇਖੈ ਖੇਲੁ ਅਪਾਰਾ॥“. Translated into English it will read. “This cycle of birth and death is your show on earth. You enjoy enacting this endless play.”
  7. At page 87 Guru Says.” ਲਿਵ ਧਾਤੁ ਦੁਇ ਰਾਹ ਹੈ ਹੁਕਮੀ ਕਾਰ ਕਮਾਇ॥“. Translated into English it reads like this. “Humanity functions as per laws operating this creation and tread on two different paths of rapt reason and a blind race to live.”
  8. At page 63 Guru says, “ਬਹੁਤਾ ਜੀਵਣੁ ਮੰਗੀਐ ਮੂਆ ਨ ਲੋੜੈ ਕੋਇ॥“. Translated into English it reads like this. “We all want to live, no one wants to die.”
  9. At page 955 Guru says “ਜੀਆ ਕਾ ਆਹਾਰੁ ਜੀਅ ਖਾਣਾ ਏਹੁ ਕਰੇਇ॥”. Translated into English it will read, “Species serve as food for each other.”
  10. At page 15 Guru says, “ਅਮਲ ਗਲੋਲਾ ਕੂੜ ਕਾ ਦਿਤਾ ਦੇਵਣਹਾਰ॥ਮਤੀ ਮਰਣੁ ਵਿਸਾਰਿਆ ਖੁਸੀ ਕੀਤੀ ਦਿਨ ਚਾਰਿ॥“. Translated into English it will read like this. “God has injected this dose of drug. Intoxicated and oblivious of death, man enjoys his ephemeral life.”
  11. At Page 793 Guru says,” ਕਹੁ ਕਬੀਰ ਮੈ ਸੋ ਗੁਰ ਪਾਇਆ ਜਾ ਕਾ ਨਾਉ ਬਿਬੇਕੋੁ॥“. Translated into English it will read like this. “Kabir says, the Guru I found is called rational understadning”.
  12. At page 12 Guru says,” ਭਈ ਪਰਾਪਤਿ ਮਾਨੁਖ ਦੇਹੁਰੀਆ॥ਗੋਬਿੰਦ ਮਿਲਣ ਕੀ ਇਹ ਤੇਰੀ ਬਰੀਆ॥”. Translated into English it will read like this. “Human life is a rare opportunity to realize the truth.”
  13. The original in Punjabi runs like this.  ਗਉੜੀ ਚੇਤੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ॥ ਕਤ ਕੀ ਮਾਈ ਬਾਪੁ ਕਤ ਕੇਰਾ ਕਿਦੂ ਥਾਵਹੁ ਹਮ ਆਏ ॥ ਅਗਨਿ ਬਿੰਬ ਜਲ ਭੀਤਰਿ ਨਿਪਜੇ ਕਾਹੇ ਕੰਮਿ ਉਪਾਏ ॥੧॥ ਮੇਰੇ ਸਾਹਿਬਾ ਕਉਣੁ ਜਾਣੈ ਗੁਣ ਤੇਰੇ ॥ ਕਹੇ ਨ ਜਾਨੀ ਅਉਗਣ ਮੇਰੇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ ਕੇਤੇ ਰੁਖ ਬਿਰਖ ਹਮ ਚੀਨੇ ਕੇਤੇ ਪਸੂ ਉਪਾਏ ॥ ਕੇਤੇ ਨਾਗ ਕੁਲੀ ਮਹਿ ਆਏ ਕੇਤੇ ਪੰਖ ਉਡਾਏ ॥੨॥ ਹਟ ਪਟਣ ਬਿਜ ਮੰਦਰ ਭੰਨੈ ਕਰਿ ਚੋਰੀ ਘਰਿ ਆਵੈ ॥ ਅਗਹੁ ਦੇਖੈ ਪਿਛਹੁ ਦੇਖੈ ਤੁਝ ਤੇ ਕਹਾ ਛਪਾਵੈ ॥੩॥ ਤਟ ਤੀਰਥ ਹਮ ਨਵ ਖੰਡ ਖੇ ਹਟ ਪਟਣ ਬਾਜਾਰਾ ॥ ਲੈ ਕੈ ਤਕੜੀ ਤੋਲਣਿ ਲਾਗਾ ਘਟ ਹੀ ਮਹਿ ਵਣਜਾਰਾ ॥੪॥ ਜੇਤਾ ਸਮੁੰਦੁ ਸਾਗਰੁ ਨੀਰਿ ਭਰਿਆ ਤੇਤੇ ਅਉਗਣ ਹਮਾਰੇ ॥ ਦਇਆ ਕਰਹੁ ਕਿਛੁ ਮਿਹਰ ਉਪਾਵਹੁ ਡੁਬਦੇ ਪਥਰ ਤਾਰੇ ॥੫॥ ਜੀਅੜਾ ਅਗਨਿ ਬਰਾਬਰਿ ਤਪੈ ਭੀਤਰਿ ਵਗੈ ਕਾਤੀ ॥ ਪ੍ਰਣਵਤਿ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਹੁਕਮੁ ਪਛਾਣੈ ਸੁਖੁ ਹੋਵੈ ਦਿਨੁ ਰਾਤੀ ॥੬॥੫॥੧੭॥ {ਪੰਨਾ ੧੫੬} Its English translation is as under.

Whose mother and whose father, from where we originated?

Germinated from a sperm in the heat of the womb, why were we ever created?

O Master, fathomless is your virtuosity and numerous are human failings

(Look at your feats & virtues and my failings)

You created countless flora and fauna

And countless species like snakes and birds

Humans break in to steal and rob and come home

In mistaken belief that nobody noticed, but you see it all

Go on pilgrimage for atonement, visiting different places

Oblivious that you judge it all sitting right in their heart

We humans have fathomless failings like water in the ocean

Have mercy O Lord and help carry across this sinking ship

(These failings) burn like fire in me and pierce through me like scissors

Says Nanak, to be at peace we need to understand and follow the order that operates in cosmos.

  1. At page 151 Guru says,” ਹੁਕਮੇ ਆਵੈ ਹੁਕਮੇ ਜਾਇ॥ਆਗੈ ਪਾਛੈ ਹੁਕਮਿ ਸਮਾਇ॥ Translated into English it will read, “Birth and death occur as per order operating in nature. This order prevails even before and after death.”

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