Is life meaningless until we give it meaning?
A young woman from South Africa, where I live, is a candidate for the Mars One project, the brainchild of a Netherlands-based group hoping to set up a colony on Mars by 2025. She anticipates years of vigorous training, many grueling hours of intense research, an eight-month-long journey in a confined spacecraft, and difficult living conditions on a strange planet. She is excited to be part of the first human settlement on Mars, despite the stipulation of never returning to Earth. What would impel her to undertake such a journey – literally the journey of her life?
The meaning we give to life determines the path we take and how we take it. The renowned Austrian neurologist and psychotherapist Dr. Viktor E. Frankl discovered this phenomenon during the Second World War as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how he, unlike most of his companions, survived: he was able to endure ruthless torture by his oppressors by giving meaning to his life. Visions of his wife and thoughts of seeing her again after the war gave him courage and the will to fight, as did dreaming of someday lecturing about the psychological lessons from his experiences. Thus, he believed that the primary and most powerful motivating force in humans is to find meaning in life.
Years later, Frankl wrote a sequel, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, which addressed a person’s spiritual rather than existential well-being. He concluded that a religious sense is rooted in every person’s unconscious depths and that each person has a “latent intuition and yearning for the transcendent.” This book, however, was not as convincing as the first, because of a vague presentation of spiritual phenomena and a lack of practical application. Still, its essential message is evident in man’s ongoing quest for spiritual understanding.
Srila Prabhupada Comes to Give Meaning
The yearning for transcendence was evident on a large scale during the 1960s, when young people, especially in the West, were looking for life’s ultimate meaning through various spiritual practices. While most thought that trying to enjoy life was the ultimate meaning to their existence, many looked to the East for spiritual direction. They discovered hatha-yoga and other forms of meditation and sought spiritual experiences through LSD and other drugs. The attempts to find meaning by both the sense enjoyers and the spiritual seekers resulted in dissatisfaction and disappointment. Yet the East did not abandon them. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada survived two heart attacks onboard a cargo ship from India to bring them a rare gift. He himself was on a quest – not to find meaning but to give it.
Srila Prabhupada knew that the yearning of the soul is to find meaning beyond the fight for survival or the fulfillment of material needs and desires. He taught that the soul is our true identity and is spiritual by nature. If we neglect its quest and simply nurture the material body, we will starve spiritually. He revealed that only ultimate meaning can provide sustenance for the soul.
Srila Prabhupada did not need to fabricate an idea based on his own thoughts or whims. He understood and realized spiritual subjects from authentic Vedic scriptures and previous spiritual teachers. His message was lucid and complete, and the proof was the inspiration people received from his example. He lived what he taught, and although his followers did not at first completely understand all his teachings, by following them they were able to “stay high forever” (as an early ISKCON invitation announced) without the use of stimulants or psychedelic drugs. They could see that Srila Prabhupada was genuinely concerned about their spiritual welfare and would risk his life to share with them life’s ultimate meaning.
Srila Prabhupada’s presentation of our ultimate purpose is simple yet profound. First he explained that life is not finished by the death of the body. Our present human life – only a moment in our journey through millions of species of life – is a platform from which to seek answers to the questions about life’s ultimate meaning and purpose.
Srila Prabhupada elaborated that if we give life only material, temporary meaning, it has no real purpose. In a lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.26.6), he said:
One should first of all understand that this material existence is anartham. Anartham means purposeless life. There is no purpose. Real purpose should be how to get out of the spell of material nature. That is real purpose. They do not know. They are taking very seriously some temporary purpose of life, which will be changed with the change of body. Now, as human being, I am manufacturing so many purposes of life, but as soon as the body is changed and I get the body of a cat or dog or tree, the whole purpose is changed. Therefore it is purposeless life, anartham. There is no meaning of this purpose. Because everything will be changed with the change of your body. Therefore they do not . . . They shudder to think, “We have got next life.”
They therefore deny – “No, there is no next life. [After] this life [everything] is finished.” – Bombay, December 18, 1974
In contrast, Srila Prabhupada told of the child saint Prahlada Maharaja, who describes human life as artha-dam, full of meaning. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.6.1)
Like Rebellious Children
From the scriptures that Srila Prabhupada brought to America, we learn that as humans we are meant to delve into higher realms of thought – to understand the soul’s journey through life and to its ultimate destination. Spiritual purpose extends beyond our journey on the material plane. It involves our connection with the source of our divine nature, the Supreme Person, our eternal loving father. To illustrate this point, Srila Prabhupada often gave the example of a lost boy looking for his father. No matter what material arrangements we may make for the child’s safety and well-being, no matter how much we lavish him with material riches or possessions, he will be happy only when he is reunited with his father. In the same way, we are separated from our original father, Krishna , trying to find solace in the temporary pleasures of this world. Only when we find Him and connect with Him in love will we taste happiness that truly fulfills us.
A rebellious child may return to his wealthy father with selfish interests, seeking material gain, but the father will still welcome him, care for him, and forgive him for his past misdeeds. If the child remains loyal, eventually he will receive a handsome inheritance. Similarly, our defiance to Krishna has separated us from Him and made us homeless. When we recognize our misfortune and return to Krishna even with selfish desires, He will welcome us back and forgive us for our disloyalty. As we revive our love for Him and learn to love Him unconditionally as He loves us, following His instructions and guidance, He will be pleased and eventually award us the inheritance of returning home to His spiritual kingdom.
Srila Prabhupada emphasized how love for God is inherent within us. We are parts of Krishna , and although we are infinitesimal and He is unlimited, we cannot be separated from Him, the source of our existence – just as sunrays cannot be separated from the resplendent sun. Our position as His servants increases our brilliance, and if we turn away from Him, we will feel empty and incomplete.
Srila Prabhupada explained that we are like patients suffering from amnesia. Chanting Krishna ’s holy names will cure the forgetfulness of our relationship with Krishna and remove from our heart undesirable traces of dirt that cloud our love for Him. When we purify our mind and consciousness by chanting Krishna ’s sublime names, we realize who we are and where we belong. We accelerate our spiritual journey.
The Example of Dhruva
The Srimad-Bhagavatam relates the true story of a young prince who, though seeking the approval and favor of his earthly father, received the audience of his eternal father. Five-year-old Dhruva was enraged when his envious stepmother insulted him for trying to sit on his father’s lap. Dhruva was even more infuriated when he watched his father favor his half-brother and stepmother. Intent on revenge and material success, on his mother’s advice he decided to leave home to seek Lord Viṣṇu. His life’s meaning and objective were clear to him. He wanted to attain a position greater than that of Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe.
After leaving his mother, Dhruva met Narada Muni, who became his guru and directed him how to please the Supreme Lord so that his wishes would be fulfilled. Narada understood that Dhruva’s pain stemmed from material attachment and illusion, and he gave the cure. He advised Dhruva to serve the Lord by devotion and by meditating on His divine form.
By fasting and performing arduous austerities, Dhruva strictly followed the instructions of his guru. His determination to win the Lord’s favor was so intense that at the end of six months Lord Viṣṇu appeared and made him king of the polestar, which far exceeds the opulence and grandeur of any other planet.
Dhruva was elated to see his Lord face to face, but he felt ashamed.
“O my Lord,” he said, “because I was seeking an opulent material position, I was performing severe types of penance and austerity. Now I have gotten You, who are very difficult for the great demigods, saintly persons, and kings to attain. I was searching after a piece of glass, but instead I have found a most valuable jewel. Therefore I am so satisfied that I do not wish to ask any benediction from You.” (Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya 7.28)
Srila Prabhupa–da’s Success
Just as Narada had guided Dhruva, Srila Prabhupada encouraged people to serve God, thus delivering the remedy for their unsatisfied hearts. Whether they were full of material desires, just curious, or seeking genuine spiritual cultivation, the practice of bhakti-yoga – the means to rekindle one’s love for Krishna – gave them lasting happiness and satisfaction. Serious practitioners were able to give up their bad habits and addictions. Having received a valuable jewel, they lost their attraction to broken glass.
Srila Prabhupada succeeded in uniting all kinds of people with the common purpose of finding their way back to Krishna . Clearly, Srila Prabhupada’s selfless actions and sacrifices to awaken people from their amnesia-like condition stemmed from his pure love for Krishna . From that spotless love arose compassion for his brothers and sisters and eagerness to direct them to their eternal father.
Srila Prabhupada’s mission to reclaim lost souls had begun when he met his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, well before he decided to journey to America. His guru had enlightened him with life’s ultimate purpose and instructed him to share it with others. Carrying out this instruction became Srila Prabhupada’s lifelong work and purpose. His endeavor to publish this magazine, Back to Godhead, is one example of his struggle to please his guru by distributing the timeless Vedic wisdom. He had no resources, no money, no contributors. As early as 1944 in Calcutta, he singlehandedly wrote the articles, typed them, collected donations for printing, obtained paper (a scarce wartime commodity), oversaw the printing, and eventually distributed the magazines when Calcutta was in the middle of a war zone.
In later years, Srila Prabhupada continued with the publication and once even suffered heatstroke while delivering copies of the magazine during the scorching Delhi summer. The reason for his perseverance amidst adversity is in the title he gave the magazine: Back to Godhead. He felt an urgency to reveal life’s ultimate purpose of going back to Godhead, our eternal home. Turning back to God is the sole purpose of human existence, he stressed. And the motto he chose for the cover of the magazine showed that “Godhead” is also a state of consciousness: Godhead is light. Nescience is darkness. Where there is Godhead there is no nescience.
Lord Krishna Himself guided His devotees the Paṇḍavas in the ultimate meaning of life and on how to be victorious. They were powerful kṣatriyas – warriors of the highest caliber, highly qualified in material and spiritual knowledge. But when it was time for Arjuna to perform his duty on the battlefield and rid the world of the unrighteous, he was reluctant and confused. Krishna removed his ignorance by advising him on the purpose of his life and the need to do his duty with full consciousness of Him. Krishna explained that we should not abandon our duties, talents, wealth, or possessions but should give them true meaning by using them for His pleasure. In this way we will always connect with Him through loving service. Krishna promised Arjuna, “For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.” (Gita 6.30)
In the journey of life, we may seek meaning by accomplishing a variety of tasks or engaging in different activities. We may even overcome challenges by giving them meaning, as Viktor Frankl suggested. But we cannot neglect the ultimate meaning of life. As lost children separated from our eternal father, we would be foolish to reject our rightful inheritance.
Nikuñja Vilasini Devi Dasi, a disciple of His Holiness Giriraja Swami, lives with her husband and two children in Durban, South Africa.