My work over the last 20 years around the notion of purpose has informed me of diverse viewpoints about purpose. These viewpoints are defined by the values and beliefs of different persons I was fortunate enough to interact with. Attempting to articulate at least a glimpse of one’s purpose may require an appreciation of such values and beliefs, so that such a purpose does not conflict with who the person is and his/her viewpoint of the nature of the world. Therefore, I would like to dedicate this blog post to various religious viewpoints regarding purpose of life. The next blog post will be dedicated to the scientific viewpoints regarding purpose of life.
The position I take, based on my years of experience of doing this work is, that those who live purposefully are more successful and happier than those who do not. Interviews I have conducted with people with various religious beliefs shows that Christians and Muslims with strong religious beliefs feel that success and happiness is to live a life that will qualify them to go to heaven. For the Buddhists, it was about living in a manner that accumulates karma (merits) to be re-born under better conditions. For the Atheist, purpose is living a good life during their one stay on earth, as there is no second chance. I also learn that people without a clear purpose could also be successful and happy, so purpose alone may not be the answer for success and happiness, but it could have a positive impact. Notions such as success, happiness, better conditions, good life’ etc. as well as the notion of purpose and assumptions about purpose can differ from person to person even if they are from similar cultural backgrounds. Lets look at purpose from the view point of Abrahamic religions and Eastern philosophies.
Let us now examine purpose from Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. According to the divine wisdom of the Torah, the ultimate purpose is mitzvah performance, fulfilling the purpose of creation, the making of an abode for the Divine in this world. This is interpreted as reconstruction of the world to the perfect state of awe and the full presence of God, which was found in the Garden of Eden. The words of advice from King Solomon, “ultimately, all is known; fear God, and observe His commandments; for this is the whole purpose of man” (Ecc 12:13 English Translation of the Tanakh) also confirms this notion. Islamic divine words; “did you then think that we created you in vain, and that you would not be returned to us?” (The Holy Quran 23:115) indicates that we will return to the creator, and the words, “and I created not the jinn and mankind except that they should worship me (alone)” (The Holy Quran 51:56) indicates that our purpose is to worship Allah. According to the Bible verse; “in Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory” (Eph 1:11 English Standard Version), our purpose, the reason we are here, is for God’s glory. All three religions suggest that our purpose is to work for the glory of God, but what specific action to be taken to live purposefully by each person is not explicitly mentioned and perhaps it is left for each individual to figure out.
In this section let us examine purpose from eastern philosophies: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen. In Hinduism, the purpose of self is to become a Brahman, a state where all illusions of individual identity are obliterated; the ultimate goal of deliverance is reached (Ho, 1995, p.131). Buddhist philosophy suggests that purpose of life is to attain Nirvana, a higher state of being, a reality beyond all suffering and change, as unfading, still, un-decaying, taintless, as peace and blissful (Murti, 2013, p.271-275). Although the ultimate purpose of life in Confucianism is self-realisation (Tu, 1985, chap. 7, as quoted by Ho, 1995, p.117), the centrality of the family and ethics governing relationships in self-realisation is in the centre of ‘purpose’ as self-cultivation is regarded as a necessary condition for family relationships (Ho, 1995, p.117). In Taoism, a good life is a simple life and therefore from a Taoism paradigm; simple life could be a basis for purpose. The Zen philosophy of union through the dissolution of the ego (Suzuki, 1956 as cited by Battista, Almond, 1973, p.414-5) appears to be a contradictory purpose to the existentialist’s belief in mans need to develop his own unique ego and act in terms of it (Nietzsche, 1885 as cited by Battista, Almond, 1973, p.414-5) regardless, of the level of analysis.
We see above a variety of viewpoints of purpose from various religious beliefs. Individuals coming from a particular religious belief may be predominantly guided by that religious belief and could be also influenced by other beliefs. For example, being a Roman Catholic, I am influenced by the Abrahamic beliefs, while I also see a lot of relevance in Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhist philosophy as well as the scientific paradigm. I will explore scientific paradigms in the next blog post. Meanwhile I invite you to reflect on your beliefs and the other beliefs in this post and see if it helps you make sense of the purpose of your life.
Battista, J., & Almond, R. (1973). The Development of Meaning in Life. Psychiatry, 36(4), 409-427.
Ho, D. Y. (1995). Selfhood and Identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism: Contrasts with the West. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 25(2), 115-139.
Murti, T. R. V. (2013). The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System. Routledge, 271-5.