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Why do we exist

Updated: May 24, 2023

Purpose means the reason for which something exists. A tiny screw, for example, exists for a reason. When lying on the street, the screw is insignificant. If you find it there, pick it up, and try to sell it, you won’t get a penny. If that tiny screw is connected to the machine for which it was made, however, it is inestimably valuable. The yoga texts say that living beings have a purpose for which they exist. In Sanskrit, this is called dharma. The Japanese call it ikigai; the Chinese, Tao; Egyptians, maat. When we forget our dharma, we become miserable and unproductive.

When a wheel’s axle inches out of alignment, there’s friction, noise, a bumpy ride, and sometimes even fire. So too, when we stray from our purpose, we develop feelings of tension, unease, and fear. Psychologists call this misalignment cognitive dissonance. For example, people who smoke are usually aware that it’s bad for them, but they smoke none the less. Another example is people who think of themselves as animal lovers but eat meat. In these cases and many more, people feel the moral conflict between their knowledge or beliefs and their actions.

Srila Prabhupada writes, “Disturbance is due to want of an ultimate goal” (Bhagavad-gita 2.66, purport). When we are disturbed, we are anxious and less productive. When we are aligned with our purpose, we act with integrity and vitality. Both our mental and physical health improve, and we become more effective. When we know our purpose, we proceed with confidence. We are also less likely to waste time. And as we become more aware of our intentions, we can refine them, clarify our purpose, and live better lives.

In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes this about purpose: “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” Working just to stay alive is boring. Working for a cause that one is willing to die for is a thrill.

The great philosopher Aristotle, who was Socrates’s student’s student, urged people to analyze the purpose for which they exist. The website The Great Conversation gives a sample of his thoughts about purpose:

Aristotle argues that the ultimate purpose for humans will be something that we desire for the sake of itself and never for the sake of anything else. For example, imagine a curious adolescent who ceaselessly asks ‘why’ to every answer you provide him. Why are you going to school? To earn a degree. Why do you want a degree? I need a degree to obtain employment. Why do you want a job? I need a job so that I can earn money to buy the things I need, such as a house, clothes, food, etc. Why do you need all that? Those things will make me happy. Why do you want to be happy? At this point you realize that there is no further answer. You want to be happy for the sake of being happy, and not for the sake of something else.

We can see how by asking questions one can come to an essential understanding of one’s purpose. And this question—“What is my purpose?”—is the most important question we as humans can ask. Those who are conscious of why they are doing what they are doing achieve focus; their choices become clearer, and they have a better sense which path to follow. Clarity of your purpose will help make you feel whole; when your purpose is clear, you have a foundation for your life.

Vaisesika dasa


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