Last revised: 5 April 2008
We are here for a purpose
As it turns out, we are not here as robots or automatons. We have much conscious and creative work to do. We are here for a reason.
Sufi sage Al Ghazzali hints at that reason: “Know, O beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvellously made and for some great end." (1)
Although he is not from everlasting, yet [man] lives for ever; and though his body is mean and earthly, yet his spirit is lofty and divine. When in the crucible of abstinence he is purged from carnal passions he attains to the highest, and in place of being a slave to lust and anger becomes endued [sic] with angelic qualities. Attaining that state, he finds his heaven in the contemplation of Eternal Beauty, and no longer in fleshly delights. (2)
When we as individuals separate ourselves from all that is terrestrial or temporal (“purge ourselves from carnal passions”), at least in our heart, we are ready to realize the true nature of that body celestial or spiritual. (3) Realization of this Spirit (ultimately God) proves to be the end, the goal for which we were made. We become “endued with angelic qualities.” That result in many spiritual traditions is called “enlightenment.”
“Enlightenment” is, as we shall see, not a name that applies to a single event. The name applies to all events in which the individual directly and immediately perceives, in a discontinuity of knowledge, something sacred, beyond this material dimension. It may be the Child of God, God the Mother, or God the Father.
Or it may be beyond all Three.
The Child of God is called by various religions, the Self, the Christ, the Son of God, the Atman, the Buddha Nature, the Inner Fire. It is the Transcendental in the Phenomenal, the Treasure buried in the field; specifically, in the field of the heart. We may recognize this as Jesus’s description of it; he also called it the pearl of great price, the mustard seed, and the leaven in the bread. It may be seen as a brilliant point of Light in which one recognizes his or her true nature. It may be experienced as a stateless state of consciousness. Or it may be known in another form.
Or enlightenment could be of another level of Reality: a glimpse of the Divine Mother, called by religions the Holy Ghost, Shakti, the Divine Energy, the primal or universal creative vibration, and the Phenomenal. It is called by Jesus the Comforter, the Revealer of truth, and the Amen or true and faithful Witness of creation. It is called by Hindus and Buddhists the Aum (cf. Amen), Prakriti (Procreatrix), and Dharma (Nature or the natural law). It may be seen as a brilliant Light that suffuses all of material creation or it may be known in other forms.
Or it may be a glimpse of the Holy Father, called by religions Jehovah, Allah, the Transcendental, the Way. Jesus called it the Father, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Truth revealed. Hindus call it Brahman (God), Paramatman (the Supreme Self), and Satchidananda (Being, Awareness, and Bliss Absolute). It may be seen as the Light beyond creation – or not seen at all, since the aspirant’s mind usually (but not always) stops working and leaves no observer.
While I could turn directly to plain statements of the purpose of life, I would like to examine one more Sufi sage, Rumi, even though he, like Al-Ghazzali, does not answer our question directly. I do so because his evocation of our mission is so well-crafted that I wish to draw it to our attention.
The indirectness of his teaching method, his use of an extended metaphor, may be part of his teaching style or it may have been necessary for him to couch the mysteries in metaphors so that knowledge of them did not fall into the wrong hands. Whatever the case, he is still speaking of enlightenment as the purpose of life.
There is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, but did not forget that, then there would be no cause for worry; whereas if you performed and remembered and did not forget every single thing, but forgot that one thing, then you would have done nothing whatsoever. (4)
Why nothing whatsoever? He does not answer. It is simply something we are commanded to do.
It is just as if a king had sent you to the country to carry out a specified task. You go and perform a hundred other tasks; but if you have not performed that particular task on account of which you had gone to the country, it is as if you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into this world for a particular task, and that is his purpose; if he does not perform it, then he will have done nothing. (5)
If we unravel Rumi's meaning, we have the same message again. The King has sent us into the country to achieve enlightenment, the knowledge of our true identity. If we do everything else, but not that one thing, we have not done anything whatsoever. We have not done what the King has sent us into the country to do.
Saints and sages of older times had many reasons for couching the mysteries in parables and extended metaphors. After all, Jesus was crucified because he was accused of saying he was the Son of God and King of the Jews. (6) Catholics were subject to the Inquisition. Heretics of all religions could be put to death. Dangerous times faced many of the masters, dangerous in ways that we of this generation have never experienced. It is a wonder that they were able to get their message across at all, couched as it was in mysticism.
But, in some parts of the world, we live in a time of relative spiritual freedom. Spiritual masters now are able to speak more freely.
Knowing God is the purpose of life
Sri Ramakrishna speaks quite openly of the purpose of life. His use of parables was not to hide the truth, but to make his images stand out in the minds of his listeners. He plainly explained the meaning of his metaphors and other teachings to all who visited him.
In India when he spoke there was a climate of religious tolerance that has partly survived today. This climate meant that he did not have to worry about religious censors or fundamentalists.
What does Sri Ramakrishna tell us? Will he tell us that there is an altogether different purpose to life than what we have heard so far?
He does not. He says that “the only purpose of life is to realize God.” (7) "Without the realization of God everything is futile. This is the great secret.” (8) Realizing God is enlightenment.
Both Ramakrishna and Rumi picture humanity as if rushing around accomplishing countless futile tasks, but never looking to the one task that is really necessary. All else, they both say, is futile. But try to tell us. We will not listen. Thus, this important knowledge remains a secret.
In fact, all the world's saints and sages will be found to agree that enlightenment is the purpose of life. That we are destined for enlightenment is decreed, laid down by the Divine Plan. Listen to Hindu, Christian, and Muslim mystics on the subject. They may call it by various names - Kaivalya (liberation), freedom from sorrow, the dawn of the morning star, Self-Realization, knowledge of the Truth -- but it remains what is meant by the umbrageous term "enlightenment."
I am blessed indeed! I have achieved life's only purpose. The dragon of rebirth can never seize me now. The Infinite is mine. I recognize my true nature in eternal joy. (9)
There is no I nor thou, but only one divine Self equal in all embodiments, equal in the individual and the group, and to realize that, to express that, to serve that, to fulfill that is all that matters. (10)
The purpose of this world is to provide us with experience and thus to lead us to liberation. (11)
[For] the rational creature to attain the sublime beauty of God and to possess it in [a] supernatural way ... is [the] reason that God created heaven and earth and all that is in them. (12)
Hazrat Inayat Khan
The purpose of life ... is that the only Being makes his oneness intelligible to Himself. He goes through different planes of evolution ... to make clear to Himself His oneness. (13)
Sri Yukteswar Giri
[The] unification of Self with God is [called] Kaivalya, which is the Ultimate Object of all created beings. (14)
Man's purpose is complete freedom from unhappiness.
Once he has banished all pain beyond possibility of return, he has attained the highest goal. (15)
To see God means to strive toward that Supreme Eternal Law which rejuvenates, revivifies and brings Light and warmth to man. ... Do you know what it means to see God? This is the meaning of life. (16)
All trials through which you pass at present are for the sole purpose of coming to know God: the Primary Cause. (17)
Sri Ramakrishna defined being enlightened as “to know the real nature of one's own Self.” (18) I accept that definition. To know who we are. To know our real identity, our true nature. While the accomplishment of this aim is anything but easy, its difficulty does not affect its always remaining the end and purpose of our lives.
To be enlightened also means to perfect ourselves, as Beinsa Douno and Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov point out.
What is man's task? Continuous self-development and self-perfection. God is the continuous Manifestation of Perfection, and man is the continuous self-improvement on the Path to Perfection. This is the meaning of the verse: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father who is in Heaven is perfect. Man must continuously correct his imperfections on the Path to Perfection. (19)
Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov
Each one of us has come down to earth with a mission. ... That God might select someone from time to time for a special mission is ... possible, but the collective mission of human beings is for each one to develop himself more and more every day until he reaches perfection. (20)
Though our ascent towards enlightenment is gradual, through lifetime after lifetime, when it comes, enlightenment itself is sudden, as the masters explain:
Hermes the Egyptian
Straightway, in the twinkling of an eye, all things were opened unto me. (21)
First Ch'an Patriarch Bodhidharma
Seeing through the mundane and witnessing the sublime is less than an eye-blink away. (22)
Anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing
In the twinkling of an eye heaven may be won or lost. (23)
Ralph Waldo Emerson
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within. (24)
As in a swoon, one instant,
Another sun, ineffable, full-dazzles me,
And all the orbs I knew, and brighter, unknown orbs;
One instant of the future land, Heaven's land. ...
Hast never come to thee an hour,
A sudden gleam divine, precipitating, bursting all these bubbles, fashions, wealth?
These eager business aims -- books, politics, arts, amours,
To utter nothingness? (25)
There is thus no real difference between proponents of a gradual and a sudden enlightenment. Men and women work in gradual ways over long stretches of time for an experience which, when it happens, happens in an instant.
Enlightenment is the reward of all action
Enlightenment will bring with it everything we could possibly wish for and set us free from suffering in the end. We lose nothing by it, but gain everything, according to Paramahansa Yogananda: “To know God is not the negation of all desires, but instead their complete fulfilment.” (26) “Once you have tasted the wine of spiritual ecstacy, you will find that no other experience can compare with it.” (27) To Sri Ramakrishna, “the bliss of worship and communion with God is the true wine, the wine of ecstatic love.” (28) Sri Krishna advisesus that “the reward of all action is to found in enlightenment.” (29) St. Paul found that “the sufferings of the present time are not to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us [when] the creature ... shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (30)
When the masters are touched by Truth, some appear intoxicated, abandon words, and dance without inhibition. Such was Sri Ramakrishna’s condition much of the time. He was often “completely intoxicated with divine love” or motionless in Samadhi. When he reeled or sang the praises of God, unconscious of all around him, “the devotees felt its contagion and danced with the Master in an ecstacy of love.” (31)
For St. John of the Cross, enlightenment was a deep delight, like a soft feather drawn through the heart.
Such is the sweetness of deep delight of these touches of God that one of them is more than recompense for all the sufferings of this life, however great their number. (32)
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
That tastes of eternal life,
And pays every debt!
In killing, You changed death to life. (33)
Walt Whitman was so grateful for one glimpse of God that, as an old man, he depicted himself on bended knees before Him, singing his gratitude for an event that happened many years before.
Thou O God my life has lighted,
With ray of light, steady, ineffable, vouchsafed of Thee,
Light rare untellable, lighting the very light, …
For that, O God, be it my latest word, here on my knees,
Old, poor, and paralyzed, I thank Thee. (34)
To Plotinus, who repeatedly experienced high enlightenments, no earthly prize could compare. “It were well to cast kingdoms aside and the domination of the entire earth and sky,” he wrote, “if by this spurning, one might attain this vision.” (35) What good is long life without it? the Buddha asks.
Though one should live a hundred years,
Not seeing the Region of the Deathless,
Better were it for one to live a single day,
The Region of the Deathless seeing. (36)
This is the impact of enlightenment, the prize we seek, on the masters.
The Truth will set us free
The masters stress the liberating impact of realizing the truth. Jesus reminds us that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (37) The twentieth-century sufi sage Hazrat Inayat Khan also taught that “the secret of life ... will make the soul free.” (38) God is the Truth, the secret of life. Having realized God we are set free from suffering and sorrow. We are liberated from the need to reincarnate in matter; as Jesus said, we need “go no more out.” (39) Paramahansa Yogananda explains what Jesus meant by this phrase. God brings all things “by beautiful evolutional coaxings back to His home of All-Blessedness when they [have] overcome all mortal tests…. [They need] reincarnate in matter no more; i.e., ‘go no more out.’” (40) By realizing God, we have fulfilled the purpose of our lives.
Thus, to realize God, to know our true identity, to become enlightened is why we descended and now climb back up Jacob’s Ladder of consciousness, the spiritual parabola. It is the goal that we seek. It is what lies ever before us, lifetime after lifetime, as we tread the spiritual arc away from and back to God. It is our final reward and the cause of our liberation from bondage to sorrow.
That is what enlightenment means to us. But for what purpose of His own did God create this incredible world? Where do we fit into God's larger plan?
For full details on these sources, see Bibliography
(1) AH, 17.
(2) Loc. Cit.
(3) I Corinthians 15:40.
(4) DR, 26.
(5) Loc. cit.
(6) Matthew 26:63.
(7) GSR, 273.
(8) Ibid., 95.
(9) CJD, 114.
(10) SOY, 316. (Page numbers will vary from edition to edition.)
(11) EB, 76.
(12) JR, 72.
(13) WOI, 237.
(14) HS, 53. Kaivalya is "absolute independence or emancipation through oneness with God." Editors, Self-Realization Press, HS, p. 43.
(15) Ibid., 50.
(16) "The Meaning of Life" in WOG, n.p.
(17) "The Love of the One," WOG, n.p.
(18) GSR, 387.
(19) "Be Perfect," WOG, n.p.
(20) AQU, 25, 20.
(21) DPH, 8.
(22) ZTB, 56.
(23) CU, 56.
(24) SW, 258.
(25) CC, 228.
(26) SCC, I, 16.
(27) MEQ, 161.
(28) GSR, 94.
(29) BG, 54.
(30) Romans 8:18+21
(31) PR in GSR, 807.
(32) PSJC, 717-8.
(34) Ibid., 233.
(35) EP, 41.
(36) TCB, 46.
(37) John 8:32.
(38) WOI, 196.
(39) Jesus in Revelation 3:12.
(40) Paramahansa Yogananda in SCC, 1, 28.