Like so many answers Vedanta provides, this one depends on who you’re asking. There’s one answer from the viewpoint of the individual (jiva), one answer from the viewpoint of God as Creator (Ishvara), and another from the perspective of the Self (ordinary, eternal, attributeless, non-dual awareness).
A life with purpose would assume to mean any reason given for the span of an individual’s experience from birth until death. As sentient beings, we find it hard to believe that life isn’t without a set of goals to be met (even if those goals are not made obvious). Life, we might conjecture, is like a long novel. If you tear out any single page from the novel and read it, it appears to give little or no direction on where the story is going. It’s only when all the pages are put together in book form, outlined by chapters, that we are able to recognize a pattern and interpret the story as having any significance.
Stories are the very oxygen we breath. Each of us carries a story with us about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Stories fulfill many needs, but at the psychological level, they mostly help us to feel grounded and motivated. They can give us a sense of security, hope, and—well—purpose in a very uncertain world. The ego, or I-sense, must have purpose. Without it, despair quickly creeps in leading to depression. As beings programmed to do, we don’t have the option to not act. We set goals for ourselves constantly—even if it is something as simple as preparing a meal or as minimal as sitting still in silent meditation watching our thoughts.
Life, we might conjecture, is like a long novel. If you tear out any single page from the novel and read it, it appears to give little or no direction on where the story is going. It’s only when all the pages are put together in book form, outlined by chapters, that we are able to recognize a pattern and interpret the story as having any significance.
Each of us may define purpose in different ways. A mother will define hers much different from a businessman or a policeman. An artist will define his purpose different from a scientist, or a social worker, or a politician, or a bank robber, etc. Unlike animals, because we have free will we are able to propose our own purpose in life—whether it be to find a cure for cancer or to just simply be get by. Nevertheless, in spite of the myriad ways one might define purpose, we can outline three universal goals that most of us strive toward, consciously or not.
The first is security (artha). Before we set any lofty goals for ourselves, we must first start with the basics. Security is our primary goal because it’s the one which all other goals depend on. As individuals, we seek to protect ourselves against disease, violence, suffering, hunger and death. Thus, our first purpose in life is to survive and thrive, and to see that our offspring do the same. We share this primal instinct with all beings.
The second universal goal is enjoyment (kama). Once we have a full belly and a roof over our heads, our goal is to enjoy ourselves. Even animals show a propensity for play once their basic needs are met. At a very basic level, our goal in life is simply to avoid pain and seek out pleasure. Pleasure ranges from the sensual (tasting, feeling, hearing, seeing, and smelling) to the intellectual (learning, calculating, imagining, theorizing, and conceptualizing). There is also enjoyment derived from a job well done or from building and maintaining relationships with others. Our purpose in life may not be as ambitious as finding a cure for cancer or becoming the leader of the free world, but instead, to simply enjoy ourselves with whatever life has afforded us.
While the first two goals might involve accruing financial wealth and independence so that we can optimize and gain our security and enjoyment, the third goal is about invisible wealth or gaining virtue (dharma). It’s about acquiring good karma, good fortune, or merit in order to enhance one’s enjoyment in this life and in any assumed life after death. As such, it may be our purpose to do good in order to contribute to making a better world and/or to set ourselves up for what we perceive as rewards in a heavenly afterlife.
So, it could be argued life’s purpose is to have security, pleasure and virtue. For most people, there is no profound reason for life. Such questions should be left to the philosophers and naval-gazers! Life just is, and it’s our duty to make the most of it while we have it. “Work hard to play hard,” is what most people live by. Life isn’t complicated, it really comes down to just avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.
So, it could be argued life’s purpose is to have security, pleasure and virtue.
Vedanta has no qualms with these goals (when pursued in moderation). As human beings, we all need some security, we all take pleasure from certain objects and relationships, and we all deep-down wish to be loved by others through our good deeds. However, Vedanta says there are certain limitations associated with pursuing security, pleasure and virtue that might not be obvious.
For one, there is the unseen consequence of burden. Every action inevitably has both a positive and negative effect. We derive much pleasure from our relationships with objects and people. However, each relationship must first be gained, then maintained, and then lost when the relationship is no longer available to us. This isn’t to say that all relationships with objects and people are bad, just that there’s an up for every down. Blame it on duality!
The second limitation is that ultimately, none of these goals can satisfy us. No matter how many objects we acquire or friends we make, we always want more. Our elusive contentment with the world is always somewhere over the horizon. As humans, we can never have enough security, pleasure or virtue. It becomes an endless and unattainable quest for perfect and complete satisfaction.
The third limitation is dependence. Once we have acquired security, pleasure and virtue, we might become dependent on them and perhaps, even enslaved by them. We may give our life to chasing the mighty dollar, finding everlasting love or perhaps, trying our hardest to remove everything that is wrong about the world. Our desire to be secure, experience pleasure and do good/be good becomes binding—the opposite of freedom. Upon such a realization, we might realize that our life purpose isn’t making us any happier and that actual freedom is nowhere to be found “out there.” For some, this realization motivates them to look within in order to find some other purpose in life.
Up to this point, we have covered life’s purpose from the individual’s point of view and have generalized it as security, pleasure and virtue. If we zoom out and examine life’s purpose collectively, rather than personally, we get God’s point of view. From this macrocosmic view, the purpose of life is simply that it continue. God governs the world and human beings by certain physical, psychological and moral laws. God doesn’t do what’s best for the individual, but always what’s best for the Total. From God’s point of view, the purpose of your life is to serve the Total and to play the role you’ve been assigned, whether it be as a parent, teacher, fireman, policeman, doctor, nurse, businessman, fisherman, scientist, artist, soldier, etc. Even criminals are given a role to play.
You might wonder, “But how do I know what my role is?” Your role is, what is called in Sanskrit, your svadharma—your personal dharma or innate programming. It’s not always easy to know what your svadharma is but you’re most likely already doing it. What is easy is to know is what your svadharma is not. If I’m an artist, it’s probably not my svadharma to join the military. If I like to build things with my hands, it’s probably not my svadharama to have a desk job. In other words, your svadharma is what comes natural to you. In the animal kingdom, it’s the reason why beavers build dams, squirrels collect acorns and bees make honey—it’s just what they do, and what they do is almost always in harmony with the Total.
You might wonder, “But how do I know what my role is?” Your role is, what is called in Sanskrit, your svadharma—your personal dharma or innate programming.
In the Bhagavad Gita, it explicitly warns us against attempting to do another’s dharma when it’s said, “Better is one’s dharma, though imperfect, than the dharma of another well done. One who does the duty prescribed by their own nature, incurs no sin” (18.47). In other words, be yourself. Don’t try to be a beaver if you’re a squirrel, or try to be a squirrel if you’re a bee. So, from God’s perspective, your life does have purpose and that purpose is to be doing whatever you are supposed to be doing. This might mean that you have multiple roles, for example, as mother, sister, daughter, teacher, employer, etc.
Lastly, is the point of view of the Self. The Self doesn’t define purpose because the Self is actionless and is already whole and complete. The Self is that which is free of purpose! From the Self’s perspective, nothing is really happening because life is virtual without any lasting or inherent substance. The fact that you think your life needs purpose is the ego misidentifying with the body-mind. Vedanta would ask, “Who is it that is asking that life have purpose?” Because if the body-mind ultimately belongs to God as Creator, and the essence of who we are (consciousness as the Self) is universal and impersonal, then the question is moot. If anything, life’s purpose should be to discover and assimilate the truth. Because without the truth, one will continue to ask irrelevant questions—such as, “Does life have purpose?” Thus, a fourth universal goal after security, pleasure and virtue is moksha or freedom—that which is free from dependence on external factors, including any goals.
To summarize, all individuals have purpose in this game we call “life.” Each of us is given a duty and asked to contribute to the Total while we exist in this maya. However, at the absolute level, life doesn’t haven’t purpose—which is okay if you know yourself to be the Self and not the apparent body-mind. It helps to have both outlooks: As long as I appear to be involved in this maya, “my life” will have apparent purpose that both I define (based on my free will) and God defines (through my given innate skills). But in reality, life doesn’t have any purpose because I am the Self—that which is whole and complete and free of purpose. When I zoom in, I gladly accept that life has purpose. When I zoom out, I gladly accept that it needn’t have one.