The Utility and Futility of a Human Life

by | May 15, 2024

I am running into my seventieth year. Born on February 10, 1955, I have lived a somewhat uncertain life with some cardiac electrophysiological issues since childhood and, later, coronary artery disease that necessitated multiple angioplasties, a bypass surgery, and two stents. Besides this, overall, life has been experientially enriched and satisfying. In hindsight, things happened to me without my planning or pursuing them. Now, I spend most of my time studying at home.

What is the purpose of human life? Is it all stories that we are told and that we, in turn, tell? How much of human free will is real? Is everything fated? Should we be captured right in childhood to be productive and compliant with the socioeconomic system? Are our education, careers, and livelihoods not orchestrated by the powers that run this world? Every religion has found the truth, but their findings differ. A good portion of science is dogmatic. The 12th of 18 verses of the short and crisp Isha Upanishad pin the truth.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽसम्भूतिमुपासते।

ततो भूय इव ते तमो सम्भूत्यां रताः

Those who seek eternal truth enter blind darkness, and those who study material existence live in greater darkness.

I have been an avid reader since childhood. Later, I curated a small personal library and now spend most of my time reading books, some new but mainly from the old lot. One such book is She by Henry Rider Haggard. I first read it in Pantnagar in the 1970s, during my graduation there, and got scared when the young protagonist encountered an ageless woman, living for 2000 years in youth, waiting for him to follow various life cycles and meet her. I avoided watching the film based on this novel for many years, and finally, when I saw it, I had goosebumps at the climax.

This time, after re-reading the book, I ordered its sequel, The Return of She. It was published in 1905, 18 years after the first novel. Many books survive the test of time, live long after their authors are gone, remain in print, and people buy them not because they are advertised but as if a mysterious hand has led them there. These books are waiting to be read, thought through and absorbed.

In the 3rd chapter of the sequel book, the hero, 22 years old, when he met ‘She’ in the first book, is now searching for ‘her’ in the Siberian wilderness ‘driven onward by blind fatalism’ as the only guide. He, along with his elderly mentor and co-traveller, take shelter in a monastery where some elderly Buddhist monks – lamas – live, cut off from the world, ‘with no other company than that of their pious contemplation’. They spend many months waiting for winter to get over and read the old manuscripts stored there. A diary with the lama ‘written about two hundred and fifty years earlier’ confirms that they are on the right trail.

. . . there was a fine country beyond the mountains . . . people [there] worship a priestess . . . who is said to reign from generation to generation. . . She lives in a great mountain, apart, and is feared and adored by all, but is not the queen of the country, in the government of which she seldom interferes. However, sacrifices are offered to her, and he who incurs her vengeance dies.

When the hero shows this passage to a lama, who is now eighty, the lama confirms that he met such a lady when he was a young novice in the monastery. She had come with a group of warriors who had crossed the desert for shelter.

She was all loveliness in one shape; she was like the dawn upon the snows; she was like the evening star above the mountains; she was like the first flower of the spring . . . That woman, if woman she were, lit a fire in my heart which will not burn out.  . .  She made me worship her.

Your Path is Renunciation and your Nirvana, a most excellent Nothingness which some would think it scarce worthwhile to strive so hard to reach. Now I will show you a more joyous way and a goddess more worthy of your worship. . . The way of Love and Life —that makes all the world to be, that made you. Though I change, I do not die.

Now, the lama insists that the hero not go after ‘her’ and offers to let him stay at the monastery for the rest of his life. But to the hero, the purpose of life is to seek one’s desires. When the hero tells the lama that he met ‘her’ 18 years ago and that it will only be a reunion, the lama replies:

Doubtless, you will find her there as you expect . . . Only be not mistaken, she is no immortal; nothing is immortal. She is but a being held back by her own pride . . . That pride will be humbled . . . that brow of majesty shall be sprinkled with the dust of change and death . . . .  sinful sprit must be purified by sorrow and by separations.

[Even] if you win her, it will be but to lose, and then the ladder must be reclimbed . . . why labour to pour water into a broken jar whence it must sink into the sands of profitless experience, and there be wasted, whilst you remain athirst?

Now comes the counterpoint. The hero replies to the lama:

Water makes the sand fertile . . . where water falls, life comes, and sorrow is the seed of joy. Love is the law of life. . .  without love there is no life. I seek love that I may live. I believe all these things are ordained to an end we do not know. Fate draws me on – I fulfil my fate. . . we are sworn to a tryst, and we will not break our word.

The argument climaxes in the lama declaring the futility of life and the hero’s utility:

Then, brethren, go keep your tryst, and when you have reaped its harvest, think upon my saying, for I am sure that the wine you crush from the vintage of your desire will run red like blood, and that in its drinking, you shall find neither forgetfulness nor peace.

. . . to dwell through aeons in monotonous misery in order that conciousness may be swallowed up at last in some void and formless abstraction called the ‘Utter Peace.’ I would rather take my share of a bad world and keep my hope of a better.

I have learnt from this book how the lama concludes, and I share this with my readers as my gift.

. . . So would I . . . Who can tell? Moreover, what is the use of reasoning?  . . we have no choice; we follow our fate. To what that fate may lead us, we shall learn in due season.

Know that the concept of individual fate is a false idea. An individual’s destiny is intertwined with the destiny of the larger community or society to which he or she belongs. Our actions and choices must help the broader social fabric in which we are embedded. The more isolated and selfish our life, the more individualistic our thinking, the more futile our life. What can be the utility of a wheel locked to a pole? The purpose of a wheel is to move. The purpose of human life is to expand consciousness, work to progress, and serve others through good conduct. The rest of the action and drama are futility, vanity, and entropy.

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22 Comments

  1. Sir,
    Your blog came up while reading “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman. A person would have about 4000 weeks if he lived 80 years. That means you shouldn’t waste time trying to work harder, get more done, or do things others think are important. Burkeman gives valuable tips on how to deal with uncertainty, get over worry, and live a more meaningful life. Let go of the happiness already inside you and be who you are. You won’t have to worry about that again. You might get better and better until you’re the best at something. You might not do it. It doesn’t matter. Your happiness must always be right now

  2. Thank you, Sir, for sharing yet another thought-provoking and enlightening blog. Your analogy of the purpose of the wheel with the purpose of life hits hard. It is certainly true that all of our fates are intertwined and our actions affect everyone.

    My decision to become a doctor started off with serving others. But soon I started to question my decision.
    I started to question myself as to what was the purpose of this rigorous training and studying, to witness so many deaths, to behave like it’s normal to see kids/adults suffer and just move on with our lives.

    I spoke with many senior doctors, and I still remember one doctor telling me,’ To be a part of someone’s journey in their time of illness/death is an honour—not just for you but for those around you.’Slowly, I started to realise that it was for a greater purpose—not just for my betterment but for the betterment of those around me.
    It was not an individual fate.

    With that realisation, I continued this journey, and now I’m on my way to becoming a Pediatric Oncologist in New York. I believe it’s collective fate that hopefully serves a greater purpose and gives satisfaction and happiness to all around me.

  3. Sir, the picture of a wheel hooked on a pole makes you think about how useful something can become dysfunctional. In my own life, I’m in this situation. My main goal for years was to make enough money. I wanted to make enough money from my job to pay my living costs and a safe enough margin that I wouldn’t have to worry about. I can finally say that I’ve mostly met that goal. Many of my friends at this point do what makes the most sense. Before, they were paid to do what they loved. They want to be paid well to do what they love.

    I think taking that step is fine. But because they are so focused on that one step, they miss out on engaging in other things that may be missing in their lives. Should my goals in life be to go from paying my bills to having a lot of money, or should I be putting in the many other things I haven’t had time to get yet? I’ve only recently started to ask myself this exciting question. Since this blog is about how helpful life is, a big part is figuring out what that is for you and then asking what currencies you need to make that life happen. When they’re not money, how do you make something you can’t depend on that most people don’t see?

  4. First of all, there is no particular purpose of looking for the reason as to why we are in this world. We are just another species of animals, albeit the most stupid… and we think we are the most intelligent. Does any other species destroy its habitat? We have used our intelligence for destructive purposes. Then these religious types will ask you to ask yourself, are we in this world…since there is no answer…you will go back to them to seek advice…and to let them control your mind.

    More people have been killed in the name of religion than in major wars put together. Just enjoy every moment. The end is inevitable.

  5. The beauty of life lies in how well you nurture nature, in how you honor the Creator’s creations. The more you give back to those who are in need, the more you feel content with life, and this contentment is shared, benefiting everyone. It’s like investing in a Multi-asset Mutual Fund, where every individual’s effort contributes to the collective prosperity.

    It is futile to run after a mirage in life as it has no end, and no one benefits.

    As always, it’s an excellent thought-stimulating blog.

  6. Dear Sir, Thank you for posting. Life’s meaning usually involves our job, family, and place in the world. It may differ for each person and include more than one. It can also change as you go through life. As people, we don’t stay the same. Life can shape and change us for the better. We should not be selfish, try to get money, or only want what we want from our jobs or relationships.

    Being healthy with ourselves and how we live each day is the only way to be happy. This is where we can start making a real difference in the world. This helps us figure out what our lives are all about. This happiness lasts a long time because it begins with having healthy relationships with ourselves. It lets us connect with our family, friends, and coworkers because we enjoy helping them.

    Keep posting and enlightening us.

  7. Prof, that wheel secured to the post just said it all. The title and the picture were enough to drive the message home!

    Have you ever chased a goal, and when you reached it, you began to ask whether it was worth the chase? Whichever lens we choose to view the essence of life, be it spiritual, biological, etc., the whole circle towards a meaningful and fulfilled life has a common denominator: connecting with others beyond oneself. And while no two fields are yet to serve us with a shared understanding of the purpose of life (let us get solace from the fact that even biology, with all its advancements in recent years, cannot give us a clear definition of what life is…), we better continue to find our true purpose while striving for a better good for as many more out there. Indeed, our legacy cannot be about how much wealth we amassed, but ……hopefully, we can add some adjectives and verbs to attest (knowledge, material) did for what our wea others.

  8. Dear Arun Ji, It is an honour to know you personally! Your thoughts are profound and provoke the reader to action. It is inspiring indeed! Each one of us has a purpose for our lives. Thank you for authoring the book Live for a Legacy. How beautiful do we live this life?

    The utility and futility of human life can feel like they’re in constant tug-of-war. On one hand, our daily routines and struggles might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Yet, when we choose to “Live for a Legacy,” we find a more profound sense of purpose that transcends our fleeting existence. This mindset encourages us to focus on the positive impact we can leave behind through kindness, creativity, or contributions to our community.

    It’s about making choices that benefit others and create a lasting impression. While our time on earth is limited, the legacy we build can inspire and uplift long after we’re gone. In this way, living for a legacy gives our lives meaning, transforming any sense of futility into a journey of purpose and lasting influence.

    I encourage each one of us to live for a legacy! At the end of our lives, wheat and chaff will be separated! May we bless others even as we allow life to happen!

    Obedience to small things is the key, I believe,

    Once again, Thank you very much for such a deep blog !!!

  9. Sir, Below is a well-known song by Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier killed in action during the First World War. A group of British troops fighting in France tries to wake up an unconscious soldier by moving him into the warm sunlight on a snowy battleground.

    Move him into the sun—
    Gently its touch awoke him once,
    At home, whispering of fields unsown.
    Always it woke him, even in France,
    Until this morning and this snow.
    If anything might rouse him now
    The kind old sun will know.

    Think how it wakes the seeds—
    Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
    Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
    Full-nerved,—still warm,—too hard to stir?
    Was it for this the clay grew tall?
    — O, what made fatuous sunbeams toil
    To break Earth’s sleep at all?

    Put the dead man out under the sun. Its soft-touch would wake him up in the morning and remind him of the fields he still needed to seed. It always woke him up until this snowy morning, even when he was fighting here in France. The good old sun will know what can wake him up now as it wakes up seeds and lets them grow. The Sun also made life possible on Earth, which was once a cold, empty world. Are dead bodies that are still valuable, nerve-filled, and warm too heavy to move? Did life come into the world to die? Why would sunlight that wasn’t useful try to wake up the Earth?

  10. Dear Sir, Greetings! Once again, your unique perspective has given birth to another masterpiece blog.

    Your blog, with its deep questions about human life and the interplay between fate, desire, and consciousness, profoundly impacts its readers. The purpose of diving into profound explores the themes of seeking fulfilment, love, and pursuing desires amidst the uncertainties of life’s journey.

    The narrative of “She” and its sequel provides rich insights into the human condition, offering contrasting perspectives on the nature of existence and the pursuit of personal desires. Through the dialogue between the hero and the lama, the reader is prompted to reflect on the futility of life’s pursuits and the quest for meaning in the face of inevitable change and mortality.

    The lama’s wisdom highlights the interconnectedness of individual destiny with the broader fabric of society, emphasising the importance of serving others and contributing to the collective good. This notion challenges the notion of personal fate and underscores the significance of altruism and social responsibility in shaping the purpose of human life.

    Overall, your reflections on the philosophical themes in “She” invite readers to contemplate the more profound mysteries of existence and the enduring quest for meaning and fulfilment in life’s journey. Warm Regards.

  11. You have created a beautiful saying in this blog, Tauji — the utility and futility of human life!

    The most impactful sayings are clear statements that emerge from keen observation, personal experiences, and deep contemplation. They are compact parcels of wisdom, encapsulating the most crucial aspects of thought and emotion. These nuggets of wisdom provide the most mental stimulation and nourishment in the smallest space.

    This blog is a crystallised warning and shield, addressing every vulnerability in human nature or every adversity in human life and providing a solution.

  12. Respected Sir, Your blogs are always thought provoking. It forces us to take a breath and rethink about the philosophy of a well lived life. Your thought provoking messages always force us to rethink and re calibrate the philosophy of life.

    Figuring out that life on the material level is futile can be very helpful if we use it to motivate us to learn more about the spiritual level of reality. The Bhagavad-gita (13.09) says that thinking about how miserable and short life is—about birth, old age, sickness, and death—makes us want to find spiritual knowledge.

    इन्द्रियार्थेषु वैराग्यमनहङ्कार एव च।
    जन्ममृत्युजराव्याधिदुःखदोषानुदर्शनम्।।

    Detachment from sense objects and non-ego arises from the perception of birth, death, old age, disease, suffering and evil.

  13. I’ve known how fulfilling your life has been and is. Your contribution to society in terms of writing is undeniable, too. Finding tranquillity in the chaos of life is a Herculean task for those who fail to understand that life is all about a balance of good and bad that tests our mettle. For mortals like us, ‘Utter Peace’ is an impossibility, but a calm state can be achieved through a better understanding of making peace with oneself.

    Who can deny that our destiny is intertwined with that of the larger community? Our wheel of well-being also takes a different road from our personal preferences and operates from a life state. Just like you do, seeking what we do not know is the first step towards enriching different dimensions of life. I wish you happy reading and purposeful writing for your wellness sake and the goodness of society.

  14. Excellent thoughts, as usual, Prof Tiwari.

    There is another view beautifully articulated by Sir Iqbal, the famous poet and philosopher who penned “Sare Jahan se Achhan Hindustan Hamara…..” Sir Allama Iqbal’s verse:

    ख़ुदी को कर बुलंद इतना कि हर तक़दीर से पहले
    ख़ुदा बंदे से ख़ुद पूछे बता तेरी रज़ा क्या है

    ḳhudī ko kar buland itnā ki har taqdīr se pahle
    ḳhudā bande se ḳhud pūchhe batā terī razā kyā hai

    Raise yourself so that even luck will be on your side, or God will be happy to give you whatever you want.

    Sir Iqbal’s thoughts are certainly worth contemplating.

  15. Beautiful Story, Sir!

    It makes us understand that the belief in personal fate is a misconception. Our path is interconnected with the fate of the larger community or society we are a part of.

    Our decisions and actions should thus contribute to the well-being of the societal framework in which we live. A self-centred and isolated existence leads to a narrow mindset and, ultimately, a meaningless life.

    We find meaning in the growth of consciousness, advancement, and altruistic behaviour. Everything else is mere superficiality, emptiness, and decay.

    Thank you for keeping us inspired on a spiritual journey.

  16. I have had very close relationships with Professor Arun Tiwari Jee. I have heard his scientific-motivational speeches, read his blogs, and am currently reading his other recently published book ‘Discovery of Anu Gita’. I see in him a seer who teaches and inspires the whole generation. In the blog ‘The Utility and Futility of a Human Life’, he declared,’ Overall, life has been experientially enriched and satisfying’. What more is required after such realisation? For the rest, one can understand what Anu Gita explains. I wish Parmatma would give him a long, healthy, and energetic life so he can contribute more to humanity.

  17. Thank you sir for sharing your thoughtful reflections and this intriguing passage.! It is like two different ways of looking at life.

    • One way (the lama) is about not getting too caught up in wanting things. It is better to focus on what matters, like helping others.

    • The other way (the hero) is about following your heart, even if challenging. Sometimes, those experiences, good or bad, can teach you something valuable.

    It’s truly inspiring to see you grappling with these profound questions. Remember, there’s no definitive answer, and perhaps, the beauty lies in the journey itself. I look forward to further contemplation and discussion on these themes.

  18. Sir, This blog gives a simple but the most accurate message.

    नदिया न पिये कभी अपना जल,
    वृक्ष न खाए कभी अपना फल
    अपने तन को, मन को, धन को
    धर्म को दे दे दान रे
    वो सच्चा इन्सान रे।

    We have locked our lives to the poles of our egos. That is the problem.

  19. Prof Tiwari,

    You are doing well in reading; books offer company under all circumstances like nothing else will. Your reflection is in order, especially since a large section of modern society lives like a headless chicken, dead but running while jumping!

    We praise God for the life He gave you; almost 70 years is no mean achievement; in the book of Psalms 90:10-12 – KJV, “The days of our years are three score years and ten; and if because of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” We all need to number our days and apply our hearts to wisdom; keep seeking the wisdom, Sir!

    While the Lama may have been correct in his argument, ‘Who can tell? Moreover, what is the use of reasoning?. . . we have no choice; we follow our fate. We shall learn what that fate may lead us in due season.’ Human beings are nothing in and of themselves; the Divine hand must lead and offer guidance in our lives on earth; there is so much that we don’t know; the path may appear clear, yet tragedy may interrupt without notice. I find comfort as I journey on in life from the words written in Psalms 32:8, where The Lord says: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you shall go: I will guide you with my eye.” What a promise, what an assurance this is! We do well to pay attention as we receive daily guidance.

  20. Dear Prof

    Thank you for your wisdom as you live your 70 years! This is inspiring

    Life is meaningless if lived selfishly. It’s purposeful and fulfilling if lived and shared with humanity

  21. Beautiful. It’s subtle but definitive. Embraces the ageless mystery- destiny and Karma.

    Many years ago as I stepped in and slowly got seeped in serious spiritual quest, a lingering, no, rather, constant question in my mind used to be- how was the original karma made and who made it? From this ‘original sin’ did all karma evolve? As a biochemist involved in life reactions, this refrain of my ignorant mind as to what is the exact mechanism by which karma is wrought, was a somewhat logical step.

    The quest is still ongoing.

    But some answers have also appeared in this journey….

    Karma is perhaps God’s story, which we live every instant.

    We must learn to flow with it, marvel at the Creator’s creation and the twists and turns in the saga, and wait for the merciful and loving glance to begin our journey back to Him.

    Like the Bible’s prodigal son.

  22. Dear ARUN ji, what a great start of the day by reading your blog. The essence of life is very well captured. What you do to society in a non selfish way is what I learnt so that my life is not futile. Thank you.

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