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Series III - Chapter 22 - “What Is Life All About?”

THE SUN WAS beating down on the rough, pebbly road, and it was pleasant in the shade of the big mango tree. people from the villages came along that road carrying on their heads large baskets laden with vegetables, fruit, and other things for the town. They were mostly women, walking with bare-footed ease, chatting and laughing, their dark faces bare to the sun. They would put their burdens down along the edge of the road and rest in the cool shade of the mango tree, sitting on the ground and not talking so much. The baskets were rather heavy, and presently each woman would help another to place her basket on her head, the last one somehow managing by almost kneeling on the ground. Then they would be off, with steady pace and an extraordinary grace of movement that had come with years of toil. It wasn’t a thing that had been learnt through choice; it had come about through sheer necessity. There was a little girl among them, not more than ten or so, and she too had a basket on her head, though much smaller than the others. She was full of smiles and play, and wouldn’t look straight ahead, as the older women did, but would turn round to see if I were following, and we would smile at each other. She too was barefoot-ed, and she too was on the long journey of life.

It was a lovely country, rich and enchanting. There were mango groves and rolling hills, and the water that was still running in the narrow, sandy beds made a pleasant noise as it wandered through the land. The palm trees seemed to tower over the mangoes which were in bloom and haunted by the murmuring of wild geese. Old banyan trees also grew on either side of the road, which was now busy with the movement of lazy bullock carts, and with chattering people who were walking from one village to another on some trifling business. They were not in a hurry, and would gather to talk of their doings wherever there was deep shade. Few had anything on their thin, worn feet, and fewer still had bicycles. Now and then they would eat a few nuts, or some fried grain. They had an air of gentle kindliness about them, and they had obviously not caught the contagion of the town. On that road there was peace, though an occasional lorry would pass, carrying, perhaps, sacks of charcoal so badly loaded that some seemed ready to fall off at any moment; but they never did. A bus full of people would come along, making threatening noises with its horn. But it too would soon pass by, leaving the road to the villagers – and to the brown monkeys, of which there were dozens, old and young. When a lorry or a bus came rattling along, the babies would cling to their mothers; they would hold on until everything was quiet again, and then scatter on the road, but never going very far away from their mothers. With their large heads, and their eyes bright with curiosity, they would sit scratching themselves and watching the others. The half-grown monkeys would be all over the place, chasing each other across the road and up the trees, always avoiding the older ones, but not wandering too far away from them either. There was a very large male, old but active, who would sit quietly by the road, keeping watch on things. The others kept their distance, but when he moved away, they all would leisurely follow, running and scattering, but always moving in the same general direction. It was a road of a thousand happenings.

He was a young man, and had come accompanied by two others of about the same age. Rather nervous, with a large forehead and long, restless hands, he explained that he was only a clerk, with little pay and very little future. Even though he had passed his college examinations fairly well, he had found this job only with great difficulty, and was glad to have it. He wasn’t yet married, and didn’t know if he would ever be, for life was difficult, and you needed money to educate children. However, he was content with the little he earned, for he and his mother could live on it and buy the necessary things of life. In any case, he hadn’t come about that, he added, but for an entirely different reason. Both of his companions, one of whom was married, had a problem similar to his, and he had persuaded them to come along with him. They too had been to college, and like him, had minor office jobs. They were all clean, serious and somewhat cheerful, with bright eyes and expressive smiles.

“We have come to ask you a very simple question, hoping for a simple answer. Although we are college-educated, we are not yet very well prepared for deep reasoning and extensive analysis; but we shall listen to what you tell us. You see, sir, we don’t know what life is all about. We have messed around here and there, belonging to political parties, joining the social ‘do-gooders’, attending labour meetings, and all the rest of it; and as it happens, we are all passionately fond of music. We have been to temples, and have dipped into the sacred books, but not too deeply. I am venturing to tell you all this simply to give you some information about ourselves. We three get together practically every evening to talk things over, and the question we would like to ask you is this: what is the purpose of life, and how can we find it?”

Why are you asking this question? And if someone were to tell you what the purpose of life is, would you accept it and guide your lives! by it? “We are asking this question,” explained the married one, “because we are confused; we don’t know what all this mess and misery is about. We would like to talk it over with someone who is not confused as we are, and who is not arrogant and authoritarian; someone who will talk to us normally, and not condescendingly, as though they knew everything and we were ignorant school boys who knew nothing. We have heard that you aren’t like that, and so we have come to ask you what life is all about.”

“It’s not only that, sir,” added the first one. “We also want to lead a fruitful life, a life with some meaning to it; but at the same time, we don’t want to become ‘ists’, or belong to any particular ‘ism’. Some of our friends belong to various groups of religious and political double-talkers, but we have no desire to join them. The political ones are generally pursuing power for themselves in the name of the State; and as for the religious ones, they are for the most part gullible and superstitious. So here we are, and I don’t know if you can help us.”

Again, if anyone were foolish enough to tell you what is the purpose of life, would you accept it – provided, of course, it were reasonable, comforting and more or less satisfactory? “I suppose we would,” said the first one. “But he would want to make quite sure that it was true, and not just some clever invention,” put in one of his companions. “I doubt that we are capable of such discernment,” added the other.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it? You have all admitted that you are rather confused. Now, do you think a confused mind can find out what the purpose of life is? “Why not, sir?” asked the first one. “We are confused, there’s no denying that; but if through our confusion we cannot perceive the purpose of life, then there’s no hope.”

However much it may grope and search, a confused mind can only find that which is further confusing; isn’t that so? “I don’t what you are getting at,” said the married one.

We are not trying to get at anything. We are proceeding step by step; and the first thing to find out, surely, is whether or not the mind can ever think clearly as long as it is confused. “Obviously it cannot,” replied the first one quickly. “If I am confused, as in fact I am I cannot think clearly. Clear thinking implies the absence of confusion. As I am confused, my thinking is not clear Then what?”

The fact is that whatever a confused mind seeks and finds must also be confused; its leaders, its gurus, its ends, will reflect its own confusion. Isn’t that so?

“That’s hard to realize,” said the married one.

It’s hard to realize because of our conceit. We think we are so clever, so capable of solving human problems. Most of us are afraid to acknowledge to ourselves the fact that we are confused, for then we would have to admit our own utter insolvency, our defeat – which would mean either despair, or humility. Despair leads to bitterness, to cynicism, and to grotesque philosophies; but when there is true humility, then we can really begin to seek and to understand.

“I quite see the truth of what you are saying,” replied the married one.

Isn’t it also a fact that choice indicates confusion? “I don’t understand how that can be,” said the second one. “We must choose; without choice, there is no freedom.”

When do you choose? Only out of confusion, when you are not quite ‘certain’. When there’s clarity, there’s no choice. “Quite right, sir,” put in the married one. “When you love and want to marry a person, there’s no choice involved. It is only when there’s no love that you shop around. In a way, love is clarity, isn’t it?”

That depends on what we mean by love. If ‘love’ is hedged about by fear, jealousy, attachment, then it is not love, and there is no clarity. But for the present we are not talking about love. When the mind is in a state of confusion, its search for the purpose of life, and its choice of purposes, has no significance, has it? “What do you mean by ‘choice of purposes’?”

When you all came here, asking what is the purpose of life, you were shopping for a purpose, a goal, were you not? Obviously you had asked others the same question, but their replies must have been unsatisfactory, and so you came here. You were choosing; and as we said, choice is born of confusion. Being confused, you wanted to be certain; and a mind that seeks to be certain when it’s confused only maintains confusion, doesn’t it? Certainty added to inward confusion only strengthens the confusion.

“That is clear,” replied the first one. “I am beginning to see that a confused mind can only find confused answers to confused problems. Then what?”

Let’s go into it slowly. Our minds are confused, and that is a fact. Then our minds are also shallow, petty, limited; that’s another fact, isn’t it? “But we are not entirely petty, there is a part of us which is not,” asserted the married one. “If we can find a way to go beyond this shallowness, we can break it up.”

That is a comforting hope, but will it actually so? You have the traditional notion that there is an entity – the Atman, the soul, the spiritual essence – beyond all this pettiness, an entity that can and does pierce through it. But when a petty mind thinks there is a part of itself which is not petty, it is only sustaining its pettiness. In asserting that there’s the Atman, the higher self, and so on, a confused, ignorant mind is still held in the bonds of its own confused thought, which is based mostly on tradition, on what it has been taught by others.

“Then what are we to do?”

Isn’t this question rather premature? There may be no need to take any particular action. In the very process of understanding the whole issue, there may be a different kind of action altogether. “You mean that the action to be taken will reveal itself as we go along in our understanding of life,” explained the married one. “Now, what do you mean by life?”

Life is beauty sorrow, joy and confusion; it is the tree, the bird, and the light of the moon on the water; it is work, pain and hope; it is death, the search for immortality, the belief in and the denial of the Supreme; it is goodness, hate and envy; it is greed and ambition; it is love and the lack of it; it is inventiveness, and the power to exploit the machine; it is unfathomable ecstasy; it is the mind, the meditator, and the meditation. It is all things. But how do our petty, confused minds approach life? That is important, not the description of what life is. On our approach to life all questions and answers depend.

“I see that this mess which I call life is the outcome of my own mind,” said the first one. “I am of it, and it is of me. Can I separate myself from life, and ask myself how I approach it?”

You actually have separated yourself from life, have you not? You do not say, “I am the whole of life”, and remain still; you want to change this and improve that, you want to reject and to hold. You, the watcher, continue as an immovable, permanent centre in this vast movement, and so you are caught in conflict, in sorrow. Now, you who are separate, how do you approach the whole? How do you come to this vastness, to the beauty of the earth and the heavens?

“I come to it as I am,” replied the married man, “with my pettiness, asking for futile answers.”

What we ask for, we receive. Our lives are petty, mean, quite shallow and bound to routine; and the gods of the trivial mind are as silly and stupid as their maker. Whether we live in a palace or a village, whether we are clerks in an office or sit in the seats of the mighty, the fact is that our minds are petty, narrow, ambitious, envious; and it is with such minds that we want to find out if there is God, what truth is, what the perfect government is, and seek answers to the innumerable other questions that pop up.

“Yes, sir, that is our life,” acknowledged the first one sadly. “What can we do?”

Die to the whole of our existence not little by little, but totally! It’s the petty mind that tries, that struggles, that has ideals and systems, that’s everlastingly improving itself by cultivating virtues. Virtue ceases to be virtuous when it’s cultivated. “I can see that we should die to the past,” said the first one, “but if I die to the past, what is there then?”

You are saying – aren’t you? – that you will die to the past only when you are guaranteed a satisfactory substitute for what you have renounced. That’s not renunciation, that’s only another gain. A petty mind wanting to know what there is after dying will find its own petty answer. You must die to all of the known for the unknown to be. “I put that question out of thoughtlessness. I do understand, sir, what you have been saying, and this is not just a polite or merely verbal statement. I think each one of us has felt deeply the truth of it all, and this feeling is the important thing. From this feeling, action can and will take place. May we come again?”