At some point in our lives, most of us ask ourselves: “Why are we here?”, or “What is the purpose of our existence?”. Is this life just meant for us to grow up, get an education, get a job, get married, procreate, buy a house, a car and then die? What will bring us true happiness? Whether we believe in a Creator or we do not, there is something within all of us that leads us to these critical questions at various point in life. All of us agree that we are born, and we will die. We seek to understand everything that happens in between birth and death and what will happen after we die. Most of the world today still believes in a God, who made us and is responsible for our existence and creation [1]. We will discuss in this paper the purpose of life according to the largest and some of the influential mid-sized religious groups. Here is a breakdown of the world’s largest religions according to pew research center [2]

In this paper, we will focus on the following largest religious groups and mid-sized religious groups and discuss the purpose of life according to its scriptures and interpretation of their religious scholars.

Largest religions

  1. Christianity
  2. Hinduism
  3. Buddhism
  4. Islam

Mid-sized religions

  1. Judaism
  2. Sikhism

Christianity

It is important to note that the Bible comprises of the old testament and the new testament. The old testament contains 39 books (according to the protestant sect) and 46 books (according to the Catholics). The old testament is the Hebrew bible (God’s covenant with Moses) and the new testament

is the Gospel (God’s new covenant with Jesus). Christians today believe that they are no longer under the commands and stipulations in the old covenant as that is replaced by the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Hence for Christians today, the commands in the old testament are not considered binding. They follow some commands that are repeated in the new testament or they think are Christ-like and reject the rest. From the old testament, what is deemed to be indicative of the new covenant in Jesus Christ and whether Christians are keeping the new covenant is something that requires a separate discussion.

Old testament

The author of the biblical book Ecclesiastes describes the feeling of emptiness experienced by human beings pursuing material and superficial goals in life “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 1:2. Christians believe that this book was written by king Solomon who had wealth beyond measure, wisdom above every man of his time, gardens, palaces and every other imaginable pleasure in this world. In chapter 3, verse 11, he says “…. He has also set eternity in the human heart ;… ” signifying that there is more to life than the present. According to various verses in genesis, God intended human beings to have true fulfillment in life, but this was adversely affected due to the original sin which bought the curse of God upon earth.  “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

According to the old testament, the purpose of life seems to be the following

  1. Fear God
  2. Keep all the commandments as all deeds will be judged.

New testament

 “Bring all who claim me as their God, for I have made them for my glory. It was I who created them” -Isaiah 43:7. So according to this verse in the new testament, the reason for our existence is for God’s glory.  “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” -Matthew 16:24–25). So according to this verse, following Jesus Christ seems to be the purpose of life. All the true followers of Jesus Christ must question themselves to see how much they follow him and to see if they are truly following his actions. These questions could include ‘how did he pray?’, ‘who did he worship?’, ‘how did the disciples view him?’ For example, according to the new testament Jesus fell on his face and prayed yet we do not see Christians following the example of Jesus in their actions. Christians believe in life after death, but they believe that faith in Jesus as the savior who died for all of humanity’s sins will earn them heaven. It seems that there is a heavy emphasis placed on love and faith, but some other important parts of faith are misunderstood or corrupted.

Hinduism

According to some scholars, it is the oldest religion with its origins going back at least 4000 years. It is the third-largest religion in the world today. There is no single systematic organization of its beliefs but it

is a mixture of many traditions and philosophies. Hence it is generally not considered as a ‘single religion’. It is close to Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Here are some key beliefs in Hinduism that will help us understand the purpose of life according to this faith tradition.

  1. Truth is eternal
  2. Brahman is truth and reality
  3. The Vedas are ultimate authority
  4. One must fulfill his/her own dharma
  5. Individual souls are immortal
  6. The goal of the soul is moksha

Truth is eternal

Hindus pursue the very essence of the universe and the only reality. According to the Vedas, truth is One, but it can be expressed in many ways.

Brahman is truth and reality

Hindus consider brahman as the one true God and believe it to be a real entity that encompasses everything in the universe (seen and unseen). They believe in henotheism which is that they believe in the existence of Brahman and they worship this entity while also believing that there are other gods and goddesses that can be worshipped.

The Vedas are ultimate authority

Hindus value many texts as sacred, but Vedas are considered as the most important scripture. The Vedas are a collection of sacred verses and hymns written in Sanskrit which also contain the revelations received by many ancient sages and saints. It is also believed that Vedas do not have a beginning or an end i.e. they transcend all time.

One must fulfill his/her own dharma

It is one of the key beliefs to understand in Hinduism. Dharma is described as right conduct, practicing righteousness, moral law and duty. Everyone has his own dharma which is dependent on his or her age, gender, occupation, and caste. According to the traditional Hindu point of view, this means that if you belong to a certain caste there is no other thing that can benefit you more than fulfilling your caste/occupation specific dharma even if you are not good at doing that. For example: if you belong to the caste class of unskilled laborers, then excelling in that field is considered fulfilling one’s dharma even though you may be better at something else or higher. Many Hindu reformers reinterpreted Dharma in different ways later but this notion is still prevalent.

Individual souls are immortal

Hindus believe that an individual soul like energy is neither created nor destroyed and it transfers from one body to another. They also believe in a concept called ‘karma’ which means that an individual will face the consequences of his/her actions in the next life. If one has fulfilled his/her dharma and has performed righteous deeds, then this will positively impact the body and life chosen for the person in the coming life throughout the cycle of death and rebirth.

The goal of the soul is moksha

This can be considered as the purpose of life in Hinduism. Moksha is to break away from the cycle of death and rebirth which is painful and can be filled with suffering. Through karma, any Hindu individual can raise his/her status in the next life gradually by doing good deeds. This will elevate his position in society after death as the soul gets transmigrated to a better body hence giving that person a better life than the previous one. However, it is still considered as a painful process and the goal is finally to realize the true nature of the soul and unite with the Brahman. This is called Moksha or liberation.

Buddhism

This is a religion and philosophy that is said to have developed from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha (word in Sanskrit that means ‘the awakened one’ or ‘the enlightened one’). He is said to have lived in a place in northern India around mid-6th and mid-4th century BCE. This time period is known to have been a period where there was a lot of religious activity in that region.  This religion basically focusses on personal spiritual development by striving to understand the true nature of life. Buddhists do not worship any gods or deities.

Buddha taught what he called ‘The four noble truths’ which explain why human beings suffer and how to overcome that suffering.

  1. The truth of suffering (dukkha)
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
  3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
  4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)

Like Hindus, Buddhists also believe in samsara (cycle of death and rebirth). They believe that the energy is passed from one body form to another. However, unlike the Hindus, Buddhists do not believe in what Hindus refer to as ‘aatma’ or soul. According to Buddhism, nothing is permanent so hence they do not believe that eternal souls or god exist. Whether that new body they get transferred to will be better or worse than the previous body is dependent on the karma (intentional action) of the individual. Good karma is said to lead to nirvana or at least help secure a better future for themselves. Buddhists view taking birth as humans to be a golden opportunity to escape the cycle of samsara which is called nirvana or enlightenment which is the primary goal of Buddhism.

Islam

This is the second largest religion in the world. The world Islam comes from the arabic root word ‘silm’ which refers to ‘submission’. The one who does this act of submission to God (Allah, in arabic) is called a

‘Muslim’. Muslims believe that Islam has been the religion since Prophet Adam set foot on this earth. This covenant was renewed and revived by Prophets and messengers who were sent by God at various points in history. All Prophets invited their people to submit and worship the One God who is the creator of this Universe. Hence, by definition, they were all Muslims i.e. submitters to God. It is important to also note that Islam is not tied to belief in one person or tribe. As Muslims, we believe in all the Prophets that were sent by Allah to people. Some of these Prophets include Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace by upon them all). Many world religions require belief in just one person who is typically the founder of the faith and that is also reflected in the name of the religion. For example, in Buddhism, Buddha is central and considered as the founder of that faith/philosophy. In Christianity, Jesus Christ and faith in him alone is central and hence the name of the religion is Christianity coming from the word Christ. Similarly, Confucius in Confucianism, Zoroaster in Zoroastrianism. Judaism derives its name from the tribe/kingdom of Judah. Islam is unique and stands out in this regard from the other major world religions. The religion of Muslims isn’t called Mohammedanism or Mohammedanity but Islam which has been universal faith since Prophet Adam and that is reflected in the name not being tied to an individual. Muslims believe that this faith was completed and perfected by God through the last Prophet of God, Muhammad (ﷺ). The Quran is the last revelation of God to humanity revealed to Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) through angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years. Muslims believe Quran in its original arabic to be the literal word of God. This does not contain any words of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). His words are preserved and compiled in separate books which are known as the hadiths (narrations).

The central points of the Islamic creed are listed in the following verse of the Quran.

“The Messenger has believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord, and so have the believers. All of them have believed in Allah, His angels, His books and His messengers, [saying], ‘We make no distinction between any of His messengers.’ And they say, ‘We hear, and we obey. [We seek] Your forgiveness, our Lord, and to You is the final destination’” (2:285).

Muslims have six major beliefs. [6]

  1. Belief in one God (Allah)
  2. Belief in God’s angels
  3. Belief in all the divine books sent to all the Prophets (Example: Torah that was revealed to Prophet Moses, Bible that was revealed to Prophet Jesus, and Quran that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad)
  4. Belief in all the prophets sent by God including Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Peace be upon them all.
  5. Belief in the day of judgement and life after death.
  6. Belief in the divine decree.

Allah says in the Quran in Chapter 67, verse 2 –

“He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deeds: and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.”

This verse tells the believers that God has created this life as a test to see which one of us will do good deeds and when we sin, Allah is the only one who can forgive if we ask him sincerely.

The purpose of this life is summarized in a single verse of the Quran – chapter 51 verse 56.

“And I have not created the jinn and the men except that they should worship Me.”

This verse clearly describes the purpose of human existence which is to worship God who has Created us. Worship is not just about fulfilling the rituals aspects, but it is a wider concept in Islam. Anything that is done to please God and for His sake alone is considered as ‘worship’. This includes being nice to neighbors, being nice to family, giving everyone their rights, speaking the truth etc. In addition, ‘Worship’ also includes staying away from the acts that are prohibited. Example: Staying away from lying, backbiting, cheating, stealing. Any person who is performing the good actions for the sake of Allah and staying away from the prohibitions is in submission to Him and in worship to His Creator. Whoever strives to live such a life to the best of his/her ability is promised by Allah to be given paradise in the next life after death that is eternal without any pain and suffering.

Mid-sized religions

Judaism

Judaism, a monotheistic religion, is said to have started about 4000 years ago among the ancient Hebrew people. They believe in one God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses and the Hebrew prophets. Jewish people believe in the Torah, which contains the entire laws that were revealed to the Israelites (Jews/Hebrews) at Sinai. They believe they must follow God’s laws which govern their daily lives. The ten commandments in the Torah are as follows:

  1. Worship no other God but me.
  2. Do not make images to worship.
  3. Do not misuse the name of God. Observe the sabbath day (Saturday)
  4. Keep it holy
  5. Honor and respect your father and mother
  6. Do not murder
  7. Do not commit adultery
  8. Do not steal
  9. Do not accuse anyone falsely. Do not tell lies about other people.
  10. Do not envy other’s possessions.

The Tenakh is the ancient collection of sacred writings of the Jewish people. They were written from 1000 to 100 BCE which is a period of over a thousand years. The word Tenakh is derived from the first three letters of the three books included in this text: the Torah, Nev’im(prophets) and Ki’tuvim (histories, poems, hymns and sayings). The Talmud is also an important collection of writings which is a recording of the rabbis’ discussion and interpretation of the way to follow the Torah at that time.

The purpose of life in Judaism is to embody the Torah, the living word of God. According to some scholars of Judaism, the purpose of life is to experience pleasure. They believe that God put Adam and

Eve in the garden of Eden (Eden is pleasure in Hebrew) because God wanted them to experience pleasure. According to them, the highest level of pleasure is having connection to God and all the other pleasures are lower to this pleasure. There is a concept called ‘Kiddush Hashem’ which is any religious or moral act that inspires others to develop a deep respect for God. The ultimate act of ‘Kiddush Hashem’ is to give up one’s life in times of religious persecution. By performing the little acts of ‘kiddush hashem’ Jews aim to make a large impact which is to get close to their higher destiny and raise the world to a higher moral standard.

Sikhism

This religion was founded in the region of Punjab, India in the late 15th century. It is the newest of the major world religions. The are in excess of 20 million followers of this religion throughout the world which makes it the 5th largest religion in the world. The followers of Sikhism are knowns as Sikhs and they refer to their faith sometimes as ‘Gurmat’ (way of the guru). According to Sikh tradition, this religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539) which was then led by a succession of nine other Gurus. Sikhs believe that all the 10 Gurus were inhabited by a single spirit. After the death of the 10th Guru, it is believed that this spirit was then transferred over to the sacred book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib also know as the ‘Adi Granth’.

Sikh means ‘learner’ in the Punjabi language and their house of worship is called ‘Gurudwara’. Worshippers enter the Gurudwara bare foot covering their heads as sign of respect. They are seen bowing to their sacred scripture that is housed in every Gurudwara. They reject the caste system which was prevalent among Hindus in India. The Adi Granth condemns caste and all the gurus denounced casting as holding no importance for access to liberation. This is a remarked difference from Hinduism where caste plays an important role and only the higher castes are said to have access to liberation. However, there is still some caste observance in Sikhism. Sikhs are normally expected to marry within their caste and some castes establish gurudwaras for their own cast members. The purpose of life is to purify oneself, meditate on God and eventually become one with God. Sikhs believe that God is the greatest spirit of all, and our soul is a part of God. Our soul has separated from God so its dignity remains in merging it back with God. Their Guru said, “This human body has been given to you. This is your chance to meet God. All other works are of no use. Join the holy congregation and meditate on the Name of God” (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 12). Like Hinduism, the goal is to break away from the cycle of birth and death and attain salvation by being one with God’s spirit. This according to Sikhism can be achieved by living an honest and humble lifestyle and meditating on God.

References

  1. https://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/
  2. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/ft_17-04-05_projectionsupdate_globalpop640px/
  3. https://uri.org/kids/world-religions/muslim-beliefs
  4. https://thebuddhistcentre.com/buddhism
  5. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Buddhism
  6. https://uri.org/kids/world-religions/muslim-beliefs
  7. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Judaism
  8. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Judaism/Basic-beliefs-and-doctrines
  9. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sikhism
  10. http://www.realsikhism.com/index.php?subaction=showfull&id=1248309055&ucat=7