Purpose of Life

By Dr. Ashwini Mokashi


For the ninth Episode of the Kabiriyat, we have chosen an interesting poem by Saint Kabir that illustrates the purpose of life.

हंसा करो पुरातन बात।

कौन देस से आया हंसा, उतरना कौन घाट।

कहाँ हंसा बिसराम किया है, कहाँ लगाये आस॥

अबहीं हंसा चेत सबेरा, चलो हमारे साथ।

संसय-सोक वहाँ नहिं ब्यापै नहीं काल कै त्रास॥

हिआँ मदन-बन फूल रहे हैं, आवे सोहँ बास।

मन भौंरा जिहँ अरुझ रहे हैं, सुख की ना अभिलास॥


hansā kaaro purātan baat

kon des se aayā hansā utarnā kone ghaaT

kahāñ hansā bisrām kiyā hai kahāñ lagāe aas

abhī hansā chet saberā chalo hamāre saath

sansai-sok vahāñ nahi vyāpe nahī kaal kai traas

hiaañ madan-ban phuul rahe haiñ aave soham baas

manbhañvrā jahñ arujh rahe hai sukh kī nā abhīlās


The translation of this poem by the Nobel laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore is as follows:


Tell me, O Swan, your ancient tale.

From what land do you come, O Swan? to what shore will you fly?

Where would you take your rest, O Swan, and what do you seek?

Even this morning, O Swan, awake, arise, follow me!

There is a land where no doubt nor sorrow have rule: where the terror of Death is no more.

There the woods of spring are a-bloom, and the fragrant scent ‘He is I’ is borne on the wind:

There the bee of the heart is deeply immersed and desires no other joy.


Spiritual interpretation


First, let us talk about the similes. Spiritual writers and poets often use the simile of the swan to indicate the soul. A swan is an exceptional bird. Its white color symbolizes purity. Floating on the water, it looks beautiful and comely. Our souls are pure, beautiful, and possess tremendous power like the swan. As a swan is supposedly unaware of its beauty, likewise, our soul is unaware of its power. Once we take birth in this body, we identify ourselves as body and forget that we have a soul or obligations for the soul.


In this poem, Saint Kabir is trying to awaken that understanding that we are souls. Our identity is not with our body but with our soul. Therefore, he asks questions like where do we come from and where we are going? This question has also come up in Adi Shankaracharya’s poem as ‘kastvam koham kutah ayatam.’ Theologically, this is vital for understanding our origin. This way of thinking leads us towards spiritual awakening. Saint Kabir challenges us to become aware of our mystical history, offers us a helping hand and asks us to join him in the spiritual path, leading towards a condition of happiness, that almost seems utopian. The critical issue in this poem lies in the middle two lines, where he asks us to join him in pursuing the real purpose of life.


The purpose of life is Bhakti, or devoting oneself to spiritual pursuits, a life lived in truth and dedicated to God. Nevertheless, this does not mean living passively. The Bhakta or disciple leads an active life of worship and helping people. Saint Kabir talks about a pure state of mind, undisturbed by doubts, jealousy, grief, or fear of death. It reflects the state of Brahman. As a result of this pure and positive state of mind, one’s experience of the world deepens into more spiritual dimensions, sharpens the appreciative power of one’s senses, whether of lovely smells, hearing the bees or birds, music or singing, and a relaxed mind free of worry. If that is not happiness, what is? The mind is most content and does not desire any other object or type of joy. It is a complete state of mind.


Modern relevance


Why does Saint Kabir deny the fear of death if it is an inborn fear? It is even essential for survival at times. One needs to investigate this further, given that Saint Kabir must have some rationale behind this claim.


Sometimes the sense of mortality encourages people to do their best in their lifetime. They try to live life to its fullest extent, practice morality as best they can, so as not to have to spend their last days in guilt, misery, and discomfort. It is a powerful incentive for people to try to figure out the purpose of life, listen to the inner voice unreservedly following their heart and soul in their chosen line of work. What work we do is not so important as how we do it. People were assigned work based on their caste, region, or political or economic situation in the previous eras. People choose their profession in modern times, akin to their interests and aptitude in life. A person interested in traveling may decide to be a tour guide. Another person interested in a comfortable lifestyle may prefer hedge fund management. No matter what profession we choose, we need to ask ourselves, will this offer contentment? Saint Kabir would pose the question: Will it serve the true purpose of life; will it satisfy our deepest yearnings? Saint Kabir was a weaver by profession, but his work never interfered with his devotion to God, with his writing of poetry, with his focusing on social welfare. He nourished not just his body but also his soul.


When Bhakti becomes essential in our life, as the fundamental purpose, the fear of death reduces and can even vanish. We understand the power of self and what is vital in life. That makes us both happy and fearless in life. A happy mind sees only good things around them, a blossoming atmosphere, pleasant smells, sounds, kindness in people, goodness in the hearts and minds. Others also react to such happy people with love and affection. Hence Saint Kabir says, please walk that path with us.



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