LIFE . Across the centuries and the continents, human beings have revealed, through myths, rituals, religious and cultural institutions, social histories, and various other modes of symbolic expression, a central and overriding preoccupation with the creation and prolongation of life. Most of the human cultures known to us today have one or more terms to designate life, being, existence, or other cognate concepts, which have occupied a core position in the intellectual life of each tradition. The Chinese language, for instance, which does not possess an exact equivalent of the term life, does contain a number of other words to describe the seat of life or basis of the life process (such as yu, "being," and its counterpart, wu, "nonbeing"). So, too, Hebrew has nefesh/ruah, Greek psyche/pneuma, Latin spiritus, Sanskrit ātman/jīva/prāṇa/puruṣa, Arabic ʿumrʿishah, and Nuer yiegh.
The identity of the human faculty or function that is regarded as an undeniable indication of the presence of life in an animated organism varies from one culture to another. By and large, however, the seal of life has been identified with the tangible signs of the presence of breath, with consciousness or mental functioning, and with physical movement or—in the modern scientific fields of physiology and neurology—pulsebeat and measurable brain-wave activity.
In many cultures, it is perhaps breath, more than any other single human function, that has been designated as the most dependable sign of life. This designation is confirmed by the fact that in many languages, both ancient and modern, the words for "life" and "breath" are one and the same. A particularly intriguing illustration of this phenomenon appears in one of the most ancient Hindu texts, the Brhadaranyaka Upaniṣad (composed around the sixth century bce), where a debate as to which of the human faculties is indispensable to the maintenance of life is resolved in favor of breath (prāṇa ).
Many religious traditions have attributed the existence of the world and its entire population of living inhabitants to the creative act of a god or gods at the beginning of time. According to various cosmologies, from both oral and written traditions, the divine creator fashioned the universe as we know it either out of nothing or from some type of preexistent materia prima (such as water, earth, fire, mind, or substances like tears or semen, emitted by the creator). Such traditions believe that the cosmos is therefore suffused with and supported by the sacred energies of the creator deity, and human life is linked physically and spiritually with the life of the cosmos as a whole. That is, the human realm is established within and directed by a cosmic, celestial, or divine dimension of reality, of either a personal or a transpersonal nature. As a consequence, human existence is believed to possess, both a human and a divine, a temporal and an atemporal dimension, with the latter being both logically and metaphysically prior to the former.
In addition, many religions and philosophies make a qualitative distinction between two contrasting and mutually exclusive modes or styles of life. The two categories of existence have been characterized variously as profane and sacred, impure and pure, fallen and redeemed, ignorant and enlightened, bound and liberated, alienated and authentic. In cultures having experienced colonization by Western countries, such a dichotomy can also take on the more politicized valence of indigenous/Western imperialist styles of life; or pre-colonial and postcolonial ways of being.
The first category pertains to life in a state of separation from or in opposition to the will of a god or gods in theistic systems or in opposition to the natural law or the principle of ultimate reality within non-theistic systems (such as dharma in Hinduism and Buddhism, moira or logos in ancient Greece, and dao in China and Japan). Life in this state is depicted as a realm of sin and ignorance, suffering and misery, and death (linked, in certain cases, with rebirth).
Achievement of the second, more salutary state of existence (conceived as one of wholeness, physical and spiritual integration, redemption, or liberation), is realized by living in compliance with the cosmic law or the will of God. For many cultures, human existence is viewed as real and meaningful only insofar as it is experienced as organically rooted in a divine realm of existence. This divine realm is conceived to be a celestial abode of God or the gods or the shadowy domain of the cultural ancestors. It is the function of the network of myths and symbols, cultic rituals, and cultural customs to preserve and strengthen the connection between the human and divine realms and, thereby, to guarantee to human beings the sense of reality and value that makes life not only bearable but fulfilling.
Clearly it is impossible to cover all the beliefs about life held by all the peoples of the world. The present article will merely select one or two salient examples from a few geographical or religious traditions, in hope that readers will be inspired to find out more on their own. Due to space limitations, moreover, coverage of the religious traditions themselves will focus only on their formative and classical periods.
The indigenous inhabitants of Arnhem Land in Australia believe that the world existed from the beginning; only human beings were lacking. Human life originated with the peregrinations of a primal ancestor and his two sisters. They wandered about the landscape, paused from time to time, engaged in sexual intercourse, and thereby produced human offspring and various totemic emblems known as Dreamings (that is, the world as it now is). The peoples who inhabit this territory trace the origin of all entities that constitute the world in which they live back to a "Dreaming period." It was during this timeless, mythical epoch that the life-world as we know it was established. To explore a further example: in Murngin society of Northeastern Australia, the sacred well, or water hole, contains the essence of all life. The soul (warro) returns to this water hole to be renewed by contact with the ancestors—both those long dead, who are most pure, and those recently dead, who are still in contact with the living. Animals sacred to the Murngin are also part of this life-giving cycle of returning to the water to be purified and renewed.
Like the vast array of the Australian indigenous peoples, the equally vast array of Native American practices is united by a deep respect for the natural world. The power of life inheres in the powers of nature. Natural objects are imbued with sacred meaning, and in their ceremonial use they become supernaturally as well as naturally powerful. Native American groups tend not to make any distinction between ritual and theology, and therefore a successful life is something to be ritually enacted as well as imagined in a more abstract way. Many of these ceremonies include the insurance of a successful hunt, as well as contemporary hopes for life on the reservation. The Lakota, for instance, understand life to be comprised of seven rituals: The Sweat Lodge, The Vision Quest, Ghost Keeping, The Sun Dance, Making Relatives, Puberty Ceremony, and Throwing the Ball. One new ceremony, the Yuwipi, specifically incorporates the post-colonial life of the Lakota. The Apache believe that life endures through successful negotiation with the larger power that informs the universe, as well as with one's individual power, attained during visionary experiences—sometimes alone and sometimes with the mediation of a holy person. The number four is central to the performance of these rituals and considered a basis for wholeness and healing in life. So, too, the Navaho's understanding of a prosperous life involves harmonious relations with the Holy People. Their rituals, especially the complex practice of chanting called the Blessingway, remember the creation of their own life on earth: their Emergence from the Underworld, as well as their travails and challenges after the Emergence.
According to the people of West Ceram in the Sulawesi Islands, human beings emerged from bananas that grew at the base of a sacred mountain. Living beings of all sorts, together with various foodstuffs and diverse sources of wealth, resulted from the sacrifice (literally, the "murder") of a coconut maiden, Hainuwele, and the implantation of the several parts of her body in the surrounding landscape. By this means, her bodily parts became sources of sustenance for all living creatures. But this primal murder was also the occasion for the advent of death. Hence, death is understood to be a necessary precondition for the creation and maintenance of life.
This kind of complementarity is also reflected in the beliefs other traditional Indonesian peoples, where sacred geography involves the upstream and downstream flow of rivers and other bodies of water, an upper world and a netherworld, inside and outside, and other opposites. For the Sumbanese, the major deity is a dual entity of Amawolo/Amarawi; for the Toraja, the marriage of heaven and earth gives rise to the universe. Such an idea of the life-giving balance between opposites has even influenced the religious traditions of peoples who later came and settled in Indonesia, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, and is shown in current cultural forms such as the wayang, or shadow theater.
Africa (South of the Sahara)
In the words of Richard Nyombi, for African peoples, "religion is literally life and life is religion." Doctrine and creed as such are less central to various African traditions than the force of sacred place and the power of sacred objects, especially as they are used in dance and art forms, as well as in festivals, ceremonies, and rituals. Each individual comes into being through social rites of passage, and gains, through these rites, the capacity to become an ancestor after his or her death. Each ritual preserves the web of relationships that give life and protects against those forces that would destroy it. J. S. Mbiti calls this African view of the world a "relational metaphysics": "I am because we are and because we are therefore I am" (Mbiti, 1990).
For example, according to the Nuer, a tribe of cattle keepers in the southern Egyptian Sudan, life is bestowed upon the universe and all its inhabitants by the cosmic spirit (Kwoth), invoked variously as "spirit of the sky," "grandfather of the universe," or "spirit who created the ancestors." This omnipresent spirit of the sky is credited with creating the world and its offspring and determining the course of its operations. From his lofty perch, he rewards and punishes human actions and upholds the moral order of the universe, by which all life is governed.
In addition, for the Nuer there are smaller and more localized spirits (kuth ) of the sky, atmosphere, and earth, through whose mediating powers the life energies of Kwoth are transmitted to animals and human beings. Specifically, this transmission of power is effectuated by the killing and partaking of the flesh and blood of the ox, the totemic ancestor of the Nuer. Even as birth necessitates a temporary separation from the primordial spirit, death is the return of the individual soul to the great spirit and its near-complete isolation from the realm of the living. The deceased are transmuted into ghosts at the moment of death but retain the capacity to return to the living in dreams, visions, and various types of misfortune.
Kwoth is only one example of such an idea of a Supreme Being, and kuth only one example of the mediating deities who maintain life. The Supreme Being is known by several names in other African traditions (and there are arguments to this day as to whether there is one African tradition or many): To the Ibo, the Supreme being is Chukwu; to the Akan in Ghana he is Nyame, to the Yoruba he is Ọlọ́run, and in Central Africa he is Jok, to name a few. In most African traditions, he is a life-preserver who is a parent figure to the other gods, and charges them with maintaining cosmic processes; to the earth he is a husband standing behind her creative forces.
In the Book of Genesis, the world is created by divine fiat. In accordance with most of the Hebrew tradition, biblical thought identifies the basis of human life as the blood (Lv. 17:14).
The writers of the various books in the Hebrew scriptures are in general agreement that the relative length of life is determined by human virtues and vices, as exemplified by the travails of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. God is the lord of life and death by virtue of his sovereign rulership over the book of life.
In biblical thought, therefore, life reveals its presence through breath (ruah ) and blood. Hence, God is the prototypical living being whose life is eternal, whereas the existence of all created beings and entities is fragile and perishable, "like the grass of the field" (Ps. 103:15, Is. 40:6). God's life is manifested through action and creativity. He is the creator and therefore the lord of life (Jb. 43:14f.). Hence, to live in rebellion against his will is equivalent to experiencing death in the midst of life (Jb. 3:11–26, Jon. 4:9). Such an existence will be filled, inwardly, with misfortune and misery, however favorable the external circumstances may be.
The realization that death is the fate of all living beings brings into question the ultimate value of life and its various aspects (Eccl. 1:1–11), but in the final analysis the judgment is rendered that those who live in submission to God's will can expect to enjoy a long and happy life and, in the end, be gathered to the fathers (Gn. 15:15, Jb. 42:17). All persons, therefore, face a choice between the way of life and the way of death (Prv. 5:6, 14:12).
In the biblical period, the life of Israel was believed to be maintained and revitalized through sacrifice. The community of Israel as a whole appropriates the divine power resident within the sacrificial oblation and shares in the sanctity created by the sacrifice. Likewise, by offering the sacrifice to God, the sacrificer also strengthens both God's nature and, through his revitalization, that of the world and its inhabitants. The covenant between God and Israel is expressed and strengthened though a system of sacrifice.
In rabbinic Judaism as it developed after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, prayer and study of the Torah replaced sacrifice as the form of service to God. Rabbinic Judaism, whose central tenets are expressed in the Mishnah and the Talmud, posits the parallel existence of the written Torah and the Oral Torah. (The Oral Torah was written down between the third and sixth centuries ce). These two written documents, as interpreted by the Sages, are the sources of halakhah (the "way" or "path"), often called Jewish law. Life should be lived by following this path, according to the prescriptions of halakhah, a term that includes religious rituals as well as rules that govern the conduct of everyday life.
The New Testament concept of life rests upon the distinction between mere existence, or natural life (bios, as the ancient Greeks used the term), and true or authentic life in Christ. In the first instance, human life is finite, fragile, and mortal. As in the Hebrew Bible, to be alive is to possess the capacity to perform one's intended function and act efficaciously (Acts 7:38) and to do so in a state of health (Mk. 5:23). While animal life is sustained by nourishment, human life is dependent upon the continued presence of the soul (psyche ), or life breath (pneuma ), which is a gift of God. Since God is the only being who possesses life inherently (Jn. 5:26) and, hence, alone lives eternally, it follows that all living creatures derive their existence from him. In recognition of the fact that life is a divine dispensation, the believer does not live for himself, nor primarily for his fellow creatures, but for his creator and redeemer (Rv. 14:7f., Gal. 2:19). He who lives for his own selfish pleasure will come, in the end, to sin and death (2 Cor. 5).
While the life of redemption is available in the present as a consequence of the establishment of the new regime of faith through Christ's resurrection as the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:20–22), its complete realization must await the end of time, when Christ is to deliver the kingdom of God and, thereby, put "all enemies under his feet." Since life in its truest and most efficacious form lies in the future, beyond the grave, then all present conduct is but a preparation for that eventuality. But, in the final analysis, this indestructible form of life is the result of divine grace (Jn. 3:16, Rom. 8:1–11), extended to those who repent past sins and accept the promise of salvation (Lk. 13:3, Acts 2:38, Rom. 2:4). The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is entirely foreign to the New Testament.
Building upon certain key concepts in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament writers declare that authentic life is based not upon God's nature in general, but rather upon God's expression of his love and compassion for the sufferings of humanity and his readiness to forgive and redeem all those who seek his forgiveness through the life, death, and resurrection of his only son, Jesus, the Christ (Jn. 3:16, 1 Pt. 1:18–19). According to Paul, the consummate realization of the benefits of the "life in Christ" will occur only after the Day of Resurrection. Hence, true life can be appropriated in the present time only in the form of hope (Rom. 5:1–11, 1 Cor. 15). Whereas the letter of the law kills (i.e., destroys the freedom of life in the spirit), the spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). Where the spirit is present there is life, eternal and indestructible (2 Cor. 3:17f.). This life is embodied in and offered through the preached word (kerygma ), the "power of God for salvation to all those who have faith" (Rom. 1:16).
According to Augustine, the wide panorama of living beings is distinguished by the divine creator according to a hierarchical order of existence. At the lowest level are the merely nutritive life forms such as plants, devoid of sensibility or consciousness. Then come sentient forms of life, devoid of mind or soul, such as cattle, birds, and fishes. Third, there is the human being, the crown of God's created order by virtue of his possession of mind and will. Ultimately, transcendent to humans, whose life is conditioned by the vicissitudes of change and death, there is the eternal, unchanging, absolute existent, God, "who is wisdom itself."
Augustine, like other Christian writers who followed him, understood God to be living in a highly exceptional, and indeed, absolute sense. He possesses the capacity to give life to the multitude of creatures that inhabit the world. He is the boundless and inexhaustible reservoir of power from which all other living beings derive their existence. He is, in short, the alpha and omega, the source and final resting place for all living beings.
In the Qurʾān, God (Allāh) creates humans from a "blood clot." (Sūrah 96.2: "Read: 'In the name of the Lord who creates humanity from a clot.'") God controls and supervises all of life, and is frequently envisioned in a magisterial and yet caring and compassionate capacity. God determines the span and quality of human life in accordance with the behavior of each individual. Humans are also judged at two moments: first, at their own time of death, and second, "at the hour"—the day of judgment for all humanity.
The rules and standards by which the lives of Muslims will be judged are expressed in the sharīʿah ("path") or system of Islamic law. The sources of sharīʿah are the Qurʾān and the ḥadīth —the tradition of the actions and utterances of the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632 ce), both as told by the Prophet himself and as included in narratives and regulations about him recorded after his death.
A life well-lived is best judged by the capacity to which men and women might engage in the service and worship of God. As expressed in the rules of sharīʿah, such service and worship are often organized as the Five Pillars of Islam. They are: the profession of the faith (shahādah ); prayer five times a day (ṣalāt ); fasting during the month of Ramaḍān (ṣawm ); charity to the needy (zakāt ); and pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥājj ). Later Muslim tradition saw this ideal life as being contained in the early history of Islam. For example, the Life of Muḥammad by the Muslim philosopher Ibn Ishaq describes much of the setting for the establishment of these regular practices in Muḥammad's own example; thus, Muḥammad's life becomes the model life par excellence.
Many Muslim thinkers have argued that following this Five-Pillar structure is the most life-giving practice, infusing the world with a sense of God. The rich Ṣūfī mystical tradition frequently emphasized the recollection of the Name of God as a particularly enlivening custom, in which God's merciful light could be shown on the faces of those engaged in prayer. All of the nature of creaturely existence can be known only when one fully surrenders to God—thus the Arabic word slm, or surrender, from which we derive the words "Muslim" and "Islam," also implies knowledge of the nature of life itself.
The more orthodox Sunnī and Shīʿah traditions also taught that ritual prayer and ritual acts in general give one a deeper sense of this life and of the life to come. The great twelfth-century lawyer and theologian al-Ghazālī writes that, during the ritual preparation for prayer, each person should say, "Oh God, I am purposing to read Your Book and to have Your name many times on my lips; through the steadfast word make me steadfast in this life and the world to come." (The Beginning of Guidance, 8).
The value of human life is emphasized in the Qurʾanic dictum that "If anyone slew a person it would be as if he slew the whole of humankind, and if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the life of all of humankind." (Śūra 5.32) In addition, the Qurʾān often mentions the physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time. "Does man think that we cannot assemble his bones? Nay we are able to put together, in perfect order, the very tips of his fingers." (Śūra 75.1–2) Thus, the creation of life and resurrection are imaginatively linked.
The Vedas (c. 1500–900 bce), the earliest strata of Hindu texts, attribute the creation of the life-world to a variety of divine agents or cosmogonic entities, with no apparent compulsion toward consistency among the many theories of creation. The cosmos was believed to have originated from the primordial sacrifice of a cosmic superman (puruṣa ) and the distribution of the parts of his body throughout the universe to form the sun, moon, stars, sky, earth, and so forth (Ṛgveda 10.90). Alternatively, the universe arose from the mysterious breathing, windlessly, of "That One" (tad ekam ) within the realm where "there was neither existence nor nonexistence" (Ṛgveda 10.129), or it resulted from the fragmentation of a primordial "Golden Germ" (hiranyagarbha ) floating upon the cosmic ocean (Ṛgveda 10.121). At least one sage expressed skepticism that the origins of the world can be known even to the highest deity (Ṛgveda 10.129.7).
The Brahmanas (c. 800 bce), liturgical manuals employed by Brahmanic priests, attribute the creation of the universe and its multitudinous inhabitants to a god addressed as Prajāpati ("lord of creatures"). The later traditions recorded in the Hindu epics and Purāṇas explain the creation of the universe as the work of other deities, each regarded as supreme among a pantheon of other gods. Chief among these are Viṣṇu, Śiva, and Devī (the Goddess), each worshiped under many different names and in many different forms. The actual task of making the world, however, is still often assigned to the god Prajāpati, usually under his later name, Brahmā, now regarded as a minor god under the direction of one of the supreme gods.
In the Upaniṣads, the basis of Vedānta, the focus shifts from cosmology to spiritual psychology, from accounts of the origin and operations of the universe to the birth, death, and rebirth of the human soul (ātman ). It is also here that the Hindu doctrines of karma and rebirth burst into full flower. From the Vedāntic perspective, creaturely existence (including that of the gods) is the direct result of action (karma ) performed in past lives in a state of metaphysical ignorance (avidya ). This ignorance, which pervades the existence of all creatures and is the cause of transmigration (saṃsāra ), results from the confusion of the finite and evanescent self (ātman ) with the absolute, unchanging self of the universe (also called ātman, but also brahman ). This phenomenal self or human personality is composed of five sheaths or layers of faculties, which account for a person's conscious existence and which, if identified egoistically as the ultimate basis of reality, serve as the causal basis of rebirth (saṃsāra ). The cyclical recurrence of rebirth can be terminated, and permanent liberation achieved, only after the person has come to a transformative knowledge (prajñā ) of the quintessential identity of the human self (ātman ) and the self of the universe (ātman /brahman ).
The Bhagavadgītā attempts a synthesis of Vedic and Upaniṣadic conceptions of the world and creaturely existence. The Gītā embraces the view that the life of the cosmos and all its inhabitants is the result of the formative activities of God, who appears here in the form of Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa is both the womb of the universe and its final resting place (Bhagavadgītā 7.6). He is the primal spirit (puruṣa ), the source of all beings (10.8), the seed of all creatures (7.10, 10.39), and the universal father who plants the seeds from which all living entities arise. The world, in turn, is God's body (11.7). All beings abide in him (9.6). Hence, all states of existence arise from God alone (10.5). Abiding within the hearts of all beings and by means of his celestial power of creation (māyā ), he causes them to revolve (saṃsāra ) around the circuit of rebirth as though they were mounted on a machine (18.61).
When the life process is viewed sub specie aeternitatis, God projects creatures into being, time after time, by means of his material nature (prakṛti ) through the instrumentality of his magical power (māyā ). He implants spirit (puruṣa ) within the physical organism as the basis for the experience of pleasure and pain. The human being, in turn, appropriates the material nature of God by identifying with the three strands (guna s) of creaturely existence (passion, lethargy, and mental clarity), rather than with the ātman, which is the spiritual essence of the divine nature.
Human beings, then, are bound to the factors of material nature. Their emotional and appetitive attachment to these factors provokes them to perform egoistical actions (karma ), which bind them to self-deluding ignorance and, thereby, to the round of death and rebirth. They are bound by their own past actions and also, paradoxically, by the will of God, who controls the ultimate course of events throughout the universe.
Once the embodied soul transcends the three strands that arise from physical existence, it is freed from bondage to death and rebirth and, in the end, it achieves immortality in God. Those persons who renounce the fruits of their actions and submit themselves completely to the divine will pass beyond the sphere of sorrow and death and arrive at the final termination of the cyclical life process to enjoy eternal bliss (ānanda ) in perfect union with the godhead. This tradition, in which union with God through passionate commitment is the aim of life, is frequently referred to as bhakti, or devotion.
The Buddha himself declared that the search for answers to all metaphysical questions concerning life (Was the universe created by God or is it eternal? Is the source of birth and death traceable to a divine agent? Does the human soul survive the death of the body?) is detrimental to the human quest for lasting peace and contentment. The sole raison d'être of the whole of his life and teachings was the identification of the human cause of human misery and the means to its permanent eradication. In one sense, therefore, it could be said that the Buddha was one of the first proponents of a philosophy of life.
The Buddha declared that creaturely existence is characterized by three distinguishing marks or factors: impermanence (anitya, Pali anicca ), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha/dukkha ), and no-selfhood (an ātman/anattā ). With this teaching, the Buddha undercut, by a single stroke, the Hindu Vedāntic conviction that the life-world (nama-rūpa ), with its myriad of arising and perishing creatures, is established upon a single, universal, eternal, and unchanging reality (ātman-brahman ).
While the Buddha embraced the twin Hindu beliefs in dharma/dhamma (the universal law that governs the operations of the entire life-world) and karma (the principle that all past actions condition all current life situations), he radically redefined both concepts by rejecting the notion of an eternally enduring and unchanging soul or self. In place of the Vedāntic notion of soul, or ātman, he declared that the human personality is constituted of five aggregates (skandha s) or clusters of physical and psychological factors that form the core of human consciousness and behavior. The five groups of factors are:
- The body (rūpa ), or physical context of sentient existence.
- The feelings (vedana ), or physical and psychological sensibilities.
- The perceptual group (samjña ), from which arise the perceptions of physical objects.
- The mental factors (saṃskārās ), or tendencies of mind and will in combination.
- The consciousness proper (vijñāna ), the property of awareness in the fullest personal sense of the term and the factor that binds together the other elements to form a unified personality.
It is these five collections of psychosomatic factors, therefore, that constitute the functional apparatus of all human beings, the operations of which account for the birth, existence, death, and rebirth of each person. Nor are these factors to be thought of as real and permanent entities. They are physical and mental components of life that condition the multitude of situations under which a person exists within each moment of consciousness. Ultimately, viewed against the backdrop of the one, unchanging reality (called nirvāṇa, "cessation," or śūnyatā, "emptiness"), the aggregates or components of life are discovered to be an ever-fluctuating (hence, unreal) succession of psychosomatic events.
But the Buddha's teaching concerning the nature of creaturely existence becomes fully comprehensible only when interpreted within the context of the doctrine of causality or the universal law of karma. The Buddhist view of causation, succinctly stated, is as follows: "When this is present, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises; when this is absent, that does not come to be; on the cessation of this, that ceases" (Samyutta Nikāya 2.28).
The law of causation, which governs the coming to be and passing away of all forms of life, is depicted through the image of the wheel of life and death (saṃsāra-maṇḍala ). The wheel is composed of two causally interlocking aspects or links in a chain of causes and effects. Each of the pairs of links in the chain is dependent, causally, upon the one or ones preceding it, and each, in turn, is a precondition for the link or links that follow it. In this way, the two aspects of existence form a closed circle.
Again, properly understood, the doctrine of causation (or dependent co-origination) is to be viewed not as a set of abstract metaphysical principles but as the theoretical basis of a therapeutic system by means of which the infirmities of sentient existence can be diagnosed and an antidote administered. By demonstrating that the miseries of existence (death followed by rebirth) arise out of a series of finite conditions governed by a state of ignorance (avidya ), the teaching of causation defines the various points at which the succession of causally related symptoms can be broken and a cure achieved. Such a view of conquering ignorance proved to be compatible with other indigenous views of life where Buddhism traveled, such as the idea of kami, or life force in Japan, or the Bon practice of life-giving visualization in Tibet.
According to the teachings of Buddhism, therefore, the ultimate objective of human existence is to become conscious of and transcend all thoughtless desires, obliterate the causes of ignorance, suffering, and rebirth, and thereby to terminate the ever-recurrent cycle of death and rebirth in the bliss of nirvāṇa.
Human beings realize the aims of their existence through the medium of self-consciousness. Their possession of the faculty of self-consciousness enables them to exercise the capacity to transcend the sheer flux and flow of sensual experience and to reflect upon the nature of their existence, its origins, and the direction they wish it to take. Hence, they can imagine other ideal states of existence that are preferable to the one in which they find themselves at any given moment. They can, then, exercise their will in choosing among preferred states in hope of bringing those states closer to realization. For many people, mere physical survival is not an adequate legitimation of human life. They find human existence acceptable only when it can be experienced within the framework of a meaningful and purposeful order.
For many religious people, a meaningful life is predicated upon the confidence that the world and all the creatures who inhabit it are the handiwork of divine creative forces or beings, who also, in some cases, are believed to provide a cosmic milieu that is hospitable to the growth of plant, animal, and human species. Such people look to a transhuman order of being for the revelation of the basic structure of the universe and of the moral and spiritual laws that govern its various operations. For them, even the performance of such commonplace activities as eating and dying, working and sleeping, marriage and reproduction is patterned after celestial or transtemporal models. Other traditions have taught that life and death are inextricably interconnected aspects of a single reality and that all beings exist under the inexorable law of mortality. Most religious and cultural institutions that compose the fabric of the social life of a people (from temple or church to family and educational system, from fertility and puberty rites to funeral and ancestral ceremonies) have been established in response to the recognition that finitude and death are inescapable realities. Such religious communities sanction these and all other institutions in the belief that the élan vital that undergirds and nourishes all living beings can be augmented and either the event of death can be postponed or the remaining period of life can be enriched by means of these performative rites.
In addition, many religious traditions embrace social history, or their own version of such history, as a crucial element that gives meaning to life. For example, during the Passover Seder, Jews recite the life of the Israelites wandering in the desert as if they, too, were present. Historical reality becomes meaningful religious reality. Many Native American groups now tell their mythical histories in such a way that they end with recent social history, especially the ways in which colonial practices have stolen powers of life inherent in the earth and the world of nature.
Colonial and postcolonial realities, too, play a role in contemporary religious traditions' views of what is and is not life-giving. For some, the work of Christian missionaries has created a permanent shift in worldview in postcolonial times; previously colonized peoples must choose which god is more life-giving than another. The African thinker Bolagi Idowu writes of African converts "with two Gods in their hands," who are therefore "peoples of ambivalent spiritual lives." Ideas of life and human flourishing look very different in countries that have been colonized, where dominant/colonial and indigenous traditions have been engaged in ultimate struggles and negotiations for power, detente, or even simple coexistence. Christian traditions of resurrection may take on aspects of indigenous ideas about life-giving ancestors; so, too, indigenous practices may take on healing and life-giving powers of Christian saints. The practice of Santeria, in both America and the Caribbean, is one example of such a merging of traditions in the wake of the colonial and postcolonial effects of the slave trade. "Life" in these religious contexts must also be viewed politically and historically.
Many religious traditions also distinguish between an imperfect and ultimately unsatisfactory state in which human existence is set, and a more satisfying, long-lasting, and fulfilling state beyond the grave (variously referred to as Heaven, Paradise, the Pure Land, the Land of the Blessed, the state of enlightenment, or nirvāṇa ), toward which human life, in response to its loftiest aspirations, is striving. Among the world's religions, certain traditions within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Mahāyāna Buddhism teach that access to this loftier, purer, and more enduring postmortem existence comes in the form of a gift, or an act of grace on the part of God, or some other celestial bearer of salvation.
How can we define life in the religious context? The very act of posing the question produces an initial sense of bafflement and perplexity. Augustine's statement that he knows the meaning of the term love until asked to define it could be echoed in this context. Yet the vast array of semantic values that have been attributed to the word for "life" in the various languages of humankind might lead us to conclude that a precise, distinct, and universally acceptable concept need not accompany the use of the term. Instead, merely asking the question brings in its wake a sense that life is a realm of endlessly self-perpetuating novelties, in which the solution to any given problem gives rise to a plethora of other questions. These questions force us to seek further for additional answers or, at least, to search out more intellectually refined, morally elevating, and spiritually salutary ways of pursuing the quest.
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