We often say that human being is a ‘rational animal’. If you take away the ‘rational’ part, the human is simply an animal. Rational truly means the ability to discriminate truth from illusion. When we live for truth, and learn to centre our lives on the eternal spiritual principles, we are fulfilling the purpose of human life. The Garga Upanishad explains that one who takes this rare human birth but quits his body like the cats and dogs without understanding the science of self-realization is the most unfortunate person; he’s no better than an animal. There is no real purpose to his life; there is no fruit of happiness in such a person’s life.
The animal is working hard for eating, sleeping, mating, and defending; simply maintaining himself and his family. A human being- a ‘Rational animal’- however works to know the truth and serve the truth. This means in addition to taking care of his family and meeting his basic eating, sleeping, mating and defending needs, he also understands his constitutional position to be the eternal servant of God and lives by the principles of servitude to one and all (Bhagavad Gita 15.7).
Living by this truth is living a life of substance. Someone may challenge such a life to be impractical in today’s competitive society. No! There is nothing wrong with competition but it has to be based not on illusion, rather the truth. Arjuna was ordered by Krishna to compete with Duryodhana who lived his life centred on illusion and ignorance. It was important for Arjuna to fight and do his duty but Krishna implored him to act on the principles of Truth and fairness. Therefore irrespective of our field of activity in this world, we need to base our lives on truth; there is nothing more glorious than truth.
The Vedic scriptures reveal that there is only one problem in this world; the disease of avidya, ignorance. This is rampant and all pervading; even in the name of religion, we get distracted by so many traditions, rituals, and externals that we forget our duty of loving service to God as being the real essence and goal of life. Therefore despite the external glamour and razzle dazzle in this world, people achieve little of substance and find no true happiness in life.
The Bhagavad Gita calls a person who works very hard without knowledge of the truth as mudha, a foolish ass (Bhagavad Gita 7.15). We don’t want to manage our lives like the asses. The ass works very hard and takes big loads on his back. Foaming at the mouth, he works throughout the day for a little grass, a little sex life and a nice place to stay. Sounds quite familiar isn’t it? A human society that focusses only on work and sex is a society of asses- a mudha society. And when someone takes to a spiritual life, a life based on truth, people become alarmed and offended. They also feel their ass life being threatened; they challenge spiritualists to not disturb them as sex and work is what everyone else is doing in this world. An ass-like human being who works hard only for sense enjoyment is not a human at all; he’s simply a two legged animal. Therefore the Vedanta sutra implores us to not be an ass, rather seek after the truth (athatho brahma jigjnasa).
The human being is meant exclusively for self realization. And our time is getting short as death could come any moment. Vishnu Purana says that the greatest misfortune in all of creation is to have the human life and yet waste one moment not in pursuance of the truth. We should constantly pursue the truth; meditate on our position as the eternal servant of God (Bhagavad Gita 15.7) and therefore whatever we do must be for the pleasure of God. He is the proprietor of everything that exists, including me, my mind, body, family, home, and everything. And everything is meant for His satisfaction. That is truth. To think anything is mine is ignorance. That’s the difference between an ass and a human being.
When we thus lead a life centred on spiritual principles, we fulfil the real and rare purpose of human existence.