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The Purpose of Life
What does the Bahá'í Faith see as the purpose of human existence? What is the true nature of human beings, and what role does religion play in our spiritual development? What is "good" and what is "evil"? What are man's responsibilities to God, and what is the spiritual meaning of life?
Bahá'u'lláh taught that only true religion can give purpose to human existence. It is only in relation to the Creator, and the purpose which that Creator has fixed for His creatures, that human existence has any meaning. Bahá'u'lláh described God's purpose for man in the following way:
The purpose of God in creating man hath been, and will ever be, to enable him to know his Creator and to attain His Presence. To this most excellent aim, this supreme objective, all the heavenly Books and the divinely revealed and weighty Scriptures unequivocally bear witness.1
Life should be seen as an eternal process of joyous spiritual discovery and growth: in the beginning stages of earthly life, the individual undergoes a period of training and education which, if it is successful, gives him or her the basic intellectual and spiritual tools necessary for continued growth. When individuals attain physical maturity in adulthood, they become responsible for their further progress, which now depends entirely on the efforts they themselves make. Through the daily struggles of material existence, people gradually deepen their understanding of the spiritual principles underlying reality, and this understanding enables them to relate more effectively to themselves, to others, and to God. After physical death, the individual continues to grow and develop in the spiritual world, which is greater than the physical world, just as the physical world is greater than the world we inhabit while in our mother's womb.
This last statement is based on the Bahá'í concept of the soul and of life after physical death. According to the Bahá'í teachings, the true nature of human beings is spiritual. Beyond the physical body, each human being has a rational soul, created by God. This soul is a nonmaterial entity which does not depend on the body. Rather, the body serves as its vehicle in the physical world. The soul of an individual comes into being at the moment the physical body is conceived and continues to exist after the death of the physical body. The soul (or spirit) of the individual is the seat or locus of his or her personality, self, and consciousness.
The development of the soul and its capacities is the basic purpose of human existence. This evolution is towards God and its motive force is knowledge of God and love for Him. As we learn about God, our love for Him increases; and this, in turn, enables us to attain a closer communion with our Creator. Also, as we draw closer to God, our character becomes more refined and our actions reflect more and more the attributes and qualities of God.
The Bahá'í writings refer to the gradual evolution or development of the individual soul as "spiritual progress." Spiritual progress means acquiring the capacity to act in conformity with the will of God and to express the attributes and spirit of God in one's dealings with oneself and other human beings. Bahá'u'lláh teaches that the only true and enduring happiness for human beings lies in the pursuit of spiritual development.
Bahá'u'lláh explained that the fundamental spiritual role of religion is to enable people to achieve a true understanding of their own nature and of God's will and purpose for them. The spiritual teachings sent down by God through the Messengers of God serve to guide us to a proper comprehension of the spiritual dynamics of life. These principles enable us to understand the laws of existence. Moreover, the very efforts we must make to conform to the teachings of the Manifestations serve to develop our spiritual capacities. For example, when one makes an effort to rid oneself of prejudice and superstition in response to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, the result is an increased knowledge of and love for other human beings, and this, in turn, helps the individual to live life more effectively.
Bahá'u'lláh stressed that, without the coming of the Manifestations and their revelation of God's laws and teachings, we would not be able to grow spiritually. The spiritual meaning of life would remain hidden from us, even if we made great efforts to discover it. This is why revealed religion is seen by Bahá'ís as the necessary key to successful spiritual living.
Bahá'u'lláh related God's purpose for us to the two aspects of religion, the spiritual and the social:
God's purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquility of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established.2
In other words, humankind's social development, if properly carried out, should be a collective expression of our spiritual development. All human beings, Bahá'u'lláh states, "have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth."3
In summary, the spiritual reason for our life on earth is to provide us with a training ground; our life is a period of growth during which we focus on the development of our innate spiritual and intellectual capacities. Because these capacities are faculties of our immortal soul, they are eternal, and we must make great efforts to develop them. But such efforts are worthwhile, since the soul is the only part of us which endures. Whatever promotes our spiritual development is good, and whatever hinders it is bad.
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 2nd rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 70.
- Ibid., pp. 79-80.
- Ibid., p. 215.
* Adapted from William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 99-104.