26 April 2012

What is the purpose of my existence?

Once, a ten year old boy sat in the back of a Maruti Gypsy, and was driven two and a half days from Delhi towards the border with Tibet. Once they passed Shimla, his family took a fancy to an audio cassette of Cliff Richard songs. To this day, "Lucky Lips" and "Congratulations" evoke memories of a narrow, winding, bumpy road clinging on to the side of a mountain; of the wonderful rock face right beyond the turn to Sarahan; of that narrow wooden hanging bridge (long since gone) that they were afraid would not take the full weight of the car with the family in it; of one particular piece of rock that jutted a good 2000 meters vertically out of the Satluj.

They eventually turned off into the Baspa valley onto a road that was so narrow as to allow only one-way traffic. There was an almost vertical drop to the right and an almost vertical cliff to the left. They were driving at over 10000 feet, and the cliffs must have risen to at least 14000. They crossed the sleepy village of Sangla, and entered a magical place. Little streams crisscrossed a landscape strewn with rounded pebbles and full of towering deodar pine trees (also long since gone). It was perfect. They found a clearing and set up a tent.

The boy, like any other boy his age, had been troubled by the sorts of questions that are important but tend to be put into cold storage once you become a teen. What happened before the big bang? What lies beyond the farthest limits of the universe? The boy had been brought up to question. To keep questioning till he got a satisfactory answer. He had concluded a long time ago that he didn't believe in any religion, because he had been fascinated by pre-history and evolution, which were at odds with most things religions taught. He found the whole idea of religion almost repulsive, and a few years ago had stopped visiting places of worship.

After helping the family set up the tent, he walked down through the pine trees and over the rounded pebbles and stones towards the Baspa. Once near the river bank, he found himself a large boulder. He climbed onto it. It was just on the right bank of the river, and the water flowing by it made a soothing sound as it happily skipped and jumped over rounded pebbles and stones. The water sparkled in the soft sunshine. Through the white foam, you could see pebbles of all hues. He traced the river upstream with his eyes, and saw the valley before him. Incredibly, the valley ran almost in a straight line, and while beyond a point the river obstructed from view, he saw a massive snow-capped peak at the end of the valley. That might have been where the river was coming from.

He looked to his left and right. The pine forest extended both sides of the river. And it went up the sides of of the mountains, for about a thousand meters. The tree line. Above that, the true grandeur of the mountains hit him. That must have been a place of intense seismic upheaval, for where the trees were absent, there was the most fantastic mass of gnarled rock. He had learnt about sedimentary rock and how fold mountains are formed. His mind couldn't begin to comprehend the force that had crumpled rock into the amazing shapes and patterns he was seeing. He looked further up. The peaks were playing hide and seek with the clouds.

He looked around for any signs of human activity. There was none. The air was crisp and cool. He closed his eyes and listened. Again, nothing but the constant gush of water against stone.

He opened his eyes and took all of it in together. He felt small. Dwarfed by everything around him. He was alone with this part of the world. For the first time in his life, he was alone with the elements. His mind started to wander to the things he had read. He knew there were other places like this; places where humans couldn't be found. He tried to picture the deserts of the Sahara and the Namib. Then he remembered that three quarters of the earth's surface was covered with water. There certainly weren't any humans living there. He tried to imagine what Marianas Trench would look like. He was about 10000 feet above sea level, and it had been quite a climb. Marina's trench was 46000 feet below him. He would have to descend all the way he came up, and then do it three and a half times over in the Ocean to reach Marianas Trench.

What was the purpose of his existence? He'd rejected religion long ago, so he certainly wasn't there to pay homage to the glory of his creator. He'd read somewhere that life finds a way to survive. Each member of species after species he had read about was focused on one thing - procreation. As a logical consequence, each organism had to survive, and would find ingenious ways of doing so. The objective of life, he had inferred, was to further itself. But humans weren't like other species. After all, his parents had only had two kids, even though they could have had many more. He had also learnt in school about the population explosion, and the problems that it caused. So, he inferred that the human race would further itself just fine without him. His purpose was not to ensure the continuance of the human gene pool. An emptiness had filled him ever since he had come to this conclusion.

Sitting there on that boulder, he realized he was very lucky. He had the privilege of seeing the beauty of nature. All alone. It made him happy. It made him peaceful.

Then, he had his eureka moment.

He had been looking at things based on a time horizon that was far too long. Sitting there, he realized that there, in that moment, he was happy and peaceful. And that felt good. Suddenly, his mind flew to an image of the geological time scale. Earlier he had marveled at how much time had passed since the big bang, and he had tried to imagine what a million years would feel like. Now, he found himself zooming into the time scale. Zooming into one point of time. To the present. He realized that the time he would spend alive was just the sum of individual moments. Happiness was good, and if he had lots of happy moments, he would have a very happy life.

He realized that there were 6 billion (at the time) people living on the planet, and countless organisms of other shapes and forms. And most of them were experiencing something, some emotion, some state of being at that moment. And if he liked being happy, then surely so did everyone else? His purpose wasn't to further the human gene pool; it was to further happiness. He decided then that he needed to add to happiness. His own and others'.

How I wish I could be that ten year old all the time.