Living a Meaningful Life in a Digital World

— Swami Vireshananda —

Meaningful Life

A popular definition of meaningful life goes like this: ‘In positive psychology, a meaningful life is a construct having to do with the purpose, significance, fulfilment, and satisfaction of life. While specific theories vary, there are two common aspects: a global schema to understand one’s life and the belief that life itself is meaningful.’[i]

This idea is reflected in the Indian tradition in a beautiful word: कृतकृत्य, kṛtakṛtya. Here kṛta means ‘done’, and kṛtya means ‘what was to be done’. This word has three annotations: 1. Having done or discharged anything ought to be done. 2. Having accomplished or attained any object. 3. Contented, satisfied. One who has reached this state is also called Kṛtakṛtya. Sri Shankaracharya explains that this word (Gita, 15.20) indicates a person who has fulfilled one’s duties. Whatever a person has to do as a consequence of one’s birth, all that becomes accomplished when the reality of the Bhagavan, the Supreme Lord is known. The Acharya quotes a verse from the Gita (4.33) in this context: ‘Sarvaṁ karmākhilaṁ pārtha jñāne parisamāpyate; O Pārtha (son of Pṛthā), all actions in their totality culminate in Knowledge.’ This state of ultimate fulfilment is Ktaktya.

It is evident from the above that the idea of Moksha or spiritual liberation is what makes human life truly fruitful. When one leads a life in the light of this noble ideal, one’s life becomes meaningful in every sense. This is the loftiest principle that Vedanta presents before humankind.

How to Lead a Meaningful Life?

The higher the ideal, the more meaningful the life will be. Swami Vivekananda considers the highest ideal of human life to be the acquisition of knowledge that leads to liberation. He says: ‘The goal of mankind is knowledge. That is the one ideal placed before us by Eastern philosophy. Pleasure is not the goal of man, but knowledge. Pleasure and happiness come to an end. It is a mistake to suppose that pleasure is the goal. The cause of all the miseries we have in the world is that men foolishly think pleasure to be the ideal to strive for.’[ii]

However, ordinary life is but an unrelenting struggle for pleasure and happiness. It is the fact that makes our life meaningless and hence, miserable. The task before us is to find such a goal that makes life meaningful and in turn, blissful. Vedanta points out that the pursuit of knowledge is that single goal.

Knowledge removes ignorance. This is the idea of Knowledge we find in the Vedanta. It also says that the miseries are due to ignorance. The dawn of knowledge leads to the opening of the doors to a peaceful and blissful life. The teaching of such knowledge to whole humanity is the duty the Vedanta has taken upon itself.

Vedanta puts forward the idea of a higher knowledge (parā vidyā) through which the immortal is known (Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.5). The lower knowledge (aparā vidyā) is just information regarding the facts of life and world and learning of skills needed for a livelihood. In Sri Shankaracharya’s words, it is a ‘mere assemblage of words’. He says: ‘As the immortal cannot be realised by a mere mastery of the assemblage of words without other efforts, such as approaching a preceptor and spurning all desires, etc., the separate classification of the knowledge of Brahman and its designation as Parā vidyā are proper’ (Shankara’s commentary, 1.1.5).

Knowledge Society

According to unesco, knowledge societies are about capabilities to identify, produce, process, transform, disseminate, and use the information to build and apply knowledge for human development. They require an empowering social vision that encompasses plurality, inclusion, solidarity, and participation. The need for continuous learning is a general characteristic of the knowledge society and the capacity for each individual to learn throughout life is crucial.[iii]

This is the ideal of emerging digital technology, which has now perforated every aspect of human life. This gives individuals easy access to a huge amount of information to facilitate continuous learning and assimilation of ideas. However, the question before us is whether such an ideal transforms one’s life into a meaningful one or not. The truth is that people are getting burdened by the onslaught of information and are unable to make any sense of such superficial knowledge.

Digital technology falls short of building a true knowledge society. A knowledge society is one in which people are enlightened with spiritual wisdom, and enjoy real bliss and freedom. Swamiji envisaged such a perfect society. He says: ‘That society is the greatest, where the highest truths become practical. That is my opinion, and if society is not fit for the higher truths, make it so, and the sooner the better.’[iv] That society is a perfect society where it is practical to practise the highest ideals.

A digital society does not fulfil the requirements of a true knowledge society. In contrast, the overdependence on digital tools considerably diminishes the strength and ingenuity of individuals to pursue their intellectual or spiritual endeavours. Digital technology makes human life physically comfortable but may create a vacuum if ethical and spiritual values are not considered. Vedanta strongly asserts the significance of ethical and spiritual values in transforming the individual life into a meaningful one. It rejects the notion that pleasures and empirical happiness are the summum bonum of human life. Also, Vedanta says that a true knowledge society constitutes spiritually enlightened citizens.

The Emergence of a New Human Being

Vedanta proposes to transform human beings into divine ones. It states that divinity is the inherent nature of all living beings. The discovery of one’s real nature as divinity is the goal of life. Vedanta calls upon every human being to accomplish this goal in this very life. This Vedantic teaching is universal and all-embracing.

In contrast, digital media, according to the experts, is transforming homo sapiens, human beings, into homo connectus, one who is always logged on to digital media. ‘The distinction between the real and the virtual is no longer entirely clear. The line between the two is blurred as the two worlds intertwine in an almost Gibsonesque way—our flesh and blood are now mixed with circuits and devices. We have become wired and wireless selves, homo connectus, always logged on.’[v]

What are the ramifications of such an alteration? Human interaction is now being mainly routed through digital devices. As a result, the notion of connectedness and the definition of friendship is changing radically. ‘We’re seeing people so absorbed in digital media that it’s becoming their primary reference point for life’,[vi] observes Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford University. In their article Living in a Digital World, Rosa Llamas and Russell Belk effectively encapsulate this vital change in our way of living as follows:

Spending a large proportion of our time online, adopting emerging technologies easily, and multitasking fluidly are all signs of the increasingly digital nature of our everyday lives. New media have been integrated into our daily routines and agendas, shaping, shifting, and transforming the way we interact, play, shop, read, write, work, listen, create, communicate, collaborate, produce, co-produce, search, and browse. Each of these actions is now very different from the way we did these things in the pre-digital age.[vii]

Another astonishing fact is that a digital consumer develops an alternate self, that is different from one’s own real self. ‘New devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of the self, itself, split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology.’[viii] Particularly for teenagers, ‘technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much part of them’.[ix]

Serious Consequences of Digital Delusion

The scholars show empirical data to prove the catastrophic consequences of the delusion caused by overdependence on digital gadgets.

Approximately two billion people now tap into the Internet. About five billion people use mobile phones and a growing number of these devices offer sophisticated computing and communications capabilities. There’s cell service atop Mt. Everest and in remote South Pacific atolls. Incredibly, the average 13- to 17-year-old in the U.S. sends about 110 text messages per day. In fact, it’s become increasingly difficult to go anywhere without getting caught in the tractor beam of digital technology.[x]

Digital technologies are shaping every sphere of human life. In his book What technology wants?, Kevin Kelly says that ten thousand years ago, humanity reached a turning point where our ability to modify the biosphere exceeded the planet’s ability to modify us. This threshold was the beginning of the Technium, which is said to be the accumulation of inventions that humans have created. We are now at a second inflection point, where the situation has reversed and the ability of the Technium to modify us exceeds our capacity to alter it.

Dr Alan Hunter prophesies in his article in Prabuddha Bharata that—

Credible predictions suggest that within a generation, we may have computers a million times more intelligent than every human combined. Artificial intelligence will far surpass human beings as the most capable life forms on the earth: ‘machines’ will calculate, communicate and act so quickly that humans would not even comprehend what they are achieving. Integrated with advances in non-biological intelligence, we will surely witness revolutionary changes in energy sources, nano-technology, bio-technology and robotics.[xi]

These revolutionary changes are welcome, but the surpassing of human beings by artificial intelligence will indeed be of disastrous consequence.

Digital Consumption with Spiritual Awareness

There is only one choice before us: Whether we should lower ourselves to homo connectus or raise from our present state of homo sapiens to homo divinus (a word that indicates evolution from human to divine). The digital revolution stands for the former and Vedanta vouches for the latter. However, a pragmatic approach would be to utilise the tools provided by digital technology with spiritual awareness shaped by Vedantic wisdom.

It is imperative for us to make use of innumerable benefits of digital technology which leads to comfortable and well-informed living. Also, it is equally essential not to fall into the vicious trap it precipitates. A digital world is only digital, not real; virtual reality is just virtual, not real; and artificial intelligence is only artificial, not real. The awareness of this fact of life helps us to deal with many a problem while living in today’s digital world.

Vedanta teaches discernment between real and non-real. It recognises the unreal to be an illusion and impermanent. Unreality appears to be real due to delusion. This delusion causes untold suffering and deprivations. This Vedantic lesson will be of immense utility in the digital world. It makes us aware of reality when we are surrounded by digital experiences that are mostly artificial and unreal. It also prevents us from being swayed by the illusory world of digital tools and stand firmly established in the reality.

The digital fantasy is the one that is projected onto the empirical reality. However, Vedanta teaches that the empirical world is equally an imagination when compared to spiritual awareness, in which absolute reality is experienced in a crystal clear vision. The Vedanta exhorts us to develop this exalted awareness even while living in the apparent world, especially the digital world.

Spiritual Awareness

The Vedanta scriptures give a vivid description of spiritual awareness. The Isha Upanishad says:

यस्मिन्सर्वाणि भूतान्यात्मैवाभूद्विजानतः ।

तत्र को मोहः कः शोक एकत्वमनुपश्यतः ॥

When to the man of realisation all beings become the very Self, then what delusion and what sorrow can there be for that seer of oneness?[xii]

It is the ideal spiritual awareness depicted in the Upanishads. This should be the guiding light for all our mundane activities. That is, we should practise this awareness consciously in our day-to-day life until it becomes natural and spontaneous. This will transcend our psyche to higher levels in which we will be able to see all happenings in our life from a true perspective and enjoy the bliss of the Divine in every circumstance of our life.

Vidyaranya Swami, in his Panchadashi, describes how to perform daily activities with spiritual awareness. He says that worldly duties do not come in conflict with one’s knowledge. ‘This world is illusory, Maya, and the Self is by nature pure consciousness. How can such knowledge be opposed to one’s worldly activities? Once the nature of the Self has been conclusively determined, the knower can speak of it, think of it, or meditate on it at will.’[xiii] The clear-sighted knower from whose heart all attachment has vanished is a liberated soul, whether he performs his functions or not. It is because his mind is free from all desires or former impressions and has nothing to gain from either action or inaction.[xiv]

Spiritual awareness teaches us to transcend our present state of dualities and fix our minds on the ultimate Reality. It does not come in conflict with our everyday duties. Instead, it elevates our minds to such a lofty pedestal enabling us to see everyone and everything as manifestations of divine consciousness. This will lead to a blissful life even in the midst of our numerous commitments and responsibilities.

Conclusion

The lives and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda are the living Vedanta in the modern period. They are also the guiding lights in the darkness enveloping due to the unbridled offensive of digital technologies over the human psyche. Sri Ramakrishna emphatically says that the goal of human life is the realisation of God, while unselfish work is only a means to that end. He exhorts us to lead a life of dedication and service:

Therefore I say, he who works in such a detached spirit—who is kind and charitable—benefits only himself. Helping others, doing good to others—this is the work of God alone, who for men has created the sun and moon, father and mother, fruits, flowers, and corn. The love that you see in parents is God’s love: love has given it to them to preserve His creation. The compassion that you see in the kind-hearted is God’s compassion: He has given it to them to protect the helpless. Whether you are charitable or not, He will have His work done somehow or other. Nothing can stop His work.[xv]

The God-centred life advocated by Sri Ramakrishna in such a beautiful manner is the finest way of leading a meaningful life in a digital world.

References


[i] See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meaningful_life>.

[ii] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.27.

[iii] See <http://www.ibe.unesco.org/en/glossary-curriculum-terminology/k/knowledge-society>.

[iv] Complete Works, 2.85.

[v] The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption, eds. Russell W Belk and Rosa Llamas (UK: Routledge, 2013), 4.

[vi] Samuel Greengard, ‘Living in a Digital World’, Communications of the ACM, 54/10 (October 2011), 17–19, <https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2011/10/131393-living-in-a-digital-world/fulltext>.

[vii] The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption, 3.

[viii] Ibid., 4.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Samuel Greengard, ‘Living in a Digital World’.

[xi] Dr Alan Hunter, ‘New Era, New Dimensions’, Prabuddha Bharata (May 2021).

[xii] Isha Upanishad, 7.

[xiii] Panchadashi, 9.88–89.

[xiv] See ibid., 102–03.

[xv] M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2004), 671.

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