Updated: Feb 18, 2021
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.
About the Book: The Meaning of Life by Vimal Sehgal was first published in 1998 and is roughly 222 pages give or take depending on the edition. With that said, it is a relatively quick read. That is, the book is not necessarily overly academic or condense; but rather a book you can lay back and read on the beach while contemplating the essence of life and everything the experience of life entails. It should also be noted that the author belongs to the Vaishnav Chaitanya Gaudiya spiritual tradition in India. Because of this, the book is heavily religious in nature.
Sehgal aims to introduce the reader to the meaning of life as it relates to Hinduism, and it doesn't take long for him to provide the answer. What is the meaning of life? Love. But one should not be intoxicated by this, Sehgal's definition of love as he slowly reveals in his book is the love of God and His love of us. According to him, there can be no other definition of love. In this review, two items will be examined briefly: love and science.
Love: On page three Sehgal proclaims:
The meaning of life is love. For therein lies the happiness of the individual. Everywhere in the hearts of all people in all times is the great yearning for love. Whether one is a man, woman, or child, old or young, a bird, beast, aquatic or whatever species of life, everyone is looking for love fully consciously or on various levels of awareness.
However, as the book progresses, it soon becomes clear that Sehgal's definition of love would differ significantly from that of the romantic or even family related definition. In fact, although page 3 defines the meaning of life, on page 139, the statement is statement ever so slightly evolves to: The meaning of our life is to love God.
Though all relationships of love of God are absolute and pure yet one can analyse the progressive elevation in these relationships which may be broadly categorized as: peaceful (Shanta), servitorship (dasya), friendship (sakha), parental (vatsalya), and conjugal love (madhurya). The living beings are completely happy in their particular relationship of love with God.
According to the book and Hindu scriptures, there are five types of relationships of love one can have with God. These are described in more detail in the book and hyperlinked for additional reading. These will likely seem quite strange to those from a Western background, especially the highest stage of conjugal love with God which describes the devotee as being a "girlfriend" of Krishna.
Science: Throughout the book, Sehgal, unfortunately, attacks science unsuccessfully quite frequently. These attacks detract from his argument, rather than supporting it. For example, the author discards evolution simply by stating that human only beget humans, monkeys only beget monkeys, etc. Every man and woman knows that their parents weren't monkeys. Thus, we could not have evolved from "monkeys" by following this line of thought back to our first ancestors. The first issue with this line of thought is that it is not logical. Evolution occurs slowly overtime, and clearly, the modern human is only a blip in an unimaginably long sequence of small changes that added up over time.
But even if you don't believe in evolution, Sehgal's argument still isn't logical. Let's take the example of atomic particles. An atomic particle is an atomic particle. It can be nothing else. Yet, when atomic particles combine to create atoms and further combine to create larger forms of matter, we get an array of splendid phenomena--planets, stars, air, water, etc. Take those miraculous phenomena, poke them a little here and there and we get music, aurora borealis, pizza, computers, thunderstorms, and yes, even life. Although Sehgal will make religious arguments on why matter is separate from life, and why despite all the other amazing naturally occurring phenomena could not develop from non-living matter, these arguments are based on religion, not scientific facts. Hence, we can see, just because an atomic particle is an atomic particle at the most basic level, those particles can coalesce to create the unimaginable... given the time, and the space. If one was able to see the world through the lens of atomic particles and the beginning of time, one would never be able to imagine the stars, planets, etc. being able to come together as they do to produce the universe as we know it. So it is unfortunate that Sehgal's labels evolution as an evil idea and doesn't take it seriously.
According to Sehgal, everything happens for a reason, which involves the laws of karma--not "chance" or "physical" laws. Here again, he reasons that there really are no physical laws of the universe. After all, according to him, that would be illogical. All objects in motion, planets, etc. are only following the rules outlined by God, just as humans create laws for other humans to follow; the universe follows the rules that God created.
Furthermore, he questions meaning if the physical laws were to be true, and if life did arise through:
Where is the place of feelings or the quest for a meaning in life if living beings are simply made up of dust?
The author also claims that the "I" is unchanging. Rather the "I" is eternal. Matter is just a shell for life, but matter itself cannot be alive. As such, our goal is to stop the reincarnation cycle and return to God. If the author didn't attempt to extend this argument to the realm of science, it would hold strong a strong position. But, where the logic breaks down is when he starts talking about the reincarnation cycle. For example, Sehgal makes the claim that only reincarnation can explain geniuses. That is, these geniuses are only geniuses because of knowledge acquired in past lives. Yet, science has a very different fact-based explanations this argument really detracts from the spectacular abilities of the human mind. However, a deeper review of this extends beyond the scope of this blog. As noted previously, it is regrettable that instead of embracing scientific findings and using them to support his beliefs, Sehgal disappointingly concocts juvenile arguments that have no logical basis.
Overall, this is a book about the meaning of life as it relates to the Vaishnav Chaitanya Gaudiya spiritual tradition in India. Those with secular beliefs may be put off by statements like:
The Reality is that there is only one supreme and we are meant to serve His senses for His pleasure.
Or, both those with secular and non-secular beliefs may find it hard to stomach the hints at the caste system being karmic rewards or punishments and to its importance. The promotion or the attempt and explaining the caste system is quite regrettable.
At times the book does digress seemingly into tirades against modern society being corrupted. According to Sehgal, there should be separate schools for boys and girls, people should not eat spicy foods, eat meat, have sex for any reason besides procreation, or even to perform head transplants. Although some of these tirades have good points, others may find them completely foreign or even absurd. This doesn't make them incorrect; rather they are just a different way of looking at the world. In the same sense, it doesn't make them correct either. That is something for the reader to decide. But, what can be said for sure is that recognition of the caste system is abominable. The book at times can be very interesting and engaging, but the religious ideology often falls apart by poorly structured illogical attacks on science when there is no need to attack science.
Other notable quotes:
The natural healthy condition of life is to live in a spiritual body without the covering of a material body.
The solution is to cure our diseased mentality by renouncing our desire for enjoying sensual pleasures.
The living beings in all species of life are dreaming here because this world is created to satisfy their desire for forgetfulness of reality.
The whole aim of life is to develop one's spiritual consciousness so that ultimately one can attain liberation from the bondage of matter, and freedom from this material world's cycle of birth and death.
The holy name Krishna is the ultimate Reality. All peace and the bliss of love, which is our heart's desire, reside in the holy name Krishna. Krishna is known as Rasraj - the reservoir of all mellows of love. Those who pass their life without relishing the chanting of the holy name, which bestows love of God, live in vain. To cultivate and achieve love of God is the summum bonum of the meaning of life.
We rate the book the following:
Overall - 4
Meaning of Life Relevance - 6
Uniqueness – 7