The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
WorldVoices: Ravi Kumar, Host
Thoughts on What It Means to Be Human
The size of the human brain is perhaps the most immediate answer to what makes us human. This vast amount of brain activity in an approximate three-pound lump of tissue is what distinguishes us most clearly from other animals and from plants. That is on physical level. But what about at the metaphysical level?
Why are we here? What is the purpose of our lives? What lies beyond what we can observe? Do we have a soul? Is the soul of humans the same as that of other living beings (if they too have souls)? Is there a God? And if there is, what does God look like and what are God’s plans? Is there a limit to knowledge? What is that which can give us infinite joy? Can we possess an infinite number of things? If we cannot, why not?
Only humans would think in terms of the “aim or purpose of life.” According to some, the aim of life is not death, not heaven, but simply to live. But what do we mean by living? Living means to grow, and in the case of humans, it means to grow not only physically but psychologically as well, from helpless, insecure, immature beings to strong, secure, mature ones. Physically, we grow according to patterns in our genes. Humans are also self-conscious beings with a faculty of choice. We can consciously initiate growth from one psychological condition to another.
Maybe it is our psychological makeup that makes us human. We are able to look to the past and toward the future, and in the present moment, we can distinguish right from wrong behavior. So we have a moral faculty. In the culture I come from, that ability is high on the scale of human qualities. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, one of India’s most acclaimed writers on comparative religion and philosophy, was among the scholars of the 20th century who built a bridge between Eastern and Western thought, showing each to be comprehensible within the terms of the other. He was also President of India from 1962-1967. Dr. Radhakrishnan says this in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita:
The world is a battleground for a moral struggle. The quality of deciding what is right or dharma is special to man. Hunger, sleep, fear and sex are common to men and animals. What distinguishes men from animals is the knowledge of right and wrong. The decisive issue lies in the hearts of men where the battles are fought daily and hourly.
Human beings share many traits with animals, as he points out. And one could argue that other animals do not create moral dilemmas requiring a moral faculty or conscience. Nevertheless, one distinctive human trait is our ability to apprehend what is right and what is wrong. That doesn’t mean that we always develop a keen conscience or engage in right action based on our moral consciousness. All of us may not agree on what is right or wrong personally, politically or culturally. Yet in a very fundamental sense we all seem to know right from wrong.
Some say this sensibility derives from the spiritual nature of human beings in which our gross appetites and instincts are refined and refocused toward higher pursuits. They argue that man gets cut off from his spiritual nature, that the glamour of the world and the pursuit of material happiness leave a person unfulfilled and lead the world into chaos. Examples of this surface everyday. A living example is the present economic meltdown and the havoc it has created in the lives of millions.
The argument continues that humans need a vital relationship with a superior being, a deity (or many deities, as is the case in Hindu India) from which to derive the wisdom that leads to a control of desire for the things of the world that corrupt human nature and to the practice of compassion for one’s fellow creatures. God gives us the conscience, but we have to fight against becoming corrupted by greed, selfishness and stupidity.
Such a deity must have had a purpose in creating man in that we have the consciousness of our own existence and of the world around us. This consciousness also tells us what is right or wrong. To be human is to recognize the special role that the deity has given us, in which we work together to create the best of all possible worlds. Only humans can assume the responsibility to take care of the environment and to care for other living creatures of the earth. It is up to us what we do to preserve various forms of life and to preserve this planet. If we do not think and act responsibly, we shall see a gradual disintegration of life on earth. In all probability the planet, being an organic, living entity, will survive and revive.
There is no limit to time and space as far as we know. The limits are only in our understanding of our role and the forces that we must fight continually within ourselves to change the world. We tend to ask ourselves, “What difference will it make if I behave ethically? The world will laugh at me and will continue to be as corrupt as it is today.” So we do not change, and we wait for others to change before we do. That is how humans are. I recall reading somewhere the comment, when one man changes the whole world changes. I believe that.
Of course, there have been many individuals in the past who have led humanity to its present condition. Some hear a voice that the rest of us cannot hear. Such men and women have taken the lead in forming numerous belief systems, values and behavior patterns. They are called gods, prophets, revolutionaries, thinkers, scientists, philosophers, artists. Not everybody can hear the music of harmony. Demagogues and criminals make a lot of noise in our world. And a vast number of people simply live their lives decently or indecently in the shadow of the great ones. Some humans create arts which make one person ecstatic and other confused and disgusted. Some lay down their lives for a cause and others take a million lives for a cause. Some work at the frontiers of knowledge and others languish in a self-created hell.
Nonetheless, we have changed this world dramatically, for the better, in my view, over the thousands of years of human existence. And those of us who believe in God, whether in the singular or the plural, believe we have done this with help from God, in mutual cooperation and effort with God who continually appeals to the best in human nature while allowing us to do battle with the worst.
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