By Dr. J. Das
What is the value of life? People do not often consider this question, because they take life for granted. We say that life has no price and it is beyond value, since no one can place a value on it. Religious people will say that life is a gift from God and is, thus, the greatest gift to anyone. But we all know that life is dear to every living creature. Every human wishes to preserve his life at any cost. Just so, every other living creature feels that its own life is very important, and needs to be preserved. The lowliest creature will try to avoid injury and to preserve its life. With life being so valuable, why do we pay so little attention to it and, so often, we relegate it to the back burners of our minds.
Observing the prevailing conditions in the world, we become aware of the fact that life is not perceived as very valuable or “equal”. It is often said that before God we are all equal, but people change that around to say that among ourselves we are not all equal. This “inequality” is based on our human perceptions, which are often based on expediency. We can look at the value of life from various angles:
(1) Perspective. From an individual perspective life is most valuable and every person will try to preserve his life. He is motivated by a will to live – a very strong will, indeed. From this individual perspective others are not as important, for they represent the “non-self”. In any struggle to survive, the individual will put himself first, even if others would lose their lives. Perhaps, survival of the fittest is based on this individual perception, whether in man or animals. But in survival of the fittest, the fittest one does not pay attention to the value of life of the others.
Perhaps, we can take a spiritual perspective and see that life is the gift of God and very precious. As Dr. Albert Schwitzer would say: “Have reverence for life”. When life is seen from a spiritual perspective, we wish to save the lives of other people, for we see them all as children of God. Thus there are many self-sacrificing people, who are working very hard to save other people from their suffering. The saints of the world have been able to see life from this spiritual perspective, and accept all life of the greatest value, and of equal importance in the cosmic order of things. Saints strive very hard to teach people the value of life and how to make life more meaningful and rewarding.
(2) Competitiveness. Competitiveness is widespread among people and animals. Competitiveness can be based on individuals or groups. An individual competes in as many ways as he finds possible, in order to preserve himself. In sports one team strives for success by defeating another team. In warfare soldiers on one side think of their lives as very valuable and will sacrifice the lives of the opposing soldiers. This sort of competitiveness can also be based on greed, for acquiring things at the expense of others. Competitiveness also occurs when there are large populations, often with scarce resources. People will compete in order to stay alive, and to protect themselves and their families, at the expense of other people and their families. The struggle for survival results in competitiveness.
(3) Mental aberrations. People with aberrant mentality often value themselves and de-value the lives of others. A tyrant will rule oppressively often sacrificing the lives of those who oppose him, or do not support his tyranny. There have been tyrants throughout history, and even currently in the world, who slaughter other people, in order to further their own ends.
(4) The Psychopath who will hurt others and kill without feeling any remorse or guilt. Yet he, himself, feels his own life to be very valuable. Perhaps, we can think of these people as murderers, rapists, child-molesters, etc.
(5) Criminals do not value the life of others as their own. They can thus commit murders, undertake illegal drug manufacture and sale at the expense of causing addictions and death of others. They murder others whom they feel will get them into trouble or owe them money.
(6) Depression is another factor which de-values life. The depressed person will often contemplate or perform suicide without much thought to the value of his life. He feels that life is not worth living.
(7) Helplessness. When people perceive themselves as helpless, then life does not hold much value. Take, for example, the droughts in Africa. Poverty and famine are rampant and people are dying by the thousands everyday. Parents, helplessly, watch their children die. While the helpless people suffer and die, the armies and gun bearers hijack food convoys trying to help the starving people. They value themselves greater than the poor helpless people, and thus take the food for themselves, or sell it on the black market for profit. Often the value of life is determined by the relative strength of powers. One power, or army, or person that is more powerful, values itself more than its weaker counterpart. Similarly, the weak person or power will begin to de-value itself, because of a feeling of helplessness against a greater power.
Life is an immeasurable attribute or gift endowed with consciousness, intelligence, mind, emotions, senses, imaginations, will and judgement. All of these are intrinsic to life and are immeasurable. All have the same source, which is God, or the Supreme Being, or the Lord, or Cosmic Consciousness, or Brahman, or Cosmic Intelligence. Life itself is, thus, very valuable to all living beings. The only difference occurs in the degree of evolution of consciousness in various beings. If we are to live in harmony with nature, then we need to value all life and to have reverence for all life.