People of other religions, and often Hindus themselves, are confused about what is the Ultimate Goal of Life according to Hinduism. This confusion arises because Hinduism caters to people of various levels of spiritual development. Though Hinduism puts forth a single ultimate goal, it allows people to have a goal depending on their level of spiritual development. Thus, irrespective of the goal, the purpose of life is spiritual development.
(Some people who read this asked for references to the ideas. All these ideas are from the Vedas, Gita and the popular texts of Vedanta. As a sample, some references to the chapter and verse number in the Gita are given.)
This brings us to the question, “what is spiritual development?” Being spiritual is “identifying oneself as the spirit”. Now, what is “spirit”? Spirit is as opposed to “matter”. There are various levels, one more subtle than the other. The grossest identification is with the physical body. Subtler than that is the mind with its memory, the faculty of the senses and the sense of likes and dislikes. Still subtler identification is with the jiva, with its freewill and the sense of right and wrong. Subtlest of all is the caitanya, the pure Subject, which can never be an object of perception or conception. As a person develops spiritually, his identity shifts from the grosser to the subtler. (18.20-22) As the identity shifts to a more subtler level, automatically the person climbs up to higher and subtler levels of morality, charity, forbearance, self-control, compassion and peace. (6.28-32)
Based on the dominant identity of a person, his inclinations would be different, and Hinduism proposes to the person a goal higher than his natural inclinations at every level. Thus, by gradually shifting the goal, Hinduism leads the person to the highest. (4.11-12, 4.25-33, 12.8-11)
A person, who identifies himself with his physical body and is driven by the sense of likes and dislikes, would just want to “eat, sleep and enjoy”. Pleasures, got out of feeding the sense organs of taste, touch, sight, sound and smell, would be his natural inclination. (18.38-39) To such a person, Hinduism proposes a “swarga” as a goal. It says that by doing good deeds and leading a life of self-control, a person can avail great pleasures in swarga. By doing bad deeds and leading a licentious life, a person would suffer great pain and torture in a “naraka”. (2.32-33, 16.7-20) This is what the person would be able to understand and appreciate. However, swarga and naraka are not permanent places. When the effect of his virtuous or vicious life has been spent off, he would come back to this world for another chance. (9.20-21) The goal of swarga can also be replaced by a better environment in a future life.
For a person who does virtuous deeds, with the pleasures of swarga as the goal, Hinduism shifts the goal. It points out the fact that swarga is not a permanent place, and having enjoyed the pleasure of swarga, coming back to this world when the merits are exhausted would be very painful. (2.42-45) Ishwara is the personification of the whole of existence. (7.4-5) Hinduism proposes the presence in the vicinity of Ishwara and to be of His service as a much more permanent and worthy goal. If he seeks pleasures in this world or in swarga, Ishwara will give him according to his merits. But if he seeks Ishwara Himself, then he would get much more than what he can even think of. (9.19-22) Thus, Hinduism puts life in the realm of Ishwara (or in other words, Ishwara Himself) as the goal. (11.54, 9.34) Depending on the personal form that the person worships Ishwara as, the realm is called Vaikuntha, Kailasha, Goloka, etc. The generic name of the realm of Ishwara is Brahmaloka.
For a person who has service or vicinity to Ishwara as the goal, Hinduism goes one more step and points out that, as long as he has individuality, he is different from Ishwara, and also different from other devotees of Ishwara. Wherever there is difference, there will also be gradation of quality, and so it will be a cause of dissatisfaction. Hinduism points out the fact that the real nature of each one of us is the pure Conscious Subject, which can never be the object, and from that point of view, we are Infinite. (13.22) We are not in this world, swarga or Brahmaloka, but all these worlds are in our Consciousness only. Our order of reality is higher than any of the realms – earthly or heavenly or divine – that we can think of. (13.15-17)
This realization of one’s identity as the pure infinite Consciousness is called moksha. Only this realization can free us from further seeking. It is only this realization that can free us from all sense of incompleteness, dissatisfaction, desire and sorrow. (13.22-23)
Thus, Hinduism presents goals like swarga and Brahmaloka, based on the spiritual development of the person. The ultimate goal, however, is complete freedom from all limitations of individuality.
It is not bad at all to have life in the vicinity of Ishwara in Brahmaloka as the goal. When the person does not have any desire for pleasures in this world or in swarga, there is no return back. In Brahmaloka, he will be taught the truth about his own infinitude and thus will realize his eternal freedom from all limitation.
Hinduism does not condemn a person for having a lower spiritual development or for not being able to understand or appreciate a higher spiritual concept. It accepts people as they are, allows them to accept what they are able to understand and lets them choose an appropriate goal. Even to a person who has lead an immoral and cruel life till the death of the body, Hinduism only says “Better luck next time (life)”. It does not condemn them to any eternal damnation. And anytime in life, a person regrets his past mistakes and resolves to lead a good life from then on, Hinduism considers him as a saint immediately. (9.30-31)
To gradually shift the identity, various spiritual practices like asana, pranayama, meditation, japa, bhajan, puja, prayer, pilgrimage, social service, self-control, study, etc. are prescribed. As the person is not limited to the current body, after death of the body, the person will continue the spiritual development from where he left, in another gross or subtle body in this world or in Brahmaloka. As long as the individuality is there, more development is needed. However, nothing is lost in the spiritual life. (6.40-44)
This way, Hinduism presents a framework where individual aspirations of all people all over the world, irrespective of culture, religion, place or time can be catered to largely within their own religion and culture. In this framework, every one can find a place, provided he does not claim that his religion or goal is the only valid one. Keeping the principle the same, the actual practices, rituals, books, saints, stories, etc. can change from culture to culture, from religion to religion.
By this framework, Hinduism has existed for several millennia as the most peaceful and accommodative of all religions and cultures.