Thoughts on the Meaning of Life from reading Dhruba Bhakta Mathema's biography

Text by Don Messerschmidt / Photo: Keshab Mathema

Fig 1 : Dhruba Bhakta Mathema with his first grandson and family

While reading the recently published Life and Times of Dhruba Bhakta Mathema, two pages near the end caught my attention. In a short epilogue, Dhruba’s son Keshab relates what his father said to him one evening.

The epilogue begins with the observation that Dhruba had shared many amazing experiences from his long life, stories that often sounded to Keshab like tales out of Arabian Nights. In his old age, however, Dhruba was also sorrowful; particularly saddened, he said, that despite the historic martyrdom of his brother, Dharma Bhakta Mathema in 1941 and of others like him, their quest for democracy and equality in Nepal remains unfinished — “the country is yet to achieve the goals they fought and fell for,” he said.

Dhruba also told his son something more, something momentous and thought-provoking. Keshab recalls that one evening near the end of his father’s life at 96, while lying in bed, Dhruba “gestured toward Shanti, my wife, and me to come closer to him. Our talk went in whispers. We felt he wanted to tell us something; his eyes remained partly closed, a bit moist.”

Though his words were hardly audible, drawing near they heard him say, “Remember, nothing is permanent in this world; life is too short, a fleeting shadow, as somebody said” — he couldn’t remember who — “unless you can add meaning to it.”

Probably,” Keshab says, “he wanted to emphasize that the importance of life lies in its meaning rather than the length of life one lives.”

Pondering the Meaning of Life has been an ageless endeavor. Philosophers consider it one of the greatest challenges addressed by their profession and by us mortals at large. Answering "What is life all about?" "What is the purpose of existence?" and "Why are we here?" has filled endless nights around campfires since prehistory and volumes of writing ever since.

Social scientists suggest that Meaning in Life comes from our experiences and the achievement of our plans; that life makes sense, that it matters and is far more than the sum of our days or years.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and philosopher Will Durant has written that “the simplest meaning of life then is joy — exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. …Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty ... that would be enough; this plodding through the rain, or fighting in the wind, or tramping the snow under the sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.

Fig 2 : Dhruba Bhakta Mathema greeting family members at his Sanepa Residence(2005 AD)

What Keshab heard at his father’s bedside that evening at home in Sanepa, Lalitpur, reminded him of something he once read. It was in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen, where a father, near the end of his life, reminds his own son that —

Human beings do not live forever… We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?

I learned a long time ago…that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. ... A man must fill his life with meaning; meaning is not automatically given to life.

It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. ... A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest.” What an amazing coincidence!” Keshab thought; a profound moment in the life of a father and son.

Chaim Potok’s award-winning first novel, The Chosen (1967), was so popular that it lasted 39 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, sold close to 140 million copies, and was made into a popular movie. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Will Durant published On the Meaning of Life (an anthology) in 1932. It was then out of print for years until Promethean Press reissued it in 2011.

Search “Meaning of Life” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at If you google it you’ll get over 137 million hits in about 10 seconds. It’s a popular topic!

The Life and Times of Dhruba Bhakta Mathema (in the context of his bother, the martyr Dharma Bhakta Mathema) was published in Kathmandu by The Pragya Foundation in December 2019. The author’s review of the biography was published as a Spilled Ink essay in the February 2020 issue of ECS Nepal magazine and can be read online at