Passing the Exam of Life

By Roshan Shah

Maybe you felt the same way as I did about what I think was the worst thing about school—exams. We were given to believe—by our teachers and parents and just about everybody else—that our performance in our exams was almost a matter of life and death. Our whole future depended on it—or so they made us think.

Remember staying up till well past midnight or waking up in the wee-hours of the morning to pour over our notes and textbooks? Remember the extra tuitions we took for maths and science? Remember those long hours we spent cramming entire passages from Shakespeare, the chemical table and an almost interminable list of names of kings and dates of their reigns and deaths, only to promptly and very happily expel them from our minds as soon as our exams got over?

Remember how if we failed in a subject or even passed with just a B-minus, how ashamed and awful we felt? Remember how frightened we were to break the news at home? Remember how our parents scolded us for being ‘irresponsible’ and ‘bad’ or even hollered at us for being a ‘failure’? Remember how some of us even got belted by our fathers for this ‘crime’? It may not have happened with children we personally knew, but remember how, now and then, we would read in the newspapers (as we still do) about some students who took the belief that exams were a life-and-death issue so literally that having failed in them, they took their own lives?

childrenWe really did take those exams very, very seriously.

Some days ago, a friend of mine asked me to address a group of students. I spoke about this and that, and then meandered on to the issue of exams.

Although I was in school almost half a century ago, things don’t seem to have changed much as far as exams are concerned. Students still take them very seriously—perhaps even more than in my own time. And so I thought I’d talk about that as well that day.

“Life itself is an examination”, I said to the students. Doing well in our school exams, I explained to them, isn’t at all as important as how we do in another exam—the exam of life.

The exam of life? You may not have heard it being put that way, but, yes, life is one, very long exam. At every moment of our lives, from cradle to grave, we are being examined for our behaviour. We are being tested for how we act and respond in every single situation.

Each moment of our lives, then, is a mini-exam, and our life as a whole is a mega one.

This is something that all religions tell us, although they may put it differently. Some religions teach that God is always watching us or is constantly aware of us, and that He, or one or more of His angels, keeps an account of our every feeling, thought, word and deed. And then, after our ‘exam period’—the span of time that God has allotted to  us in this world—is up, we will be declared to have ‘passed’ or ‘failed’, depending on our performance in this life-long exam.

Our performance in the exam of life, the different religions tell us, will be measured on the basis of our faith in and devotion to God, our Creator, and our actions. If our merits outweigh our sins, some religions teach, we would have passed our exam and will be admitted to Paradise, or, according to some other religions, will reborn in a better state. But if our sins outweigh our merits, we would have failed our exam. Accordingly, some religions say, we will be sent to Hell, while some other religions tell us that we will be reborn in a lower state.

Despite the different explanations that various religions offer about what happens to us after death, they are unanimous in stressing that we survive our physical death and that our state after death will be determined by how we had performed in the life-long ‘exam’ while on earth.

Tremendously crucial, isn’t it, then, this particular exam, performance in which will shape our eternity? There could be nothing more important than doing well in that exam.

What do you say?

This being the case, it’s utterly and horribly tragic how many of us—and I include myself here—hardly ever care to think about this exam. Some of us don’t even know that it exists! I, for one, hadn’t ever heard about it when I was a school student, and even when I went on to college and then to university. We had our monthly exams, our half-yearly exams, our annual exams, our board exams—all sorts of exams, all of which we took very seriously—but not once, whether at home or at school, did I ever hear any mention of the ‘exam of life’. Never did my parents, teachers, relatives or friends ever talk about it. Maybe they didn’t even know there was such a thing—a thing of ultimate importance for each one of us.

It isn’t difficult to guess why many of us don’t bother at all about how we may be performing in the exam of life while we consider exams as in school and college of paramount importance. Or why, while we make elaborate and very often expensive arrangements for the latter sorts of exams and take them so seriously, we make no such preparations for the exam of life. It’s simply because we consider this life as being all that there is and don’t pay much, or even any, attention to the life that is to come after we die. For us, ‘success’ has come to be defined in strictly this-worldly terms, measured in terms of wealth, power, name and maximization of sensual enjoyment. This, in fact, has become the defining purpose of our lives. Since for this ‘success’ how we perform in our exams at school, college and university plays a central role, we consider them to be very crucial and do everything we can to excel in them. But on the other hand, since in practice we doubt, deny or don’t bother much about what might happen to us after we die, we don’t think that there is something like an exam of life, with its own measure of success or failure and for which we need to make adequate preparations.

To get back to what I shared with the students that day: How we fare in the one really important exam—the exam of life—is what is of crucial concern. It is this exam, and not the exams in school or college—that is, truly and literally, a life-and-death question, one that will determine our life after death for eternity.

Now, that doesn’t mean that our performance in our school and college exams is inconsequential, I said to the students that day. But what is of ultimate importance—not just for our life in this world, but for all time to come—is how we do in the exam of life, an exam that starts as soon as we enter this world, carries on every moment that we are here, and gets over the moment we are called back to face our Creator.

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