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 schoolexams. We were given to believeby our teachers and parents and just about everybody elsethat our performance in our exams was almost a matter of life and death. Our whole future depended on itor so they made us think.

Remember staying up till well pastmidnightor 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 dont seem to have changed much as far as exams are concerned. Students still take them very seriouslyperhaps even more than in my own time. And so I thought Id 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, isnt at all as important as how we do in another examthe 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 periodthe span of time that God has allotted to us in this worldis 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.

Tremendouslycrucial, isnt it, then,this particular exam, performance in which will shape our eternity? There could be nothing more important than doing well inthatexam.

What do you say?

This being the case, its utterly and horribly tragic how many of usand I include myself herehardly ever care to think aboutthis exam. Some of us dont even know that it exists! I, for one, hadnt 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 examsall sorts of exams, all of which we took very seriouslybut 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 didnt even know there was such a thinga thing of ultimate importance for each one of us.

It isnt difficult to guess why many of us dont 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. Its simply because we consider this life as being all that there is and dont 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 dont bother much about what might happen to us after we die, we dont 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 examthe exam of lifeis what is of crucial concern. It isthisexam, and not the exams in school or collegethat is, truly and literally, a life-and-death question, one that will determine our life after death for eternity.

Now, that doesnt mean that our performance in our school and college exams is inconsequential, I said to the students that day. But whatisof ultimate importancenot just for our life in this world, but for all time to comeis 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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