Updated: Sep 7, 2020
For those who reject all dogma -religious or secular - a problem always arises as to how to anchor oneself physically, intellectually and morally in the big, wide world.
Existentialism is premised on the assumption that THERE IS NO GRAND PURPOSE OR DESIGN FOR THE UNIVERSE TO EXIST, BUT WE DO EXIST AND SO DO OTHER SPECIES.
The origins of the word or rather term EXISTENTIALISM is ambiguous but the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marcel and many others, but most importantly the French Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre are some prominent names among those whose ideas have contributed to the Existentialist movement.
It means that EXISTENCE precedes ESSENCE. In simple words it means that the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining his/her own development through free choice and acts of the will is PRIOR to the labels we put on them because of their ethnicity, religion, sect and so on.
In one sense, existentialism is a very Western Liberal idea because it puts the highest premium on the individual and not the group, community or nation. However, one can find the existentialist streak even in some of our own poets.
For example, Bulleh Shah in his famous poem, Ki Janaa mein kon O Bulleya, kee Janaa mein Kon is indicative of doubt about one's own identity but the poem reaches cresendo when he says:
Avval Aakir Aap Nuu Janaa, Dujjaa koi Naa Pechana.
(I recognize only myself, but no one else)
Some friends have suggested that Buddha was a precursor of Existentialism in the sense of suffering humanity. That connects to Bhagat Kabir and Guru Nanak as well in that sense.
For me that is the existentialist way of understanding life and relating to it.
Returning to the core idea of existentialism I would say it leaves it to the individual to make his/her choices but with responsibility: a responsibility which does not come from a Fear of Burning in Hell but as an expression of one's sovereign will to make a choice which gives joy in itself.
From the Marxist point of view, existentialism in a world where huge numbers of people are held down by poverty, illiteracy and lack of power and resources is a possibility for only the middle class and others better off.
That is a valid point and therefore Sartre was also a political activist who opposed the French war in Algeria and supported other liberation movements of the people of the East.
I have always found existentialism a very attractive way for intellectuals to enjoy their freedom while acting responsibly to help the world change for the better so that old oppressive structures are dismantled and a society free from want and hunger can come about.
At the centre of Existentialism is the Individual torn between his moral world, his social world and his constant battle with himself to function in a coherent manner.
As I said, the choices we make are in a way a luxury because of the relative comfort of our existence. The poor and the deprived and stigmatized cannot make much use of the choices before them.
Nevertheless, by underlining that there is no PURPOSE OF LIFE OR OF THE UNIVERSE, AND THAT WHATEVER WE DO WE MUST REALIZE IT IS A CHOICE WE HAVE MADE FREE WILLINGLY is the crux of the Existentialist philosophy.