Purushartha: Pursuing the Four Goals of a Human Life

Purushartha: Pursuing the Four Goals of a Human Life February 15, 2017

My focus on doing the right thing(s) means that these days, my Facebook notifications and my newsfeed are filled to the brim with all of the things I should read, attend, sign on to, donate to and just do.  Sometimes its hard to know what to do, since the competing priorities of family, work and community responsibilities all can make you crazy with how much there is to accomplish. Turning to the Hindu ideals of human life helps simplify what to put on my plate, and how I should do it all, with balance. So what are they? Purushartha.  

In many religions, there is a set of basic concepts that an adherent is familiar with. Christians have Ten Commandments that they must obey, Buddhists follow an eightfold path to enlightenment, Sikhs have five K’s in order to live a life of devotion and show their submission to the Guru. Hindus have the Purusharthas, which are the four goals that a human has in his or her life. Pulling from the Hindu American Foundation’s Hinduism 101 module entitled “The Basics,” these are described as:

  • Dharma: ​A​ mode of conduct most conducive to spiritual advancement
  • Artha​: The material prosperity one pursues
  • Kama​: Enjoyment of the material world
  • Moksha:  Liberation from suffering caused by dependence on the material world and from the cycle of birth and rebirth

Dharma has a primary place in these fourfold goals. I have explained to those not familiar with it that dharma is a complex philosophical concept not easily translated into a single English word or phrase. Both the Spoken Sanskrit online dictionary and the Apte Sanskrit to English Dictionary each have more than 20 definitions for dharma, ranging from “justice,” “devotion” and “law” to “mode of conduct” and “religious or moral merit (regarded as one of the four ends of human existence).” To add complexity, my dharma is not the same as your dharma, and my dharma today may not be the same as my dharma ten years ago or ten years from now. Interestingly, Hinduism is often referred to as Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Dharma or Truth, since dharma is always there, waiting for one to fulfil it.  

Artha was always elusive for me – not just in the practical, worldly terms of acquiring money. If leading a saatvik or simple and virtuous life is of the highest importance, how and why should one pursue artha or material wealth? It was on reading Swami Vivekananda’s slim volume on Karma Yoga nearly two decades ago that I gained clarity:

A householder who does not struggle to get wealth is immoral. If he is lazy and content to lead an idle life, he is immoral, because upon him depend hundreds. If he gets riches, hundreds of others will be thereby supported.

If there were not in this city hundreds who had striven to become rich, and who had acquired wealth, where would all this civilization, and these alms-houses and great houses be?

Going after wealth in such a case is not bad, because that wealth is for distribution. The householder is the centre of life and society. It is a worship for him to acquire and spend wealth nobly, for the householder who struggles to become rich by good means and for good purposes is doing practically the same thing for the attainment of salvation as the anchorite does in his cell when he is praying; for in them we see only the different aspects of the same virtue of self-surrender and self-sacrifice prompted by the feeling of devotion to God and to all that is His.

Kama is the term that I least enjoy trying to explain given the stereotypes that the term brings up. The term also brings to mind the often-misunderstood book, the Kama Sutra. It is a “classical text on human sexual mores and behavior,” according to Hinduism Today – not a manual on sex and sexual positions. The word kama means pleasure or desire, although like dharma, it has many other meanings as well. As my fellow Michigander and interfaith advocate, Fred Stella, says, “Kama requires us to learn to both give and receive pleasure… Many people lack in one of those areas & overcompensate the other.”  A story from the Puranas, the Hindu epics with stories that are great teaching tools, has an important lesson about kama, featuring a demon named Bhandasura. Bhandasura gained a lot of power and killed desire in everyone, and the whole of creation just withered, illustrating that desire is necessary because from it come action and creation (and yes, the story has a happy ending – Bhandasura is vanquished and balance is restored by restoring desire to its proper place).

The fourth and final purushartha, Moksha, also has many meanings, and depending on the sampradaya or school of Hinduism one follows, there are a multitude of ways to achieve it.  It represents a release or liberation, and is a concept shared by Buddhist, Jains and Hindus. From an Advaitic Hindu perspective, moksha is the end-goal of a human life – so that we are not stuck in the continuous cycle of birth and death. I discussed this fourth purushartha when considering what happens when we die, drawing from Tolkien, Rabindranath Tagore and Hindu sage Ramana Maharishi. Moksha is also not giving up one’s responsibilities to be closer to the Divine. It refers to when the jiva or human’s soul becomes one with Brahman, the All-Encompassing Soul.

These goals are not simply followed in the order they are strung together, or in the way that I have described them. There should be complementarity between these pursuits in one’s day-to-day life. While chatting about these four purushartha with my parents, my father, a retired English professor and writer, gave me advice to cherish. His three-dimensional poetic image for finding balance in pursuit of the purushartha? “Dharma lays the foundation, moksha is the ceiling, and artha and kama are what you do in your daily living while keeping the ground and ceiling in your sights.”  My mom, of course, had the final word: “As long as you pursue artha and kama with dharma, moksha will come.”  And that applies, no matter what the news of the day. 

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