Purushartha: The 4 Aims of Human Life

Purushartha: The 4 Aims of Human Life
“If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” ~ Christ

The Purusharthas are the inherent values of the Universe: Artha (economic values), Kama (pleasure), Dharma (righteousness), and Moksha (liberation). The Purusharthas are the blueprint for human fulfillment. Working with them helps you create a satisfyingly balanced, meaningful life at the deepest and most holistic level. They offer a way for evaluating your life and making good decisions. Knowing your goals brings meaning to your spiritual practice.

Purushatha means “for the purpose of the Self. Take a moment and ask yourself, ‘Am I managing my life in a way to support my spiritual growth?’ and ‘What do I really, really want at the level of my Soul?’”

The original Vedic texts only suggested the three goals of Dharma, Artha, and Kama. In the later Upanishadic era, when people began to seek higher consciousness, the fourth goal of Moksha was added. Although the first three are somewhat interwoven, it is felt that the “right action” of Dharma is a necessary requirement for Artha to be meaningful and the abundance of Artha will be needed to support Kama. The path to liberation or enlightenment of Moksha is supported by the harmonious interaction of Dharma, Artha, and Kama.

1. Dharma

Dharma means truth, the right way of living, and human behaviors considered necessary for the order of things in the world. On a grander scale, it refers to the cosmic law or rules that created the Universe from chaos.

On an individual level, you can think of Dharma as your true purpose in life or the ethical basis on which you live your life. It is also:

  • Being conscious in your actions, words, and thoughts.
  • Having compassion and sensitivity to the needs of others.
  • Being awake to the existence of the Divine within you.
Ultimately, Dharma leads you to remember who you really are.

Dharma also brings stability and order, a life that is lawful and harmonious, and the striving to do the right thing, to be virtuous, to be helpful to others, and to interact successfully with society. The great Indian text, The Bhagavad Gita says, “The greatest dereliction of Dharma is to desert the helpless in their time of need.”

Vedanta tells us that you can discover your Dharma by studying sacred teachings from the examples of highly evolved people, reflecting on and following what satisfies your heart, and listening to your deepest inner feelings.

We suggest asking your heart, “What is my purpose, how can I serve?” Just silently ask the question and listen to whatever answer arises, without evaluation or judgment. We also recommend making two lists, one of all the things you are good at and the other of all the things you really enjoy doing. The items that are on both lists will give you a clue to your Dharma or the path to follow.

The Bhagavad Gita also says, “Better your own Dharma though imperfect than the Dharma of another done perfectly.” This means that you need to find your own truth and even though you may make mistakes along the way, this is still preferable to trying to copy others.

Vedanta tells us that you will know when you are in Dharma when your actions are spontaneously correct, you automatically know what to do in any situation, you are in harmony with and your life is supported by everything around you, you feel complete within yourself, and life becomes effortless.

Dharma is considered the first of the Purusharthas because without it, Artha and Kama can easily become self-destructive. However, Artha and Kama, when balanced, also serve to support your Dharmic Path and eventually your outward Dharma leads you to inner Moksha.

2. Artha

Artha is the security of having the material comfort you need to live in the world with ease. While some people think that to be spiritual means to be poor, Artha is not about rejecting the world, but being content with the things you own. It’s to live skillfully in a world of material objects that exist for your benefit.

Artha is one of the basic human dignities—to have enough assets to live on and care for your family, without hoarding or being greedy. Artha guides you to ask the question, “What do I see as truly valuable?”

Needs vary from person to person. Artha includes everything in your environment that allows you to live a fulfilling life and also the means to achieve it. It includes knowledge, friendships, love, career, skills, good health, and prosperity. The Upanishads tell us, “There is no joy in smallness, joy is in the infinite.”

Artha provides the foundation for Dharma and Kama. Without prosperity and security in society or at the individual level, both moral life and sensuality become difficult. However, it’s important that your "worldly success" doesn’t violate the moral responsibility of your Dharma and your journey toward Moksha (spiritual liberation).

Ultimately, Artha is the pursuit of activities and means necessary for a joyous and pleasurable life. Vedanta says that you should:

  • Discover a way so money runs after you and not vice versa.
  • Do work that is compatible to your nature and capabilities.
  • Do work that serves society.
  • Do work you really love.
  • Trust in the infinite organizing power of the Universe.
Paramhansa Yogananda said, “Seek spiritual riches within. What you are is much greater than anything or anyone else you have ever yearned for. And remember, the fear of not having, disguises the reality that we have everything.”

3. Kama

The desire for pleasure is what drives human behavior. A life without pleasure and enjoyment is hollow and empty.

Kama relates to this pleasure, which can be sensuality, but is also art, music, beauty, love, intimacy, affection, fellowship, and kindness—it’s what brings a sense of delight to your life. The right kinds of pleasure lead you toward your Dharma and help you fulfill it with passion. Kama is good and necessary when it exists to support Dharma and becomes part of the richness of life. However, excessive Kama can lead to overindulgence, addiction, sloth, greed, and lust.

To successfully practice Kama, you must ask, “Are my pleasures aligned with my life’s purpose?” The Upanishads tell us, “As is your desire so is your will, as is your will so is your deed, as is your deed so is your destiny and You are what your deep driving desire is.”

Many Westerners were introduced to Kama when the ancient Indian text, The Kama Sutra, became popular. Unfortunately, it was generally misinterpreted as a sex manual; it is actually a guide to a virtuous and gracious living that discusses the nature of love, family life, and other aspects pertaining to pleasure-oriented faculties of human life. In truth, it depicts Kama as an essential and joyful aspect of human existence.

To practice Kama from a yogic perspective means to practice being fully present with whatever you’re experiencing. Kama is a total sensory experience that includes discovering the object, learning about the object, establishing emotional connection, learning the process of enjoyment, and experiencing the resulting feeling of well-being before, during, and after the experience.

Vedanta warns us that Kama should be followed with thought, care, caution, and enthusiasm, and be free from worries and egotistical problems. Know and seek which pleasures are saturated with Divine Consciousness and are drenched in the ecstasies of the soul. Ultimately, the highest Kama is the longing for Oneness with the Divine.

4. Moksha

When you live your Dharma, fully supported by Artha and Kama, Moksha or the final liberation dawns.

Moksha is your true nature—it’s who you really are. It includes:

  • Emancipation.
  • Liberation.
  • Freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.
  • Freedom from ignorance.
  • Self-realization and self-knowledge.
  • Consciousness of the Oneness of the Supreme Soul.
  • The removal of obstacles to an unrestricted life.
  • Access to our full human potential of creativity, compassion, and understanding.
Vedanta tells us that liberation comes to those who know Brahman as that which is the origin and end of all things, the universal principle behind and at source of everything that exists, and the consciousness that pervades everything and everyone.

Such realization comes from self-knowledge and self-discipline. Moksha is self-discipline that is so perfect that it becomes unconscious, second nature, an unworldly understanding, and a state of bliss. This liberation comes from a life lived with inner purity, alert mind, led by reason, intelligence, and realization of the Supreme Self who dwells in all beings. As the poet Rumi says, “The whole Universe exists within us, ask all from yourself.” While Lao Tzu tells us, “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment.”

Moksha is seen as a final release from life’s illusion. The Upanishads describe the liberated individual as one who treats others with respect (regardless of how others treat him/her); returns anger with soft and kind words; doesn’t expect praise from others; never injures or harms any life form; is as comfortable being alone as in the presence of others; and is humble of clear and steady mind, straightforward, compassionate, and patient.

Your journey through the Purusharthas is beautifully summarized by Swami Chinmayananda, “May your life be simple and pure so you know only beauty. May your mind be clear and quiet so you speak only of Truth. May your heart be filled with love and compassion so you radiate Light to all you meet. May all you do be blessed with Divine Grace.”

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