Lesson 1 of 0
In Progress

The Puruṣārthas (Four Aims of Life)

Puruṣārtha (Sanskrit: पुरुषार्थ) literally means an “object of human pursuit”. It is a key concept in Hinduism, and refers to the four proper goals or aims of a human life. The four puruṣārthas are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values).

All four Purusarthas are important, but in cases of conflict, Dharma is considered more important than Artha or Kama in Hindu philosophy. Moksha is considered the ultimate ideal of human life. At the same time, this is not a consensus among all Hindus, and many have different interpretations of the hierarchy, and even as to whether one should exist.

Historical Indian scholars recognized and debated the inherent tension between active pursuit of wealth (Artha purusartha) and pleasure (Kama), and renunciation of all wealth and pleasure for the sake of spiritual liberation (Moksha). They proposed “action with renunciation” or “craving-free, dharma-driven action”, also called Nishkam Karma as a possible solution to the tension.

Puruṣārtha (पुरुषार्थ) is a composite Sanskrit word from Purusha (पुरुष) and Artha (अर्थ). Purusha means “primaeval human being as the soul and original source of the universe”. Artha in one context means “purpose”, “object of desire” and “meaning”. Together, Purusartha literally means “purpose of human being” or “object of human pursuit”.

Purusartha is a key concept in Hinduism, which holds that every human has four proper goals that are necessary and sufficient for a fulfilling and happy life. The four Puruṣārthas are:

Dharma – signifies behaviors that are considered to be in accord with rta, the order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and right way of living. Hindu dharma includes the religious duties, moral rights and duties of each individual, as well as behaviors that enable social order, right conduct, and those that are virtuous. Dharma, according to van Buitenen, is that which all existing beings must accept and respect to sustain harmony and order in the world. It is, states van Buitenen, the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling, thus playing one’s role in cosmic concert.

Artha – signifies the “means of life”, activities and resources that enables one to be in a state one wants to be in. Artha incorporates wealth, career, activity to make a living, financial security and economic prosperity. The proper pursuit of artha is considered an important aim of human life in Hinduism.

Kama – signifies desire, wish, passion, emotions, pleasure of the senses, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, or love, with or without sexual connotations. Gavin Flood explains kāma as “love” without violating dharma (moral responsibility), artha (material prosperity) and one’s journey towards moksha (spiritual liberation).

Moksha – signifies emancipation, liberation or release. In some schools of Hinduism, moksha connotes freedom from saṃsāra, the cycle of death and rebirth, in other schools moksha connotes freedom, self-knowledge, self-realization and liberation in this life.

Origins of puruṣārtha theory

The concept of mokṣa appears in the Upanishads, while the preceding SamhitasBrahmanas and Aranyakas commonly refer to kāmaartha and dharma as the “trivarga” or “three categories” of possible human pursuits. The Dharmaśāstras and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are the first known sources that comprehensively present the notion that integrated living entails the pursuit of four goals or ends. Prasad states that the division between the trivarga and mokṣa is intended to highlight the context between the social (trivarga) and personal (mokṣa) spheres.

The Sannyasa is entirely focussed on the pursuit of Moksha without violating DharmaBaudhayana Dharmasūtra, completed by about 7th century B.C.E., states the following behavioral vows for a person in Sannyasa,

These are the vows a Sannyasi must keep –

Abstention from injuring living beings, truthfulness, abstention from appropriating the property of others, abstention from sex, liberality (kindness, gentleness) are the major vows. There are five minor vows: abstention from anger, obedience towards the guru, avoidance of rashness, cleanliness, and purity in eating. He should beg (for food) without annoying others, any food he gets he must compassionately share a portion with other living beings, sprinkling the remainder with water he should eat it as if it were a medicine.

— Baudhāyana, Dharmasūtra, II.10.18.1–10 [34]

Baudhāyana also makes repeated references to the Sannyasa (ascetic) stage and its behavioral focus, such as in verses II.13.7 and 11.18.13. This reference, Olivelle states, is found in many early to mid 1st millennium BC texts, and is clearly from gnomic poetry about an established ascetic tradition by the time Baudhayana Dharmasutra and other texts were written. Katha Upanishad, in hymns 2.1–2.2 contrasts the human feeling of pleasant (preyas, प्रेयस्) with that of bliss (sreyas, श्रेयस्), praising the latter. The hymns of Rig Veda in Book 10 Chapter 136, mention Muni (मुनि, monks, mendicants, holy man), with characteristics that mirror those found in later concepts of renunication-practising, Moksha-motivated ascetics (Sannyasins and Sannyasinis). These Muni are said to be Kesins (केशिन्, long haired) wearing Mala clothes (मल, dirty, soil-colored, yellow, orange, saffron) and engaged in the affairs of Mananat (mind, meditation).

केश्यग्निं केशी विषं केशी बिभर्ति रोदसी । केशी विश्वं स्वर्दृशे केशीदं ज्योतिरुच्यते ॥१॥ ”’मुनयो”’ वातरशनाः पिशङ्गा वसते मला । वातस्यानु ध्राजिं यन्ति यद्देवासो अविक्षत ॥२॥

He with the long loose locks (of hair) supports Agni, and moisture, heaven, and earth; He is all sky to look upon: he with long hair is called this light. The Munis, girdled with the wind, wear garments of soil hue; They, following the wind’s swift course go where the Gods have gone before.

— Rig Veda, Hymn 10.CXXXVI.1–2 [37]

About Sunday morning

Sunday Morning Contemplation is informed by Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. The first, lectio divina has its origins in 6th century Europe. It unfolds in four steps or stages: reading (lectio), reflecting (meditatio), responding (oratio), and silent abiding (contemplatio). Our Eastern inspiration come from the Indian Upanishads (800-200 BCE), where contemplative practice consists of three steps or stages: listening (śravana), reflecting (manana), and meditating (nididhyāsana or dhyāna). Our contemplative practice on Sundays embraces both approaches, and each contemplation will be based on a reading from either tradition.

The texts and teachers I have chosen played a significant role in my life and I believe have much to offer. I will read presellected texts, slowly, with pauses between verses or quotes. The readings will be accompanied by soothing background music. To lessen distraction, I suggest participants close their eyes and listen. However, the screen will display the text so that people can choose to read along or mute the sound and read on their own. If there is time remaining after the contemplative period, participants can choose to either leave or stay for a short discussion.

As a preface to the reading, I will provide a 10-15 minute introduction to the text. When relevant, I’ll review facts about the author/teacher’s life. I will also present a brief explanation of the terms and language encountered in the reading.

Finally, when the contemplation is over, all texts read will be available online to read and/or download at any time on the website.

What I mean by
The Symbolic Life

This website makes liberal use of classical Indian visual art and refers mostly to traditional Indian texts (for example, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras) in the courses, seminars, and discussions on offer. However, I am not presenting lessons in Hinduism; in fact, teaching mainstream Hinduism is neither my area of interest nor expertise. Rather, my interest in Yoga and Tantra is grounded in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, in the places where we arrive and from which we depart. Beginning in the here and now, we will explore the underlying meaning of the symbols, stories, images, philosophies, and techniques found in Indian philosophical texts and practice, in light of our world and our current circumstance. We will excavate the meaning of the aphorisms and teaching stories; the symbolic figures of gods, people, and nature; and the sometimes terse, sometimes poetic, philosophy of the texts. Thus, in referring to the Symbolic Life of Yoga and Tantra, I mean not just the symbols themselves, but the rich explication of life that the symbols represent.

Our lived, concrete situation is wonderfully captured in the Sanskrit word loka, whose ancient meaning is “the world.”  The root meaning of both the Sanskrit loka and the English locate (and local, locale, and location) is identical. In the ancient Indian mind, the world is where we are located, in our current circumstance. Thus, the meaning of the symbols of Yoga and Tantra can occur only in the now, in the places where we find ourselves, and not in any imagined ancient and/or foreign world.

To emphasize our place of origin and return, I use the terms “archetypal” and “symbolic” quite frequently. Archetypal meaning is associated with the universal and collective aspects of human experience—what we intimately share with all others regardless of culture or era or epoch—while symbolic language forms a bridge between the realms of the universal with the culturally specific and local. Symbols are the scaffolding upon which human beings build a world and imbue it with meaning.

Think for a moment of pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, hatred and love, and greed and generosity—universal experiences that ancient Indian thinkers called the dvandva-s. This Sanskrit term is a combination of two words, or rather, one word spoken twice: the word dva (meaning the same as the English “two”) duplicated. Dvandva is commonly translated as “the pair of opposites” or literally “the two-twos” (dvadva). The ancients who coined this compact symbol gave voice to an archetypal human experience that can be further unpacked to reveal deep insights into the human condition. Once we gain an understanding of the various symbols of Yoga and Tantra, we can further excavate their meaning and the archetypes they convey, and thus gain access to, in a practical and meaningful way, the vision of life experienced by the sages. These insights are available to us and are still relevant today, as are the resilient and adaptable techniques and forms of practice that can help us lead richer and more fulfilling lives