The Purusharthas, Chief Aims of Human Life

Purusharthas, the Chief Aims of Human Life

by Jayaram V

The word "artha" has several meanings. The most common ones are, desire, wish, object, meaning, purpose, goal, aim, reason, and motive. Artha also means wealth, riches, profit, money and interest. Purusha means he who awakes in the east. It is a reference to Surya, the sun god, Supreme Brahman, Individual souls and embodied souls. In a general sense it means any human being. Thus, Purushartha literally means, any purpose, aim, or goal of a Purusha, or a person. It is usually used to denote the chief aims of a human being or human life.

However, since in Hinduism all duties arise from God, or the Supreme Person, one may interpret Purusharthas as the chief aims of God also. In Hinduism we believe that in this world it is the duty of human beings to undertake the Dharma of God (Isvara Brahman) as our own as our service and devotion to him. Those who sincerely and selflessly perform them do not have to worry about their salvation since he would take care of their lives. Closely related to the word is paramartha. It means hidden truth, highest purpose, or sublime truth. It is generally used in reference to spiritual truths about Brahman or transcendental reality. The paramartha of Purusharthas is to be like Isvara and live like him in this world as his very manifestation.

References to the Purusharthas are found in the epics, Puranas, and the Dharmashastras. Vedic tradition identifies four Purusharthas or four aims of human life, namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The four aims are prescribed to ensure that human beings lead fuller and balanced lives and fulfill their obligations towards themselves, their families, gods, the world, ancestors, and other living beings, without ignoring their spiritual wellbeing and liberation.

Purusharthas and varnashrama dharma

Dharma is about personal, moral, spiritual, and religious duties. Their source is the knowledge contained in the Vedas. The duties are obligatory since they are entrusted to the mankind by Isvara himself for the order and regularity of the world. They are caste or occupation, age, and gender specific. Dharma extends to all the four phases of human life, namely Brahmacharya (studentship), Grihastha (householder's life), Vanaprastha (life as a recluse or forest dweller), and Sanyasa (life as a renunciant). The duties must be selflessly performed as a service to Isvara, without attraction and aversion, and without desire for their fruit to avoid karmic consequences.

Artha is about earning wealth and material comforts to fulfill obligations by a householder towards his wife, children, family, gods, ancestors, other living beings, the world and society. A householder's life begins with marriage, after completion of his education, and continues until he retires from worldly life and transfers his duties and responsibilities to his children. The scriptures are aware that the pursuit of wealth by humans can ensnare them in worldly activity and delay their liberation. Hence, they emphasize the importance of cultivating detachment, and practicing Dharma and dana (charity) while pursuing wealth. The pursuit of Artha is obligatory for the householders (grihasta) only. It should not be pursued in the other phases

Kama means sexual desire. Hinduism recognizes the importance of sexual activity in procreation and continuation of family lineages. The Upanishads liken sexual intercourse to a sacrifice (yajna). Human beings have an obligation to produce children to ensure that there will not be any interruption in the orderly progression of the world. Through their progeny gods will continue to receive their offerings of sacrificial food and protect the world from falling into evil ways and demonic influence. Besides, human beings also need children for their own liberation, or protection in the ancestral world until their rebirth.

However, since excessive sexual desire can result in lust, social disorder, delusion, and moral confusion, the scriptures suggest that one should indulge in sexual activity for procreation purposes only and strictly observe the moral code in its practice. Just like Artha, the pursuit of Kama should be confined to the phase of householder only, and should not be pursued in the other three phases.

Moksha means liberation from the cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths. Good actions ensure good karma and rebirth in a good family, but do not lead to liberation. For liberation a person needs to renounce worldly life and practice self-purification through detachment, dispassion, austerities, cultivation of sattva, the restraint of the mind and the senses, and renunciation of desires and desire for the fruit of one's actions.

Traditionally, as in case of Dharma, the goal of Moksha should be pursued in all the four phases of human life. The pursuit of liberation must begin from an early age and continue until the end. However, in the last phase of human life, namely Sanyasa (renunciation), one should have no other aim but liberation and live solely for it. The tradition also does not prohibit anyone from pursuing it from an early age by renouncing the world and householder's duties.

Purusharthas and presiding deities

Each of the four aims is also associated with a particular deity, whom one may specifically propitiate while pursuing those aims.

Brahma and goddess Saraswathi should be propitiated in the pursuit of Dharma, since they are the source of all knowledge and mental brilliance. Both are the presiding deities of the mind and intelligence. They manifest when the mind is pure with the predominance of sattva. Brahma is synonymous with all the knowledge about Dharma and sacrificial duties. He protects the Vedas from degradation in the mortal world. Hence, brahmacharya (the pursuit of Brahma with the practice of celibacy) is traditionally associated with the study of the Vedas by students.

Vishnu and Lakshmi should be propitiated in the pursuit of Artha. Vishnu is the Preserver of the worlds and beings. He is source of all duties that are meant for the order and regularity of the world, which a householder is expected to perform upon earth as a service to him. Goddess Lakshmi, his consort, is the source of all wealth. She serves the devotees (Bhagavatas) of Vishnu and helps them in the performance of their duties and obligations in ensuring the order and regularity of the worlds. Hence, both should be propitiated by householders to secure wealth and material comforts for the welfare of the world.

Shiva is the lord of the mind, body, and senses. He is also the lord of the reproductive organs and procreation. He infuses the body with the power of life and breath (prana). Shakti or Parvathi, his consort is the Mother Goddess and the goddess of fertility. She is the power that sustains life in the womb of a mother. They also have the power to sublimate the excess sexual energy in the body into spiritual energy (ojas and tejas) and stabilize the mind. Hence, in the pursuit of Kama both the deities should be worshipped to secure their blessings and remain free from the evil influence of lust and desire.

In the pursuit of liberation, one should contemplate upon Brahman only and none else. One may also choose any of the gods as Supreme Brahman, but should not waste time in ritual worship. Instead they should practice internal rituals (meditation, concentration and samyama) to stabilize their minds in the contemplation of Brahman. In this regard it is important to remember the advice given by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavadgita about the importance of worshipping Brahman, according to which those who worship gods would go to them but those who worship Brahman would alone enter the world of Brahman and achieve liberation. Hence, in the phase of Vanaprastha and Sanyasa one should take refuge in Brahman, and Brahman only, and completely fix his or her mind upon him.

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