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Friday, July 12, 2024

Purushartha in Sanatana Dharma

Few ideas are more central to Sanatana Dharma than Purushartha. They form the bedrock on which other layers like karma, reincarnation are supported. Though it is very simple to repeat what they are or provide a very myopic short explanation, it can take a lifetime to realize the numerous layers of understanding one can grasp as one contemplates deeper.

Numerous mahatmas and sages have illumined extensively on this subject, yet very few have elevated others to the level Swami Krishnananda has. This article is a humble submission at his lotus feet for enabling me to get a better understanding. We will be approaching this topic from multiple angles and it may even appear to be discrete at a casual glance.

The lack of deeper understanding to these basic ideas coupled with the modern lifestyle of chasing only Artha and Kama amplified by the profound absence of Dharma perception and a secularized outlook to negate the idea of Moksha has led to the chaotic crisis in our society.

Meaning: Purushartha (पुरुषार्थ) is made up of two words – purusha (पुरुष) and artha (अर्थ ). One must remember Sanskrit meanings are contextual and can convey different meanings. Perhaps the exact equivalent in a non Sanskrit terminology exists only in Tamil and is referred as Aram-Porul-Inbam-Veedu(அறம் பொருள் இன்பம் வீடு).

For simplicity, purusha implies a generic human being and artha means purpose, meaning or goal. From this perspective purushartha implies “Object of human existence”. But purushartha also implies the end result of this endeavor. In other words, it is both, the means and ends, best expressed by Swami Chidananda as “Ends are obtained by endeavor”. Purushartha is the word that denotes both the ends and endeavor.

Purushartha is also a synonym to describe God. We see this approach even while describing Karma Yoga as both the path taken and the final zenith achieved. Thus purushartha is the goals, ideals and values strived for the ultimate achievement in life, yet it is also the same word that describes the dynamic effort and endeavor one places behind achieving these lofty goals.

Contents Defined: Commonly referred as chaturvarga or four parts – Dharma (धर्म), Artha (अर्थ ), Kama (काम)  and Moksha (मोक्ष). These non-translatables need either a deep cultural foundation or philosophical insight to understand the purport in the context used. Hence the wisdom of Swami Krishnanada’s flavor is used here to provide deeper, yet simpler and accurate insights into these terms.

Artha refers to the material needs encountered. This is usually translated as wealth or money. But as we can understand wealth is one aspect of the material need. It also includes the physical well being. As long as one exists in a body, there are definite needs. Even the most advanced seeker will have these needs, ignoring them will lead to its perishing. Artha is the material association of the physical body.

Kama refers to the aesthetic longings of the human personality. There is a definite pressure exerted by the mind, which goes beyond the basics of food, clothing and shelter. These pressures exerted on the biological personality cannot be ignored and interestingly all of these cannot be fulfilled in nature. Untamed or unregulated, this can and will hurt both the individual self and those around.

Dharma refers to the harmonization of human personality in the society and in nature. Dharma refers to the method by which one can put all the sides of human nature. Dharma is also the laws operating in the universe that keep things in cohesion and is not contained by any –isms. It keeps the body, mind, society, and reasoning in balance and one feels as a complete being. Dharma is very hard for an untrained mind to grasp.

Moksha is the aspiration to attain God. In other words, Moksha is the human nature to return to its original SELF.  Artha and Kama are sublimed and merged with Dharma in this state. In creation there are numerous entities all around us, with each wanting to enjoy absolute freedom. All freedom experienced is only relative. If one wants absolute freedom, then there must be nothing external to us. Moksha is a state of being, where there is nothing outside to restrain us, which makes us one with the Absolute. In the field of Bharatiya philosophy and metaphysical studies, such a state is referred as Moksha.

Dharma is the relative freedom to operate within the boundaries with the optimized maximum to enjoy Artha and Kama, while Moksha is absolute freedom from all limitations.

Purushartha and society

Purushartha is a multi layered concept and has had a profound impact on Bharatvarsha.

  • Varnas: In the past and as per the scriptures, varnas were karma based. The colonial rule and the Bharatiya political class after independence have amplified the tendencies that originally appeared as a self preservation exercise during the Islamic invasions to observe varnas as birth based. Despite the fact that there was strong inter-mixing within the society, as evinced by genetic studies, the four varnas display strong proclivities to a certain aspect of purushartha.

The Kshatriyas have traditionally been seen not as a warrior class as misinterpreted by Indologists of western ideas. Kshatriyas are seen as upholders of dharma. The Raja was not seen as a representative of Vishnu to wrest control (as amplified by highly biased and mistaken western Indologists) but as an observer and protector of dharma. The society rests on the economic might and certain communities which had a natural tendency to focus on the materialistic aspects were designated as Vaishyas. Shudra word has roots in pain avoidance and Mahabharata calls that everyone is a shudra by birth (janmana jayate shudrah).

By default all humans are happy, centred on adjusting to their mental pressures of raga-dvesha (likes and dislikes). It is very evident that Kama (mental pressure to relate with objects around) is default, be it a newborn or a spiritual aspirant. Some sections identified themselves with freeing themselves from the three forms of societal focus and dwelling on the Supreme Consciousness and they were Brahmins. They have always remained a fraction of the society and until the colonial times, their primary focus was to not only raise their consciousness but also that of those around them.  Mahabharata says “samskarairdvija uchyate” – and samskaras can be understood as rituals, but also implies vasanas, a factor of Karma.

  • Ashrama: The stage an individual is in life also determines the ideal. Traditionally, the Hindu society had an outlook of Brahmacharya (Childhood/Youth), Grihasta (Married life), Vanaprastha (Secluded life) and Sannyasa (Renunciation). Brahmacharya is where Dharma is emphasized. The child is raised in Dharma chintana. Grihasta is where kama and artha come into play. Vanaprastha is emphasis on moksha. Though sannyasa is the fourth ashrama, one can enter it at any stage. We have Shuka born as sannyasi, whilst Adi Shankara took to it in childhood. The foundation is always Dharma and the goal is always Moksha.
  • Goals: One of the most common complaints by half baked critics is based on Bhagavad GitaIf one were to not hanker after the fruits of our labor, there will be no motivation in the society. This argument only reveals a total lack of understanding of the idea of purushartha. A person operating with a deep sense of purushartha is never wanting in motivation. Instead his motivation is steadfast on moksha or dharma. Just as a flying airplane constantly seeks to correct its path, this steadfast grounding in dharma, gives some latitude, yet focus.

Swami Sivananda summed it best as “In Mahabharata you will find that exertion (Purushartha) and Prarabdha, combined bring about fruits. If you are ailing, you must do purushartha. You must take medicine. You leave the results to Prarabdha.”

Purushartha also explains why despite our best efforts, sometimes we cannot achieve the goal – Prarabdha. This diffuses the desperation and dejection that can happen. We are also showcased stories of Savitri and Markandeya who overcame extreme odds and prarabdha with only extraordinary Purushartha. In other words, the intensity of Purushartha transforms itself as grace when done with a pure uncontaminated mind.

Purushartha alters the way we experience our Prarabdha, we can enjoy or abhor; we can evolve or devolve; we can become more saatvic and go beyond the gunas or remain mired in Tamas.

This purushartha foundation liberated the mind to focus on the task at hand, instead of getting stuck in the memories of the past or imagined projections of the future. Purushartha teaches one to live in the NOW and take maximum benefit from the PRESENT. The best place to realize the value is today, in our society, where we have forsaken moksha and compromised dharma severely. In our ping pong match with karma and artha, we live mostly not in the NOW. Exact opposite of how our rishis advised to live for optimizing our temporary human existence.

Purushartha teaches everyone that we are divine beings in a human body, contrary to non dharmic religions which profess a human existence which can get blessed by the divine.

In which order should we follow Purushartha?

This question comes often to the earnest believer who gets quoted with a huge volley of interesting opinions. The classic understanding of purusharthas as layers of an onion gives one a flavor of the explanation. As one peels the onion layers, the next one gets exposed. In the same way, based on dharmic means, artha must be earned. That artha can support genuine and legitimate kama. Note that dharma is the guiding factor here. As one’s vasana baggage gets exhausted, moksha becomes a distinct possibility. This line of approach seems to also guide the ashrama outlook. It makes sense why dharma must be taught first.

What do shastras suggest? As always we need Shastra Pramana to back our ideas. Bhagavatam gives us the clarification in slokas 1.2.9 and 1.2.10.

धर्मस्य ह्यापवर्ग्यस्य नार्थोऽथायोपकल्पते । नार्थस्य धर्मैकान्तस्य कामो लाभाय हि स्मृत: ॥ (९)

कामस्य नेन्द्रियप्रीतिर्लाभो जीवेत यावता।जीवस्य तत्वजिज्ञासा नार्थो यश्चेह कर्मभि: ॥ (१०)

dharmasya hyApavargasya nArthOthAyOpakalpatE | nArthasya dharmaikAnthasya kAmO lAbhAya hi smruta: || (9)

kAmasya nEndriyaprItirlAbhO jIvEta yAvatA |jIvasya tatvajignyAsA nArthO yashvEha karmabhi: ||(10)

But there are others who maintain that Dharma is for acquiring wealth and prosperity here and heavens hereafter; that wealth is meant for the fulfillment of Kama (desire); and that Kama is to be sought for sensual enjoyments. Such a view is incorrect and deserves to be abandoned. Dharma, understood as the Supreme Good of man, can never have wealth as its reward. Nor has wealth, understood as aid to the achievement of Dharma, been conceived as an aid for the attainment of Kama. Kama in its turn is not a call to indulgence in sensual pleasures, but a mere inducement implanted by the Creator to make life unbroken. And as for life, it has the quest of the Supreme Truth as its end – not certainly Karma for the attainment of wealth. Swami Tapasyananda

The westernized / materialistic mind sees them as four discrete pillars. The analysis has gone to the extent that kama and artha are the only tangible components to such a dense mind. They can only map the concept of moksha is to eternal heaven and such an idea is far beyond their conception. It is documented that the tribes in the Pacific islands never had the idea of an airplane or outside civilization in the early part of twentieth century. They came to attribute strange qualities to them. In the same way, the world outside the influence of dharmic civilizations never had or has the philosophical depth to comprehend moksha; hence the secularized education forced it to be ignored.

Dharma met a similar fate. Ever since we had secularized education, we have been taught to take dharma out of the equation. Consequently, the foundation in the society has become so weak. Today’s society and its problems are a clear outcome of removing Dharma.

This is where someone like Swami Krishnananda can give deep insight and rescue us from such Tamas. He explained that purusharthas are not four, but the fourfold expression of the same idea. Just like one can perceive four (invisible) quarters in a dollar bill, the effect of one central idea gets expressed in four different dimensions.  This is very evident from Swami Sivananda’s saying – “God and Purushartha are synonymous terms. They are two names for one thing.

Swami Krishnananda’s approach is to introduce the concept from the grossest artha. It is material and tangible. As living beings with a body, everyone can perceive and understand it. Artha is not limited to only money or wealth, but anything that connects with the material aspect of human personality – the body, its needs, and objects needed for its upkeep. Kama includes all non materialistic needs, which include the mind, psychological needs and the pressures it feels for its perceived well being. One must note that artha and kama must be in constant circulation in society; else like stagnating water in a pond, it starts getting polluted.

Swami Krishnananda likened this circulation to be contained or regulated within the banks of a river. Just like overflowing causes misery in the form of flooding, unregulated kama and artha are always bound to cause misery. We see this everyday around us. This regulating principle is Dharma. He explained dharma and moksha as the two banks that keep this arthakama in check.

One of the most important ideas to be fixed in our understanding is – Moksha is not afterwards; not tomorrow; It is present in the other three Purusharthas as well.

Purusharthas – a deeper dive


To understand purusharthas better, we are going to layer another concept from Kathopanishad, which will provide great clarity on both. As aware, Kathopanishad is the foundation for many ideas expressed in Bhagavad Gita. One of the key central ideas in Kathopanishad is the choice we have at every step of our life. We have the option to choose Shreyas (Path of the Good) or Preyas (Path of the Pleasant). The path of Shreyas leads us ultimately to brahman while Preyas results in getting mired deeper in samsara.

As one makes more choices along the path of preyas, as we have seen evident all around us today, the idea of moksha first becomes secularized and then eventually compromised. At first this seems to not have major consequences as there is no tangible benefit. In a short time, dharma which leads to moksha also starts weakening. This was already documented in Bhagavatam when Parikshit meets the one legged bull (Dharma) trying to protect the cow (bhoomi). Today over a period of decay, Dharma is watered down heavily to some trivial set of secularized societal rules. Will following traffic rules lead one to moksha or will being diligent at office or home?

The picture indicates the same on the right side. Without dharma, it simply becomes a never ending ping-pong match between kama and artha, our materialistic world. Since both are rooted only in the “I” behind, the society gets driven only by the individual egos. This results in perpetual clash as we can see all around.

From having a compassionate and gracious approach to life all around, we have narrowed it down to caste/religion/national denominations and marched on to us and the extended family. As dharma weakened in practice, this again got constricted to the immediate family and the rapid strides of EGO have reduced it to the barest of only – I, Me and Myself. This is evident with the number of marital discords and divorces in a super conservative society like Bharat and how spouses have been ill-treating each other.

Now to understand the opposite, we have role models in our ancestors, great mahatmas and documented literature to help. This will take us along the Shreyas Marg. We have this visualization on the left side of the illustration. As one observes what is listed in Yama and Niyama in Yoga darshana, it becomes very clear that they help in the regulation of artha and kama. Artha may be the substratum for most Kama, but is not its superset and vice versa. The basis of their regulation is in the fabric of dharma. Dharma contains artha and kama, not only regulated, but maximized in their experience. As noted from the Bhagavatam sloka above, dharma exists solely for moksha. Moksha is the very existence of creation and the real meaning behind everything around.  As this is very subtle to grasp, we need the aid of shastras, gurus and mahatmas.  Shreyas results in the pinnacle of human self actualization, Preyas slowly but surely leads us to the abyss of samsara.

May we use these insights into Purusharthas as a starting point for living an intense purposeful existence.

ॐ तत् सत्


  1. Dharma Artha Kama Moksha by Swami Krishananda

 Featured Image Source: http: //

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Sanatana Dharmist. Endeavor is to share the little I have learnt along this Cosmic journey with my fellow travelers. Sincerely interested in raising awareness of Hindu Dharma, especially to Hindus.


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