Purusha Artha: The Four Aims of Life
Do you ever ask yourself what is the meaning of it all? Living in the world at times can seem to be overwhelming, hectic, and heavy not to mention fast paced and removed from the nature. When one cannot see the forest through the trees then it is time to take a step back, breath and reflect upon the larger picture. Perhaps you may want to take some time yourself and contemplate your own personal journey amidst the Maya, the confusion of today.
A starting point might be to ask yourself: what is the goal and meaning of Life? Where am I headed with these short, but precious years between birth and death? What is my intention within the pattern of the cosmos, framework of global society, my local community and within myself?
Let’s take a look at the Purusha Artha, or Four Aims of Life, according to the Philosophy of Vedanta. Vedanta is one of the six classical schools of Philosophy from India. As yogic practitioners the philosophies of Vedanta can be very useful in guiding us along the way. According to Vedanta there are four goals/aims of life, each one leading into the next like a series of peaks upon a mountain chain. The four aims of life are: Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moskha. It is very difficult to translate these four terms into English, but we will make an effort to create a relationship to the concepts.
Dharma: Principles of Nature, the Universal Way, Innate Nature, according to one’s own path, duty, role, righteousness, moral, values, ethics, right way of living, laws, rules
Artha: wealth, money, spiritual knowledge, resources, career, fulfillment of desire, prosperity, balanced economy, financial security
Kama: enjoyment, healthy sensual experience, fulfillment of desire, the five senses, enjoyment of life, love
Moksha: freedom, emancipation, spiritual liberation, Self-Realization, release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth
Dharma: Right living
As a young person in the typical “student years” of life one is taught the fundamentals of dharma in the way of rules, laws, morals, values and ethics. This is common to all societies. This notion of dharma is quite black and white and serves as a basic template from which to develop from. As life is very seldom black and white, dharma also has many subtle meanings in which to contemplate. Dharma in the sense of walking the “right path” is much more nuanced. Perhaps to understand dharma in its positive light we can look to see what it is not.
Adharma is working against the laws of nature. For example, in general for the human species night time is the time for sleep. Day time is when we are active, when society functions and when the brain is in harmony with the sun. So working at night for most is adharmic. Adharmic is going against the flow of mother nature and one’s own nature. When you take a look at the modern lifestyles of many humans we see many going against the tide of nature. When people consciously choose to turn adharma into dharma, they adjust the momentum of their life to work with their own natures and the nature of the world. Society has a tendency to deviate from the laws of nature and subsequently is quite unhealthy. Just because society moves in a certain direction does not mean that we should not question ourselves and society in relation to the Earth.
So the first step in the right direction is to begin to examine one’s own life and question where one is working against her/his own nature. You might ask yourself in what areas of my life am I not being true to instinct, to intellect and to my heart? This is a meditation for you today. When you sit you can inquire into your own being, in a very gentle and kind way: where in my actions am I being true to myself, my community and the world? And where in my thoughts, words and deeds am do I need a little improvement? You don’t have to be harsh, just sincere.
Artha: Essence of life
The second aim of life is artha. Artha, at a basic level, refers to the career that generates a certain level of means/resources. Vedantic philosophy teaches that this allows one to be free to experience her/his own life, without living in fear, stress and poverty. Artha means wealth, but it is implied that material gain is only used as a means to uplift one out of survival and physical suffering.
In the west there is also a strong sense of career being a goal in life. Let us expand upon this idea. For some career is the goal of life. Vedanta invites us to broaden our horizons and explore the idea that career may not be the ultimate aim, but a part of the picture. In reality we are here on Earth to learn, to love and to experience our unique set of lessons. From a Vedantic position the career is a means to and end. Money, career and wealth are not endpoints, but rather they are fields of energy that helps support and sustain the inner aspects of our development. As householders it is optimal for the career to be individually fulfilling, while at the same time financially freeing enough so that there is enough interior space to attend to ones own sadhana, or one’s spiritual practice. If one is caught in the cycle of fear, stress and survival there is very little progress that can be made. So Vedanta encourages us to get free financially- to a point.
A reflection on artha could look as follows. Am I fulfilled in my career? Do I earn enough money so that I am free to such a degree that I am able to not worry about the basics of life: clean water, warm home and nourishing food, and the like. Along with this contemplation it might also be useful to ask yourself the difference between one’s own wants and needs. The needs have been mentioned, the wants are many. You might discover if your reduce your wants by half (or even a quarter) you will have much more time on your hands and a lot more stress-free living. Reduce your wants and increase your happiness.
As you reframe the goal of life from career to dharmic living then money and work take on a whole new meaning and light. The career is in place to help fulfill one’s goal of life along the path. Real wealth means having enough external material goods to free you up so that you can pursue internal wealth. Internal wealth means coming to know what your heart’s values and that your life has real value.
The third aim of life is Kama. Kama, or enjoyment, is a very beautiful aspect of life if seen in the appropriate light. Let us take a moment to unpack the gross and subtle meaning of kama. Kama, in a simple sense, means one enjoys an object of the senses. It refers to the contact of the mind with the five senses and the enjoyment of the object. It is easy to see healthy kama in its positive expression in a child. The innocent child enjoys playing in the water and wind and trees for the simple experience of the the elements. There is very little judgement about like or dislike, but rather pure experience of the five senses and enjoyment thereof. So, become childlike in the wonder and enjoyment in the world.
A yogi would advise one not to make the adharmic mistake of deluding oneself into thinking that the meaning of life is to enjoy the senses. There are balanced ways to experience the senses and more tamasic, or unhealthy ways. Unattended sensual gratification leads to sickness, disease and decay of the body and mind. Take, for example, one who eats a moderate diet and practices yoga regularly. She/he enjoys a happy and fruitful life. That person does in fact enjoy the senses, but moderates them. So the goal of life is not sensual enjoyment, but healthy experiences of the five senses with the world.
Now if you feel inclined to practice contemplation on Kama, here are some ideas for your meditation. Where in my life do I practice healthy enjoyment of the five senses? Where in my life am I dissipating energy through overuse of the senses or where do I need to reassess the usage of the senses? For example, frequent electronic use or the practice of keeping negative company are easy ways to drain one’s prana. As you ask yourself these questions try not to be critical of any answers that arise in your being. You might take a few moments to write down your thoughts and gently guide and direct yourself into some healthier waters for the senses.
In essence life is to be enjoyed; however, life is to be enjoyed with the assistance and in relationship to dharma, right living, artha, self-effort and moksha, spiritual liberation.
Moksha, in sanskrit, translates as freedom, liberation and Self- Realization. In laymen terms this means enlightenment, although enlightenment is not a great translation, but it conveys the idea. What does it mean to become Self-realized? In an easy way through analogy, one could think of a point of light that casts no shadow. Imagine one’s own soul as a point of light that cast no shadow like a star. To be spiritually liberated is to become ultimately free of any obstruction. In moksha all that remains is pure consciousness. Sounds simple enough, but that’s the paradox. It is simple, but it is not that simple.
According to the wisdom tradition of Vedanta, moksha is the true aim of life. Moksha is the pinnacle of the soul’s experience. Moksha liberates the spirit from the wheel of birth, death and rebirth. Moksha is the ultimate goal of Yoga and Vedanta. By setting one’s sight into the spiritual dimension one goes beyond the material plane. This does not mean that one is no longer existing in the material world, but rather the view and field of experience become much larger than right and wrong, money and enjoyment, etc. The material field is a plane of existence that we experience each day, but when we embrace a larger world view, we live as spiritual beings having a physical experience. This shift is from the small self to the True Self. Once one has the awakening into higher vision then one can begin to see the fractured light of suffering and chaos for what it is: ignorance. The suffering that we are witnessing today is that of improper understanding of the path of life and goal of life. If one corrects the vision then clarity and harmony will be restored (at least within oneself).
Remember when nature and spirit are neglected and the pursuit of endless wealth and unbridled pleasure-seeking become the goals of life, then the world becomes filled with injustice, material-want and endless desire and suffering. If, on the other hand, moksha is the summit, along with dharma, artha and kama as beacons on the path, then life takes on a whole new meaning. The Vedantic vision of society is that of a life of sacredness. It is illumined by right living, spiritual wisdom, enjoyment and ultimately, spiritual liberation. If you hold the fourfold teaching of the Purusha Artha in your heart, you will never be lost on the path. Many blessings be upon you. Om Tat Sat.