What Man Wants – An Elucidation of Indian Culture in the Light of Four Purusharthas

(A slightly edited version of this is published in the December 2012 special issue of Vedanta Kesari, a monthly journal of Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.)

First Three Goals of Life

The ambitions and goals of each person seem to be unique. Different people are in different situations in life and want different things at different times. However, if I ask the question, “Why do you want that?”, recursively, finally it will come to one of the three general pursuits – security, happiness and peace.

 A labourer may be working hard in the field. A thief may be committing a theft. A sportsperson may be trying to surpass his own previous record. A person may be donating money to a charity. A mother may be coaxing her child to eat one more morsel of food. If I ask the question, “Why?” to these people, they may give a reply like, “I want to earn money”, “I want to become famous”, or “I want my child to be healthy”, etc. If I again ask, “Why?” to these questions, I will get another reply. If I keep on asking, “Why?”, finally the answer will come to the security, happiness and peace of the person. Even the health of the child would be finally for the happiness of the mother.

This is true not only for human beings. This is true for all living beings. All creatures are looking for only these three – security, happiness and peace. These are represented by the first three goals of life as defined by the Vedas – artha, kaama and dharma. I want to survive. This sense of security is called “artha”. This includes all that I consider that supports my survival – money, house, food, children, insurance, police, etc. Beyond the basic survival, I want to lead a happy and comfortable life. This sense of happiness is called “kaama”. The regulations to my pursuit and indulgence in artha and kaama so that it is sustainable is called “dharma”. My current pursuit of artha and kaama should not jeopardize my future prospects of artha and kaama. Also, my pursuit should not deny another person of his reasonable share of artha and kaama. Thus dharma consists of the do’s and don’ts for sustained availability of artha and kaama for everyone in this and future births. Dharma includes values like truthfulness (satya), non-violence (ahimsa), purity (brahmacharya), non-covetousness (aasteya) and avoidance of over-consumption (aparigraha).

The Fourth and the Highest Goal

If I ask, “When do I want to be secure, happy or peaceful? Today or tomorrow? Monday or Tuesday? Morning or evening?”, the answer is, “Always.” If I ask, “Where? At home or on the road? In Chennai or Mumbai?”, the answer is, “Everywhere.” If I ask, “Under what conditions? When I get what I want or when I do not? When I am successful or when I face failure?”, the answer is, “Under all conditions.” Thus, I want to be secure, happy and peaceful always, everywhere and under all conditions. Thus, I want these free from all kinds of limitations of space, time and causation.

Now, the Veda makes a very important and logical comment: “naasti akritah kritena” – “an unconditional entity cannot be the product of a process” (Mun:1:2:12). It also declares, “yo vai bhuma tat sukham na alpe sukham asti” – “satisfaction is only in the infinite, not in the finite” (Cha: 7:23:1). Thus, my pursuit after security, happiness and peace, by doing various things and acquiring people and objects around me, is a futile one. I can never get unconditional security, happiness and peace, and I can never be satisfied with whatever I get. The Veda says, “na vittena tarpaniiyo manushyaha” – “man is not satisfied by any amount of wealth” (Kat: 1:1:27). This can be extended to the other two goals also.

So, the entire human pursuit seems to be futile. At this juncture, the Veda again extends a saving hand towards me and shows me that unconditional security, happiness and peace are the very essential nature of myself. I need not search for it anywhere. It is already mine. Thus, all that is needed is the knowledge of my real nature, which is obtained by a systematic study of the Vedantic scriptures under a competent teacher. When this knowledge is attained, I no longer seek security, happiness and peace outside. I am totally fulfilled. The Veda says, “so ashnute sarvaan kamaan saha” – “He enjoys the happiness of everything together” (Tai 2:1:1). This puts an end to all sorrow. The Veda says, “tarati shokam aatmavid” – “One who knows his own true nature goes beyond all sorrow.” (Cha 7:1:3) This freedom from all sense of unfulfillment is the fourth goal, “moksha”. This is attained by right understanding. The Veda says, “vidyayaa vindate amrutam” – “Fulfillment is attained by knowledge” (Ken: 2:3).

However, to attain the conviction that worldly pursuits will not give me what I am looking for, I need to try my hands on it. Thus, the Veda recommends the beginner to pursue all the four goals: “dharmaa na pramaditavyam. kushalaa na pramaditavyam. bhutyay na pramaditavyam. svaadhyaaya pravachaabhyaam na pramaditavyam” – “Do not ignore dharma. Do not ignore security. Do not ignore prosperity. Do not ignore study and discussion of Vedantic scriptures.” (Tai 1:11:1) However, the Veda asks the person to be introspective to evaluate the result-worthiness of the pursuit: “pariikshya lokaan karma citaan braahmano nirvedam aayaat naasti akritah kritena” – “By experimenting with the world by doing various actions (in pursuit of unconditional security, happiness and peace) a thinking person will develop renunciation by coming to the understanding that an unconditional result cannot be attained by means of a process” (Mun:1:2:12).

This beautiful combination of pursuit after development (pravritti maarga – extroverted way) and a later renunciation of the value attributed to development (nivritti maarga – introverted way) is the essence of Indian culture. In the crisp introduction to his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Adi Sankaracharya brings this out very nicely. The pursuit of artha and kaama when done by me following dharma will yield prosperity (abhyudaya) to me and to the society. This will also purify my mind by reducing the strong likes and dislikes, which will result in vairaagya – renunciation, which is the understanding that complete fulfillment cannot be obtained by external pursuits. This will make me turn towards the inner pursuit, which will give me the fulfillment (nihshreyasa) that I had been seeking all through.

A Goal-based Classification of People

Based on the pursuit, Gita classifies people into five categories (7:15, 7:16).

1. dushkritinah – People who do not follow dharma. They ignore the law of karma that they will have to face the consequences of their actions later in this or future life. So they do not follow values in their pursuit of artha and kaama.

2. aarta – People who pursue security within the confines of dharma.

3. arthaarti – People who pursue comfort within the confines of dharma

4. jijnaasu – People who have realized that external pursuit will not lead to fulfillment. They pursue knowledge about the true nature of the Self as the means to fulfillment.

5. jnaani – People who have attained the knowledge, and thus, are fulfilled.

Gita calls the people of the categories (2), (3), (4) and (5) as sukritinah – righteous people. Thus, Gita does not forbid the pursuit of artha and kaama. In fact, when enumerating His own glories, Krishna says, “bhuteshu dharma aviruddhah kaamah asmi” – “In all beings, I am the desire that does not violate dharma” (7:11). Gita exhorts people to perform their duties, give in charity and live a life of values, because these will purify the mind (18:5).

During vishwarupa darshana, Arjuna describes the reaction of these various types of people towards the Lord (11:36). The people of category (1) are afraid of the Lord and try to run in all directions vainly trying to escape. The people of category (2), (3) and (4) are delighted by the Lord and worship the Lord as the provider of security, comfort and knowledge, respectively. The people of category (5), who are fulfilled already and need nothing, simply bow down to the Lord in reverence and gratitude.

However, Gita expects that people do not get stuck in (2) and (3) forever, and move to (4). The Gita says that by attaining the last goal of moksha resulting from right understanding, the other three – artha, kaama and dharma – get attained automatically (2:46). So, though the initial parts of the Veda promote artha, kaama and dharma, the aspirant should get over them and move on (2:45). Gita says that for people who are yet to come to a conviction of the futility of the external pursuit, pursuing wealth and comfort within the confines of dharma is the way. For people who have got this conviction, an introverted life in pursuit of this knowledge is the way (6:3, 6:4). They should give up the external pursuits of artha, kaama and dharma, and resort to the inner pursuit of moksha (18:66). Gita makes it very clear that the pursuit which begins with extroverted action attains its fulfillment only when the knowledge of one’s own true nature is attained by turning to the inner pursuit (4:33).

Modern Social Implications of the Goals

Right understanding and implementation of the four goals will lead to a happy and sustainable human society.

Dharma is the basis of human society. Animal societies follow the matsya nyaaya, where the strong eats or marginalizes the weak. This is called popularly as “survival of the fittest”. Human societies give place for every individual to express his abilities, experience the world and develop internally by that. This is ensured by dharma.

Dharma is based on the law of karma. The basic assumption is that I have freewill. In any given situation, after getting the external inputs from the sense organs, emotional preferences from the mind, reminder of past experiences from the memory and analysis of the various options by the intellect, I decide the action. I cannot decide if Nature is random. My decision is based on the assumption that there is a strict cause-effect relationship in Nature. The consequences of my action are based on my action. I am responsible for the consequences and I should face the consequences sooner or later. Every situation that I face in life is based on my past exercise of freewill. I am alone responsible for the situation that I am in. Everything I do will come back to me. From this comes the Golden Rule: I should not do to others what I do not want others to do to me. I should do to others that I want others to do to me (Gita: 6:32). I should restrain and regulate my pursuit and indulgence of wealth and comforts within the boundaries of dharma.

Any pursuit of wealth and comforts which does not confine to dharma is against human society. Human society cannot function without dharma. Even me sitting inside the building now assumes that all the people involved in the construction of the house, like the cement, steel and brick manufacturers, architect, structural engineer, mason, electrician and plumber have done their respective jobs following dharma. Without that faith, I cannot safely and peacefully sit in the building. Without the assumption that people follow dharma, no one can live a normal life.

The over-consumption in today’s society is because of the lack of sufficient balancing force of nivritti maarga against pravritti maarga. The consumption based economy makes people to believe that fulfillment will come from development. Because of this people are evaluated based on possessions. Instead of the jnaani being considered as the pinnacle of human civilization, the aarta or arthaarti is considered as the ideal. This makes people to give more importance to material development. Even education is focused mainly to enhance the student’s capability to accumulate wealth. This false propaganda that fulfillment will come from development is the root cause of various modern social ailments like economic disparity, exploitation of poor people, degeneration of the environment, lack of moral values, rampant corruption, breakage of family systems, etc.


To make the world a place which can sustain the growing human population, it is very important to understand and propagate the beautiful analysis and the conclusions on the goal of human life as presented in the Veda and Gita. This is a unique and vital contribution of Hinduism to the world. The world needs this now more than ever before.

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One Response to What Man Wants – An Elucidation of Indian Culture in the Light of Four Purusharthas

  1. R.ganesan says:

    Very very illuminating article. Please write more. such writings, gives the reader peace of mind worth billions of dollars.

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