Four Pursuits of Human Life

I asked several students and professionals this question: “If I give you 10 lakh rupees to spend, how will you spend it?” I got several interesting answers: “Invest in stocks”, “Go on a vacation”, “Start a business”, “Give in charity”, “Start an orphanage”, “Buy property”, etc. Some people said, “I don’t want it. Why should I take it? I will refuse it.” Some people said that they will join a college to study or do research. When probed further, asking why they want to do that, the answer was to create wealth or do social service. We can easily group all these answers into four:
1. Security and wealth creation
2. Enjoyment and luxuries
3. Social service and charity
4. Renunciation, spiritual knowledge and freedom
There is no 5th way to spend the money. These four are called in Indian Culture as Chaturvida Purushaarthaah – four-fold human pursuits. They are, respectively, artha, kaama, dharma and moksha.

Man seeks happiness. Initially, he seeks to attain happiness through the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure. These are called artha and kaama respectively. As he becomes aware of his social obligation towards peace, he realizes that he should regulate his pursuit of happiness so that it does not disturb others’ pursuit of the same. This is called dharma. As he matures still further, he realizes that eternal, absolute, unconditional happiness cannot be got from people, objects and situations. He stops looking for it outside and starts searching within. By diligent search with the guidance of teachers and scriptures, he finds it within and realizes his eternal freedom from sorrow. This is called moksha.

This concept of four pursuits is at the core of Indian Culture. Here are a few sources and expressions:

The popular shaanti mantra talks about these.
saha naavavavatu – May the Lord protect us
saha nau bhunaktu – May the Lord give us the fruits of action
saha viiryam karavaavahai – May we work with energy
tejasvi naavadhiitamastu – May we be enlightened by studying
maa vidvishaavahai – May we not be hostile to each other
The first four sentences are about the four pursuits.

When giving parting instructions to a group of graduating students, among several do’s and don’ts, Taittriya Upanishad (1.11.1) says:
dharmaanna pramaditavyam – Do not ignore doing good (charitable) activities
kushalaanna pramaditavyam – Do not ignore activities that give prosperity
bhootyayi na pramaditavyam – Do not ignore activities that give pleasure
swaadhyaaya pravacanaabhyaam na pramaditavyam – Do not ignore study and teaching of the spiritual texts

When Krishna gives reasons to Arjuna, to do his duty as a soldier to establish righteousness, he addresses from the point of view of each of the four pursuits in sequence.
“The Dharma (duty) of a Kshatriya is to fight for a righteous cause. You are lucky to be called in for such a duty. It is not right to shrink away from duty.” (2.31,32,33)
“If you refuse to fight, people will hold you as a coward, which is worse than death to a Kshatriya.” (2.34,35,36)
“If you lose and die, you will gain heaven, and enjoy there. If you win, you will enjoy the kingdom here.” (2.37)
“Having an equal eye to pain and pleasure, gain and loss, victory and defeat, engage in battle. You will be free from the results of such action.” (2.38)

When the great ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar wrote his magnum opus on life, he composed his book Thirukkural, with three sections – aram (dharma – virtue), porul (artha – wealth) and inbam (kaama – pleasure). He included topics related to renunciation, spiritual knowledge and God in the section on dharma itself.

Sri Ramakrishna frequently warns spiritual aspirants against being carried away by kaama (pleasure) and kaancana (wealth). To further it, Swami Vivekananda made the motto of Ramakrishna Math and Mission as “aatmano mokshaartham jagat hitaaya ca” (for the liberation of the self and welfare of the world). A spiritual aspirant should not be lured by artha and kaama. He should pursue dharma and moksha. Thus together, they cover the four pursuits.

Interestingly, the Indian flag has been designed to highlight the four pursuits and their hierarchy. The green at the bottom indicates prosperity, which is artha (wealth) and kaama (luxuries). Higher than this is dharma (righteousness) which is indicated by white and the Buddhist dharma cakra (wheel). Higher than this is vairagya (renunciation) and moksha (spiritual liberation) which are indicated by saffron at the top. Thus, the Indian flag conveys the message that pursuit of prosperity should be under the regulations of righteousness, and righteousness reaches its consummation by renunciation and spiritual freedom.

You may also be interested in another article on the same topic:
What Man Wants – An Elucidation of Indian Culture in the Light of Four Purusharthas

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