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.

These four goals are natural outcomes of neurobiology. The human brain has three main regions. Each has a specific function. The area called reptilian brain is responsible for all involuntary functions of the body that are necessary for its survival like the heart beat, breathing, digestion, etc. This area is also responsible for reflex actions that protect the body from danger. This is called praananmaya kosha in the Vedantic terminology. The area called limbic brain is responsible for emotions. It evaluates situations into likes and dislikes. The responses like anger, desire, greed, jealousy, etc arise here. This is called manomaya kosha in Vedanta. The area called neocortex is responsible for logical thinking, thinking from other person’s point of view and decision making. It evaluates potential responses to situations into right and wrong. This is called vijnaanamaya kosha or buddhimaya kosha in Vedanta. These three parts of the brain are the seats of artha, kaama and dharma respectively.

By evolution, primitive life forms have only security as their driving force. Preservation of the individual and propagation of the species are the only goals of life. The reptilian brain takes care of this. As life forms evolved, they developed the concept of pleasure and pain to let the organism manage security more proactively. Thus the limbic system came in. As life forms evolved still further, the neocortex came in, which can simulate situations using mirror neurons. The mirror neurons can voluntarily create the same chemical and electrical activity in the brain as sense organs do. Using this, we are able to imagine, run simulations of situations in the brain and decide what is right and what is wrong. Highly developed neocortex is what distinguishes humans from animals. This is indicated by the Sanskrit saying:
aahaara nidraa bhayam maitunam ca saamanyam etat pashubhir naraanaam
buddhirhi teshaam adhiko visheshaha buddhir vihiinaam pashubhir samaanah
Eating, sleeping, feeling afraid and procreating are common to animals and humans.
Buddhi is the special extra faculty of humans. If they do not use it, they are not different from animals.
As we have seen, Buddhi is the neocortex, which evaluates responses to situations as right and wrong by simulating future possibilities. Using this faculty, humans can break free from narrow selfish thinking and expand their thinking to consider the welfare of all living beings in the long term. When a person is able to completely break his thinking pattern from the constraints of individuality, it is called Moksha. This is the evolutionary plan of nature.

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.

Thus, Indian Culture shows the way for man to outgrow from the pursuit of security and pleasure, which are basically animal instincts. Righteousness and spiritual knowledge are real human traits.

You may also be interested in another article on the same topic, which was published in Vedanta Kesari, December 2012:
What Man Wants – An Elucidation of Indian Culture in the Light of Four Purusharthas

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2 Responses to Four Pursuits of Human Life

  1. Rsk1 says:

    What a wonderful article. I have been following your blog for a year now, it is an incredible read. I come from a Hindu background, but have been raised outside of India. Your unpacking of the complex philiosophies of Hinduism in English has helped me, and Im sure many others, access a rich and thought provoking philosophy. I have read your articles and each time, they bring me a clarity and calmness which I try to apply to daily life. Each time I feel despondant, I read your articles and they show me the way to strength again. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing such clear and accesible articles. I hope I can put into practice the principles of balance and non-attachment in life.

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