Hindu Scriptures and Practical Living – four Purusharthas

Hindu philosophy often focuses on Moksha (liberation or salvation). This is often combined with the idea of renunciation or giving up one’s desires. Technically, Hinduism does not advocate renunciation in the sense of giving up. When one is forced to give up things, the pent-up desires do not go away. In fact, such actions can make one unhappy which is the complete opposite of Moksha.

Hindu scriptures adopt a much more practical approach. This is described using the four Purusharthas which characterise the purpose of human living. These four factors help one set proper goals. The four Purusharthas are Artha (acquisition of wealth), Kama (love and pleasure), Dharma (moral code of conduct) and Moksha.

All the four Purusharthas are important, but it is accepted that Artha and Kama, underpinned by Dharma, need to satisfied before one works towards Moksha. Of course, anyone who aims to satisfy his Arthic needs without considering Dharma will be greedy and resort to nefarious means of acquiring wealth. Similarly, satisfying one’s Kama without considering Dharma can lead to gluttony, lust. Such people can use their Artha to satisfy dark desires. Hence Dharmic acquisition of wealth and enjoyment is demanded.

The four arms of the Swastika (meaning well-being) is said to represent the four Purusharthas. Hence the Swastika also emphasises the need for well being in all these aspects of life. Otherwise, in general, people’s lives will not be fulfilling. Any attempt to jump directly to Moksha without satisfying Artha and Kama will only lead to fake renunciation.

The Tirukkural, the discussions on morality written in Tamil, focuses on the first three of the Purusharthas. While it does not dismiss Moksha, the Tirukkural suggests Moksha will automatically follow when the other three aims are met.
The emphasis is again on Dharma being upheld while aspiring for wealth and satisfying one’s desires.

The concept of Moksha was not present in the initial Hindu scriptures. So the Purusharthas were initially called Trivargas (or three categories for righteous living). When Moksha became part of the scriptures (viz., the Upanishads), the Trivargas became Chaturvargas (or four categories for righteous living).

In modern psychology, one often refers to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which consists of physiological needs, safety, sense of belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation. If self-realisation is mapped to Moksha, the other aspects can be related to Artha and Kama. Note that Maslow does not talk about ethics although some of these aspects are implicit when discussing safety needs (e.g., absence of violence), sense of belonging (e.g., treating everyone with respect). Hindu scriptures make the ethical aspects explicit as Dharma underpins all aspects of life. The link between Maslow’s hierarchy and the Purusharthas is relevant to those who teach Hindu philosophy to a western audience.

To summarise, Hindu Dharma does not glorify poverty but permits ethical means to acquire wealth. Similarly, Hindu Dharma is not puritanical and does not say that pleasure is wrong or unnecessary. On the contrary, many desires are natural and it is necessary to satisfy them as per the principles of Dharma. As the Kathopanishad states, it is important to move from Preyas (having a pleasant life) to Shreyas (bliss). But one has to keep in mind that this is often a gradual process and there is nothing wrong in focusing on Preyas in life.

Related Readings:

What is Moksha?
King Janaka’s Path to Renunciation
Fake Renunciation: A song from the 1964 movie Chitralekha
Carvaka or Lokayata: Real or Strawman Arguments?

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