Purusharthas: The Four Aims of Life

It is unlikely that you will have encountered the philosophy of the Purusharthas in a regular yoga class. That’s not to say it’s on the fringes on the practice, quite the opposite actually. The teachings of Purusharthas are held so deeply within the practice of yoga that all teachings of philosophy and asana inevitably stem from Purusharta.

The Purushartas have roots in the most ancient of Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda and are deeply discussed in the Mahabharata, the epic Indian poem which contains The Bhagavad Gita. The Rig Veda speaks of the Purushartas are the inherent values of the universe, with which we must find understanding, alignment and balance.

Derived from the Sanskrit words Purusha and Artha; Purusha meaning, ‘human being’, ‘soul’ as well as ‘universal principle and soul of the universe’; and Artha meaning ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, Purushartas means the ‘object of human pursuit’ or ‘the purpose of the soul’.

In class we often speak of practising yoga as a lifestyle in order to realise our true self; our happiest, healthiest, most fulfilled, and conscious self. In order to attain this true self, it is believed we must find our purpose. This is where the teachings of Purushartha come in. The ancient Sages recognised that the Purushartas as the goals of humankind. That to find one's individual purpose, fulfilment and ultimate contentment one must live with the guidance of the Purushartas.

The Four Purushartas

Purushartas, ‘the purpose of the soul’ is broken down into four parts. Understanding the role each plays in your life, and finding balance amongst them will help you refocus your actions and live in harmony with your purpose.

Dharma - Duty
Artha - Prosperity
Karma - Desire
Moksha - Liberation

Dharma - Duty

Dharma means so many things, from 'duty' to, 'ethics', 'righteousness', 'work', 'law', 'truth', and 'responsibility'. The etymology is 'to make firm' 'to establish,' or 'to create structure'. Ultimately, Dharma is about creating order and living up to our responsibilities.

Dharma recognises the structures of existence which exist globally, the morals of the human conscious. But it also extends to us as individuals, living a life which is in-line with our own values, beliefs and talents.

For most of us, our Dharma is multifaceted. As parents, our Dharma is to raise our children in happy, healthy environments, as employees, our Dharma is to accomplish our task in a timely manner, as Australian's our Dharma is to pay our taxes. No matter which area of life we look to, Dharma implies we must do it well, we must meet our obligations familiar and societal, and we must respect our own ethics.

Your Dharma should govern every decision you make, it enhances your life, and supports your own path of good. To help you find your own Dharma, never stop asking yourself these questions:

  • What is my role in the world?

  • What are my obligations?

  • Which ones feel right?

  • When I am serving the highest good, what am I doing?

  • Am I on a path for the good?

  • How can I best serve the world around me? 

Artha - Prosperity

Simply put, Artha is the attainment of the material comfort needed to live with ease. It is the pursuit of meeting of our basic needs; shelter, food, water, hygiene, and the resources needed to fulfil your Dharma. Some people think that the path of spirituality and enlightenment is mutually exclusive with poverty and suffering. But this is simply not the case.

However, Artha doesn't mean that more is better. Greed is not the goal. It simply means having what you need to fulfil your life, and what that is is different for everyone. Whatever you seek, we are encouraged not to get attached, living with detachment from wealth helps us to recognise when we have enough. Becoming overly attached on serves to becoming greedy.

To learn how to apply Artha in your own life, try asking yourself these questions:

  • Knowing my dharma, what do I need to play my role in the world?

  • Where do I place value?

  • Do I have enough?

  • Are my things making me happy, or are they stealing my joy?

  • Am I afraid of having more?

  • Am I afraid of not having more?

  • What does wealth mean to me besides money?

Karma - Desire

Also considered pleasure, Karma refers to our desires, the drivers of all human behaviour. It's what makes the world go 'round. Karma, or desire, can be sensuality, beauty, friendship, kindness, intimacy, and fellowship. Karma is anything that brings us delight or joy. Sometimes Karma gets a bad wrap because it is notorious for running astray, an excessive indulgence in our Karma, our desires, can lead to addiction, greed, sloth and a plethora of other 'sins'.

But inherently desire is a good thing, we exist to fulfil it because behind all desires is a need. A desire for food is a need to sustain our bodies, a desire for sex is a need for connection, intimacy and the ultimate goal of procreation. No life is lived with our Karma. In yoga and in the Purushartas, the conscious pursuit of Karma simply means to be fully present in everything you are experiencing. When we purse this awareness of our consumption and actions we start to notice the things which truly leave us with a lasting sense of fulfilment and joy, compared to the things that actually deplete us. Pursuing the pleasure which brings you the most joy and brings you closer to your Dharma is the purpose of Karma.

To help you find your Karma, ask yourself:

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  • What am I passionate about?

  • What brings me pleasure?

  • Am I enjoying my life? Am I happy?

  • What do I care about?

  • What do I most desire?

  • Am I hooked on anything?

  • Are my pleasures leading me toward or away from my life's purpose?

Moksha - Liberation

Moksha is the final and ultimate Purushartas, when your Dharma is supported by Artha and Karma you will find yoru Moskha. Moksha is the ultimate goal of all of yoga, it means the attainment of liberation or freedom. Freedom to realise our own power, freedom to express ourselves, to create, to connect, to live fully.

Moksha is our true self.

Moksha is self-discipline and self-awareness so fine-tuned it has become second nature, unconscious, and a state of bliss. It is the place we live when we have total inner-clarity, an alert mind led by intelligence, compassion and reasoning.

The Upanishads consider the liberated individual as someone who is straightforward, compassionate, and patient. They are someone who; treats others with respect - regardless of how they've been treated; meets anger with soft and kind words, and who doesn’t expect praise. The liberated individual is someone who never injures or harms any life form, is as comfortable being alone as in the presence of others, and is humble, with a clear and steady mind.

But Moksha doesn't have t be this other-worldly, divine place. There is freedom within us all, from the day we're born. It is our freedom that gives purpose to our Dharma.

To help you understand the role of Moksha in your life ask yourself:

  • What am I doing to free myself from activities and perceptions that make me unhappy?

  • How can I not get caught in my emotions?

  • What do I choose to bind myself to?

  • Do I feel trapped?

  • Can I be free from blaming myself and others?

  • How can I make my mind free?