Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The purusharthas:
Four aims of human motivation

Ananda Wood

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Ananda Wood


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Kama -- desire
Artha -- wealth
Dharma -- well-founded order
Moksha -- freedom

In the Hindu tradition, there is an analysis of four main aims that motivate human beings. They are called 'kama' or 'desire', 'artha' or 'wealth', 'dharma' or 'well-founded order', and 'moksha' or 'freedom'. They form a progression that leads to the independent knowledge of moksha. And this progression can be interpreted as uncovering a series of levels that go down to the basis of human motivation.

1. Kama -- desire

The word 'kama' implies a personal desire for some object of passing fancy. This is the most superficial level of motivation. It refers to a person's desire for some narrow object which gets to be fancied at some particular moment of experience. Such personal, narrowed desire is essentially variable and unstable. For the narrowness of personally desired objects means that different persons desire different things; and each person's objectives change in the course of time, as desire turns from one narrow object to another.

2. Artha -- wealth

The word 'artha' implies achievement in general. In particular, it implies the kind of achievement that accumulates into a store of meaningful wealth. This wealth may be a store of material goods; or it may be a store of more subtle merit: such as fame and honour, or learning and skill, or good habits and virtuous character.

Such a store of wealth is not just personal. It has a broader, cultural value: which gives it meaning and enables its merit to accumulate. Because of its cultural value, it is a broader and more lasting aim than the immediate satisfaction of personal desire.

Accordingly, the achievement of artha is an intermediate level of motivation. It refers to the culturally conditioned values through which personal desire is formed. Such cultural values have a relative degree of breadth and stability. They are broader and more enduring than personal desires; because they are shared in common by different people, in a community that continues, while particular persons come and go.

In the course of community life, cultural values are developed; by attributing them to various objects of continued use: like money, or property of various kinds, or works of art, or observed phenomena, or ideas. Thus, personal desires are based on systems of cultural value, which define the physical and mental 'wealth' of a relatively enduring community.

3. Dharma -- well-founded order

The word 'dharma' is usually translated as 'duty', 'virtue', 'morality', 'justice', 'law', 'religion'. These various translations can be useful in particular situations, but they unfortunately mask an essential core of meaning that is common to them all.

Literally, 'dharma' means 'supported' or 'held' (from the root 'dhri' -- meaning to 'support' or to 'hold'). It is etymologically akin to the English word 'firm'. As this derivation suggests, the concept of 'dharma' refers essentially to something that is properly supported or well-founded. When the performance of a duty is described as 'according to dharma', it is implied that the performed duty is well-founded, upon firmly established principles. And the same is true when the word 'dharma' is used to describe a quality of virtue, or an ethical injunction, or a dispensation of justice, or an articulated law, or an act of religious faith.

Thus, the concept of 'dharma' is inherently reflective. It implies a reflection back to the root level of motivation, going down beneath the relativity of cultural conditioning. When any object is desired or valued, it implies a question of 'What for?'. Because an object is only an incomplete piece of a larger world, any desire or value for it implies a larger, more basic function or purpose, through which the object fits in with other things. Such a broader function or purpose is what makes a particular desire or value 'well-founded', by supporting it in a more stable order of things.

In this sense, the word 'dharma' refers to a universal order of nature, through which are supported all particular objects and relationships, all particular actions and motivations.

The trouble with cultural systems is that they are all limited constructions, built artificially from limiting names and forms and qualities. Each cultural system provides only a partial and one-sided view -- with something always left out, to be seen through other views. Within such a limited system, the question 'What for?' can never be fully answered. Any answer can only describe some larger objective, but the limitations of description prevent the objective described from being complete. And the incompleteness gives rise to another 'What for?'.

Despite the limitations of cultural description, people do have the sense of a 'natural order' that is somehow complete and is shared universally in common, beneath our partial and differing views of it. When a particular object or action is perceived, there is naturally inborn with it a sense of its place in a common order that relates it to other things. This underlying sense -- of a common, natural order -- is expressed in all our cultural systems: of science, or management, or art, or ethics, or religion. When we perceive how objects are related or how actions are motivated, we understand these relationships and motivations as part of a natural order that we somehow sense, beneath our limited cultural expressions of it.

In traditional times, this 'natural order' was usually conceived in terms of religious metaphor, as a 'divine harmony'. Here is a characteristic description from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (act 5, scene 1).

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilest this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

In the modern world, through the growth of science, emphasis has shifted from religious metaphor to a more direct, analytic enquiry. But the sense of an underlying harmony in nature remains fundamental. As Albert Einstein put it (in 'Mein Weltbild', Amsterdam: 'Querido Verlag', 1934):

You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religiosity of the naive man. For the latter, God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands, so to speak, in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.
But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

The above quotations are of course from the European tradition. But they aptly show the Hindu sense of 'dharma': as a universal harmony that is naturally expressed in the world outside and in our bodies and minds as well. The problem is that our bodies and minds are incomplete. As we see the world through them, they produce a superficial show that doesn't tell us everything. That leaves us uncertain and confused, in our physical and mental perceptions of the world. So we do not rightly see the harmony that is expressed. And we often get out of touch with it.

Through duty, ethics, virtue and religion, the aim of dharma is to get back in touch. This aim is inherently reflective, as can be seen from the English word 'religion'. It comes from the Latin 'religare', which means to 'bind back'. It implies a reversal of direction: from the divided and passing aims of cultural value and personal desire, towards a secure grounding in the natural order of some more fundamental principle that different motivations share in common.

4. Moksha -- freedom

The word 'moksha' implies a complete freedom from all the limited and uncertain conditions that affect our bodies and minds. That freedom is sought at the ground level of motivation: where the roots of conditioned manifestation have been followed back, into the unconditioned and unmanifest ground. In the spiritual search that follows back down the roots, a distinction is sometimes made between 'dharma' and 'dharmi':

'Dharma' means 'that which is supported'. It refers to the whole order of nature, at the roots of changing manifestation.
'Dharmi' means 'that which supports'. It refers to the supporting ground: from where all aims originate, and where they must eventually return.

Thus moksha (as pure freedom) is both goal and source. As the aim of moksha is attained, all desires and values are returned to that originating ground from which they come. In that one origin, there are no divisions, no constraints. There are no partialities that cloud pure knowledge and obscure plain truth. There, knowledge is found free of ignorance, as unconditioned truth. And there is nothing further to desire or to value. That is the final aim: where unaffected freedom is realized, by returning back to source.

However, this is only one way of describing a final aim that is approached in many different ways. As the Hindu tradition developed, it did not focus on any one approach. Instead, it considered all actions, thoughts and feelings as intermediate steps that lead eventually to one, same truth. So, in the course of Hindu history, a whole range of differing approaches have been developed and passed down to us today. It is in these many approaches that the tradition consists. Their differences are manifest. Their unity is to be found, in what they each express and seek.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012