Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Objectives of Life - puruShArtha and karma
Ram Chandran

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Ram Chandran


Ram Chandran is the owner of the Advaitin EGroup and maintains an extensive website on behalf of the group.


The following was posted to the Advaitin Egroup in Dec 2003.

The scriptures declare four goals in human life and they are called the puruShArtha-s. The term 'puruShArtha' not only denotes what the objectives of life should be but it also means what the objectives of life are as the result of the psychological tendencies of the individual. The puruShArtha-s consist of dharma, Artha, kAma and mokSha in the same order.

First, every human being needs to obey the law of nature by strictly following dharma. dharma is the stability of the society, the maintenance of social order, and the general welfare of mankind. And whatever conduces to the fulfilment of this purpose is called 'dharma'.

Artha is the acquisition of wealth, is regarded as the primary purpose of life, as without it, human existence is impossible. One has to live before one can live well. Artha is the foundation upon which the whole structure of life has been built and all the other puruShArtha-s can be achieved only by the fulfilment of this primary purpose in life. The acquisition of wealth is through dharmic actions and wealth needs to be used in the preservation of dharma.

kAma means desires. Desires of varying degrees. It is from dharma that Artha and kAma result. Man recognises here that Artha and kAma satisfy the psychological tendencies of man and they form essentially the two fundamental aspirations of every individual. It is implied what one desires need to be within the threshold of one's wealth and within dharmic values!

Now the word mokSha means the ultimate freedom from birth and death or the deliverance of the soul from bondage. From the advaitic point of view, mokSha results from the extinction of false knowledge (ignorance). The self-knowledge is the aim and end of man's misery and bondage.

In support of the realization of SELF, the upaniShad-s outline several additional explanations. The universe has the natural tendency to guide the realization by the human soul. The natural forces of the universe maintain the balance between the material objects, living plants, conscious animals, and intelligent human beings. The transition from human consciousness into divine (transcendental) consciousness is a long and laborious process. Ordinarily, within the span of a single lifetime, it is not feasible to transit from human to divine. Life is a continuous journey, carried over and continued through the succeeding lives till the attainment of SELF realization.

The Doctrine of Karma and Samsara:

This doctrine explain what happens when the human being meets the three goals - dharma, kAma and Artha. It rationalizes the role of the soul during the transition between lives. The law of Karma rationalizes the purpose of the movement. Rebirth is dependent on moral behavior in a previous phase of existence and life in the universe is transient. In the upaniShats, it is no longer a question of rewards and punishments meted out by an external judge. Human beings become the architect of their own spiritual fortunes, no longer subject to chance or the will of an hypothetical God.

The bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShat states that the actions of human beings decide the outcome. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action and sinful by sinful action. As is his desire so is his will, as his will so is the deed he does, and whatever deed he does, that he will reap. Ultimately, being Brahman, he goes to Brahman!

The Path to Self-realization - shravaNa, manana, and nididhyAsana:

What are the guidelines to reach the goal of life? What type of life one has to lead in order to realize God?

The answers to these questions are not directly addressed in the scriptures. It is impossible to outline the path of Self-realization because such a possibility is a logical contradiction. Rightly, the acquisition of knowledge, the cultivation of virtues, the development of character and the discharging of the duties of the citizen are the only true concerns of the scriptures. However, there are hints and suggestions with regard to the essential pre-requisites of spiritual illumination.

It is not the knowledge of scriptures but the realization of the SELF that brings liberation to the spirit of the human being. The Sanskrit shloka " mantravideva asmi na atmavit." illustrates the true perspective in the quest for knowledge: Infinite knowledge on Mantras does not lead one to Self-realization. vedAnta, the philosophy of life derived from the scriptures, is an elaboration of the path to Self-realization. The bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShat discusses the essence of vedAnta in greater depth. The discussion between RRiShi Yajnavalkya and his wife, Maitreyi elaborates the essence of vedAnta.

The three recognized states to the path of Self-realization are: shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. shravaNa is the study of scriptures under a qualified Guru. manana means constant reflection upon what has been learnt so that intellectual conviction may be produced in the mind. Finally, nididhyAsana implies meditation that helps to cause a direct realization of the unity of things in God. Knowledge should lead to experience, intellectual conviction should result in perception. That is why meditation comes in the last stage of the spiritual journey. Again the scriptures insist that successful completion of the states are neither necessary nor sufficient for Self-realization.

All creatures seek happiness, and most of them seek the lowest quality and for the shortest duration. True happiness consists in expanding our souls in every direction and reaching out in brotherly union with other souls, to that universal spirit who is the perfection of knowledge, beauty and love. This path to true happiness is pravRRitti mArga. The acquisition of knowledge, the worship of beauty, and the thrilling experience of love is only knowing the different phases of knowing the SELF. This is nivRRitti mArga, the path of concentration. The internal world and the external world need equal attention to reach the transcendental consciousness. The Bhagavad Gita says, " He who sees that the way of renunciation and the way of works are one, he sees indeed."

The ultimate puruShArtha is mokSha and all Vedantic schools (dvaita, vishiShTAdvaita and advaita) have no dispute over this claim. But the means of achieving mokSha differ between these schools of thought. The other two schools (dvaita and vissiShTAdvaita) require that human beings should approach Lord Narayana (Vishnu or Krishna) and appeal to him grant mokSha. We have to be blessed to receive the puruShArtha kaimkaryam from the Lord. This month from the middle of December till the 13th of January correspond to the Hindu Month Marghazhi (Tamil month) and the devotees of Andal recite Thiruppaavai (prayers in praise of the Lord) to appeal to Him to bless the jIvAtma. Andal, who represents the role model of a jIvAtma through her dedication and service, pleased the Lord and attained mokSha. Here the puruShArtha-s are the special efforts of the devotee to get the attention and the Grace of the Lord!

puruShArtha versus prArabdha

In advaitic terminology, prArabdha is the vAsanA-s (habits, possessions and preconceived notions) and puruShArtha are the efforts to control their effects. It is possible to classify one's prArabdha by the level of potential effects. For example, the problem of addiction to alcohol can vary between persons and they can be classified very acute (untreatable) to very mild (easily controllable with some discipline). prArabdha also falls into a similar classification and very acute prArabdha cannot be changed in spite of intense and extraordinary puruShArtha (efforts) during one's lifetime.

For example, our birth through certain parents in a certain country, community, caste, creed, race or sex after it happened, can't be changed. We cannot change our parents and our kith and kin. We can change some of what we possessed at the time of our birth and for others we have to learn to live with it! The law of karma (karma theory) postulates that what we acquired at the time of our birth was due to the consequences of our deeds-actions creating debits or credits with us in previous births. Hence during the present lifetime we exhaust our past karma and get the account fully cleared. It is like the credit balance in the bank account and we have to pay off our debts to get the account to normal. Until the credit is paid off, we have pay our monthly payments till we get freed from the debt.

The effects of some other prArabdha (lower level than the very acute level discussed above) can be diluted by our persistent efforts (puruShArtha). If it is destined for us to suffer a severe blow of a stone-throw to hit our forehead, we cannot completely escape but we can take steps (puruShArtha) to reduce the pain and get necessary treatment. If we get a headache, we can relieve the pain by taking an aspirin. If our prArabdha is mild we can completely wipe it out by acute puruShArtha just like washing our dirty laundry!

The bottom line of the above thought process is to make us aware that we should continue our puruShArtha and never try to abandon it at any stage. When our efforts fail, we can reconcile that certain things are beyond our puruShArtha-s and learn to accept the outcome and attribute them to be cause of very acute prArabdha. This entire line of action-outcome analysis requires a strong belief in karma theory. prArabdha is nothing but the ripened and matured fruits of one's previous karma and nobody else, not even God, is responsible or to be blamed!

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012