Somewhere within each of us lies the desire to understand the meaning of life. We may not think about it daily (although some do!), but a thorough examination of the Self will usually reveal spiritual curiosity on some level. We might ask ourselves, “What is the point of life?”, or “What is my purpose?”. We may feel pulled toward connection with something higher than ourselves, or toward self-examination. The tradition of yoga offers a framework for fulfillment and contentment in life, called the Four Aims of Life, or purusharthas. The purusharthas address our duty or purpose in life, our relationship with the material world, our relationship with pleasure, and finally, obtaining freedom from the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation.
The purusharthas come from the Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu scripture. They were elaborated upon in the Mahabharata, the Indian poem containing the Bhagavad Gita, one of yoga’s most sacred texts. Purushartha is a Sanskrit word that can be broken down into two parts: Pursha means ‘soul’ or ‘human being’, and artha means ‘for the purpose of’ or ‘objective’. Purushartha can then be translated to ‘the purpose of the soul’ or ‘the objective of human beings. In this post, we’ll learn about the 4 Aims of Life and how we can use them to guide us to a successful, satisfying, balanced existence in the world. The 4 Aims of Life are:
- Dharma – duty, purpose
- Artha – abundance, prosperity
- Kama – pleasure, sensual gratification
- Moksha – nirvana, liberation from samsara (cycle of birth, death and reincarnation)
Purushartha #1 – Dharma (duty)
“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma. But competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity.” – The Bhagavad Gita
Dharma is your duty in life, what you were put here to do. Unique to everyone, it is our purpose. Dharma can be anything: A job we’re supposed to do, people we are supposed to help, a generational cycle for us to break, or maybe our task is to simply be an example of love and integrity to the people we encounter. Alignment with dharma helps us feel more confident in our position in life and the choices we make. The result is a more fulfilling life and greater contentment in our experiences.
Fully realizing our dharma can be a journey, so it’s often to think of it in terms of what dharma is not. If we are not in line with our true purpose, we will hit brick walls and closed doors. We’ll meet frustration and ineffectiveness, as well as a lack of contentment that leaves us longing for something more, or different. Experiencing these things could be a red flag that we are off center with our purpose somehow, and something in our life is calling for self-reflection and change.
Purushartha #2 – Artha (prosperity, wealth)
It may seem odd that ‘wealth’ is one of the aims of life from a yogic perspective. Artha refers to material things, including money, but this purushartha is about obtaining that which is necessary to complete our dharma, not an abundance of fancy things.
Our dharma requires certain things, including our own well-being, and artha is about the fulfillment of those needs. Artha says that there is nothing wrong or evil about obtaining material possessions, so long as they help us accomplish our life’s mission.
The key to artha is balance, and a healthy detachment from material things. There is nothing unspiritual about having ‘things’, and the enjoyment of those things (in fact, that’s what the next purushartha is about). It is when material things become our source of fulfillment or identity that we become attached in an unhealthy way. Address artha in your life by evaluating your relationship with material things; what, if you lost it, would devastate you? Explore the reason behind the attachment.
Purusartha #3 – Kama (pleasure, sensual gratification)
Kama is related to sensual gratification, but it is not just about the act of sex. Kama is about pleasure beauty, and intimacy. It is our true enjoyment of the life we live and the world we live in. This purushartha represents a time in life when one can enjoy the fruits of their labor. With dharma, purpose is known. With artha is the acquisition of things necessary to carry out that purpose, and with kama, one can sit back and appreciate the work they’ve done and the experiences that brought them to the present moment.
Practice kama by taking time to reflect on everything that you’ve accomplished in life, and giving yourself permission to relax and enjoy the little things. Even if you are doubting yourself, true introspect will show the work that each of us do to live the best lives we can and it’s important to acknowledge it. A lot of us feel guilt for allowing ourselves to have downtime or fun. But those times are essential to fully appreciate our effort to identify and engage in our dharma and shift attention to the beautiful things in life.
Purusartha #4 – Moksha (freedom, liberation)
Moksha means achieving nirvana, or an end to the cycle of incarnation, known as samsara (the cycle of suffering caused by birth and death). Synonymous to enlightenment, moksha is achieved only after the other three purusharthas have been realized. It is complete freedom from attachment to external things and distractions of the mind. I like to think of this one as reaching a state of mind where one is no longer bothered by the idea of death.
This purushartha might be unobtainable in its entirety for most of us, but that doesn’t mean the journey there through the previous aims doesn’t come with reward. Moksha is the ultimate goal, and the way we spend our lives determines whether we are on our way to it or not. Living according to the concepts in the first three purusharthas will naturally lead closer and closer to moksha and make our life more meaningful and enjoyable along the way.
Our dharma at Inspiring Actions is to bring yoga to the community and beyond, and to provide a welcoming space for people to try this amazing healing tool. Although we offer classes for every level, we cater specifically to the beginner yogi, the person who has been hesitant to give yoga a try in the past. Take a look at our class schedule, or check out our social media pages to see what we’ve been up to! Visit our blog page for weekly articles about yoga and related topics. Thanks for reading!