As we settle into the year it’s a good time to reflect on your resolutions and ask yourself an important question: Am I leading a well-balanced life? And while it’s easy to get bogged down in the details—for example, you might set goals that relate to how you think you want to look or act in this world—consider bypassing those particulars. Yoga philosophy offers the key to a deeper approach that can reshape your whole life in a positive way: the purusharthas, or four aims of life.
The purusharthas—which include dharma (duty, ethics), artha (prosperity, wealth), kama (pleasure, sensual gratification), and moksha (the pursuit of liberation)—are the blueprint for human fulfillment. You can think of them as signposts that point us to a successful, balanced existence in the world, and working with them can help you create a satisfying life at the deepest and most holistic level.
“We all have a desire for a meaningful life. The purusharthas are the means that can help us achieve it,” says Rod Stryker, founder of ParaYoga and author of a book about the purusharthas called The Four Desires. “They are, in a larger sense, what practice is really all about,” he says, adding that the purusharthas offer a yogic perspective on how to engage skilfully in the world.
The purusharthas are elaborated upon extensively in the Mahabharata, the epic Indian poem that contains the Bhagavad Gita, and are interwoven with yogic philosophy at the deepest levels. But they have their roots in the Rig Veda, the most ancient and revered of Hindu scriptures. “What the Rig Veda suggests is that the purusharthas are the inherent values of the universe,” says Douglas Brooks, a tantric scholar and professor of religion at the University of Rochester. “The cosmos is considered a living being, and the issues of law, prosperity, desire, and freedom belong to it. These are not just human concerns or psychological concepts. When we engage them as human beings, we are aligning the microcosm with the macrocosm. The cosmos is all laid out for you; your job is to get with the program.”
To fully grasp the purusharthas, Stryker says, it pays to parse the meaning of the word itself. Purusha means, roughly, “soul”—the essential Self that is unchanging, that isn’t born and doesn’t die but belongs to the universe. Artha means “the ability” or “for the purpose of.” Taken together, Stryker explains, purushartha means “for the purpose of the soul,” and the very concept asks that you take the broadest view of your life. Are you managing the day-to-day in such a way as to support your inner work?
“The purusharthas are a sophisticated way of living in balance,” says Sally Kempton, a master teacher of meditation and tantric philosophy. “But they demand reflection. You have to constantly ask yourself, ‘Which of these areas am I emphasising too much? Am I having a good time but not being as ethical as I could be? Am I a great yogi but haven’t yet figured out how to make a living? Am I incredibly ethical but still at the mercy of every passing feeling or thought? Am I so rigid in my practice that if I can’t do 90 minutes my day is ruined?’ Anything you don’t deal with will come back to bite you later,” says Kempton.
Each one of the purusharthas has many scriptures dedicated to it (the Kama Sutra, the Dharma Shastras, and the Artha Shastras, among others), and truly understanding all four would require a lifetime of study. Still, learning the fundamentals is useful, especially to the contemporary practitioner who’s looking to find more joy and meaning in life. Here, a guide for working with the four aims: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Once you have an understanding of the individual components of each of the purusharthas, you can assess the role they play in your life by contemplating the questions related to each one. Then you can begin to analyse how well balanced they are in your life.
Let’s just say it up front: Dharma is a big word. It’s translated to mean “duty,” “ethics,” “righteousness,” “work,” “law,” “truth,” “responsibility,” and even the spiritual teachings related to all of the above (as in the Buddha dharma or the Hindu dharma). The meaning of the word is synonymous with your very purpose in life—with having the strength to get up each day and do what needs to be done.
“The easiest way to define dharma is to look at the verbal root, which really means ‘to make firm,’ ‘to establish,’ or ‘to create structure,’” says Brooks. “It’s about that which gives life order—about stepping up to your own responsibilities, about working within the structure to serve yourself and society.”
There is a universal dharma, known as sanatana dharma, which is thought to underlie the very structure of existence. It is the source of the fundamental ideas of right and wrong that are deeply embedded in human consciousness. But along with that universal order, we each have our own unique, individual dharma, or svadharma, the result of our birth circumstances, karma, and talents, and the choices we make in life as it unfolds for us.
“Dharma [refers to] the actions that you are engaged in, in this life, and there are many different levels,” says Gary Kraftsow, Viniyoga founder and the author of Yoga for Transformation. “As a father, my dharma is to raise up my son. As a yoga teacher, my dharma is to show up to class, to give interviews, and to transmit these teachings. As a citizen of my country, part of my dharma is to pay my taxes. Whatever you are doing, your dharma is to do it well, to serve yourself and serve life in the present moment, to keep moving forward toward a sense of personal fulfilment.”
For some, our dharmas reflect a clear calling: farmer, teacher, activist, parent, poet, president. For others, not so much. But you don’t need to have a calling to have dharma, Kraftsow says. Dharma means sustaining your life, meeting your family
obligations, participating in society—and sometimes even a low–level McJob can enable you to do all that. “If you hate your job so much that it’s sucking the life out of you, it may not be dharmic for you,” he says. “But realising your dharma sometimes means accepting where you are.”
Still, dharma can be a moving target, especially here in the West, where—in our ideal world, at least—we’re not bound by caste, family, gender, or racial roles (those, too, are forms of dharma). And it generally involves honouring your ethics—doing right by yourself, your family, your community, the world. Your dharma should govern your every action and decision in life, says Kempton.
Defined as “material prosperity,” “wealth,” “abundance,” and “success,” artha is the material comfort you need to live in the world with ease. In short, it’s the stuff—the capital, the computer, the business suit—you need to get your dharma done and support your life’s mission.
Artha refers to things—your apartment, your car, your pots and pans. It can also mean the knowledge, understanding, or education you need to get along in the world—something you certainly need to pursue the dharma of a doctor, for instance. It also means good health and, of course, it means money.
Like dharma, artha can be a moving target. “When I used to teach the purusharthas, artha meant food, clothing, and shelter,” says Kraftsow. “Now it means food, clothing, shelter, a cell phone, and Internet access.”
That’s a little joke, of course, but it also points to a fundamental truth: What you need depends on who you are. “What artha means for a beggar is the begging bowl; what it means for a business executive in Los Angeles is driving a Lexus,” says Kraftsow. “If you’re doing a business deal, it means wearing a nice suit or a good watch to look professional. The yoga community shouldn’t get the message that you can’t have a nice car or a watch. You might need those things to play your role.”
Just don’t get carried away by the notion that artha is everything, or that more is always better, says Brooks, who adds that a perceptual shift may be needed to deal skilfully with artha.
“What artha asks us to do is learn to live in a world of material objects that exist for our benefit,” he says. “It’s not about rejecting the world, but about figuring out how to be content with the things you own, borrow, or steward. And it requires that you ask: What do I see as truly valuable?”
Brooks asserts that we are not human without artha; Kempton agrees. “Artha is the skills we develop to live a successful life,”
she says. “I’ve found that if human beings don’t get artha together in one way or another, they feel bad about themselves. Artha is one of the basic human dignities.”
According to Rod Stryker, kama, or the desire for pleasure, is what makes the world go ’round. “Desire for pleasure is what drives all human behaviour,” he says. “Kama can be sensuality, but it’s also art, beauty, intimacy, fellowship, and kindness—it’s what brings a sense of delight to our lives. There can be pleasure even in sacrifice.”
Kama gets some bad press, Stryker notes, possibly because it’s the purushartha most likely to run amok. Excessive kama can lead to overindulgence, addiction, sloth, greed, and a whole host of other “deadly sins.” But it is good, and indeed necessary, when it exists to support dharma. “If we set kama in the context of dharma, we understand it to be a part of
the richness of life,” Stryker says. “Every accomplishment has been sought for the pleasure that it provides. We live in service to a higher purpose, but along that path there is the pleasure we take from family and friends, art, love, and harmony in the world around us.” Brooks agrees, saying that whether we deal with it skilfully or not, there is no life without kama.
Shining the light of awareness on your desires can help you focus on the ones that honour the true essence of life. “The conscious pursuit of kama is a profound yogic practice,” Kempton says. “To practice kama yogically means to practice being fully present with whatever you’re experiencing. There are many levels of pleasure, from eating a pizza to finding a meditation practice that allows your heart to expand. As a yogi, you learn to distinguish. You know which pleasures are saturated with consciousness and are drenched in the ecstasies of the soul, and which ones leave you depleted or lying to yourself about what is really going on.”
Brooks notes that focusing on the right kinds of pleasure can lead you toward your dharma—and help you fulfil it with passion. “Passion is never the problem,” he says. “Passion is the solution.” Find your own solution by inquiring deeply about your own pursuit of pleasure.
Moksha, or liberation, is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the purusharthas. In its broadest, most elevated sense, moksha means achieving nirvana, or the complete liberation from the cycle of incarnation. “Moksha is about getting off the wheel
of samsara [the cycle of suffering caused by birth, death, and rebirth],” Kempton explains. “You can be a good person who is living a dharmic life, taking care of yourself and your family, enjoying your family life and your career, but all of that will be ultimately unsatisfying unless you are also doing the practices that can lead to moksha.”
Yet moksha doesn’t have to be some other place and time or some exalted state to be reached only once and to the exclusion of the human experience. “The question with moksha is whether it is a goal or whether it is your nature,” says Brooks. “In other words, do you become free or are you born free?
One view is that moksha is a kind of otherworldliness—the opposite of dharma. The other argument is that freedom is your nature, that it’s here and now. Every time you look into a baby’s eyes, you get a hit of moksha. You don’t feel confined by that responsibility of being a parent; you feel that it offers you the deepest sense of your own freedom and choice.
Simply taking time to remember your own inherent freedom, in other words, gives meaning to your dharma—and everything you do. Practicing yoga, in a very real sense, is practicing moksha. “You are as free as you experience yourself to be,” says Brooks.
The key to working with the purusharthas paradigm is to constantly examine not only the essential concepts and their role in your life, but also how well balanced they are. Are you working so hard to put your kids through school that your life feels like an endless grind? (That’s too much dharma, not enough kama.) Are you so trapped in pleasure that you’re neglecting your duty to your friends and family? (Too much kama, not enough dharma.) Have you become so focused on making money that you have no time to meditate? (Too much artha, not enough moksha.) Are you spending so much time getting blissed out at the yoga studio that you can’t swing this month’s rent? (Too much moksha, not enough artha.)
The balance between them will constantly shift—by stage of life, by month, by week, even by the minute. A young mother, for instance, will naturally emphasise the dharma of raising her children, and her artha will be about providing for it. An elderly man facing the end of life will turn toward moksha, ready to leave artha and dharma behind. A business executive entering contract negotiations will focus on artha and dharma; a college student on summer break will indulge in more kama. All that is as it should be. The work of balance isn’t literal—it’s an effort to face the world with all of your pieces intact, to live
in a conscious way that leaves no part of your Self behind.
That work, of course, starts on the yoga mat. “Yoga is virtuosity in being human,” says Brooks. “The purusharthas tell us that we must meditate on our roles in the world, our values, relationships, and passions. These are not concerns to cure, extinguish, or transcend. They are simply part of being human, and embracing them is loving life.”
Fine-tune your life
The four aims are the pillars of a fulfilling life. In this self-enquiry practice by Sally Kempton, you’ll consider where your current priorities lie and how you need to shift them to create a deeply satisfying life. Don’t worry about getting your whole life in order at once; do the exercise each week, and you’ll become more in tune with yourself, more present with the world around you.
» Find 30 minutes in which you can be alone and undisturbed. Settle in to a cozy space with a journal, a pen, a candle, and a comfortable seat.
» Light the candle to signify that you are in a sacred space. “A candle symbolises the flame of the inner witness,” says Kempton. Breathe deeply, close your eyes, and relax for
a few minutes.
» Begin to think back over your activities of the preceding week. Consider all of the things you did related to your dharma. How did you serve your family, your community, and yourself? What were your obligations? What ethical tests did you face, and how did you deal with them? Record the answers in your journal.
» When you’ve exhausted your thoughts about dharma, consider artha. What did you do this week for the sake of your livelihood? What did you do to maintain your health? Write the answers in your journal; note your concerns.
» Next, think deeply about kama. What actions did you take solely for the purpose of creating more joy in your life and in the world? What were your greatest pleasures? What were your strongest desires? Were you able to realise them? Write down your thoughts.
» Then, record the activities you engaged in for the sake of moksha. These might include yoga, meditation, prayer, chanting, spiritual reading, or self-inquiry. Did you find a feeling of freedom? Which areas of your life feel constricted or burdened? What do you need to do to liberate yourself? Write down the answers.
» When you’ve gone through each purushartha individually, analyse the balance between them. Looking at what you’ve written, see where your emphasis was in the past week. Which parts of your life were unattended to? Are you working too hard—or not hard enough—in one area? What are the consequences of your priorities? Formulate a simple statement about the way the purusharthas manifested themselves in your life. It might be something like, “This week, I worked hard to meet my obligations, but I felt burdened.
I took the most pleasure from my friendships. I didn’t find time to work toward liberation.”
» Finally, set an intention for the coming week. You might relate it to each of the purusharthas, or you could focus on one or two that need more of your attention. Record the intention in your journal. Then say it to yourself—first out loud, then inwardly. Close your journal, blow out the candle, and ease back into your day with a new understanding of your soul’s priorities.