The Purusharthas: Ayurveda’s Road Map for Finding the Meaning of Life

The Purusharthas: Ayurveda’s Road Map for Finding the Meaning of Life

In This Article

Transformation from the Inside Out

In the wake of the pandemic, many of us will wake up and become more discerning of what is truth and what is non-truth. A surging desire for truth, along with a growth in spiritualism, are predictable patterns after a such a disruption. After the 1918 influenza pandemic, there was a documented growth in spiritualism. People often turn to religion and the theories about an afterlife for answers after experiencing such great loss.1 The 1918 pandemic also stirred the spiritual pot as struggling religious groups were replaced by new religious and spiritual sects.2

When the outer, sensory world that we have become so dependent on fails us, it is quite natural for us to search for answers within. While it might feel overwhelming to think about trying to right the wrongs in the world, according to Ayurveda, transformation awaits all of us from the inside out.

Not long ago I wrote an article entitled God is Back, The Science of Spirituality, in which I cited 2015 Pew Research Center findings that showed a global decline in religious affiliation. In 2014, 23% of Americans didn’t have a religion, self-identifying as atheist or agnostic, compared to 16% in 2007. At the same time, research in quantum physics suggests that our world is not random, rather it is teaming with intelligence from and intentionally organized by a higher power.

It feels like it’s time for a major shift in our belief systems.3 It’s likely that in the wake of our current pandemic, there will once again be a shift in consciousness and a surge in religion, worship, and spirituality.

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The Purusharthas: Ayurveda’s Four Aims of Life

We always have an opportunity to change, look within, pull back the bow and shoot life’s arrows from a place of deep truth—one that promises us the contentment we all seek.

The road map to a content, fulfilled, and spiritual life is signposted in Ayurveda by the purusharthas, or fours aims or goals of life. These are: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth), dharma (duty), and moksha (liberation).

The word purusharthas suggests that these four aims have a higher purpose in mind. Purush means “soul,” and artha means “purpose.” You can think of the four purusharthas as steps you need to take sequentially along life’s journey, which ultimately ends at liberation.

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Kama (Pleasure)

Kama refers to a desire for emotional satisfaction and happiness from a variety of sensory stimulation.

We all seek pleasure, so it’s no surprise that we created a culture designed to feed our senses. Post pandemic, the desire to travel, vacation, gather, socialize, eat out, and enjoy the pleasures that our culture provides will be an expected and normal reaction.

From the Vedic perspective, the key to experiencing the deeper aspects of kama is to engage in worldly pleasures with full awareness. If you can realize that our goal-oriented and instant-gratification society lures us to overindulge in pleasure-seeking and often leads to dependency, then you may be able to find pleasure without letting kama control you.

Ask yourself if the pleasures you seek fulfill you. Or do your desires remain? Do you wake up thinking about a cup of coffee, or go to bed thinking about another glass of wine? Are you devastated if you miss a yoga class or meditation? Do you crave a vacation but find them stressful? Do you look forward to being with family, but then when you do, find it stressful? It’s natural to have desires and it’s healthy to fulfill those desires, but when you’re consumed or unfulfilled by them then kama has conditioned your senses to only seek outer fulfillment.

To allow kama to support your soul’s purpose you must come to your senses and realize that kama is the deep connection with family, the joy of collecting shells of the beach, the occasional cup of coffee or tea with a close friend, and knowing the difference between love and sex. The real pleasure we seek is a full heart, and this is rarely a sustainable experience via just sensory stimulation.

Our senses are avenues of pleasure, but they are also avenues of consciousness that allow us to feel. They are bi-directional, taking experience from the outside and touching us on the inside. The lesson of kama is to allow us to bring these two sensory experiences into balance. Post pandemic, realize that while you’re craving sensory experiences after lockdown, it’s the experiences and connections of the heart that will fulfill your soul.

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Artha (Wealth)

Artha has many meanings, including wealth, prosperity, purpose, ability, material possessions, abundance, and success. This purushartha has to do with acquiring wealth such as a food, water, shelter, and creature comforts.

But remember, these life goals are meant to serve the soul. Gaining wealth, being successful in business, or having material possessions should not be an obstacle to a spiritual life, but rather an opportunity for one. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the major teachings is to not be attached to the fruits of our actions. While artha suggests that one of the main aims of life is to find a way to provide for yourself, family, employees, and those in need, it recognizes that to master artha is to be unattached to the wealth and success you have achieved. Having wealth, but not being attached to it, is one of life’s most powerful lessons.

Both kama and artha can challenge your senses and desires, helping you see through the illusion of sensory pleasure and material wealth. While both are important parts of life, they both offer great opportunities to live a more fulfilling and spiritual life.

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Dharma (Duty)

Dharma also has many meanings, including duty, ethics, righteousness, work, and truth. We commonly think about dharma when we’ve found our passion, linking vocation and calling.

But dharma goes beyond passion. Leading a dharmic life means aligning yourself with the unwritten laws of nature, such as respect, honor, peace, truth, compassion, and responsibility. Aligning yourself with these ethics and values aligns your life with the circadian rhythms of nature and the organizing power, intelligence, and consciousness of the universe or God.

Once your life is in harmony with nature, passion will follow. Your dharma as a carpenter, parent, or teacher will unfold as your soul’s purpose, creating a life of endless contentment.

Moksha (Liberation)

Moksha, or liberation, can only come after the lessons of kama, artha, and dharma. According to Ayurveda, we must all go through these steps, which can take a lifetime. It’s important to enjoy all of the steps, learning from pleasure, success, and passion, or purpose. In contrast to Western values, which prioritize the best schools, highest paid jobs, best zip codes, and a stock portfolio, Ayurveda suggests that success and contentment (moksha) will come quite naturally when we learn life’s three main lessons; kama, artha, and dharma.

Moksha is a state of being that is free from life’s illusions. Moksha liberates you from the need to be loved, approved of, appreciated, rich, famous, successful, pretty, tall, skinny, handsome, popular, or any other sensory-driven goal that drives you to want more. The aim is to realize a state of being that is sattvic, or fully content, peaceful, non-violent, caring, giving, loving, and compassionate.  

Moksha is the alignment of one’s consciousness with the intelligence of nature and the all-loving power of the universe. When one is fully content living a life in the image of God, it’s called God consciousness.

Here is how someone experiencing moksha is described in the Upanishads4:

  1. Treats others with respect, regardless of how others treat them
  2. Responds to affliction with affection; anger with kindness
  3. Doesn’t require praise or attention
  4. Never injures or harms any life form (ahimsa)
  5. Is equally content being alone and in the presence of others
  6. Is humble, calm, patient, and compassionate
  7. Has a clear and steady mind
Photo by John Neff on Adobe Stock

A Post-Pandemic Prayer

As the pandemic grows, evolves, and finally dissipates, we will be faced with immense grief and loss—for loved ones, missed experiences, and the way things used to be—and we’ll need to process the trauma COVID has caused. If you find yourself trying to make sense of the world, consider the spiritual path the purusharthas have laid out for you.

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Dr. John



4 thoughts on “The Purusharthas: Ayurveda’s Road Map for Finding the Meaning of Life”

  1. In some Traditions of Subtle body theory, these are represented by the four petals of the mūlādhāra cakra. They are Spirit, rooting and grounding us. I like to talk about them as our birthrights. Thank you for the beautiful elucidation.

  2. There is another version of this.

    That is Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha which means based on Dharma ( Principles) have Artha and Kama which leads to Moksha..

    Dharma based life brings all the other aspects.

    Thanks for your sincere efforts to educate humanity

    Regards and Best Wishes

    Sathi Singh PhD


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