In the Bal­ance

Seek­ing more equa­nim­ity and hap­pi­ness in 2018? Here’s how to tap into the pu­rusharthas— or yoga’s four aims of life—to reach your goals and usher in more joy.

Yoga Journal - - Contents - By Hil­lari Dow­dle

Seek­ing more equa­nim­ity and hap­pi­ness? (OK, who isn’t?) Find them here with this in­sight­ful guide to the pu­rusharthas, yoga’s four aims of life.

AS THE NEW YEAR AP­PROACHES, it’s a good time to ask your­self an im­por­tant ques­tion: Am I lead­ing a well­bal­anced 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 this year. 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 skill­fully in the world.

Cos­mic Clues

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 em­pha­siz­ing 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 an­a­lyze 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 an Amer­i­can, 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 ful­fill­ment.”

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 re­al­iz­ing 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 hon­or­ing 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 skill­fully 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 be­hav­ior,” 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 skill­fully or not, there is no life with­out kama.

Shin­ing the light of aware­ness on your de­sires can help you fo­cus on the ones that honor 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 ful­fill 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.

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