For other uses, see Puruṣārtha (disambiguation).

Puruṣārtha (pronunciation: /pʊrʊʃɑːrθ/, Sanskrit पुरुषार्थ) literally means an "object of human pursuit".[1] It is a key concept in Hinduism, and refers to the four proper goals or aims of a human life. The four puruṣārthas are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kāma (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Mokṣa (liberation, spiritual values).[2][3]

All four Purusarthas are important, but in cases of conflict, Dharma is considered more important than Artha or Kama in Hindu philosophy.[4][5] Moksha is considered the ultimate ideal of human life.[6]

Historical Indian scholars recognized and debated the inherent tension between active pursuit of wealth (Artha purusartha) and pleasure (Kama), and renunciation of all wealth and pleasure for the sake of spiritual liberation (Moksha). They proposed "action with renunciation" or "craving-free, dharma-driven action", also called Nishkam Karma as a possible solution to the tension.[7][8]


Puruṣartha (पुरुषार्थ) is a composite Sanskrit word from Purusha (पुरुष) and Artha (अर्थ). Purusha mean "human being", "soul" as well as "universal principle and soul of the universe".[9] Artha in one context means "purpose", "object of desire" and "meaning".[10] Together, Purusartha literally means "purpose of human being" or "object of human pursuit".[1][11]

Alf Hiltebeitel translates Purusartha as "Goals of Man".[12] Prasad clarifies that "Man" includes both man and woman in ancient and medieval Indian texts.[11] Olivelle translates it as the "aims of human life".[13]

Purusartha is also referred to as Caturvarga.[14]


Main articles: Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha

Purusartha is a key concept in Hinduism, which holds that every human being has four proper goals that are necessary and sufficient for a fulfilling and happy life,[15]

Relative importance between four goals of life

Ancient Indian literature emphasizes that dharma is foremost. If dharma is ignored, artha and kama - profit and pleasure respectively - lead to social chaos.[4] The Gautama Dharmashastra, Apastamba Dharmasutra and Yājñavalkya Smṛti, as examples, all suggest that dharma comes first and is more important than artha and kama.[5]

Kamasutra states the relative value of three goals as follows: artha is more important and should precede kama, while dharma is more important and should precede both kama and artha.[27] Kautiliya's Arthashastra, however, argues that artha is the foundation for the other two. Without prosperity and security in society or at individual level, both moral life and sensuality become difficult. Poverty breeds vice and hate, while prosperity breeds virtues and love, suggested Kautiliya.[4] Kautilya adds that all three are mutually connected, and one should not cease enjoying life, nor virtuous behavior, nor pursuit of wealth creation. Excessive pursuit of any one aspect of life with complete rejection of other two, harms all three including the one excessively pursued.[28] The sastras, states Kane,[29] observe that the relative precedence of artha, kama and dharma are naturally different with age.

Moksha is considered in Hinduism as the parama-puruṣārtha or ultimate goal of human life.[12]

Tension between four goals of life

Indian scholars recognized and have debated the inherent tension between renunciation and Moksha on one hand, and the active pursuit of Kama and Artha on the other.[30] This has led to the concepts of Pravrtti (प्रवृत्ति, Pravritti) and Nivrtti (निवृत्ति, Nivritti), with former meaning "giving or devoting one's self to" external action, while the latter means "withdrawing and restraining one's self from" external action in order to focus on one's own liberation. Artha and Kama are Pravrtti, while Moksha is Nivrtti.[31] Both are considered important in Hinduism. Manusmriti, for example, describes it as,[7]

Activity, according to orthodox tradition, is of two kinds: pravrtti and nivrtti,
The first kind of activity leads to progress (abhyudaya), and the second, to perfection (nihsreyasa).

Manusmriti, 12.88 [7]

Indian scholars offered a creative resolution to the tension between "action"-filled life and "renunciation"-driven life, by suggesting the best of both worlds can be achieved by dedicating oneself to "action with renunciation", that is when "action is without attachment or craving for results". Action must be engaged in because it is Dharma, that is, it is good, virtuous, right, a duty and a moral activity, and not because of one's craving for the results or material rewards without any consideration for Dharma. This idea of "craving-free, dharma-driven action" has been called Nishkam Karma in Bhagavad Gita.[8][32] Other Indian texts state the same answer to tension between "pursue wealth and love" versus "renounce everything" Purusarthas, but using different words. Isa Upanishad, for example, states "act and enjoy with renunciation, do not covet".[7]

Origins of purusartha theory

The Dharmaśāstras and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are the first known sources that comprehensively present the notion that integrated living entails the pursuit of four goals or ends.[12] Early texts treating the goals of human life commonly refer to kāma, artha and dharma as the "trivarga" or "three categories" of possible human pursuits. This, however, does not mean that the fourth goal moksha was added later, states Hiltebeitel.[12] The Dharmaśāstra and the Epics are primarily texts that focus on the concerns of householders (Grihastha stage of life), where trivarga are inherently of primary relevance.[12] Prasad (2008) states that the division between the trivarga and mokṣa is intended to highlight the context between the social (trivarga) and personal (mokṣa) spheres.[33]

The four puruṣārthas are often discussed in the context of four stages of life (Brahmacharya - student, Grihastha - householder, Vanaprastha - retirement and Sannyasa - renunciation).[34] Of these Sannyasa is entirely focussed on the pursuit of Moksha without violating Dharma. Baudhayana Dharmasūtra, completed by about 7th century BC, states the following behavioral vows for a person in Sannyasa,[35]

These are the vows a Sannyasi must keep –

Abstention from injuring living beings, truthfulness, abstention from appropriating the property of others, abstention from sex, liberality (kindness, gentleness) are the major vows. There are five minor vows: abstention from anger, obedience towards the guru, avoidance of rashness, cleanliness, and purity in eating. He should beg (for food) without annoying others, any food he gets he must compassionately share a portion with other living beings, sprinkling the remainder with water he should eat it as if it were a medicine.

Baudhāyana, Dharmasūtra, II.10.18.1–10 [35]

Baudhāyana also makes repeated references to the Sannyasa (ascetic) stage and its behavioral focus, such as in verses II.13.7 and 11.18.13. This reference, Olivelle states, is found in many early to mid 1st millennium BC texts, and is clearly from gnomic poetry about an established ascetic tradition by the time Baudhayana Dharmasutra and other texts were written.[36] Katha Upanishad, in hymns 2.1–2.2 contrasts the human feeling of pleasant (preyas, प्रेयस्) with that of bliss (sreyas, श्रेयस्), praising the latter.[37] The hymns of Rig Veda in Book 10 Chapter 136, mention Muni (मुनि, monks, mendicants, holy man), with characteristics that mirror those found in later concepts of renunication-practising, Moksha-motivated ascetics (Sannyasins and Sannyasinis). These Muni are said to be Kesins (केशिन्, long haired) wearing Mala clothes (मल, dirty, soil-colored, yellow, orange, saffron) and engaged in the affairs of Mananat (mind, meditation).[38]

केश्यग्निं केशी विषं केशी बिभर्ति रोदसी । केशी विश्वं स्वर्दृशे केशीदं ज्योतिरुच्यते ॥१॥ '''मुनयो''' वातरशनाः पिशङ्गा वसते मला । वातस्यानु ध्राजिं यन्ति यद्देवासो अविक्षत ॥२॥

He with the long loose locks (of hair) supports Agni, and moisture, heaven, and earth; He is all sky to look upon: he with long hair is called this light. The Munis, girdled with the wind, wear garments of soil hue; They, following the wind's swift course go where the Gods have gone before.

Rig Veda, Hymn 10.CXXXVI.1–2 [38]

Scharfe states, "there are abundant references both to the trivarga and caturvarga in Hindu literature throughout the ages".[39]

Purusartha focused literature

Each of these four canonical puruṣārthas was subjected to a process of study and extensive literary development in Indian history. This produced numerous treatises, with a diversity of views, in each category. Some purusartha-focused literature include,

These texts discuss dharma from various religious, social, duties, morals and personal ethics perspective. Each of six major schools of Hinduism has its own literature on dharma. Examples include Dharma-sutras (particularly by Gautama, Apastamba, Baudhayana and Vāsiṣṭha) and Dharma-sastras (particularly Manusmṛti, Yājñavalkya Smṛti, Nāradasmṛti and Viṣṇusmṛti). At personal dharma level, this includes many chapters of Yogasutras.
Artha-related texts discuss artha from individual, social and as a compendium of economic policies, politics and laws. For example, the Arthashastra of Kauṭilya, the Kamandakiya Nitisara,[40] Brihaspati Sutra,[41] and Sukra Niti.[42] Olivelle states that most Artha-related treatises from ancient India have been lost.[43]
These discuss arts, emotions, love, erotics, relationships and other sciences in the pursuit of pleasure. The Kamasutra of Vātsyāyana is most well known. Others texts include Ratirahasya, Jayamangala, Smaradipika, Ratimanjari, Ratiratnapradipika, Ananga Ranga among others.[44]
These develop and debate the nature and process of liberation, freedom and spiritual release. Major treatises on the pursuit of moksa include the Upanishads, Vivekachudamani, Bhagavad Gita, and the sastras on Yoga.

The Sanskrit Epics devote major sections on purusarthas,[45] in particular debating dharma.[46][47]

Ashrama and Purusartha

The concept of Purushartha in Indian philosophy is integrated with its concept of Ashramas system – the four stages of a human being: student, householder, retired and renouncer stages.[48] Each of the four Ashramas of life are a form of personal and social environment, each stage with ethical guidelines, duties and responsibilities, for the individual and for the society. Each Ashrama stage places different levels of emphasis on the four proper goals of life, with different stages viewed as steps to the attainment of the ideal in Hindu philosophy, namely Moksha.[6]

Neither ancient nor medieval texts of India state that any of the first three Ashramas must devote itself predominantly to one specific goal of life (Purushartha).[49] The fourth stage of Sannyasa is different, and the overwhelming consensus in ancient and medieval Indian texts is that anyone accepting Sannyasa must entirely devote to Moksha aided by Dharma, with a complete renunciation of Artha and Kama.[49]

With the known exception of Kamasutra, most texts make no recommendation on the relative preference on Artha or Kama, that an individual must emphasize in what stage of life. The Kamasutra states,[49]

The life span of a man is one hundred years. Dividing that time, he should attend to three aims of life in such a way that they support, rather than hinder each other. In his youth he should attend to profitable aims (artha) such as learning, in his prime to pleasure (kama), and in his old age to dharma and moksha.

Kamasutra 1.2.1–1.2.4, Translated by Patrick Olivelle [49]

See also

The four proper goals of a human being in Indian traditions:

Other elements of ethical theories in Indian traditions:

Other theories on human needs:


  1. 1 2 puruSArtha Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Koeln University, Germany
  2. (Flood 1996, p. 17), (Olivelle 1993, pp. 216–219); Cf. also (Apte 1965, p. 626); (Hopkins 1971, p. 78)
  3. M Hiriyanna (2000), Philosophy of Values, in Indian Philosophy: Theory of value (Editor: Roy Perrett), Routledge, ISBN 978-0-8153-3612-9, pages 1–10
  4. 1 2 3 Gavin Flood (1996), The meaning and context of the Purusarthas, in Julius Lipner (Editor) - The Fruits of Our Desiring, ISBN 978-1-896209-30-2, pp 16–21
  5. 1 2 See:
    • Patrick Olivelle, Dharmasutras - The Law Codes of Ancient India, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-283882-2, Note 24.23 at pp 364;
    • Gautama Dharmashastra at 1.9.46–47, Patrick Olivelle, Dharmasutras - The Law Codes of Ancient India, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-283882-2, paragraph overlapping pp 92–93;
    • Yajnavalkya Smrti at 1.115, Translation by Rai Vidyarnava (1918), The Sacred Books of Hindus Volume XXI, Verse CXV and commentary at pp 232;
    • Apastamba Dharmasutra 2.20.18–23; Patrick Olivelle, Dharmasutras - The Law Codes of Ancient India, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-283882-2, Miscellaneous Rules 18–23 at pp 64
  6. 1 2 Alban Widgery (1930), The Principles of Hindu Ethics, International Journal of Ethics, 40(2): 239–240
  7. 1 2 3 4 GH Rao (1926), The Basis of Hindu Ethics, International Journal of Ethics, 37(1): 19–35
  8. 1 2 Gerard Delanty (2012), Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-60081-1, page 465
  9. puruSa Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Koeln University, Germany
  10. artha Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Koeln University, Germany
  11. 1 2 R Prasad (2008), A Conceptual-analytic Study of Classical Indian Philosophy of Morals, ISBN 978-81-8069-544-5, page 125
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 (Hiltebeitel 2002, p. 17)
  13. (Olivelle 1993, p. 216)
  14. Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby (2004), The Hindu World, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-21527-7, page 4, Quote: "There are four categories or life-ideals (caturvarga or purusartha) that usually are said to provide the framework for classical Hindu society".
  15. See:
    • A. Sharma (1982), The Puruṣārthas: a study in Hindu axiology, Michigan State University, ISBN 978-99936-24-31-8, pp 9–12; See review by Frank Whaling in Numen, Vol. 31, 1 (Jul., 1984), pp. 140–142;
    • A. Sharma (1999), The Puruṣārthas: An Axiological Exploration of Hinduism, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 223–256;
    • Chris Bartley (2001), Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, Editor: Oliver Learman, ISBN 0-415-17281-0, Routledge, Article on Purushartha, pp 443
  16. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Dharma, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions: "In Hinduism, dharma is a fundamental concept, referring to the order and custom which make life and a universe possible, and thus to the behaviours appropriate to the maintenance of that order."
  17. 1 2 Dharma, The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed. (2013), Columbia University Press, Gale, ISBN 978-0-7876-5015-5
  18. 1 2 J. A. B. Van Buitenen, Dharma and Moksa, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 7, No. 1/2 (Apr. - Jul., 1957), pp 33–40
  19. John Koller, Puruṣārtha as Human Aims, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Oct., 1968), pp. 315–319
  20. James Lochtefeld (2002), The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Rosen Publishing, New York, ISBN 0-8239-2287-1, pp 55–56
  21. Bruce Sullivan (1997), Historical Dictionary of Hinduism, ISBN 978-0-8108-3327-2, pp 29–30
  22. Macy, Joanna (1975). "The Dialectics of Desire". Numen. BRILL. 22 (2): 145–60. JSTOR 3269765.
  23. Gavin Flood (1996), The meaning and context of the Purusarthas, in Julius Lipner (Editor) - The Fruits of Our Desiring, ISBN 978-1-896209-30-2, pp 11–13
  24. John Bowker, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-213965-8, pp. 650
  25. See:
    • E. Deutsch, The self in Advaita Vedanta, in Roy Perrett (Editor), Indian philosophy: metaphysics, Volume 3, ISBN 0-8153-3608-X, Taylor and Francis, pp 343–360;
    • T. Chatterjee (2003), Knowledge and Freedom in Indian Philosophy, ISBN 978-0-7391-0692-1, pp 89–102; Quote - "Moksa means freedom"; "Moksa is founded on atmajnana, which is the knowledge of the self."
  26. See:
    • Jorge Ferrer, Transpersonal knowledge, in Transpersonal Knowing: Exploring the Horizon of Consciousness (editors: Hart et al.), ISBN 978-0-7914-4615-7, State University of New York Press, Chapter 10
    • Andrew Fort and Patricia Mumme (1996), Living Liberation in Hindu Thought, ISBN 978-0-7914-2706-4;
  27. The Hindu Kama Shastra Society (1925), The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, University of Toronto Archives, pp. 8
  28. See:
    • Kautilya Arthashastra at 1.7.3–7; For English translation - Rangarajan (1987), Penguin Classics, ISBN 978-0-14-044603-6;
    • Ashok S. Chousalkar (2004), Methodology of Kautilya's Arthashastra, The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 65, No. 1, pp. 55–76
  29. P.V. Kane (1941), History of Dharmasastra, Volume 2, Part 1, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, pp. 8–9
  30. R. V. De Smet (1972), Early Trends in the Indian Understanding of Man, Philosophy East and West, 22(3): 259–268
  31. Stephen N Hay and William Theodore De Bary (1988), Sources of Indian Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-81-208-0467-8, page 211
  32. P Bilimoria (1993), Indian Ethics, in A Companion to Ethics (Editor: Peter Singer), Wiley, ISBN 978-0-631-18785-1, page 73
  33. (Prasad 2008, pp. 360–362)
  34. For a detailed discussion, see (Olivelle 1993, pp. 216–219)
  35. 1 2 Max Muller (Translator), Baudhayana Dharmasūtra Prasna II, Adhyaya 10, Kandika 18, The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XIV, Oxford University Press, pages 279–281
  36. (Olivelle 1993, pp. 215–216)
  37. (Olivelle 1993, p. 64, see footnote)
  38. 1 2 GS Ghurye (1952), Ascetic Origins, Sociological Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 2, pages 162–184;
    For Sanskrit original: Rigveda Wikisource;
    For English translation: Kesins Rig Veda, Hymn CXXXVI, Ralph Griffith (Translator)
  39. Hartmut Scharfe (2004), Artha, in The Hindu World (Editors: Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby), Routledge, ISBN 0-415-21527-7, page 251
  40. Kamandakiya Niti Sara MN Dutt (Translator)
  41. Brihaspati Sutra - Politics and Government Sanskrit Original with English translation by FW Thomas (1921)
  42. Sukra Niti Bk Sarkar (Translator); Chapter 1 verse 43 onwards - Rules of State and Duties of Rulers; Chapter 1 verse 424 onwards - Guidelines on infrastructure for economy; Chapter 1 verse 550 onwards - Guidelines on treasury management, law and military; Chapter 2 - Functions of state officials, etc
  43. Patrick Olivelle (2011), Language, Texts, and Society: Explorations in Ancient Indian Culture and Religion, Anthem Press, ISBN 978-0-85728-431-0, page 174
  44. Alan Soble (2005), Sex from Plato to Paglia, ISBN 978-0-313-33424-5, page 493
  45. J. L. Brockington (1998), The Sanskrit Epics, Brill Academic, ISBN 978-90-04-10260-6, page 2 and Introduction chapter
  46. Daniel H. H. Ingalls (1957), Dharma and Moksa, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 7, No. 1/2, pages 41–48
  47. J Ganeri (2010), A Return to the Self: Indians and Greeks on Life as Art and Philosophical Therapy, Royal Institute of Philosophy supplement, 85(66), pages 119–135
  48. Alban Widgery (1930), The Principles of Hindu Ethics, International Journal of Ethics, 40(2): 237–239
  49. 1 2 3 4 Patrick Olivelle (1993), The Ashrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution, Oxford University Press, OCLC 466428084, pages 216–219

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