Indian Conception of Values: Hedonism and Beyond


We have hitherto spoken of the different values using, for the most part, modern terminology. The Indian terms for them are not precisely their equivalents: but there is a general correspondence between the two, the extent and significance of which we shall have to consider later. It will do for the present to specify the several values, with their Sanskrit names, and indicate the principle underlying their recognition. Since, according to our definition, whatever is the means of satisfying any of the needs felt by man is an instrumental value, the number of such values should be almost infinite. They are all brought under the head of artha; and the ends they serve, under that of kama. These are the useful and the agreeable, and represent what we have designated as the lower values. Now a little reflection will show that there is no certainty in regard to many, if not all, of these instrumental values that they will secure the end which is sought to be attained through them. What was fruitful once or in the case of one person may not be so at another time or in the case of another person[1]. Secondly, even when they prove useful, the satisfaction derived through them is only provisional, in that it is sooner or later replaced by a desire for some other mode of satisfaction. The instrumental values, as described in an old Sanskrit work[2], are precarious (अनैकान्तिक), and the intrinsic ones are unstable (अनात्यन्तिक). That is the irony of life, and it naturally makes us ask whether there are any values that are not vitiated by these defects. The Indian answer to this question, to state it very broadly, is that there are two such values, viz. dharma and moksha.[3]. The one never fails to fetch its fruit; the other is, in itself, eternally satisfying. They represent what we have described as the higher values, dharma roughly corresponding to the right and moksha to the ultimate ideal with an implicit reference, as we shall see later, to the true.

These are the four well-known purusharthas, as they are commonly reckoned – artha, kama, dharma, and moksha; and they may respectively be rendered in English as 'wealth', 'pleasure', 'virtue,’ and 'self-perfection'. We may call the former pair secular or empirical values, and the latter spiritual. To contrast them generally, the former are, as already stated, what man is naturally inclined to seek, while the latter are what he ought to seek. Philosophy is directly concerned with the two higher values of dharma and moksha and the right means to realise them; but it considers necessarily the nature of the other two values also in order to show how they are inferior. Hence we may define philosophy, as conceived in India, as a criticism of values. Other branches of learning like Arthashastra and Kamashastra deal with single values; but the idea of preference or of better and worse is not, strictly speaking, involved in them. Where such an idea is present in these shastras they may be said to usurp the function of philosophy. The conception of purusharthas may thus be stated to unify and, at the same time, to distinguish the various shastras[4], although the two pairs into which we have divided them stand on an entirely different footing.

The above is the old and familiar classification of values[5]. All of them satisfy the definition of the term 'value' already given, since they are objects of desire, no matter whether they are desired for their own sake or for the sake of some other thing: But this is not the only Indian way of classifying the objects of desire. Thus Uddyotakara says that while some think that dharma, artha, kama, or moksha is the object desired, he himself considers it to be the attainment of pleasure (सुख-प्राप्ति) or the avoidance of pain (दुःख-निवृत्ति).[6] That is, pleasure or the absence of pain is the sole value according to him while, according to others, it may be that or something else like wealth (artha) or virtue (dharma). There seem to have been some in ancient India, who denied that pleasure could be a value at all in this direct sense. Thus, according to some authorities, Buddha held that happiness may best be secured when, not it, but its cause is aimed at[7]. But it should be stated that the opinion which has come to prevail is the one which Uddyotakara upholds[8], viz. that what is desired is always pleasure or freedom from pain[9]. By implication, pain or the loss of pleasure is 'disvalue' (द्विष्ट). The Indian conception of value, as now prevalent, may accordingly appear to be fundamentally hedonistic, and it therefore becomes necessary to find out whether it is really so.

There are, as is well known, two standpoints from which this question may be considered, viz. whether it means that pleasure is, as a matter of fact, sought by man or whether it is also good and worthy to be sought by him. To take up the latter first for consideration:


In the form in which we find it enunciated, the Indian view does not signify that pleasure is worthy of being sought for, as stated there, it is merely desired (इष्ट) and not also desirable (एष्टव्य). But we have not to depend upon the form of this statement alone to reach such a conclusion. There is also direct evidence to support it. So far from teaching that all pleasure is worthy of being sought by man, the pursuit of certain pleasures is here wholly disapproved. In the Katha Upanishad, for example, प्रेयस् which stands for common pleasure is sharply distinguished from श्रेयस् or supreme bliss (and, by implication, all the higher values leading to it) which marks the goal of life; and the former is discountenanced completely[10]. The definition of 'value' as the object of desire thus becomes a generic one. It applies to all kinds of value[11], and not merely to that which is good or worthy to be sought among them. We cannot accordingly say that a thing is good because we desire it, for it may be desired and yet be not good. There are crude urges as well as rational desires; and the satisfaction of the latter alone is good. Two kinds of pleasure[12] thus come to be recognised, of which one alone deserves to be desired. Such a view may appear to make a qualitative distinction in pleasure; but really it does not, for what serves to distinguish higher from lower pleasure, as understood here, is whether or not its pursuit is prompted by right philosophic knowledge (विद्या). 'Widely distinct and leading to different ends are these-ignorance and knowledge. I see thou seekest knowledge, O Naciketas, for worldly pleasures have not lured thee away.’[13] The criterion of preferability in regard to pleasure is thus something other than its pleasantness, viz. whether the desire for it springs from right knowledge, that is, whether it is such as will help us forward in the attainment of the final goal of life. In itself, pleasure is qualitatively the same[14].


Thus we see that the Indian conception of value does not mean that pleasure is always good and is worthy to be sought. The question we have now to consider is whether it is hedonistic in the other sense, viz. whether, as a matter of psychological fact, it is always sought by men. To judge from the manner in which it is defined, the conception may appear to be so, but actually it is not[15]. In order to show this, we should consider two types of situation, one in which the value sought is for oneself and the other in which it is for others[16]. We shall deal with the latter first:

(1) In a section of his Sutra[17], Jaimini discusses the question as to who reaps the fruit when a sacrifice, like the vaishvanareshti commended in the Veda, is performed. This sacrifice is meant to secure the well-being of a male child, and is performed by the father soon after it is born. The agent here is the father, but he is not the recipient of the benefit (फल) accruing therefrom. The forms of the verb used in the context in the Veda, however, imply, according to Sanskrit usage, that it is he who should reap the fruit. Here is an apparent contradiction in the teaching of the Veda; and, in explaining it, Shabara, the commentator, states that in such activities the agent feels pleased at the thought that his son will be well off, and that that pleasure (प्रीति) is his reward[18]. But, as Kumarila adds, it is not the willed aim of the activity and is not therefore the value sought by the father[19]. The activity aims, on the other hand, directly at an objective end, viz. the child's welfare, which accordingly constitutes the value here. The father's pleasure is merely a consequent of the attainment of that end. It is secondary and is due to the consciousness that he has achieved what he set out to do. It is therefore a sign of value realisation, rather than a value itself.

We have taken a ritualistic example in order to indicate the authority for concluding that, according to Indian thinkers, values other than one's own pleasure are sought[20]. The principle of explanation underlying it, however, is quite general and applies equally to cases outside the sphere of ritual. We may take the instance of a mother devoting herself to the care of her child, which is exactly parallel to the above. Here also, the value sought is for the child; but the mother will have her own satisfaction, if the child's well-being is ensured. To judge from the discussion on the section in the Sutra of Jaimini, referred to above, this objective end may be almost anything, including another’s pleasure[21]. It may, for instance, be wealth when it is acquired (say) for the sake of doing good to others. Here again the end sought is not one's own pleasure though the act may bring satisfaction to oneself as its sequel. The important point for us to note here is that there is such a thing as altruism and that man does value the good of another.

(2) Is the end then only pleasure in the case of values sought for one's own self? To answer this question, we should find out what exactly is meant by the term 'pleasure' (सुख) as used here. Generally speaking, Indian thinkers explain it as a quality or a mode of the self (जीव). In either case, it necessarily points to the self. Hence when pleasure is represented as the goal of all purposeful activity, we have to understand not that feeling, in the abstract, but the self as pleased or satisfied. In other words, the goal is the realisation of some specific state of the self which, on the basis of previous experience[22] is anticipated to be pleasurable. It is thus self-realisation that is the object of desire or the aim in all value-pursuits of this kind[23]; and, if the agent succeeds in securing what he thinks he lacks, there is pleasure. Pleasure thus signifies the glow of satisfaction, and is really only an aspect of the end sought, but is not itself the end.

We may thus generally represent self-realisation as the aim in all value situations of this type. Whether it is fit to be regarded as the sole value, even in their case, is a further question which we shall have to consider, at some length, in a subsequent portion of the work. It will suffice for the present to note that the conception of the self to be realised differs according to the character of the agent in question, and may stand for any of the numerous selves from the egoistic to the cosmic or the absolute self. This difference in the conception of the self explains what appear to be exceptions to the statement that the end sought is always a state of the self which is anticipated to be pleasurable. For example, a martyr submitting himself to torture for the sake of his conscience may seem to be seeking pain. But, as a matter of fact, it is the realisation of the true self, as he conceives of it, which he seeks thereby; and, so far as that is realised, he does feel satisfied. No doubt, he undergoes pain in the process, but the point is that he does not aim at it. Rather he pursues the fulfilment of his desire in spite of it. He would certainly avoid the pain, if he could do so consistently with the attitude towards life and the world which he has cultivated. Whether his attitude is right or wrong, however, is quite a different matter.

It should not be supposed that because we have explained the value sought in all such situations as self-realisation, the importance of the objective factor is ignored. That the need for it is admitted is clear, for instance, from the view held in all the schools that, whatever may be the value that is sought, one cannot set about realising it, until a suitable means thereto is determined upon[24]. The end, no doubt, is thought of first; but it is only when one is planning. In actual execution the reverse takes place, the means coming first and the end being reached through it. The idea of value serves as the final cause, and it may result in the necessary pre-condition for acting, viz. arousing a desire for it. But for this desire to become operative or issue in activity (चेष्टा), a knowledge of an appropriate objective means is indispensable[25]. The conditions to be satisfied if the means (assuming it to be an act like a sacrificial rite) is to be appropriate are discussed at length;[26] but it will suffice for our purpose here to note only two of them—a belief, in the first place, that it is fitted to lead to the desired result (इष्ट-साधनता-ज्ञान) and, in the next, that it is possible of achievement (कृति-साध्यता-ज्ञान). Hence it is a mistake to think of value in abstraction from the objective means to its realisation, as it is to think of it in abstraction from the valuing subject. The one is as integral to the value-situation as the other. It may seem that, because we speak of the objective factor as a means to the end, viz. a satisfying state of the self, it is separated from it. But we should not forget that value-realisation is a process. When we so consider it, we see how the objective factor is not external to the value-situation.


1 The same defect, as pointed out in the previous section, refers to the ends sought.
2Sankhya-karika, st. 1.
3 Here the notion of the higher values, including the highest, is reached through reflection upon the fact that the lower are not finally satisfying. This is not different, it will be noticed, from the course adopted above (p. 7) of deducing the ideal of perfection through self-criticism.
4 Cf. Nyayasutra Bhashya (Vizianagaram Series) तदिदं तत्त्व-ज्ञानं निश्श्रेयसाधिगमार्थं यथा-विद्यां-वेदितव्यम् (1.1.1).
5 This classification, though well-recognised is not altogether satisfactory, for it mixes up instrumental with intrinsic values. E.g. artha, as generally understood, is only a means, while moksha is always regarded as an end.
6Nyaya-varttika, p. 13, (Benares Edition).
7 See article on 'Happiness' by Mrs Rhys Davids in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, p. 513. Cf. the prima facie view, as set forth by Shabara under Jaimini, 6.1.1, where the pleasant object (प्रीतिमत्-द्रव्यम्), and not pleasure, is represented as the value sought. (See Nyaya-varttika-tatparya-tika, pp. 40-41).
8 See e.g. Siddhanta Muktavali (Nirnaya Sagar Press, 1916) p. 467 and Vedanta Paribhasha (Venkateswara Press) p. viii.
9 For the sake of simplicity of treatment, we shall hereafter speak only of pleasure and not of the absense of pain also; but what is said of the one will, with appropriate changes, apply also to the other.
10 1.2.1-3,13; 5.12-13
11 This conclusion is supported also by the fact that Indian writers sometimes state that it is not man alone but even animals desire pleasure. 'All sentient beings', says Sureshvara (Naishkarmya-siddhi, 1.1) 'desire pleasure by a law of their nature (sva-rasatah)'.
12 The distinction between these two may be indicated by using for them different terms, like 'pleasure' and 'bliss' or 'happiness'; but we have generally preferred the use of a single term, 'pleasure' for both, in the belief that the context will show which is meant.
13 Katha Upaniṣad 1.2.4
14 That there can be no qualitative distinction in pleasure was known to Indians as early as the age of the Upanishads. See Taittiriya Upaniṣad 2.8 and Brihadaranyaka Upaniṣad 4.3.32.
15 We are not including here the Charvaka doctrine which is avowedly egoistic and hedonistic.
16 Cf. in this connection, the classification in the Nyaya-kandali (Vizianagaram Series), p. 261, of desire as twofold, according as its primary reference is to oneself or to others.
17 4.3.38-39.
18 यत् पुत्रस्य फलम् आत्मनः स प्रीतिः Cf. Shastra Dipika. p. 187. (see Siddhanta Muktavali pp. 482-3 and the references therein noted.)
19Tup-tika (p. 114): न च अकाम्यमनं फलं भवति. Even according to Shabara, what the father seeks, is not the pleasure of himself in the ordinary sense but of a more comprehensive whole to which both he and his son belong. Cf. Nyaya-kandali, p. 273.
20 That the view, as enunciated by Uddyotakara, should be thus modified is explicitly stated in Sankhya Karika (p. 483): शास्त्रदर्शितं फलम् अनुष्ठातरि इति उत्सर्गः Cf. Bhatta Dipika, 6.1.1-3.
21 It will be remembered that the point under consideration now is value in general, and not the higher only among the values. The latter will necessarily be fewer in number.
22 Cf. Pancha-padika-vivarana, p. 190, where the identity of the valuing subject with the value-experiment is clearly brought out.
23 Uddyotakara's statement, cited above, should consequently be understood to describe the nature of value from the standpoint of the agent (कर्ता) in both the types of value-realisation. See Shabara on Jaimini 3.1.3-6 where it is made out that 'agent', 'end' and 'means' are all relative notions and that a value situation may be viewed from the standpoint of any of them.
24 फलस्य साक्षात् कृति-साध्यत्वाभावात – Vakyartha-ratna of Ahobala Suri (Mysore Oriental Library Edition). p. 60. Cf. in this connection the well-known statement that it is इष्ट-साधनता-ज्ञान, and not फल-ज्ञान, that is प्रवर्तक.
25 Cf. Shabara on Jaimini Sutra, 3.1.2; अविभक्तो हि पुरुषार्थः प्रीत्या, where पुरुषार्थ, it should not be forgotten, denotes the proximate means to the end to be realised and not the end itself. By the way, it may be stated that this word is by some used for the end itself. See e.g. Vedantasutra 3.4.1.
26 See e.g. Siddhanta Muktavali, p. 467 ff.



Prof. Mysore Hiriyanna (1871-1950) was a renowned philosopher, author, and teacher. The corpus of his writings form some of the finest works about Indian philosophy in English. 'The Quest After Perfection,' 'Art Experience,' 'Indian Conception of Values,' 'The Mission of Philosophy' and 'Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy' are some of his prominent works.