The Puruṣārthas and the Self

This article is part 11 of 46 in the series Jīvana-dharma-yoga


Man is a bag of desires. His life is a river of ceaseless likes and dislikes. Whatever he desires and whatever goals he attempts to attain have all together been termed by our ancestors as puruṣārthas.

There are four puruṣārthas –

1. Dharma (good works, virtue, sustenance, global ethic)

2. Artha (wealth, means to fulfill desires)

3. Kāma (desire, enjoyment)

4. Mokṣa (liberation).

Kāma and Artha are first desired by all. Both of these are born of an impulse from Nature. Dharma, however, is achievable through the individual’s discernment.

The uses of artha are twofold – 1. Dharma and 2. Kāma. Wealth has to be earned without violating dharma and has to be used for giving to the deserving and to help society. Artha then becomes a means to attain dharma.

Dharma has to partially follow Nature as well as oppose it. But mokṣa has to be achieved by completely transcending Nature. One end of human life is kāma that is completely subservient to Nature. The other end is mokṣa that is beyond Nature. Dharma then is the human endeavour to ascend from the bottom to the top. Dharma is special in that it is good work that yields double results. One is the fruit of pleasure the other is that of well-being. Dharma can pull us out of the web of Nature for a moment, bring down our selfishness and ego, turn our minds towards the Supreme, and prepare us for the world. This refinement of the jīva is the fruit of well-being. While dharma can take us on the path to progress, it could cause regress as well. Yajña, dāna, tapas, and others are ways of worshipping the devas. Pleased with us, the devatās give us what we desire. That is the fruit of pleasure. There is intoxication in the wine of this fruit. Just as tasty food eaten without considerations of limit can cause indigestion and thereby disease, the boons we desire can delude us and pull us down to error. Is this not the story of Rāvaṇa and other rākṣasas? They obtained boons from their tapas and misused them. It is not easy to find one who, by means of thought, knows what befits him, what benefits his nature. When we attain desired pleasures, we forget ourselves in the intoxication of their enjoyment. That can make us negligent. We begin to hanker after another pleasure when what we have is not enough. It could motivate us to do wrong. When that pleasure ends, we covet after yet another. It could lead us astray. Thus, the fruit of pleasure from the practice of dharma could be enjoyable at first but end in sorrow; which means that dharma, by its giving of fruit, could enable its rival puruṣārtha through a flourish of kāma and coveting after artha.

The Composition of Human Nature

An important consideration here is the composition of human nature. The three guṇas of sattva, rajas, and tamas are found mixed in unequal proportions. The results of dharma are dependent upon the doer’s proportion of these guṇas. For what goal does man perform dharma? To what specific dharma among the numerous forms of dharma is he attracted? The fruit of dharma depends on the answers to these questions.

Man’s inclination towards artha or kāma stems from different proportions of these three guṇas. From those inclinations arise dharma and its opposite, adharma. From dharma and adharma emerge the fruits of the activity or otherwise. From the fruits again arise avarice and delusion, which result in the increase or decrease of the guṇa-proportions. A shift in guṇa-proportions further causes a change in human nature, dharma, adharma, and the succession of results and the cycle continues. This is saṃsāra or worldly existence.

The Means to Attain the Supreme Self

Mokṣa is beyond this causal chain of transformation. It is the transcendence of activity by being rid of desire. The activity of the liberated one is known as adhi-dharma, which is beyond the fruits of dharma and adharma. Saṃsāra is not a burden to the liberated but rather a līlā, an effortless pastime, which implies that saṃsāra becomes light, as if it does not exist.

When the practice of dharma becomes easy, when dharma happens without exertion, and when it occurs as naturally and involuntarily as breathing – thence begins the conduct of adhi-dharma. That is the liberated state. Therefore all our effort has to be in the performance of dharma. The riddle of life is completely embedded in the question of dharma.

kiṃ karma kim-akarmeti kavayo’py-atra mohitāḥ| (BG 4.16)

“Even the most intelligent become foolish when it comes to what is to be done and what is not to be done,” declares Śrīkṛṣṇa himself. Dharma has to nourish the attachment to desire and wealth as well as restrain it. When should the nourishment stop? When should the restraint begin? Our difficulty is in determining this boundary.

Nature stands behind attachment to desire and wealth as support. She excites the sense organs, causes a preponderance of selfish desire, and erases discernment. There is yet another power of confusion that joins her – our past karma. There is no guarantee of a result regardless of how bravely we fight without losing our sense of discrimination, no guarantee of absolute freedom from danger either. Waves of accidents hit so many lives. Obstacles and dangers occur unexpectedly like typhoons and earthquakes. Just as pre-ordained favourable karma envelops us with the fuzzy lustre of delusion, ill-luck covers us with a shroud of darkness. How can we glimpse dharma when our eyes are hazy with sorrows and crises?

Just as there is no limit to the creative faculty of Nature, there is no limit to human misfortune either. She conjures up dainty delicacies and new games. But man is tortured by ever new hungers and pains. On one side are fresh desires while on the other side are old deeds. Enmeshed between the two, the jīva finds it necessary to concentrate on an entirely different means towards well-being. Dharma has to nourish fresh desires, educate, stand up human effort and uplift the jīva. By stating

gahanā karmaṇo gatiḥ || (BG 4.17)

Bhagavān illustrates the knotty nature of the dharma-riddle. The duty of dharma is to reconcile a jīva’s ancient residue of karma with its current desires and future well-being. Among these three, the one that must gain the upper hand is future well-being, which is the way of attaining the Divine.


To be continued…

The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.


Mother of two. Engineer. Worshiper of Indian music, poetry, and art.

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