Not I, nor anyone else, can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land.
The journey of yoga begins with a whispered question that lives within the silent depths of our hearts, a longing to know who we are and why we are here. Meditating deeply on these questions, ancient sages discovered four major forces at play that profoundly shape our day-to-day lives and guide us on a path to meaningful fulfillment.
The Purusharthas, referred to in Vedic texts and within the great epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, are translated in Sanskrit as the “goals of human existence” or “the soul’s purpose.” These universal aims influence every thought and deed of our lives. They are artha, kama, dharma, and moksha.
Artha is material welfare and the pursuit of the means we need to survive and prosper within the complex political and economic forces of our times. Kama is desire, our experience of enjoyment, pleasure, beauty, sensual satisfaction, love, and delight. Dharma is right action in accord with natural law (Rta), service to the greater good, and the discovery of our true purpose, why we are here. And, moksha is spiritual realization and freedom.
Traditionally, yoga is most widely understood as the pursuit of moksha. Perhaps a more integrated vision of the four Purusharthas, and closer to their original intent, is that for such a complete spiritual ripening to occur, we need to integrate and balance all four, the foremost of which is dharma.
Why am I here?
Happiness is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
An Indian tale recounts how a king asked his assistant to go on a long journey in order to acquire a document important to the kingdom’s survival. The young man set forth on his journey, excited about the prospect of seeing new places and meeting new people. After two years he returned, anxious to tell the king about his myriad experiences and to offer him all the rare things he found. The king patiently listened to his long story and when the young man was finally finished, asked him, “And where is the document you were asked to retrieve?” Stunned by the question, the assistant realized that he had entirely forgotten the purpose of his journey.
This parable illustrates that no matter how many experiences we might have, if we don’t follow and fulfill our life’s purpose, the journey will be empty no matter how seemingly full. There are many different meanings for dharma, but in this context, dharma refers to one’s life purpose. It is why we are here, the deeper lessons we’ve come to understand, and the gifts we’ve come to offer the world. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna counsels a doubting and confused Arjuna: “It is better to do one’s own dharma, however imperfectly, than to do another’s, however perfectly.” In Vedic times, one’s role in society was prescribed depending on one’s caste, whether it was to be laborer, warrior, merchant, or priest. In modern times, especially in the West, when such roles aren’t defined, following dharma challenges us to listen to and follow our inner compass and the wise counsel of trusted spiritual friends.
Our understanding and practice of dharma changes throughout life and involves a continuous commitment to self-discovery. Dharma encompasses not only our responsibilities to our families and society, but also the inner lessons we’ve come to learn and the qualities we are here to embody. It is our offering of self to the world that no other person can express in quite the same way.
What do I need?
Dharma is well practiced by the good. Dharma, however, is always afflicted by two things, the desire for profit (artha) entertained by those that covet it, and the desire for pleasure (kama) cherished by those that are wedded to it. Whoever, without afflicting dharma by profit, or dharma by pleasure, follow all three—dharma, profit and pleasure—succeeds in obtaining great happiness.
—The Mahabharata, Book 9.60
In many religious traditions, material wealth and spiritual pursuits are opposed to each other; to pursue one, you must forsake the other. The image of a trident-bearing ascetic wearing a loincloth can be contrasted with that of a radiant queen living in a sumptuous palace. How do we reconcile these seemingly opposite expressions of artha? When we reflect on our own lives, we may find that at times we move more toward renunciation (of the material) and at other times toward worldly engagement.
The outer circumstances aren’t necessarily indicative of what’s really going on. An ascetic may have deep attachment to the respect he gets from others for his renunciation and the queen may be able to renounce in a heartbeat the luxurious display of her domain. What is unique about artha is that it supports and is in service to our true dharma, whatever that may be.
However, for us, living in a strong consumer society, we need to be aware of how easy it is to be overwhelmed by the pursuit of material gain and the constant chasing after comfort. How many square feet do we really need to shelter ourselves? How much food do we need to stay healthy and fulfilled? There are so many ways in which we can become hijacked into pursuing far more than our essential needs. Our lives can toil in the continuous cycle of getting and spending. When we become clear about our dharma, then we can more easily discern what we really need as material support.
What do I want?
Wherever Beauty peeped out, Love appeared beside it; wherever Beauty shone in a rosy cheek, Love lit his torch from that flame.
In Indian mythology, Kama is often depicted as the god of love holding a bow and arrow aimed to resuscitate the sunken hearts of those in despair and tempt the mighty. Kama’s arrows are flower-tipped and his bow is described as the mightiest in the universe, though it is made simply of a sugar cane reed and a string of buzzing bees. At Kama’s appearance, pregnant storm clouds emerge from the horizon, flowers unfold their petals, and lightning splits the sky. Intoxicating fragrances envelop the land, and humans perform the oldest of rituals, the dance of fertility.
All that is born originates from kama. Nothing from birth to death occurs without kama. It is the yearning that draws us to the threshold of the temple and the fierce love that helps the yogi transform destructive expressions of desire. Kama is powerful and double-edged: his love arrows can open a closed heart or wreak havoc on even the most disciplined and accomplished of ascetics.
Kama can also be the cause of so much suffering. Desire in its unrefined aspect can be an insatiable hunger. When it is suffused with our dharma it is the natural experience, without too much clinging and attachment, of pleasure, love, and the sweet beauty of the world and the bounty of our relationships. Kama is healing in that it revitalizes our senses, softens the hardened focus of the mind, and brings a loving twinkle to our eye. It is the source of our creativity and the fullness of love that naturally desires to help all those who come into our lives.
Who am I?
The heart of the universe with every throb hurls the flood of happiness into every artery, vein and veinlet, so that the whole system is inundated with tides of joy. The plenty of the poorest place is too great: the harvest cannot be gathered. Every sound ends in music. The edge of every surface is tinged with prismatic rays.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Moksha is the full awakening to our real nature and the liberation from suffering. In the tradition of Patanjali and early Buddhism, moksha is a final yogic attainment expressed as the release from ignorance and an extrication from this world. In the tantric tradition, moksha is being free in the midst of the cacophony of the world, a continuing revelation and opening to the never-ending depths of wisdom and love. At its root, moksha is the universal desire for healing, well-being, spiritual understanding, and the experience of our true nature. It is the hidden knowing, the sudden whisper we may hear when things have gone most wrong in our lives or when we are truly receptive, reminding us of our unbounded divine heritage.
Balancing the Four Purusharthas
The technique of a world-changing yoga has to be as uniform, sinuous, patient, all-including as the world itself. If it does not deal with all the difficulties or possibilities and carefully deal with each necessary element, does it have any chance of success?
Like the threads woven together to create a unified tapestry, every facet of our lives can become an opportunity to practice yoga. The Purusharthas look directly into what moves us, the diverse demands and opportunities of our lives, and remind us that our yoga practice should leave nothing out.
About Our Expert
Nataraja Kallio is a professor of Yoga Studies at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado.