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Seek balance and happiness each day as you set your sights on yoga’s four aims of life.
The new year is the traditional time to stop and ask yourself an important question: Am I leading a well-balanced life? It’s easy to get bogged down in the details, in setting goals that relate to how you think you want to look, or act, or be in this world. But consider bypassing all the particulars—the numbers on the scale, the bank account balance, the starting or stopping of habits—in favor of a deeper approach that can reshape your whole life in a positive way.
The yoga tradition offers a paradigm for such deep self-examination: the purusharthas, or four aims of life. They are dharma (duty, ethics), artha (prosperity, wealth), kama (pleasure, sensual gratification), and moksha (the pursuit of liberation). The purusharthas are the blueprint for human fulfillment, signposts that point us to a successful, satisfying, balanced existence in the world. Working with them can help you create a satisfyingly balanced 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 ParaYoga founder Rod Stryker, who wrote a book about the purusharthas that’s 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.
Purusharthas: The Four Aims of Life
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,” explains Douglas Brooks, a Tantric scholar and professor of religious studies 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?
Each one of the purusharthas has many scriptures dedicated to it (the Kama Sutra, the Dharma Shastras, and the Artha Shastras, among others). To truly understand all four would require a lifetime of study. Still, learning the fundamentals is useful, especially to the contemporary practitioner who’s simply looking to find more joy and meaning in life.
Here, we provide 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. You can then begin to analyze how well balanced they are in your life.
“The purusharthas are a sophisticated way of living in balance,” says spiritual teacher and Yoga Journal columnist Sally Kempton. “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.”
Put simply, the purusharthas can offer a way for evaluating your life, making good decisions, and contemplating pragmatic dilemmas—like whether to spend time with your young child, or go back to work to save for her college education—in a way that honors the highest ideals of life. “At the end of your life, you will ask yourself, ‘Did I live this life well?'” Kempton suggests. “And in my view, you will feel good about it to the degree that you balanced the purusharthas.”
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 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,'” Brooks explains. “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 the book 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). “Dharma is a relative concept,” says Anusara Yoga founder John Friend. “It’s tricky—ask a Tantric philosopher whether a specific action is dharmic, and the answer is always ‘Well, it depends.’ I like to think of it this way: Given all of the variables, what is it that best serves both you and the greater good? Dharma is ultimately about enhancing life.”
And it generally involves honoring your ethics—doing right by yourself, your family, your community, the world. “For Westerners, dharma is the ethical basis on which you live your life,” Kempton says. “It’s your bottom line. I like to translate it as ‘the path of the good.'” Your dharma should govern your every action and decision in life, Kempton says. To understand your own dharma, and to measure how well you’re living up to your ideal, she suggests that you ask yourself a few key questions: What is my role in the world? What are my obligations? Which ones feel right? When I am serving the highest good, what am I doing? Am I on a path for the good? How can I best serve the world around me? What would Martin Luther King do? (This is Kempton’s personal favorite—though you could substitute your grandmother, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or anyone else you consider a paragon of dharmic living.)
For the purposes of this article, it makes sense to define the word dharma first—in some ways, all of the other purusharthas should be viewed through the lens of dharma. Certainly, this is true of artha, which is defined as “material prosperity,” “wealth,” “abundance,” and “success.” Artha is the material comfort you need to live in the world with ease. Moreover, artha is the stuff—the capital, the computer, the business suit—you need to get your dharma done. Artha is, simply put, that which supports your life’s mission.
Many philosophers would put artha first on their list of purusharthas, for a simple reason: “If you don’t have enough food to eat, you don’t have a place to eat, or you don’t feel safe, forget the other three,” Friend says. “Artha sets a basic level of material comfort and resources so that you can facilitate all of your intentions in life.” Artha refers to things—your apartment, your car, your pots and pans. For a writer, the essential artha is pen and paper; for a yoga practitioner, artha is time and space for uninterrupted practice. 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—especially here in the West, where lifestyles vary from ascetic to excessive. “When I used to teach the purusharthas, artha meant food, clothing, and shelter,” Kraftsow says. “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,” Kraftsow explains. “If you’re doing a business deal, it means looking the part—you might need 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—easy traps to fall into in a culture like ours, which tends to measure success in terms of material gain only. Brooks says that a perceptual shift may be needed to deal skillfully with artha. “Wealth is not a bad thing—and there is no zero-sum game,” he says. “What artha asks us to do is learn to live skillfully in a world of material objects that exist for our benefit. 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 yourself: 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 worldly 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—to have enough money to live on, to care for your family.” To learn to work skillfully with artha in your own life, try asking yourself the following questions: Knowing my dharma, what do I need to play my role in the world? Where do I place value? Do I have enough? Are my things making me happy, or are they stealing my joy? Am I afraid of having more? Am I afraid of not having more? What does wealth mean to me besides money?
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 relates to pleasure, and that can be sensuality,” he says. “But it’s also art, beauty, intimacy, fellowship, and kindness—it’s what brings a sense of delight to our lives. And 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 god 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. Ask yourself these key questions: What am I passionate about? What brings me pleasure? Am I enjoying my life? Am I happy? What do I care about? What do I most desire? Am I hooked on anything? Are my pleasures leading me toward or away from my life’s purpose?
Moksha, or liberation, is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the purusharthas. “The whole game is that you want to be free,” explains John Friend. “You want ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to.’ Freedom from suffering and from that which is blocking you from realizing your own power and connection to life. And you want freedom to express your own creativity as fully as possible, freedom to live fully and be happy.” In its broadest, biggest, and most grand and 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.”
But moksha doesn’t have to be some other place and time or some exalted state to be reached, irrevocably, 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,” Brooks says. “In other words, do you become free, or are you born free? One view is that moksha is a kind of otherworld—that it’s the opposite of dharma. The other argument is that freedom is your nature, that it’s here and now. Every time you look into your 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 in life. Practicing yoga, in a very real sense, is practicing moksha. “You are as free as you experience yourself to be,” Brooks notes. “Consider the idea that it is because you are so free that you have to bind yourself. What do you choose to commit to?” And that is a question of dharma.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when assessing the role moksha is playing in your life: What am I doing to free myself from activities and perceptions that make me unhappy? How can I not get caught in my emotions? What do I choose to bind myself to? Do I feel trapped? Can I be free from blaming myself and others? How can I make my mind free?
The key to working with the purusharthas paradigm is to constantly examine not only the essential concepts and their role in your life, but also how well balanced they are. Are you working so hard to put your kids through school that your life feels like an endless grind? (That’s too much dharma, not enough kama.) Are you so trapped in pleasure that you’re neglecting your duty to your friends and family? (Too much kama, not enough dharma.) Have you become so focused on making money that you have no time to meditate? (Too much artha, not enough moksha.) Are you spending so much time getting blissed out at the yoga studio that you can’t swing this month’s rent? (Too much moksha, not enough artha.) The balance between them will constantly shift—by stage of life, by month, by week, even by the minute. A young mother, for instance, will naturally emphasize the dharma of raising her children, and her artha will be about providing for it. An elderly man facing the end of life will turn toward moksha, ready to leave artha and dharma behind. A business executive entering contract negotiations will focus on artha and dharma; a college student on summer break will indulge in more kama. All that is as it should be. The work of balance isn’t literal—it’s an effort to face the world with all of your pieces intact, to live in a conscious way that leaves no part of your Self behind.
That work, of course, starts on the yoga mat. “Yoga is virtuosity in being human,” Brooks concludes. “The purusharthas tell us that we must meditate on our roles in the world, our values, relationships, and passions. These are not concerns to cure, extinguish, or transcend. They are simply part of being human, and embracing them is loving life.”
5 Steps to Finding Balance with the Four Aims of Life
The four aims are the pillars of a fulfilling life. In the following self-inquiry practice by Sally Kempton, you’ll consider where your current priorities lie and how you need to shift them to create a deeply satisfying life. Don’t worry about getting your whole life in order at once—do the exercise each week, and you’ll become more in tune with yourself, more present with the world around you.
Find 30 minutes in which you can be alone and undisturbed. Create a cozy space, and settle into it with a journal, a pen, a candle, and a comfortable seat (a meditation cushion or a chair).
1. Light the candle to signify that you are in a sacred space.
“A candle symbolizes the flame of the inner witness,” Kempton says. Breathe deeply, close your eyes, and relax for a few minutes.
2. Begin to think back over your activities of the preceding week.
Consider all of the things you did related to your dharma. How did you serve your family, your community, and yourself? What were your obligations? Did you meet them with ease? What ethical tests did you face, and how did you deal with them? Record the answers in your journal.
When you’ve exhausted your thoughts about dharma, consider artha. What did you do this week for the sake of your livelihood? What did you do to maintain your health? What did you need to support yourself? Did you get it? Write the answers in your journal; note your concerns and anxieties.
3. Next, think deeply about kama.
What actions did you take solely for the purpose of creating more joy in your life and in the world? What were your greatest pleasures? What were your strongest desires? Were you able to realize them? Write down your thoughts.
4. Then, record the activities you engaged in for the sake of moksha.
These might include yoga, meditation, prayer, chanting, spiritual reading, or self-inquiry. Did you find a feeling of freedom? Which areas of your life feel constricted or burdened? What do you need to do to liberate yourself? Write down the answers.
When you’ve gone through each purushartha individually, analyze the balance between them. Looking at what you’ve written, see where your emphasis was in the past week. Which parts of your life were unattended to? Are you working too hard in one area? Not hard enough? What are the consequences of your priorities? Formulate a simple statement about the way the purusharthas manifested themselves in your life, something like, “This week, I worked hard to meet my obligations, but I felt burdened. I took the most pleasure from my friendships. I didn’t find time to work toward liberation.”
5. Finally, formulate an intention for the coming week.
You might set an intention related to each of the purusharthas, or you could focus on one or two that need more of your attention. Record the intention in your journal. Then say it to yourself—first out loud, then inwardly. Close your journal, blow out the candle, and ease back into your day with a new understanding of your soul’s priorities.
Taking time each week to think about the purusharthas will enable you to see how your life’s priorities are constantly shifting and let you do some troubleshooting whenever unease and unhappiness arise. “Yoga is one of the great tools humans have for recognizing meaning, and the purusharthas let you see whether you are living a good life,” Kempton says. “If you are not finding joy in your practice, there is something wrong with your practice. If you aren’t able to operate ethically, you’ll know that changes are needed.”
Hillari Dowdle, a former Yoga Journal editor, lives and writes in Knoxville, Tennessee.