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The Four 'Goals' of Human Existence



In the pursuit of living an extraordinary life, there are some key philosophies which may help us in this quest. According to Hindu thought, there are four chief aims, or goals, of human existence.

These four are as follows:

  • Dharma

  • Artha

  • Kama

  • Moksha


This breakdown emerges as a fundamental examination into the nature of life. What are we doing here? What is our goal for being alive? How did we arrive, and where are we going? Questions that have been prevalent across time and culture. Since humans all have foundational needs ranging from basic to spiritual, there are different ways of approaching these questions. They can be seen as a hierarchy of needs from a Western psychological standpoint. In Eastern philosophy, the answers to the archetypal needs on the human being's path to ultimate fulfillment is through the purusharthas -- that is, the four goals of human existence. This post will define and explore these four further.


Dharma, a word popularized by Gautama Buddha some 2500 years ago as a key aspect of the sage's teachings, explains the "sacred duty" of humanity. Dharma comes from the Sanskrit root word dhri, which means "to hold"; "to maintain"; "to preserve". It refers to that which we do in our life that is supportive to all of existence; it "maintains the order of things" by doing what is right and true, versus what is preferential and self-centered. One can think of dharma as the inner compass guiding us along in life and whispering instructions about what we should versus shouldn't do. Nature has instilled in each aspect of creation a seed of It's own infinite intelligence to maintain harmony across the diverse array of life in the cosmos. Listening to this intelligence and following it's instructions are what reveal to us our dharma. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna on dharma, basically telling him to follow his heart. "It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity."


Artha, the second on our list, is material comfort. Eastern thought suggests that in order to actually be able to focus on anything other than safety, we must first be safe. This satisfies our instinctual nature to exist and be alive in a comfortable and relaxed way. If this quality is not present, there is no use in making room in our life for anything related to the higher potentials of life. From a chakra point of view, we must have our root stabilized before the energy will naturally want to rise up and activate the higher centers. This means rhythms, life structures, safety, material comfort, and other daily needs that, until they are meant, will be the primary focus of our life energy. They also say that there is a balance here, and that once we have enough, our energy is going to expand into other places and we must allow that to happen. That is to say that -- for the fulfillment of artha -- we aspire to not take more than we need, so that all beings can have equal access to the same level of safety and security. If we are constantly pursuing more in this domain, our other life goals may lose some steam. We must always strive for balance.


Kama is an interesting one -- it refers to worldly pleasure, enjoyment, or desire. The famous book "Kama Sutras" has its roots in this word. It is said that part of our reason for being here, for taking human birth, is to actually enjoy the world we are living in. Of course, this does not mean descending into pure hedonism or immersion into desires of the flesh. The four purusharthas, when they fit together harmoniously, bring about a balanced appreciation for the many dimensions of life, from physical to mental to emotional to spiritual. Being able to properly enjoy the things of the world in a balanced way can actually enrich our spiritual life, and vice versa. Having enough restraint and wherewithal to maintain an appropriate amount of spiritual discipline while also being active and engaged in worldly life can allow us to appreciate the worldly life we live even more. We must learn how to balance our desires for the senses with our desire to know God or to realize our full potential, and that is what this purushartha -- kama -- is all about.


Moksha refers to liberation and is the final stage in human life. Once we have the other three down, the completion occurs once we are free from needing to re-engage with the world. The human soul has completed its journey and can return to the Source without additional lessons on the wheel of karmic life. One can see that the accomplishment of the previous three purusharthas have led us to a place of -- "what's next?" The final step would be freedom, or liberation. No longer needing anything of the world, as all the previous steps have been satisfactorily completed. Think of a grandparent who has lived a complete life. There is a natural finish line to life, if we live it well. The yogis were determined to reach this finish line sooner than others, so that by the time they reached an old age they didn't have to scramble to make ends meet. Being a disgruntled old person was not on the list of yogic desires. Moksha is this freedom.


Fulfilling life's ultimate aim(s) so that one could truly enjoy the remainder of their time here was the goal. And the yogi is one who follows the steps outlined to complete their "mission" whilst here. There is a balanced an appropriate way to do this, according to Eastern thought, but also validated by the like's of Western psychology (think Maslow's hierarchy of needs).


May we all find and discover the richness of life and the many dimensions of fulfillment that are possible to us when we dedicate our attention to living a full spectrum existence. Extraordinary living is not just having a lot of things. Having, enjoying, sharing, and then being free of it all is possible.


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