The 4 Types of Activities That Provide Meaning and Fulfillment to Human Life According to Hinduism

These Are the 4 Aspects That a Full Life Must Cover, According to the Classical Literature of India


An important part of the ancient wisdom of Hinduism is condensed in its notion of purushartha, or the purposes of human life. Since ancient times, treatises on the four types of activities to which a person must devote himself to satisfy all aspects of his existence, both collectively and individually, abound in Indian literature. The classification is as follows: dharma (law, duty), artha (means (material) of existence), kama (pleasure, love), and moksha (spiritual liberation).

The richness of these four terms cannot be covered in this article. Whole chapters could be written just on the etymology and semantic field of these words. Particularly dharma and artha have numerous and very different meanings. Dharma, depending on the context, can mean law, order, religion, reality, truth, purpose, phenomenon, teaching, etc. Artha usually means a thing, object, goal, purpose, meaning, matter, reality, prosperity, etc. We know, however, that in this scheme dharma has the fundamental connotation of duty, following the law, of fulfilling an established role or vocation to maintain the harmony of society, the cosmos, and the individual. Artha here has to do with the development of means, with material wealth, with the aspects of career, and family, and with obtaining material or worldly goods to maintain dharma and then be able to exercise elevated functions such as kama and moksha.

The term kama generally means desire or love (in the sense of eros). In this scheme, it supposes the enjoyment of the maturity of life, from conjugal pleasures to sensual pleasures such as food or aesthetic pleasures such as poetry, music, and dance.

Moksha means liberation, and emancipation, specifically from the cycle of death and rebirth of samsara. In India, various philosophical schools teach different methods and results, but the vast majority propose detachment and contemplation as ways. This creates tension as artha and kama involve the pursuit of material goods and indulgence in desire, which contradicts the idea of renunciation, but there are many ways to resolve these tensions.

One of them is the scheme of the chaturanga, equally ancestral. This scheme divides the life of a person – generally, in ancient India, this meant a man of the Brahmanical class – into four stages. The first is the brahmacharya or celibate student, the second is the grihastha or householder (literally, the one who is or has a house), the third is the vanaprastha or the one who resides in the forest, and the fourth is the sannyasa or renunciate . . Several authors have wanted to map these stages with the purusartha. The Kamasutra, a text dedicated to the artha of pleasure, famously notes:

The life of a man is one hundred years. By dividing that time, one should attend to the three purposes of life in such a way that they support each other and not the other way around. In youth he should devote himself to things that bring him profit ( artha ), such as studies, in maturity to pleasure ( kama ) and in old age to dharma and moksha .

( Kamasutra , 1.2.1–1.2.4)

Others have seen correspondence between dharma and the brahmacharya stage because here the training is carried out within the law and the social order and the debt with the ancestors begins to be paid. This would mean, however, that kama and artha would be united in the second stage and the third and fourth would be for moksha.

Although not without some debate, Indian texts generally teach that moksha is by far the most important of the four stages. The most prestigious texts are usually texts dedicated to moksha, such as the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras, or the Bhagavadgita. However, the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are universal texts in which the four activities and goals of human life are addressed.

Ideally, the individual would first go through a stage of study under the guidance of his guru, learn Sanskrit, recite the Vedas and the various sciences, and perform various rituals and sacrifices, including marrying and having children. At this stage, he could enjoy a certain aesthetic refinement, but always under the established order (love, but under law). By doing his duty and having known the variety of the world, he could pass to the true consummation of life, embodying wisdom: renouncing the world, finding the only true freedom in oneness with Brahman, recognizing that his soul is identical to the entire universe (before which even the most extensive mundane realm pales).

In one of his latest texts, the great scholar of ancient Indian and Greek thought, Roberto Calasso, made a mention of the ideal society, probably echoing the Indian purusartha. According to Calasso, a desirable society would not be self-absorbed but serves “as a support for something else: contemplation, knowledge, pleasure, art”.