According to the sages, there are four purposes to consciousness—four basic driving forces possessed by all sentient beings, called purushartha: Dharma (discharge of duty), Artha (acquirement of wealth), Kama (gratification of desires), and Moksha (final emancipation).
Taken at face value, these aims appear hedonistic: work hard, make lots of money, satisfy all desires, and attain liberation. Challenging enough, but in the grand scheme, pretty easy to do. The beauty of the Sanskrit (and an obstacle at times) is that the language is so concise that these simple definitions do not fully capture the meaning.
We need to unpack these words.
The first aim is Dharma, duty. That’s nice, Ron, but I’ve been wondering what my duty is all my life, you say. I have said this, too. For those of us who are not born into a caste system, our Duty (capital intended) is not so well defined. We like to believe that we control our own destinies.
Dharma is not some fatalistic slacker mentality (oh it is my dharma, my dharma brought me to this, I don’t have to do anything, dharma controls all), nor is it something which needs to be discovered. Dharma includes all of the little things that make up our life. If we have a job, it is our duty to do that job well. Don’t like your job? It is still your duty to do it well. Your job provides a paycheck. That paycheck provides food, clothing, and shelter for your family. The taxes you pay fund road repair, police and fire protection, the subway. Doing your duty is as simple as showing up for work everyday and not making everyone miserable. When we do this, we work out (over time) our cosmic stuff—the effects of our previous actions.
Living in society requires us to barter to meet our needs. I do not have a garden, so I have to pay for my food. I did not build my house, so I have to pay rent. I like light when it is dark, heat when it is cold, and water to flush my toilet. All of these things cost money. I do not live in luxury, yet I still must accumulate wealth to pay for those basic things. This is Artha. Sometimes I may be blessed to have more than I need. In this case, I can use what I have to help others.
We must unpack the word “wealth.” Monetary wealth is only one type. Humans are blessed with the opportunity to gain spiritual knowledge. One can be wealthy in Self-knowledge while being poor in green dollars. We use what we need for our own advancement, then it is our duty to share that knowledge to help others advance on their paths.
This is also Artha.
Many of us first heard of Kama from the Kama Sutra, and associate the word with sexual pleasure. But wait, I hear. How can kama be an aim of life when the Yama and Niyama tell us to be controlled in our passions and to be content with what we have? “Pleasure” and “passion” are tricky words—they do not necessarily have anything to do with sexual gratification. Think for a second how many people hate to do lawn work. Mowing, weeding, raking, cutting wood. For many, these acts are completed begrudgingly. For others, these acts are pleasurable. They offer an escape from work, stress, bills. The act of mowing the lawn does not change, yet an individual’s reaction to the act does.
We have in our power the ability to change any act from pain to pleasure by changing our point of view. When we chose to see obstacles as opportunities, when we see that all events are just effects of causes in our past (ie direct results of our choices somewhere along the line), when we stop seeing the world as a place of suffering and start seeing it as a laboratory for spiritual development, we cease to experience pain and begin to enjoy pleasure.
With Moksha, we ask ourselves what are we being emancipated from? We seek to be set free from our mistaken notion of independent existence. What a great thing—if we are successful, we get to get off of the wheel and become one with everything.
Except that we don’t. Because if we truly escape the mistaken notion of independent existence, we will see all of those who are still stuck on the wheel trying in their own way to achieve the same liberation. If we truly have escaped this notion, our compassion will be so great that we will not accept the ticket off the bus until all of our brothers and sisters have gotten off first.
Think of those great souls who have walked the earth: Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Yogananda, Ramakrishna, the Buddha. All of those beings did not need to take a human body any longer. They have worked out all of their cosmic stuff and earned their escape. But they chose to come back to help the rest of us. They were doing their duty as liberated beings, they acquired and shared spiritual wealth, they were happy in the face of suffering, and through these acts, they continued to remain free.
Through conscious pursuit of the Four Aims, we enter into a circle of remembrance. We are already liberated; we have only forgotten. Life becomes the opportunity to re-discover what we actually are.