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In Hinduism, puruṣārtha (Sanskrit पुरुषार्थ: "that which is sought by man; human purpose, aim, or end") refers to a goal, end or aim of human existence. There are generally considered to be four such puruṣārthas, namely
Each of these four canonical puruṣārthas was subjected to a process of examination and elaboration which produced several key works in the history of Indian philosophy, including the Kamasutra of Vātsyāyana (treating kāma, particularly as "sexual desire"), the Arthashastra of Kauṭilya (treating artha as "material pursuits"), the Dharmaśāstras of various authors, most notably Manu (treating dharma as "religious, social and personal ethics") and the principle sūtras of the six orthodox schools of philosophy or darśanas, all of which are principally concerned with the attainment of mokṣa, often referred to as the parama-puruṣārtha or "chief end of human life".
The notion that proper living entails the pursuit of four goals or ends first took shape in the literary traditions of the Dharmaśāstras and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Early texts treating the goals of human life commonly refer to kāma, artha and dharma as the "trivarga" or "three categories" of possible human pursuits. This is generally interpreted as indicating that the notion of mokṣa as one of the puruṣārthas is a product of a later age. As Hiltebeitel (2002) notes, however, this is not necessarily the case: given that the trivarga focuses on the interests and concerns of the individual during the householder (grihastha) stage of life and mokṣa, though to be pursued throughout life, is the particular goal of the renunciate (sannyasa) stage, the opposition between the trivarga on the one hand and mokṣa on the other can be understood as a reflection of the householder-renunciate opposition as seen in the aśrama system prevalent in India during the ancient and medieval periods. In a similar vein, Prasad (2008) argues that the division between the trivarga and mokṣa is intended to highlight the distinction between values in the social (trivarga) and personal (mokṣa) spheres. While it may remain somewhat unclear as to when it was articulated as a goal of human life on par with the trivarga, mokṣa was certainly integral to the matured conception of the puruṣārthas, eventually becoming known as the caturvarga, the "four-fold set".
There is a popular correspondence between the four puruṣārthas or stages of life (Skt.: āśrama: Brahmacharya [student life], Grihastha [household life], Vanaprastha [retired life] and Sannyasa [renunciation]) and the four primary castes or strata of society (Skt.: varna: Brahmana [priest/teacher], Kshatriya [warrior/politician], Vaishya [landowner/entrepreneur] and Shudra [servant/manual labourer]). This, however, has not been traced to any primary source in early Sanskrit literature.
- For kāma, artha, and dharma as "brahmanic householder values", see Flood (1996:17). Cf. also Apte (1965:626); Hopkins (1971:78)
- Hiltebeitel (:17).
- Hiltebeitel (2002:17).
- For example, see Olivelle (1993:217). For a detailed discussion, cf. Prasad (2008).
- Prasad (2008:360-362).
- For a detailed discussion, see Olivelle (1993:216.218).
- Apte, Vaman Shivram (1965). The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. ISBN 81-208-0567-4. (fourth revised & enlarged edition).
- Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.
- Hiltebeitel, Alf (2002). "Hinduism" in: Kitagawa, J. M. (Ed.) The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History and Culture. London: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0-7007-1762-5.
- Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971). The Hindu Religious Tradition. Cambridge: Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc.
- Olivelle, Patrick (1993). The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508327-X.
- Prasad, Rajendra (2008). A Conceptual-Analytical Study of Classical Indian Philosophy of Morals. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations. ISBN 8-180-69544-1.