Reflections: The Human Aspiration & Pursuits (Purusārtha-vicāra)

Sriram Subramanian
Dec 3, 2020 · 3 min read
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NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of spiral galaxy NGC 5643 in the constellation of Lupus — Credit:


We observe that human beings are constantly behind something — money, fame, relationships, power, or something else, in pursuit of being happy. These are all various means through which one may find happiness. However, oftentimes one finds that these things do not always make one happy. Even the resulting happiness is temporary. In some cases, they may even cause unhappiness. If so, what does one make truly and permanently happy?

Sastras provide definitive answers to human aspirations — purusārthas. They not only list what they are, but they also provide guidelines for pursuing them. Sastras list them to be dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa, which can be loosely translated to righteousness, wealth, pleasure, and liberation.

At the outset, the order of the purusārthas, one can infer that pursuits need to be aligned with dharma. It is also commonly believed that the first three are ladders to the last one — mokṣa. One even thinks that pursuing these three correctly will lead to the fourth automatically. For example, Thirukkural, the famous Tamil text on ethics and morality deals only with the first three purusārthas, implicitly indicating that the fourth purusārtha is guaranteed if one follows the first three purusārthas according to dharma.

Are all pursuits the same?

Tattvabodha, a definitive text providing methods of discriminative inquiry as a means for liberation, has provided interesting viewpoints on a common understanding of human pursuits. For example, while four different pursuits are commonly recognized, are all pursuits the same? What are they pursued for? It is interesting to note that Tattvabodha sees the pursuits as opportunities to grow and everybody is in pursuit of mokṣa eventually without realizing it though

Tattvabodha further elucidates the methods of discriminating between permanence and impermanence. Upon realizing this, one sees that Brahman is the only constant vastu. Tattvabodha further proceeds by listing out the qualifications and requirements of a seeker.

I would like to bring about the sat-chit-ānanda aspects of the ātman in this context. In a way, human pursuits are about finding this inherent, default state of happiness, which the jiva tends to be ignorant of.

The Pursuit of ‘Happyness’

I wonder if human pursuits are all about finding this inherent happiness; rather realizing this happiness, as it is inherent and not an external thing to be pursued after. Taking a leaf from the popular movie, is ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ (with the word misspelled) all that purusārthas is about?

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‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ Theatrical Release Poster © Columbia Pictures

What is next?

While most of the concepts discussed in this class were touched upon during the Bhagavad-Gita class, this class is providing me an opportunity to firm up my understanding. This is also providing me with new tools to pursue my inquiry.

The following questions are upon me now:

1. Should dispassion come from an aversion to the material life?

2. Why should one have the pants-on-fire type of urgency when we understand that it can take multiple lifetimes to attain mokṣa?

3. If only human beings can accumulate karmā, does one not have any karmā when born as a human being for the first time? And how does one get to be born as a human being if no good karma would have accrued at that point?

4. (This one keeps coming often) — How can one discern between lack of action vs renouncing action? That is if I do not perform a ritual or duty — how do I not fool myself that I am doing this out of renunciation, but only due to laziness?

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