Purushartha, Karma and Its Import in Indian Society

Whatever be the darsana, the emphasis on purushartha has always been significant. Barring perhaps the charvaka system, each attaches a degree of importance to the ideas of dharma, artha, kama and moksha in varying degrees. The eventual goal of the varying darsanas is not even moksha; rather it is mukti, or liberation from the bonds of the world in their entirety. However, it is not that mukti is to be sought independent of the four purusharthas; rather, the four serve as a sequential process towards the same, somewhat similar to the conceptualization of an algorithm that forms the underlying principle of any software.

The concept of purushartha is different significantly from the conception of the Calvinistic and Lutheran thoughts on the relationship of man and God and man and society that eventually serve as the source of all individualistic and libertarian principles. Purushartha defines your relationship with yourself and the society that surrounds you, as it defines your duties rather than your rights, as Atul Kerde had summed up[1]. According to Kherde:

It was the prevalent belief that you would achieve moksha only by fulfilling your duties, regardless of how the world treated you. Your duties were your obligations which you owed to the world. The duties involved:

·        Following your dharm (profession),
·        Generating income (arth) ONLY out of your dharm, and
·        Enjoying that arth (taking kaam) only after clearing all obligations would lead to
·        Freedom (moksh) from the worldly concerns and give you peace of mind.

Purushartha, as Coomaraswamy had noted, forms the standard of social ethics which take into account the whole man[2]. It serves as a yardstick for measuring the utility of a given activity in total or in individuality or groupings without detriment of the others. The significance of purushartha arises in the pursuit of the ideal world, and helps us realize exactly how we are different from any other living creature on the planet. As the philosopher M Hiriyanna had noted[3], the Aitareya Aranyaka elaborates how man alone says what he has known, and sees what he has known, and is aware of the other world beyond the ony immediately in front of him, and also conceives an ideal world fixed and independent of it. As Hiriyanna wrote,

In this feature of man’s activities, that they are consciously directed to an end, we find the criterion of 'human values'. They are values in the fullest meaning of the term; and we propose to confine our attention in what follows to them, which are described in Sanskrit as purusharthas or ‘what are desired by man.’

The importance of striving towards an ideal world therefore becomes increasingly evident as a system of values, working to ensure that the various duties are fulfilled with due significance attached thus to each of them. Acting through the proper conduct and working towards the generation of prosperity and well-being in society in various ways is not just meant for the individual alone – this puts into perspective several things, including entrepreneurship, the relationship of the individual and his/her wealth with that of society, and the values of ensuring an attitude of contribution. Indeed, the role of purushartha therefore serves as the root of the concept of seva or service, in addition to the philosophy of karuna or the attitude of karuna towards the others.

The significance of purushartha in the societal sense is not appreciated enough. The fact that such texts as Kamasutra, Arthashastra and Dharmashastra exist and the philosophy of purushartha are therefore testament to an important fact – that Santana Dharma is not an escapist religion, and does not put undue pressures on its adherent to renounce the world. As pointed by Shyam Krishnakumar[4], the significance of living in this world, in this society and contributing to it can be gauged by the fact that texts would begin by stating which of the purusharthas they aim to fulfil. For instance, as the Ramayana states, “kamartha-guna-samyuktam dharmarthaguna-vistaram” meaning “it deals with the worth of kama and artha and treats in extension of dharma and moksa.”

With this emphasis on purushartha, it becomes evident that karma is essential to the performance of duties when in the fold of Dharma. Karma is however deeply driven by the belief in aacharana or conduct that is essential to upholding Dharma. Of course, it must be qualified that this is in no way unique to Hinduism; rather, the philosophy of karma and its essentiality to the concept of ensuring Dharma in society is invaluable for all Indic thought systems. The Buddhist Dhamma Sasana as elucidated by the Buddhist canonical literature delve deep into the belief, with the right conduct playing an important role. For instance, the Madhura Sutta is instructive[5], as it highlights important things – while Kshatriyas are Bkept above Brahmins, the reaffirmation of the actions of the various constituents of society is essential to maintaining order in society and upholding Dharma, or doctrine as Robert Chalmers spelt it out. Similarly, Jaina darsana also emphasize significantly on right acharana and karma in society, detailing the conduct similar to other Indic darsanas for various constituents of society.

Karma as a philosophy is layered and more complex than just present day conduct. By defining its relation with time, a whole set of categories are created. However, it is not that one category is independent of the other – good karma as practiced by a person has the power to nullify, even supercede the effects of bad karma that one may have undertaken. The importance of karma is evident in the fact that it is considered as one of the yoga margas or ways to achieve mukti from the cycle of birth and death. Of course, it is made more than clear that controlling your karma all the time is very difficult, as observed in the dilemma of King Janaka when donating to rishis despite a cow being slaughtered; however, there is clarity in canon that there is an attempt to look at your actions in sum total, and not necessarily individuality. Walking the path of Dharma is never considered easy; however, its importance is necessary when put in the larger context of what your duties are as an individual, and what it would take to achieve the four purusharthas in life.

Past actions determine what you can be born as or into; however, it does not in any darsana stop you from becoming what you can by achieving your maximum potential. Mahabharata refers to two particular tales, which also form two Gitas of their own, that make for important case studies to understand the Dharmic view of karma and how action and conduct determine your stature and path to mukti.

Ashtavakra Gita: Ashtavakra was born a cripple out of a curse from his father for having corrected his uccharana while still being in the womb. He is called Ashtavakra out of the fact that he has eight vakra (twists) in his whole body. However, through his karma, Ashtavakra wins a critical debate in King Janaka’s court, and goes on to even give upadesha about the relationship of aatma with Brahma, which forms a critical part of Advaita canon literature.

Vyadha Gita: A sannyasi who has achieved great yogic powers is humbled by a simply vyadha or butcher, who gains enlightenment by his sincerity and adherence to karma. Moreover, the butcher also advises the sannyasi, which goes on to also espouse an important philosophy, as pointed out by Swami Vivekananda in one of his lectures – that karma is what determines your stature and respect in society, and will free you from all bondages.
Another important aspect of always adhering to Dharma and practicing karma accordingly can be seen in the popular text of Ramyana. In its various Indic adoptions – be it the Hindu versions, Jain version, Buddhist version, or the version as told in Guru Gobind Singh’s Dasam Granth, there is more than ample clarity on not giving up on man’s Dharma under any circumstance, for it is the true path to mukti. The end results often vary; however, the commonality in the understanding of Dharma across the various Indic darsanas are indisputable.

[1] Kherde, A., Purushartha and Punishment, Pragyata September 2016, viewed at http://www.pragyata.com/mag/purushartha-and-punishment-245
[2] Coomaraswamy, A., What Has India Contributed to Human Welfare? Athenaeum 1915 London
[3] Hiriyanna, M., Indian Conception of Values: Purusharthas, reproduced by Prekshaa, November 2016 and viewed at https://www.prekshaa.in/indian-conception-values-purusharthas
[4] Krishnakumar,S., A Week With the Purusharthas, Indiafacts October 2018 viewed at http://indiafacts.org/a-week-with-the-purusharthas/
[5] The Madhura Sutta concerning Caste. By ROBERT CHALMERS, Journal Of Asiatic Society 1894 viewed at https://www.sacred-texts.com/journals/jras/1894-14.htm


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