The Path to Freedom: Mastering the Art of Total Perception
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 5: The Purusharthas – The Fourfold Aim of Existence

Our reactions to objects of perception are the primary consideration in any of our enterprises in the world. It is not so important what things are as our reactions and attitude towards them and the extent to which we can understand them. Ultimately, the concern is not of things, but of ourselves. Whatever be the primary substances we encounter in our daily life, and whatever be the truth about them, we seem to be concerned with the manner with which we respond to these things in the different degrees of manifestation.

What we are really concerned with in life is the manner with which we are concerned with things. This is very difficult to understand because mostly we mix up attitudes with things on a daily basis. Our attitudes to things are mixed up with the things themselves, which causes all the pleasures and pains of the world. It is difficult to distinguish between the things themselves and these psychological factors involved in the perception of them.

No ordinary human mind can make this distinction. Things get reflected in the mind and the mind pervades them, so that we do not know where the boundary is between the inner and the outer worlds. We often see ourselves in things, and we cannot know that it is we that see and ourselves that are seen: we are seeing ourselves. The identification of the perceiving mind is so intense and is worked in so effectively that we cannot know what we are seeing. We take our projected psychological conditions for realities and then we work upon things of the world so as to improve them, to manoeuvre or direct them in certain ways. In truth, what happens is that we try to bring about a reconditioning of our own attitudes in respect of things of the world.

No man has seen the world as it is, and no one can see it, as long as we have eyes with which we have to see, and a mind with which we have to think. The mind conditions all perceptions, as the eyes condition the visualisation of all objects. Hence, the ancient seers to whom our scriptures were revealed, in their deepest intuition of things, discovered practical ways of approach to the problems and questions of the world—the way to freedom, which is the subject we have been discussing all these days. The way to freedom means the way to freedom from something. From what is it that we want freedom?

To ask for freedom is to say that something is limiting us: something does not allow our freedom. Who is it that does not allow our freedom? To free ourselves from that factor would be freedom. If somebody is catching hold of our neck, freedom would be to free ourselves from the clutches of that person.

Generally when we think of freedom, we imply thereby a consciousness of something which denies us freedom. Just as it is difficult to be aware of the borderland between the inner world and the external world, where one meets the other, and just as it is difficult enough that our minds and visions condition things of the world to a large extent, so also it is difficult to know what it is that makes us ask for freedom.

To ask for freedom is to accept that we are bound, we are limited, and we are aggrieved; this is the reason why we are asking for freedom. But what is our bondage? The nature of bondage again is the nature of the manner in which the mind reacts to things of the world. My bondage is different from your bondage. My difficulties may not be your difficulties. It is not that everyone is in the same kind of bondage. Types of bondage differ from person to person, from condition to condition, and in accordance with various other factors. Taking into consideration all this complexity of our situation, it appears that freedom is called for.

It seems difficult to know the way of freedom. We cannot easily say from whom or from what are we to be free. Do we want freedom from the world? Then why do we run after the world, if it is freedom from the world that we want? Nobody who asks for freedom really wants freedom from the world, because everyone sees some value and significance, some meaning in the world. He who wants freedom from the world will not run after it.

There are rare occasions when we seem to be fed up with the world. When we become old and have seen enough of things, and have a good understanding of persons and things of the world, often we feel in our private life that we have had enough. This means to say that we will not again run after things; but yet, hard is this attachment. Whatever be the maturity of our understanding of the world, we cannot free ourselves from persons, from things, and from our reactions to things. Wherever there is a perception, there is also a reaction. We cannot merely see things and keep quiet, because seeing is a reaction.

Reaction is a very peculiar and unintelligible condition which takes place in our own personality. It is the way in which the mind answers or responds to the nature of things presented in front of it. In some way it is a kind of judgement of things. We evaluate things, hold an opinion about things, and would like things to be a certain way. That is what is called reaction in regard to things.

Now, are we asking for freedom from our mental reaction to things, or freedom from the things themselves? If we push these questions very pertinently and pointedly to their logical limits, we will find that we cannot get an answer; we will be in a muddle of thought and will not know what we are asking for. We will be crying, not knowing for what.

In every set of circumstances there is a mix-up of factors. There is no single event or cause for anything in this world. Every occurrence, every situation is a conglomeration of many factors, just as no disease is caused by a single factor. Many cumulative factors combine to produce a single event or effect. This applies to everyone and everything in the world. There is a series of causes—‘A’ causing ‘B’, ‘B’ causing ‘C’, ‘C’ causing ‘D’, ‘D’ causing ‘E’, and ‘E’ being ourselves—so our circumstances have been caused by a multitude of factors preceding our present condition; therefore, we cannot say which is the cause for a particular effect.

This situation is also the explanation of any human being at any given condition. We seem to be very wise as long as questions are not pushed to their logical limits. Every question can be answered halfway, but ultimately no question can be answered fully because we cannot reach the ultimacy of anything in this world without also touching the bottom of our own being. When we attempt to touch the ultimate cause, the ultimate substantiality, the ultimacy of anything, it will appear to come back upon us as a boomerang because we are touching our own selves.

We seem to be involved in the ultimate consequences of everything in the world, but we do not seem to be so involved when we touch the border or the surface of things. We seem to be an independent person, unconcerned with others, judging all people with our own whims and fancies so long as we touch only the surface, but when we touch the bottom of things, we seem to be touching the bottom of our own self also. This is something very strange which comes up when we analyse the substance of things.

Even in ordinary parlance when we go into the analysis of the ultimate constituents of an object, we will realise that they are made of the very same constituents that we are made of, as scientists tell us. A table made of wood is made up of the same stuff as our body is made. Why is preference given to our own self in regard to the table? This is an example of the many incidents that crop up as answers to our multitudinous questions in regard to life.

But actually, in regard to life, there is only one question, not many questions. There may be many questions written in our diary, but all these are forms of this one question—one which we do not seem to know how to answer because we do not want to touch the ultimate stuff of anything. We do not want to go to the root of anything, and cannot go, because to touch its root would be to touch the root of the cosmos. This is the great problem that presents itself before everyone when seeking freedom in a life of this kind and a world of this character; and we are cornered from different sides with various queries, as we may be questioned from many sides by lawyers in a court proceeding, for example.

When complex situations arise in life, like questions that pose themselves from all corners, we do not know what to do. We do not know what the freedom we are asking for is, whether we are intelligent in asking at all, or if we are confused. In the beginning stages, spiritual seekers seem to be very clear in their thoughts, but after taking a few steps they are caught. In the initial stages everyone is in a state of enthusiasm, emotional ecstasy and immature feeling that everything is clear. Things are not really clear, but they think so. This is the immaturity of thought of an adolescent or a child. When we press the problem, we know where we are.

To answer the great query of life and to satisfy the fundamental inner demand of the human being, to take things in their practical relationship to people, the ancient seers formulated a system called the Purusharthas, a Sanskrit phrase which means the aims of human existence. When we have pursued these ultimate aims of existence, we are supposed to have pursued the ultimate values of all creation. The pursuit of the Purusharthas is nothing but a pursuit of freedom, but freedom from what?

The answer would be, “Freedom from anything and everything that restricts our consciousness of freedom.” Our consciousness of freedom must be the criterion of freedom. We must be conscious that we are free; then only we can be said to be free. Are we conscious that we are free? Anything that limits the consciousness of freedom is the cause of this bondage.

Freedom ultimately seems to imply freedom from any kind of false relationship to things of the world. Our relationship to things of the world determines whether we are bound or free. It is not the world that binds us, but the relationships that we have with the world. We may call them attachments or detachments, whatever they may be. The thread that connects us with the outer world will tell us whether we are free or bound.

The ancient seers’ technique is the Purusharthas, the four aims of human existence: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. These are terms with which we are familiar, but few have adequate knowledge of them. Dharma is translated in many ways, sometimes as law, order, system, harmony, method, etc. Perhaps it is all these, and none of these independently. Such is what is called dharma.

Artha is supposed to be the pursuit of material values; kama is the pursuit of desires; moksha is the pursuit of freedom as such. Now we will realise that moksha, which is one of the four aims of existence, is really not the fourth in the sense of the fourth leg of a cow, in which case the other three legs have no relation. It is not in this sense that moksha is the fourth. It is fourth in the sense of the fourth standard of education, where the three standards below are included. The fourth standard is not the fourth materially, but inclusively.

Likewise, the principle of dharma is not only one of the four, but the determining factor of all the aims of existence. It is the principle on which we take an action—a step. If we take a step on a principle that is going to make us free in a larger sense, that is dharma; but if we take a step in the direction which restricts our freedom, that is adharma. To move towards lesser freedom is adharma; to move towards larger freedom is dharma.

All this again is a very difficult thing to understand because most people mistake one thing for the other. We cannot know whether we are moving towards bondage or freedom because many times we mistake bondage for pleasure, and pleasure for the good, and the good for pleasure. While we pursue the pleasant, we may think it is the path of the good, and the path of slavery may seem to be the path of freedom.

The fourfold aim of existence is intended to touch the various ways in which we connect ourselves with things, and to achieve freedom. Whatever be the degree of freedom that we achieve, it should be a freedom which is complete, and not merely partial. It may be a lesser degree or a higher degree, but must be complete in its universe of discourse, as the logicians would say. In its own purview, in the ken of its own perception and activity, it should be complete.

If in a curriculum of studies we are reading in the first standard, the curriculum must be complete in itself, for the first standard. When we go to the second standard, again the curriculum should be complete, within the limits allowed by the system of education imparted in that level. So is the case with dharma, artha, kama and moksha. They are rungs of a ladder in evolution, and they are rungs in a very peculiar sense, one touching the other, one overlapping the other, one vitally connecting the other, and one being impossible without the other.

They are not four items of existence with which we have to be concerned at different times. They are simultaneous questions that arise before our minds to which simultaneous answers may have to be given. There are people called Ashtavadhanis who can attend to eight things at a time. Likewise, we have to attend to all these four aspects of life at the same time because tomorrow may never come, so it is not advisable to put something off for another day.

Whatever be the degree of the manifestation of the perfection, it should take into consideration all its aspects in its own level, and when we pursue these aims of life, or Purusharthas, we will realise that we are touching all the sides of our own personality. As a matter of fact, these Purusharthas are not outside in the world. They are not like things that can be purchased from a shop. They are values that can be recognised in everything, including ourselves.

We have various needs of our personal existence—the needs being a difficulty felt due to our being entangled in objects. This is the first difficulty. Everyone is entangled in something: in business, family, friends and enemies, in any blessed thing. Our body, as one of the things of the world, is somehow associated with the other things of the world. This is physical entanglement. The physical body has physical needs from physical objects and conditions. This is the condition of artha, one of the four Purusharthas. That which we call material value, economic value, practical value, pragmatic value and such other value is nothing but the outcome of our physical relationship with physical bodies. No one being conscious of physical bodies can escape this need. As long as we are lodged in a physical vesture, we are conscious of a physical world; and as long as we are in this condition, physical needs will be pressing, and the laws of the physical world will operate upon us. We cannot escape these relations as long as the consciousness is limited to the physical body. This is the need for artha, and no one can escape it. This is one of the urges that spontaneously arises on account of our being physically related to things. Therefore, everyone living in a physical body shall pursue artha.

Artha does not mean money or grain, food, building, etc., as most people imagine. It may include this, but it generally means any kind of urge for a physical necessity which can only be attained in a world of physical relationships.

Now, these are spontaneous outcomes of our physical connections with the world, and no one should imagine that he can escape this necessity. Just as animals stand on four legs, we seem to be pressed by the four arthas—aims, or objectives—one being the physical objective, the need to collaborate with other physical systems, accepting and cooperating with them in such a manner that one body does not collide with another. This is physical cooperation, we may say—cooperation with the physical laws, or natural laws, that operate in the world.

But these are not the only things that we need to do; we have got many other questions. Even if these questions are answered and we cooperate and to receive cooperation from others physically, in the physical realm, we have other urges of satisfaction and fulfilment which are subtler in their nature. These are the vital forces surging forward to their destination. Just as there are physical forces, there are vital forces. Just as we have the law of gravitation which we may call the essence of the physical law of the world, there is psychological gravitation. This is the determining factor of all our efforts at the fulfilling of kama, or desires.

Kama, or desires in general, means the urge of vital forces within us. They tend, as every force tends, to something else. As Newton said, one body tends to another, and he called this gravitation. Desire is a psychological gravitation. If physical gravitation is one body tending towards another body, psychological gravitation is one mind tending to another mind. This is what we call kama. Just as bodies do not keep quiet because they are being influenced by other bodies, minds are not peaceful because of their being limited by the existence of other minds. Kama is, therefore, a general psychological urge emanating from our whole personality. It is not desire for this or that; it is general restlessness of consciousness, a general incapacity of the mind to rest in itself. This is kama—a kind of evolution of consciousness, we may call it—something that tells us to move towards something else.

The objectives of the Purusharthas also provide for these urges. To what extent and in what manner we are to answer these urges is determined by the law, dharma. That which we call dharma is the law behind the need of our personality to collaborate with physical bodies, as well as with minds. While our collaboration with physical things in the pursuit of artha is to be determined by a particular law, dharma, so is the very same dharma to regulate the mode of our relationship with other persons and things. So dharma is behind artha and kama both. It is not something independent.

As I mentioned, we cannot pursue dharma today, artha tomorrow, kama the day after, and so on. They are vitally and inextricably connected. Thus, dharma is the governing factor determining the way in which we have to relate ourselves to physical things, as well as minds, in the world. Now, inasmuch as it is difficult to understand physical relations, much less mental relations, we can understand how much more difficult it is to understand what dharma is. Who can know what our problems are in their completeness? We cannot know our own problems. How can we know others’ problems?

Our physical, social, and psychological relationships with other people in the world are difficult to understand. We should not judge a human being merely from outer relationships, but from ultimate relationships. If we are concerned with only the immediate relationships, that would be sociology. Philosophy goes deeper than sociology and tries to understand the deepest relationship possible among human beings and things. To answer an ultimate question, one must be a good philosopher in the sense that one must have a good insight into the nature of things.

Artha and kama are determined by dharma, but what connection does moksha have to these things? Does it come in the end? Not so, as I mentioned. It seems to be immanent, already present in all these things. In every bit of the lower objectives we will find the principle of moksha immanent. The higher is implied in the lower. The lower stages of education take into consideration the objectives that have to be achieved in education as a whole. A particular step taken by a government official, for example, takes into consideration the system of the entire government. He is not independently acting from his own point of view.

There is no point of view for a person in a universal setup, because any point of view which we may take is in consonance with the general system of things. The general system of things is moksha. And the particular manifestations of the system are artha and kama. The determining factor of all these things is dharma. Just see how one thing is hanging on the other, how we cannot explain one thing without the other. The ultimate guiding factor, the principle that underlies as the basic motive force is moksha, even within artha and kama. Why should we have physical relationships or objectives? Why should we fulfil our desires? The ‘why’ can only be answered because of the existence of moksha, not otherwise.

There is something which speaks in different languages through different things in life. As I mentioned, for example, it is the government that speaks through the different officials. We cannot see the government, but yet we know it is there. We see only its manifestations because the government is invisible, working through different personalities and sets of principles. Moksha is something like the principle of a government; we cannot see it with our eyes, and yet it alone works though all the particulars. Artha and kama are the particular manifestations of relative life of the principle of moksha as the value.

Thus, we can very well appreciate the wisdom of the seers who formulated this system of Purusharthas in such a way that they are all necessary, and yet they have to be transcended for the purpose of moksha. We can only imagine how wise was this person or these persons who thought of these four objectives. There is nothing else that we can want in life. It is these four that everyone has to look to, and yet with the judicious insight that the lower should not assert its independence. Again to come to our illustration, no official of the government should imagine that he is the whole government. He is not, and he cannot be. Nothing of the nature of artha or kama can be substituted for moksha.

So we can imagine that we are well placed in this world merely because we are well placed economically, physically or even psychologically, but that would be a very serious blunder. Fulfilment of artha or kama may be necessary in the same way as consideration is to be paid for the particular in pursuit of the original, or the universal, but it does not mean that the universal can be exhausted in any particular. Moksha is immanently present in all things of the world—in arthas and kamas. Yet not one of them can exhaust it or see it wholly in its originality. Our asking for material comforts and craving for vital satisfactions are only crude forms of our cry for moksha. We do not want things of the world. It is not these that we want. It is not particular desires that we are asking to be fulfilled. It is ultimate freedom we are seeking, and unfortunately we are seeking the ultimate in the particular.

The people who instituted this fourfold aim of life know very well that the lower cannot exhaust the higher, and it cannot contain the higher wholly, and yet the higher can be reached only through the lower. The demands and the laws of the lower have to be fulfilled before we step into the realms of the higher. The higher is not to be seen in the lower, and yet we cannot reach the higher without the lower. How beautiful, and how scientific! Without some sort of consideration to artha and kama, we cannot reach moksha, and yet we should not be involved in artha and kama wholly. That is not the aim, though it is a kind of necessity.

Examples are given. If a thorn pricks our foot, we remove that thorn with the help of another thorn. Afterwards, we throw away both thorns. So is artha and kama a kind of thorn that we use to remove another thorn that is pricking us, the thorn of longing for things of the world—the thorn of physical limitation, the thorn of hunger and thirst, and so on. Many other difficulties are removed by this thorn of tentative satisfaction.

“Renounce also that by which we have renounced all things,” says the scriptures. Renounce the thorn with which we have removed the thorn pricking our foot because we do not need it any more. The vital satisfactions of life and the social obligations, the physical enjoyments, etc., are no doubt temporary necessities, but they are bondages when they are carried to extremes. No need should be carried beyond a certain limit, because that which helps us can also bind us when it is improperly used. Here we have to apply the principle of dharma.

How can we know the extent to which we have to fulfil artha and kama? People go to excesses, and till their death go on satisfying the arthas and kamas, forgetting the principle of moksha because dharma has been cast away. If dharma is not to determine artha and kama, then it can become a bondage. That which has been instituted as a help for the higher ascent of the mind in its evolution can also pull the mind down into the lower recesses if dharma is not to guide us.

Dharmāviruddho bhūteṣu kāmo'asmi bharatarṣabha (Gita 7.11): “All kamas are My own manifestations where, of course, dharma does not oppose these.” It is very necessary to understand dharma before we understand the nature of spiritual freedom and sadhana, because when that is known, we will also know what artha and kama are and the measure of satisfaction with which we can regard the world. It is not that we should be cynical always, and go to extremes in our condemnation of things. One can go to the extremes in anything. We should not be pessimistic or foolish in our optimism. The wisdom of life is a via media, a middle path. It is not taking a step to the right or the left.

Dharma is the harmoniser of things. It is that which prevents us from having extreme views. There are people who take extreme views either on the side of moksha or on the side of artha and kama. The materialists, the charvakas, the happy-go-lucky’s are one type. The self-abnegators, the cursers of the world, the denouncers of life are of another type. Dharma is the harmony between extremes of thought.

Buddha said there are two extremes: “Everything is as it is,” is one extreme; “Nothing is,” is another extreme. It is not true that nothing is, and it is also not true that everything is as it is. The truth is in the middle. This is what Buddha said. This middle truth is dharma. In the Pali language they call it dhama. The Dhammapada is a textbook which means the path of dharma, or the path of the middle course. Hence, it is also called the Madhyama-marga in Buddhist psychology. These people who follow the Madhyama-marga are called the Madhyamikas, who went to extremes later on, but the original intention was good. The Madhyama-marga is the path of harmony, the path of dharma, which the Buddha thought and taught, and which every saint and sage taught.

If we can know what dharma is, we can know what life is, what we are, what our relationships with others ought to be, and how we can be happy even in the worst of circumstances. Dharma will come to our aid. But what is dharma? It is like the great question which Pilot put to Christ, “What is Truth?” We put the same question, because dharma and Truth are the same.

Satya and rita are Truth and righteousness. When one is known, the other is known; one is the face of the other. Spiritual life is a consummation of the fulfilment of the laws of dharma, and to be a spiritual seeker, one should have a good understanding of what dharma is. Many a time we try to force dharma on others as a kind of rule and necessity. Dharma is a general principle applicable to everyone, including ourselves, not a law that we can apply only to others. It is not finding fault or seeing defects, nor is it an application of force. It is a very subtle principle.

It is very difficult to define what a principle is, what impersonal action is. Impersonal action is the action of a principle of a general nature. The law of gravitation is a very good example. Gravitation has no friends and enemies, no partiality. Due to the operation of this law, a friend or an enemy will all break a leg if they fall. The law of nature has no sides; it applies to the subject and object equally. Dharma also applies equally and harmoniously to both the subject and the object.

Our fundamental mistake in life is to regard objects as complete in themselves, without knowing that there are subjects relating to the objects. Blunders in the fulfilment of dharma take place because of a purely objective vision of things. We look upon persons and things as objects, rather than things and values related to subjects. When we are objectivists, we are like materialists, and material values alone seem to prevail. In materialism, dharma fails. In a purely objective view of things, dharma does not work properly because dharma is the principle of harmony of values. It is the equilibrator of all processes in the world, which keeps the balances of the world in order so that the balance may not tilt this way or that way. Not to give too much value to either the subject or the object is the function of dharma. To weigh both the subject and the object on the balance of equality and to treat the subject and the object on a par would be the way in which dharma works.

But this again is a little difficult to understand. Dharma does not regard a person or a thing as another—that he is somebody and this is something. For dharma he is not somebody and it is not something, because dharma does not judge a person or a thing as we do. For one to judge another is to deny the universality of the principle. The very principle of universality implies that the person who judges and the person who is judged are governed by the same law.

It can apply even to our government law. The same law governs the judge and the person judged, because we do not have separate laws for judges. But in our ignorance, we imagine that we are the judges and that we have laws we can wield of our own accord, and that the laws of the objects are subservient to us. We want to create a difference where there is none, while the law is homogeneity and impersonality.

To apply the principle of impersonality in every judgement is to apply dharma. This would be a very good definition of how dharma can be applied. Can we apply the principle of impersonality with impersonal judgements of value? Can we imagine that when we say something or do something in respect of another, we are also involved in it? Can we forget this? If we do forget this, then we do not know dharma.

My judgement of another, my remark about another, my understanding of another also involves my personality in it; but no person can think this way because we are taught to think in a different way altogether. We always think as persons unconnected with other persons or things. When I judge a person or thing, I judge them as if there is one law for the objective world and another, separate law for the subject. Not so.

One cannot be a good judge from the point of view of dharma as long as there is a purely objective valuation of things. Dharma is subtler in its purview and action than objects. Objects are not the same as the law that determines them. The principles working behind the objects of the world are subtler and more pervasive than the objects. Dharma is the principle governing objectivity, and the principle that equally applies to the subjects. Dharma is the value that connects the values of the subjects as well as the objects, in artha as well as in kama. In religious language we may say dharma is the way in which God works in this world.