Puruṣārtha Niścaya – Determining the Purpose of Life

Almost every one of us mostly live our lives mechanically. Having been born, we go through the mill of studies, higher studies, romance, marriage, kids, money, power, old age, disease and death. People who are in positions of power, rich people, and erudite people are looked up to by the society, regardless of how they achieved their ends or by what values they lead their lives. The paradox is that it appears both the classes of people, the ones who lookup and the ones who are looked up to, are satisfied with this pathetic state of affairs.

For some, the immediate unfolding future becomes the purpose; for some others, money and power becomes the driving force. Only a very few, stop to think about what is real purpose of this life? Why was I born? In a particular family? Into a given status? Endowed with a given intellect? Why did our lives take a certain turn?

Our Śastrās classify the goals of life into fourfold, they being Dharma, Artha, Kāma and Mokṣa. Artha is security (!) in life, such as food, cloth and shelter. Kāma is pleasures and comforts in life which supposedly gives us happiness. Dharma is doing Puṇya Karmas to ensure we are happy in our future lives also. Mokṣa is going beyond the cycle of life and death.

An analysis of our pursuits in life, will show that all our pursuits fall within the 2 categories, viz., Artha and Kāma. To a very few, and that too only a select set of their pursuits will fall under Dharma. Only to those who have used their intellect, to gain discrimination based dispassion, Mokṣa becomes the purpose of life.

आहार निद्रा भय मैतुनं च सामान्यमेतत् पशुभिर्नराणाम्।

बुद्धिर्हि तेषां अधिको विषेषः बुद्ध्याविहीनः पशुभिस्समानः॥ – हितोपदेश…

āhāra nidrā bhaya maitunaṁ ca sāmānyametat paśubhirnarāṇām|

buddhirhi teṣāṁ adhiko viṣeṣaḥ buddhyāvihīnaḥ paśubhissamānaḥ|| – Hitopadeśa…

 “As regards food, sleep and reproduction, cows and humans are the same. What makes humans evolved is their discriminative intellect; minus the discriminative intellect, humans are much the same as cow”.

In listing the 4 categories of goals, the Śastrās have put Dharma ahead of both Artha and Kāma though the first goal naturally is Artha, followed by Kāma; the reason is that in allowing the pursuit of Artha and Kāma goals, the Śastrās guide that their pursuit should be within the framework of Dharma; hence Dharma is put first.

Even if one were to pursue Artha and Kāma within the framework of Dharma, or pursue Dharma singly, all these three pursuits have 3 innate defects; they being, Atṛptikaratvam, Bandhakatvam and Duḥkhamiśṛtatvam. Atṛptikaratvam is a state of remaining unsatisfied, whatever be one’s attainments/achievements. I was extremely happy when I got my first bicycle, but then soon I wanted a bike; later my need graduated to a car, then a sedan, a luxury car, then 2 cars… Bandhakatvam is state of becoming dependent, on all the comforts and luxuries that one enjoys in course of life; this is why we see luxuries becoming necessities as one climbs up the ladder of social status in one’s life.  I need my car, even if it is only a 5 minute errand that I had to do; and nothing less that my BMW would do, even if it meant going to the market to buy vegetables. Duḥkhamiśṛtatvam is a state of suffering pains, in the process of gaining pleasure. The compromises I had to make, the ignominies I had to suffer, the lies I had to tell, the 2-faced monster I have become, in order to afford the luxuries. After all this, when I did get my luxury car, everyone around me where celebrating my achievement, but deep down inside, I was feeling miserable, wondering it all this trouble was worth it.

Therefore, to the one who has a discriminative intellect, Mokṣa should become the primary, if not the only, pursuit of life. The purpose of this very human life is to gain freedom from the cycle of life and death. This re-orientation, we need to do with a sense of urgency, for Śankarācārya says in Vivekacūḍāmaṇi

लब्ध्वा कथञ्चिन्नरजन्म दुर्लभं तत्रापि पुंस्त्वं श्रुतिपारदर्शनम्।

यस्स्वात्ममुक्त्यै न यतते मूढधीः स ह्यात्महा स्वं विनिहन्त्यसद्ग्रहात्॥

labdhvā kathañcinnarajanma durlabhaṁ tatrāpi puṁstvaṁ śrutipāradarśanam|

yassvātmamuktyai na yatate mūḍhadhīḥ sa hyātmahā svaṁ vinihantyasadgrahāt||

“Having somehow obtained the rare human birth and there too, manly qualities and mastery over Vedas, that man of deluded intellect who would not strive for his freedom is indeed a suicide. By holding on to the unreal, he destroys himself”.


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About Śuka

Śuka, 48, has been a student of Vedanta since 1980 and has learnt traditional Vedānta from Arsha Vidya Gurukula Teachers. As a Certified Public Accountant, he worked in India, Africa and the Middle East. Later he pursued a successful business career in Software and BPO industries. He has since retired from active business, and back to studying Vedānta full time. Having completed Masters in Sanskrit, he is currently pursuing a research programme in Advaita Vedānta...

9 thoughts on “Puruṣārtha Niścaya – Determining the Purpose of Life

  1. Suka,

    Thanks for the article. You bring up some fundamental philosophical and religious questions but I guess at ground zero the question is “What’s the meaning of life? Why am I here?'”

    That process that you mentioned in which your bicycle was not enough….and a whole chain of activities and acquisitions which led to a BMW….

    That is called “hedonic adaptation”. It’s rampant, it’s common, it’s been with us since the beginning of humanity. And it’s been studied. Two psychologists made a study of lottery winners. Won’t bore you with the details but what they found was that after the lottery winners acquired a few things like mansions, Lamborghinis, yacts, world cruises…..after a fairly short time, they were no happier than before they had won the lottery!!!! They got used to their stuff, they adapted to it and then it wasn’t enough anymore.

    Most had moderate lives before winning and were at a certain “happiness level”…they got back to that level after having won the millions of pounds or dollars.

    So…EVEN basic scientists have uncovered the basic futility of “more stuff, more stuff, more stuff”….in agreement with what you are saying.

    Seems that there might be a middle road? Mainly be involved in spiritual pursuit AND take care of basic stuff AND enjoy the basic stuff without having to feel the need that ONLY more stuff will bring happiness/contentment?

    Balance is not easy, but to only want spiritual pursuits seems as if it could be as problematic as only wanting high-end cars etc…..moderation in all things maybe?

    “Moksha should become the primary, if not the only, pursuit in life”.

    I have verified, for myself, that when I get THAT obsessed about anything,
    including spiritual pursuits (for lack of a better term), I’m in for trouble. My personal past has shown me over and over again, that there will be a rebound, that I can’t be that narrowed down for long. The rebound amounts to dropping the thing that I’ve dropped everything else for….just me, but the pursuit will not work without balance.

    Except for the study I mentioned, all above my opinion…usual disclaimer!!!


    • Dear Steve,
      you wrote to Shuka:

      Maybe you know the experience when something that has been really really important to you simply drops away. Some people report that they never dropped smoking, rather smoking dropped them. For me 30 years ago it has been like that with giving up meat eating. It was not a doing on my part, rather from one day to the next it became impossible for me to eat meat. The classical example is your teddy bear that may have been your one and only love when you were 5, but not anymore when you were 15.

      If all other pursuits in life by and by fall away and the pursuit of moksha remains as the one and only thing the mind desires, then it may look to outsiders like an obsession. But actually it is something very easy and natural to happen, nothing is narrowed down and there will not be a rebound.

      Only such a state can be called mumukshutvam, the true desire for moksha, which Vedanta considers as indispensable for a seeker. What you describe is not mumukshutvam but suppression and is very likely to be followed by a rebound. And even managing to stick to it one’s whole life does not make it more valuable. It is a tense state whereas mumukshutvam may contain kind of a passionate urgency but no tension.

      This is what Shuka was referring to when he said ‘Moksha should become the primary, if not the only, pursuit in life.’

    • Correction to my earlier post. For some reason the quotation of your comment was missing. It should read
      you wrote to Shuka:
      ’Moksha should become the primary, if not the only, pursuit in life’.
      I have verified, for myself, that when I get THAT obsessed about anything,
including spiritual pursuits (for lack of a better term), I’m in for trouble. My personal past has shown me over and over again, that there will be a rebound, that I can’t be that narrowed down for long. The rebound amounts to dropping the thing that I’ve dropped everything else for….just me, but the pursuit will not work without balance.

      and then go on as below

  2. Dear Steve

    Thank you for the information on “hedonic adapation”. It is always gratifying to see empirical scientific evidence supporting abstract philosophy.

    Moderation/Balance is the best way, as regards day to day life. Even Bhagavad Gītā advises of moderation in day to day life.

    I had the blessing of being introduced to Vedānta at the age of 17. Ever since, I have been an ardent and sincere student, at the same balancing my married, social, employment and business life. However, I found perfect inner peace elusive.

    Traditional texts such as sarva vedānta siddhānta sāra saṁgrahah tell me something else. It says that mumukṣtvaṁ, the desire for freedom, has to be 100% – it even gives an analogy – a mumukṣu should feel like a man whose body is on fire. The man whose body is on fire, will have only one goal – to put the fire off as quickly as possible. He will not see whether it is an auspicious time, day, time of the year, or bother about balancing his urge to put out the fire with any other responsibilities.

    I have a feeling that maybe this sense of urgency and purpose is what is missing in me, which is why I find perfect inner peace still elusive. I have been for the past 2 years arranging my life in such a way that all my duties as a husband, father, brother, son, etc. are taken care of automatically. I have wound down my business interests. I cannot retire to an āśram since I have dependent children. So I have created an āśram in my house. My only pursuit now is Vedānta; and I hope to make it my only full-time occupation shortly.

    Moderation/Balance has not worked for me, as regards inner peace, though it has been very effective on all other fronts. I am trying the extreme option now. My śraddhā in the teaching is my motivator. Only time will tell if this works for me. I will be in this forum to share my experience with you; and this is one of the reasons why I agreed to be a blogger in this forum – since it keeps me in satsanga.

    Thank you for your thoughts.



  3. Suka,

    I wish you well on this leg of the journey and look forward to knowing of your experiences!

    Best wishes,

  4. I wonder if even this desire for freedom must be given up, Suka. Some say the one-pointed desire for Moksha is necessary, but there comes a point where you can no longer do anything. That it is not in your power to break down the door of Truth. That Truth comes to you. I guess you could call it total surrender of your self. Can we surrender? The mind never seems to surrender.

    • Dear Unknower,

      Quote Unknower – “here comes a point where you can no longer do anything.” – I don’t agree.

      I quote Bhagavad Gītā below.

      Chapter 3 Verse 5 – Indeed, no one ever remains for even a second without performing action, because everyone is forced to perform action by the (three) guṇas born of prakṛti.

      Chapter 3 Verse 6 – The one who, controlling the organs of action, sits with the mind remembering those sense objects is deluded and is called a person of fasle conduct.

      Chapter 3 Verse 8 – Do action that is to be done because action is superior to inaction. Even the maintenance of your body would be impossible by inaction.

      Bottom line – I don’t think there will ever be a stage in life that will come when one can no longer do anything, unless ofcourse one is only clinically alive.

      Quote Unknower – “That it is not in your power to break down the door of Truth. That Truth comes to you.” – I don’t agree.

      Again I quote Bhagavad Gītā

      Chapter 4 Verse 38 – In this world, there is indeed no purifier equivalent to knowledge. One who has in time attained prepardness through karma-yoga naturally gains (knowledge) in the mind.

      Chapter 4 Verse 39 – One who has faith (in śāstra and in the words of the teacher), who is committed to that (knowledge) and who is master of one’s senses gains the knowledge. Having gained knowledge, one immediately gains absolute peace.

      Chapter 4 Verse 34 – Understand that (which is to be known) by prostrating (the wise), by asking proper questions, (and) by serving (them). Those wise persons, who have the vision of the truth, will teach you (this) knowledge.

      Bottom line – It is within our power to break down the door of Truth. Truth does not come to me, for it does, what is stopping it from coming to me right now?

      Quote Unknower – “I guess you could call it total surrender of your self.” – I cannot understand this statement.

      Total surrender??? To whom or what? As long as the surrender is, how can it be total? What should one do when you ask him to totally surrender? To me is it like asking “what’s the colour of taste?” Grammatically correct statement, but cannot be comprehended.

      Quote Unknower – “Can we surrender? The mind never seems to surrender.” I agree. Mind cannot surrender. Mind cannot be destroyed. Mind cannot cease to exist. All we can do with the mind is to channelize it to where we want it to be, and that can be achieved only by constant vigil and practice, over a period of time.

      • Doing something is meant as no longer doing something to achieve a goal. Why? Because the goal that we conceptualize is entirely of the mind, imagined. You still walk and talk and eat and shit.

        The door of Truth is a metaphor for Knowledge. We as seekers assume a separation from real Knowledge. The whole search for Truth is a fictitious activity. When I say Truth comes to you, it is because you are It. No door to break down, no one to get it. How could there be?

        It is not that there is someone surrendering. It is the cessation of seeking and the activity of desire that creates the sense of lacking that we feel. When you ‘see’ this in each moment, there is a natural cessation that takes place because what is false drops away.

        I know it must be difficult for you to understand someone that might be speaking a different ‘language’, using different terms, from the ones you are used to. I also often have this difficulty and it is doubly difficult to communicate this in a context like this.

        In a sense, the mind is ultimately left alone. You don’t have to do anything with it but see its limitation to what it can understand. This is why I often say it is good for making toast, not for understanding Truth.

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