Puruṣārtha-niścaya, the beginning of the beginning

fernglasWhat is puruṣārtha-niścaya? Of the two words, niścaya has a close English equivalent: certainty, conviction, unshakable clarity. So puruṣārtha-niścaya mean ‘doubt-free clarity and unshakable certainty’ about puruṣārtha. So what is this thing one has no doubt about?

Puruṣārtha is a compound made up of two words: puruṣa and artha. Puruṣa also has a close English equivalent: ‘person’, ‘human being’ (albeit with a lot behind it that reminds us of the true scale of what is indicated by the word – see footnote at the end).

Thus, so far, we have arrived at this meaning: ‘unshakable certainty about human artha’.

Artha is the last word that needs unpacking. Normally translated as ‘wealth’ or ‘meaning’, here it should be read as ‘aim or purpose’.

Puruṣārtha is the purpose of the human life. And puruṣārtha-niścaya is total clarity about what this purpose is – about what defines human life and drives human activity.

Why is there any doubt about this matter? Why does clarity about it need emphasising? Isn’t it obvious? Ask people what they really want and they’ll say ‘happiness’ or some variation of that. The problem arises in identifying what will deliver this sought-after happiness. These sub-pursuits are thus also puruṣārtha and they are what characterises human life.

These can be grouped under four main headings. The first two of these are common to every single human being: the pursuit of security, and the pursuit of pleasure. An examination of why a person undertakes activity will come down (mainly) to delivering these two.

What delivers security? What is that, without which, life becomes insecure? What threatens my ability to survive – and survive comfortably at that? Money in the bank, material possessions, friends, family, studies, qualifications, job title, health, fitness, etc. Yet, we aren’t interested in mere survival, we want to be comfortable too. Life’s little pleasures are important and they too drive activity. The sources of pleasure come in many forms: material, sexual, intellectual, aesthetic, etc – anything from chocolates to holidays to art and sunsets. These two common goals are easy to identify and little more needs to be said about them

The third human purpose is also widespread, but not necessarily pursued as commonly as the goals of wealth and pleasure. This is a life driven by principles, values, ethics. For some what’s important is, not only security and comfort, but also ensuring that they are achieved in a way that conforms with universal values. Thus we have a range of value-driven lifestyles, from highly principled to highly religious. This is the way for security and pleasures to be attained without conflict. And, in some cases, these value-driven lifestyles are a sort of insurance or pension policy: a little security and pleasures are surrendered here on earth to ensure they are available hereafter in some higher world.

Security, pleasures and a value-driven life are quite prevalent wherever we find human beings. On closer examination they reveal something common: a drive to be free of the sense of inadequacy and incompleteness and smallness and vulnerability that underpins them. If I didn’t feel inadequate, incomplete, small and vulnerable, I’d be content with whatever I have and not be driven by this desire or that, not by the wish to avoid this thing or that. In short I would not be driven by desires and aversions, life would be free from these two features.

The common error, however, is in assuming that the very pursuits and trappings that deliver security and happiness are what will deliver the longed-for freedom. So we chase after them with ever more enthusiasm and intensity. Till, one day, it dawns on those who have an open and enquiring mind that maybe the assumptions are wrong.

Nothing wrong with security, pleasure and a value-centred life, but these aren’t the antidotes to the feeling of smallness. A fortunate person wakes up to the realisation that, after years of such pursuit – however high the achievement – the nagging sense that something’s still missing doesn’t shift. One may have everything from money power to mind power, one can enjoy any and every pleasure, one lives more-or-less ethically, and yet…

This is when the direction of the search adopts quite a different paradigm: enquiry into the nature of the dissatisfaction itself. Where is it rooted? Why is it there? What are the assumptions that underpin it? Am I really as I think I am? In fact, what am I? This is the fourth human pursuit and is given the Sanskrit name mokṣa, commonly translated as freedom, and, on examination, comes to mean happiness.

The indirect pursuit of freedom from the sense of inadequacy, incompleteness, smallness and vulnerability is through the acquisition of more security, more pleasure, more merit. At best these deliver temporary relief, but we want to be free from the nagging dissatisfaction once and for all! The direct pursuit of freedom from the sense of inadequacy, incompleteness, smallness and vulnerability is through the acquisition of more understanding of the truth of their source, the truth of one’s fundamental intrinsic nature.

Am I really small and inadequate? Can my worldly pursuits ever end this feeling? If not why is life so cruel as to instil in me a feeling that will never leave me, like an itch in a place that can never be scratched? We may stumble upon teachings that say maybe what I am looking for cannot be found because it isn’t really lost. I am not really as I think I am: inadequate, incomplete, small, vulnerable. Maybe that which I seek is that which I am! The ONLY valid pursuit now becomes the knowledge that settles the matter once and for all.

This self-knowledge is given the technical name jñānam, knowledge of truth. So finally we have arrived at the intended definition of puruṣārtha-niścaya as: ‘unshakable certainty that the ultimate valid goal of a human life is mokṣa, absolute freedom from the notion of smallness, which is attained through jñānam, knowledge of the truth of what I really am’. In other words, ‘clarity that human life entails the pursuit of security and pleasures in conformity with ethics and morality in order to attain mokṣa’.

This means that there is no turning back to the usual trappings for an answer to life’s problems. Equally, it doesn’t mean that one needs to leave these and retire to a cave. It means just giving them their right dues, nothing more, nothing less. Be clear what infrastructure can deliver and what it cannot. Let infrastructure not be the all-consuming activity in life. Work for it to the extent that it allows the pursuit of knowledge to take place without too many obstacles. Thus no upper material limit is set, merely a cognitive limit.

These two small Sanskrit words, puruṣārtha and niścaya, into which so much is packed shows why mere translation is not sufficient sometimes. The Sanskrit words, incidentally, for the four pursuits – security, pleasure, a life of values, and freedom from smallness (i.e. fullness, limitlessness) – are: artha, kāma, dharma, mokṣa.


With freedom from smallness, comes the end of sorrow. Sorrowlessness is happiness. This is the happiness that we all seek. Only, for most people the means chosen to attain happiness are only capable of delivering it on a temporary basis: pleasure is a fraction of that sense of limitlessness that we call absolute happiness, mokṣa.

Happiness without end, limitlessness, permanent freedom from smallness, jñānam (knowledge of the truth of self-identity), mokṣa, thus all come to mean the same thing. This pursuit is what is actually meant by living a spiritual life (which is more than living an ethical life or a religious life.) An ethical life without puruṣārthaniścaya can, at best, deliver conflict-free existence here and a better birth hereafter. A religious life without puruṣārthaniścaya can, at best, deliver a taste of heaven here and a seat in heaven hereafter. Both these experiences, being born out of activity, will end at some point, as that which has a beginning has an end.

Cannot this also be said about the pursuit of self-understanding? Isn’t that also an activity? No, not in the same way. Understanding isn’t the adding of knowledge, it is the dissolution of ignorance to reveal what is already there. The famous statement in Vedanta, tat tvam asi, (you are that Reality) is proven when the correct understanding of the two words ‘tat’ (That Reality) and ‘tvam’ (you) is revealed by having the covering of ignorance removed from them. Nothing is added to either word, just the misconceptions about both are removed.

The journey of freedom begins, as stated in the Mundaka Upaniṣad, by a person realising, on examining the world, that mokṣa is not the result of activity. That person is then advised to find a qualified teacher. (Who that qualified teacher is, will be described at another time).

When Arjuna saw the futility of action, he wanted to become a renunciate, but he wasn’t of a contemplative nature. The advice to him was to prepare his mind through action performed as an offering to the Lord and by meditation and devotion: the former to purify the mind and the latter to steady it. The key point of note is that Arjuna only got this advice when he begged for guidance that would lead to mokṣa. The search begins only when mokṣa is clearly known to be the ultimate sought-after end.

The Katha Upaniṣad says: Mokṣa is one thing, a life spent running after security, pleasure and virtue is another. The mind of the wise is oriented towards mokṣa, while the minds of the foolish are dragged to chase security, pleasure and virtue.

Vedānta study thus only makes sense if mokṣa is recognised as the SOLE, choiceless aim of human life, and if the words of the Upaniṣads unfolded by a qualified teacher are seen as the SOLE means of knowledge for mokṣa. All other practices without this aim are just ‘good actions’, the result of which may be merit in the next life, or heaven at best. Being clear about this is the starting point, the unshakable conviction called puruṣārthaniścaya.

Obsolete paradigm: Living a ‘good’, disciplined, prayerful life is enough for ‘realisation’. This, indeed, is a fine way to live – better than its opposite. It will continue to be the mode of living until, in addition to their tangible benefits, the limitation of these pursuits is clearly seen. At this point, self-knowledge takes over as the only means for delivering limitless happiness.

NOTE: Purusha

I. pure ushati: that which indwells the body:
ie. the personal and animating principle in men and other beings, the soul or spirit &c

2. sarvam púrayati: that which fills everything (not as an action as in ‘the man fills the tumbler’ – but in being as in ‘water fills the tumbler’)
i.e. the Supreme Being or Soul of the universe that pervades everything.

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About Peter

I am a student of traditional Vedanta, in London, an interest that started in 1970s. Current Influences: In 2007 I attended a talk by Swamini Atmaprakasananda on Ganapati Atharvashirsha – and knew I had found my teacher. I am current Secretary of Arsha Vidya Centre UK, an organisation established to make available in the UK the teaching of traditional advaita as unfolded by Swaminiji and her own teacher, the illustrious HH Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji, the most respected teacher of traditional advaita. www.arshavidya.org.uk