Bṛhat

How To Best Live? Answers From Ancient India
How to live life best has always been the human pondering. Ancient India had the right answer- Puruṣārtha, or the four aims of life.

Introduction

To be human is to be pulled in different directions by competing forces. The pull of pleasure, the tug of money, the gravity of duty, the attraction of freedom – and in the center, a human being. A human being capable of choice, judgment, and focus – but usually spoilt for choice.

This has always been the human fate – to find the good choice from a dizzying array of options. This is the fate that confronted fighters on the battlefield of Mahābhārata and the fate that confronts us today. How to best invest our time, attention, and energy? A question that is a hundred times more complex than the question of how to best invest our money. And a hundred times more important. How does Sanātana Dharma wrestle with this question?

Here are the wrong answers: to allow inaction to hijack your life, or to let your base instincts have the final say. Inaction is fit for a stone, and letting the base instincts rule suits unthinking animals. But to be human is to act – and to base our action on something more solid than mere biological urges.

But what is that something solid? Here’s the right answer that many classics of Hindu philosophy and myth have converged on: Puruṣārtha, or the four aims of life.

Artha (Wealth)
Kāma (Pleasure)
Dharma (Virtue)
Mokṣa (Freedom)

In Kāmasūtra, Vātsyāyana asked, with great flair: How to best prioritize among these four aims? Surprisingly enough, he didn’t put his own subject matter – Kāma – at the top. Bhīma did put Kāma at the top – in a debate with his brothers and ṛṣi Vidura, in the longest chapter of Mahābhārata. Kauṭilya, the Machiavelli before Machiavelli, wrote down the ingenious tests that kings could put their new ministers through. These tests would reveal how vulnerable they are to the temptations of Artha and Kāma. Tests that would weed out those who are fickle from those with fortitude.

Let’s dig into this ancient tradition – and its answer to a timeless question.

Kāmasūtra: Pleasure may not be in the driver’s seat

Vātsyāyana wrote a book whose reputation precedes it. Yes, he details sex positions. Yes, one of the chapters is called “Procedures of kissing.” But the heart of Kāmasūtra is the moral dilemmas that it wrestles with. Vātsyāyana writes: “When these three aims – Dharma, Artha, and Kāma – compete, each is more important than the one that follows.” He puts Kāma at the bottom on his list of priorities.

And yet he defends pleasure from its joyless critics. These critics argue that pleasures “are an obstacle to both religion and power.” And isn’t history replete with examples of people – even Gods – who chased desire but found only their own annihilation? Examples abound:

“And lndra, the king of the gods, with Ahalyā, the super-powerful Kīcaka with Draupadī, Rāvaṇa with Sītā, and many others afterwards were seen to fall into the thrall of desire and were destroyed.”

But lust does not invalidate love just as gluttony does not invalidate food. Vātsyāyana: “Pleasures are a means of sustaining the body, just like food, and they are rewards for religion and power.” Food can be a source of disease, sloth, and vice – so can pleasures. But food can also be a source of energy, nutrition, health – and so can pleasures.

What’s remarkable about Kāmasūtra is Vātsyāyana’s expansive definition of pleasure. We desire not just erotic satisfaction but a pleasing encounter between our senses – and the world. Music that pleases the ear, fragrances that please the nose, art and aesthetic landscapes that please the eyes – all of these fall under the rubric of Kāma.

The Mahābhārata Debate

In some ways, Bhīma puts up a firmer defense of Kāma in Mahābhārata than Vātsyāyana himself. But first let’s set context:

In Śānti Parva, the longest book of Mahābhārata, warriors and sages are discussing the priorities of a noble life. Ṛṣi Vidura starts the conversation. He says that the study of scripture, the practice of meditation, and sincere intellectual exploration all lead to the same conclusion: Dharma must have priority. Dharma is a set of virtues that we are duty-bound to live by.

Ṛṣi Vidura: “It is upon Virtue that all the worlds depend.

Arjuna goes next with a very practical, pragmatic, and cutting defense of Artha.

“This world, O king, is the field of action. Without Wealth, both Virtue and (the objects of) Desire cannot be won.” To be virtuous and experience pleasures is a luxury – it can’t be afforded by those who are scrounging for the next meal for their children. Wealth and its accessories – status, connections, a serviceable protection from the whims of fate – make the pursuit of virtue and pleasures possible.

But Bhīma puts Kāma at the top. For Bhīma, Kāma is not just pleasures but also desire itself. This world lacks neither the knowledge of virtues nor wealth – but the motivating power of desire. One can become a scholar who’s well-versed in ethics and has a fat pocket – but if the animating fire of desire is missing, he can’t achieve anything. He can neither muster up the courage to act out his virtues nor the stamina to grow or defend his wealth.

Bhīma:

“One without Desire never wishes for Wealth. One without Desire never wishes for Virtue. One who is destitute of Desire can never feel any wish. For this reason, Desire is the foremost of all the three.”

Politics and Puruṣārtha

The quality of a Kingdom comes down to the quality of its King, and the quality of a king comes down to the quality of his inner circle. Hence Kauṭilya, in Arthaśāstra, suggests multiple tests that a king must put his potential ministers through.

A Test of Dharma: The king “ostensibly dismisses the purohita on some alleged grounds, such as such as refusal to officiate at the rites of a person not entitled to perform them.” The “seemingly disgruntled” purohita starts contacting ministers and enticing them to “join a conspiracy to overthrow the king for his impiety.” Only the ministers who stay loyal and steadfast in their commitment to the king are appointed to “law and order posts.”

A Test Of Artha: “For the Artha test, the Chief of Defense should [ostensibly] be dismissed for some crime, such as showing favors to evil men. He shall then use secret agents to offer bribes to various ministers to destroy the king. Any minister who refuses is to be considered clean.” Only those who have proved themselves to be above the temptations of money should be appointed as “the Chancellor or the Treasurer.”

A Test of Kāma: “A wandering nun shall be used to gain the confidence of a minister in order to convey that the Queen is in love with him. Much wealth and a meeting with her shall be promised.” Only a minister who refuses to go along can take charge of the “recreations inside and outside the palace.”

What if a minister fails all tests? Then he’s in trouble: “Those who fail every test shall be sent off to difficult posts such as mines, forests, elephant forests or factories.”

Conclusion

The four aims of life can and should feed into each other.

A moral person interested in virtue will prioritize Dharma and use it as a prism to look at everything else.

A pragmatic person will go for Artha first, maximize material power, and use it as a means to achieve the rest.

An energetic person with strong passions will use the motivational force of Kāma to live a full life.

These aims are like points on a circle – no matter where you start, the goal is to trace the full circle. And in the completeness of that circle – in the midst of a perfectly balanced life – we achieve Mokṣa.

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Jash Dholani

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Prolific in his creativity and output, Jash brings a fresh, learner perspective to things he approaches. He believes all writing should advance life, and forward motion is the only one he knows.

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