Yoga and meaning in life
Yogic philosphy offers a wonderful paradigm to help us ponder the meaning in our lives in the purusharthas - the four pillars of a yogic life. They are a blueprint for living skillfully, as they offer the fulfillment of the objectives of human birth. Purusha is the Self as it aligns with universal consciousness. Artha means “objective” or “purpose”, so purushartha means “for the purpose of the higher Self”, and suggests that we live our lives in a way as to support our inner growth, to align ourselves with the universal unfolding of life. In this way of living we are aligning our microcosm with the universal macrocosm, we are fulfilling our individual and soul’s purpose.
The four purusharthas are dharma - duty, artha – wealth, kama – pleasure, and moksha – liberation. As a person pursues these four goals, they point to an evolution of the individual self and bring a balanced and holistically satisfying life.
Dharma – duty
Dharma means ‘duty’, ‘ethics’, ‘work’, ‘law’, so largely relates to our work, our job, our profession, but also includes the duties to our family, and our society at large. It is that which gives order to life, which makes us get up in the morning and do what needs to be done. And it is the universal law and ethics that make us distinguish “right” from “wrong”. Dharma underlies our human existence and guides our choices.
Our own individual dharma unfolds through our birth, our karma, our specific talents and the choices we make. It can be someone’s calling to be a doctor, a teacher, a poet, a priest, a president, but for others there isn’t such a clear calling and they still have dharma. For parents it is their dharma to raise the children well, as citizens of the US it is our dharma to pay taxes. Working a job is a way to take care of family, to sustain our selves, and to meet the obligations of participating in society. Dharma informs the other purusharthas, it is within its frame that we pursue wealth and pleasure, not as means to themselves, although some are of the belief that artha comes first.
Artha - wealth
Artha is defined as “material wealth”, “abundance”. It does not mean the endless pursuit of more material comfort. But it does mean having the means, which includes material objects, but also good health and education, to live skillfully, which will look differently depending on one’s dharma. Pursuing prosperity is often considered to be the wrong focus when trying to live a yogic life, but being continually worried about how to fulfill the basic human needs and that being the focus of life, does not leave space for higher pursuits. Having the right kind of wealth to be able to play our roles, to fulfill dharma, is foundational for a life well lived. You need a good car to drive your family around. People tend to not feel good about them selves when they can’t meet the basics. Artha makes us examine our values in life. Do I have enough? Are my acquisitions giving me joy, or are they causing me worries? Am I content with what I have? Am I afraid to have more? Our relationship with artha should be a relaxed one that makes us feel good about ourselves within the context of our dharma.
Kama – pleasure
Kama is about fulfilling our desires. Desire for beauty, sensuality, art, intimacy, power, and anything that can bring us pleasure. It is the purushartha that can get us in trouble the easiest, since it can lead to overindulgence, addiction, greed, laziness and many more human vices. As a counterpart of dharma it is a necessary and good part of our human experience, because we experience pleasure when we do the right thing. When we share love, when we provide a good meal, when we finish a job, when we give sensual pleasure to our partner (the kama sutra is an ancient scripture dedicated to this pursuit) we tend to feel good about ourselves, there is a mutual experience of pleasure and well-being. As yogis we distinguish between pleasures that are nourishing for the soul, and those that leave us feeling empty. Good questions to ask are: Am I happy? What do I care about the most? Are my pleasures supporting my soul’s purpose, or am I supporting a bad habit?
Moksha – liberation
The ultimate goal of the purusharthas is freedom - inner freedom from our reactions and perceptions that make us unhappy. Moksha also is the complete liberation from samsara, the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. It means achieving nirvana, the end of suffering. A life fully lived, through dharma, artha and kama, offers us all the opportunities we need to free ourselves from mental and emotional constraints. Not circumstantially free, but choosing to experience our freedom and choice in every given moment. This simple act of choosing to see our freedom gives meaning to everything in life, to dharma, to artha, to kama. Yoga gives us many practices to help us come to this realization.
A meaningful life
The purusharthas are the pillars of a fulfilling life. To experience “meaning” their continuous consideration, and the balance between them (not too much of one, and not enough of another) is key. They are a prescription for a conscious life and embracing them makes life rich and worth loving.