In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Artha and Arthaśāstra

  • Introduction
  • The Concept of Artha
  • Ancient Indian Polity in Relation to the Kauṭilīya Arthaśāstra
  • Nītiśāstra and Maxims Attributed to Cāṇakya
  • Arthaśāstra as Political Science and Economics

Hinduism Artha and Arthaśāstra
Timothy Lubin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0004


The term artha has a wide range of meanings in Sanskrit—aim, purpose, motive; object; goods, wealth; intent, meaning—but in speaking of the goals of human endeavor, it denotes material gain as opposed to moral or sacred duty (dharma) and sensual pleasure (kāma). Further, artha is made the basis of a science (śāstra) of statecraft, Arthaśāstra, parallel to the fields of Dharmaśāstra and Kāmaśāstra. The oldest and almost only treatise in this field is the Kauṭilīya Arthaśāstra (KA), ascribed to one Kauṭilya (or Kauṭalya) whom medieval tradition identifies with the legendary Cāṇakya, the wily brahmin minister whose political and military strategies are said to have helped Candragupta to found the Maurya Empire c. 321 BCE. The first discovery of a manuscript of this work in 1904 by R. Shama Shastry, then director of the Oriental Research Institute in Mysore, and its subsequent publication generated tremendous excitement among both scholars and Indian nationalists, who were pleased to find an ancient work demonstrating that ancient India was not exclusively preoccupied with otherworldly or spiritual concerns and had produced a Machiavelli of its own—the architect, no less, of the earliest single state to embrace most of the Indian subcontinent.

The Concept of Artha

In religious and moral contexts, the term artha has two special uses. The puruṣārthas (aims of man) is a way of encompassing all the factors that motivate human action. As Potter 1963, Malamoud 1982, and Flood 1997 make clear, at first, they constituted a “group of three” aims (the trivarga), one of which is artha proper, worldly advantage in general; the others are kāma (pleasure) and dharma (duty or righteousness). Mokṣa—liberation from ignorance, spiritual bondage, and perpetual rebirths—is introduced at first as the antithesis of the trivarga (which pertains exclusively to worldly affairs) and later as a fourth, transcendent puruṣārtha. This caturvarga, or “group of four,” was an attempt to accommodate an otherworldly objective advocated by renunciant movements. Although this model came to dominate in Dharmaśāstra, the trivarga continued to be invoked in texts that were not concerned with renunciatory practices or a state of spiritual release. Much of the literature on this topic has approached it philosophically and hermeneutically, in the form of an ongoing debate over whether the puruṣārthas should be viewed as distinctively Hindu ethical values (as Potter 1963, Koller 1968, and Sharma 1982 argue) or as a descriptive model of human motivations (Davis 2004). Of the many modern interpretations that have attempted to correlate the puruṣārthas with other groups of “three-plus-one” (the social classes and the āśramas), Malamoud 1982 is the most careful and circumspect. Biardeau 1982 offers a sophisticated and insightful analysis of Arjuna’s reflections on the relative importance of artha and dharma in the Bhagavad Gītā.

  • Biardeau, Madeleine. “The Salvation of the King in the Mahābhārata.” In Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer; Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont. Edited by T. N. Madan, 75–97. New Delhi: Vikas, 1982.

    An interpretation of the instruction of Prince Arjuna in the Mahābhārata epic, in light of the Bhagavad Gītā, embedded therein. Biardeau pays special attention to Arjuna’s reflections on artha (the principle concern of kings) as the basis of the other puruṣārthas. Kṛṣṇa’s ideal of Karma Yoga (self-discipline in one’s worldly activities) taught in the Gītā can thus be seen as a way for a king to seek salvation through selfless (rather than self-interested) pursuit of artha for the common good.

  • Davis, Donald R. Jr. “Being Hindu or Being Human: A Reappraisal of the Puruṣārthas.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 8.1–3 (2004): 1–27.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11407-004-0001-3

    Argues that the puruṣārthas should be understood as goals or purposes, not values or attitudes, and that this notion was intended as a universal description of “what it means to be human” (p. 19) rather than as definitive or essential model of Hindu-ness (as Sharma 1982 seems to view it). Indeed, Jains and Buddhists also spoke of human life in terms of the three worldly aims.

  • Flood, Gavin. “The Meaning and Context of the Puruṣārthas.” In The Bhagavadgītā for Our Times. Edited by Julius J. Lipner, 11–27. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    A careful historical review of the development of the puruṣārtha doctrine, looking well beyond the Bhagavad-Gītā.

  • Koller, John M. “Puruṣārthas as Human Aims.” Philosophy East and West 18.4 (1968): 315–319.

    DOI: 10.2307/1398408

    Points out the illogic of Potter’s objection to considering the puruṣārthas aims. He further argues that mokṣa is indeed unique in being exclusively an end in itself, whereas the others are “desired both for their own sake and for the sake of something else, namely, mokṣa” (p. 318).

  • Malamoud, Charles. “On the Rhetoric and Semantics of the Puruṣārthas.” In Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer: Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont. Edited by T. N. Madan, 32–54. New Delhi: Vikas, 1982.

    Calling artha “a most elastic notion,” Malamoud traces the varying relationship between the puruśārthas in ancient sources, noting that whereas Dharmaśāstras stress the primacy of dharma, the Kauṭilīya Arthaśāstra asserts that “the root of dharma and kāma is artha.” In an appendix, he suggests a rough correlation between the puruṣarthas and varṇas (social classes), which points to a special connection between artha and the kingly class.

  • Potter, Karl. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.

    The first chapter (pp. 1–25) offers Potter’s view of the puruṣārthas. He objects to viewing them as aims since they are not “states of control toward which one aims.” He sees them (and the individual members of the trivarga in particular) rather as attitudes, “capacities for taking things in a certain way” (p. 10). Only the added fourth, mokṣa, can be called a state (and thus an aim).

  • Sharma, Arvind. The Puruṣārthas: A Study in Hindu Axiology. East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1982.

    Describing the puruṣārthas as values or attitudes, Sharma tries to show that the caturvarga is central to “the Hindu way of life” and has been invoked to legitimate “all Hindu cultural enterprises” (p. 40).

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